Ahh, nothing quite a long road trip. One lasting several days, weeks or possibly even months! These 37 best road trip tips cover -
- The Planning Stage
- Sightseeing along the way
- Tips for a long stay on the road
- How to keep socially sane
- Safety issues
These tips are based on our own experience road-tripping across 45 US states and 4 Canadian provinces! Our road trips were all long! They included -
- Three weeks in California and Arizona
- Five and a half months across the Western US and Canada
- Four and a half months - coast to coast and back!
- Two and a half months in Washington, Oregon, California, and Utah
- Two and a half months driving from Los Angeles to Alaska and back!
We road tripped as a family, starting when the boys were aged 5 and 7. On our last trip to Alaska, they were 14 and 16! Time flies! Call us road veterans or road trip experts - I'll gladly accept the titles! And now, without further ado, our tips!
1. Don't be afraid of the long road trip
It's totally doable. Promise. Even with kids.
I know so many people who fantasize about a long road trip and never fulfill their dream. Don't let that be you. Go out there and just do it. You'll have fun and create memories which will last your entire life.
And if at all possible - make it long.
In our experience, it takes time to get into the "road trip ambiance", to shed off the stress and worry of everyday life and really get into the right state of mind. That's why I think a decent road trip should last at least weeks, preferably months. And don't worry, at least in North America, I guarantee you'll never run out of things to do and see, or roads to travel.
2. Research your route
The essence of road tripping is about freedom. The freedom to move where you want, when you want. Like one of the ultimate road trips songs says,
We can pack tomorrow, tonight let's flip a coinHeads Carolina, tails California
I am so all for that! Love that song!
However - spontaneity does not negate research and planning.
There's such a wealth of information available online, it would be a shame to drive past this great attraction and miss out on it, wouldn't it? I always thoroughly research the area we plan to be driving through. I use sites like Roadside America and Trip Advisor to provide me with unusual ideas for small stops along the road too. I try to document everything in my notes - or at least keep it somewhere in my head.
3. Have a plan in place
Based on my research, I do create a plan. I actually have a spreadsheet where I outline our route, including all those places - big and small - that I found while researching. I jot down the mileage we'll need to cover every day and the time it could take to make sure it's even feasible. That way, I don't have to flip coins to decide on our route. At least, not on a daily basis 😉
Sometimes it's easier to know where you're going next.
4. Be spontaneous
Yes, I know, I just said how important planning was. I'm not changing my mind here. On the contrary, I strongly believe good planning allows you to be flexible and even spontaneous.
Dwight D. Eisenhower said -
A plan is nothing but planning is everything
The more time you invest in the planning stage, the more familiar you're going to be with your route, including the various attractions along it - and alternatives to them.
Then, once you hit the road, you can make up your mind and be more spontaneous with your choices.
After all, if you choose to do X, you're giving up on doing Y. Which could be a great decision! It's just easier to make that decision when you know what both X and Y mean.
5. Don't book motels in advance (usually)
In other words, stay flexible. That goes hand in hand with the spontaneity we just mentioned.
Now, there's a reason for me to qualify this with "usually".
There are times and places where booking in advance make sense. A lot of sense, in fact. They include -
- Popular national parks
- Other super popular destinations
- And any combination of the above
If your road trip takes you to Yellowstone National Park and you want to spend a night or two inside the park - book in advance. In fact, do that even if you think you'll stay in West Yellowstone or Gardiner or Jackson. If you don't, you could end up without a place to stay - or having to pay exuberant prices for accommodation.
6. Allocate time for mundane everyday tasks
If your trip is going to last for a week or more, you'll need time for the following -
- Washing clothes
- Shopping in a supermarket
- Going to the ATM or possibly the bank
- Just generally unwinding
The longer the road trip, the more free time you're going to need. Avoid creating a tight schedule of sightseeing for every day. You won't be able to accomplish that and will end up exhausted for trying.
Some of our road trips were so long, we had to stop for haircuts!
7. Take weekends and holidays into account
I mentioned these in brief when talking about booking accommodation in advance. There's more to holidays than that, of course.
Holidays mean attractions are going to be busy and roads will be congested.
If you're going through Monterey on Memorial Day, expect the aquarium to be very crowded. And if you're driving out of Denver on the beginning of Labour Day weekend, know that you'll get stuck in traffic on the i-70. Two very real examples from our own road trips.
Now, these things happen on long road trips. You're on the road and the nation goes on holiday. The trick is to know that in advance and plan around it. Try to spend the busy days resting, away from busy roads and crowded museums.
Even better, stay put in a small town and enjoy local celebrations. Like we did on this 4th of July, in Jackson, WY -
8. Don't be fooled by Google Maps time estimates
I've helped many people plan their road trips so I see this happening a lot.
You really want to get from Los Angeles to Page, AZ on the same day, so you can rent a boat on Lake Powell the very next morning.
Great. That's actually totally doable.
Just don't think it's going to take you 8 hours and 23 minutes - which is what Google Maps says it is. Don't assume that you can spend 2 hours sightseeing in the Grand Canyon on the way, and maybe stopping in Seligman along Route 66 for ice cream because you only have eight and a half hours of driving time.
Realistically, you'll be lucky if it's going to take you only nine and a half hours to cover the distance.
Why? Because you can't really drive for eight hours straight. You need to stop for gas, bathroom breaks, food etc. That adds at least another hour.
And then there are those notorious LA traffic jams. That estimate that Google Maps gives you does not take into account your exact starting location in LA or traffic issues leaving the city.
In real life? Last time we were in LA and headed east towards Arizona, it took us three hours just to get out of the LA afternoon rush hour gridlock.
So, while Google Maps is a great tool, remember to adjust its time estimates to your real life circumstances. As a rule of thumb, add 10% to its estimate. 15-20% if you're traveling with young children.
9. Prepare for toll roads
You can actually avoid toll roads if you like - but sometimes they're just the easier route to take in a not-very scenic area. Find out in advance how you're supposed to pay and gear up. Alternatively, avoid those roads when planning your route.
10. Get your travel papers in order
No, you don't need a passport to cross US states. However, when we go on a long road trip, I make sure to keep the following where I can find them -
- Drivers license (of all available drivers)
- Car registration papers (rental agreement in our case)
- Passports - in case we'd like to cross the border
What's more, I take photos of all of the above and make sure I have them stored online for safekeeping. You never know when a bag - 0r the entire car - might get stolen. It's best to have copies.
If like us you're renting a car, here's another time-saving tip: Take a photo of the vehicle's license plate. You're going to be asked for that plate number every time you stop for the night in a motel. Easier to just browse through your phone than to go outside and look. I actually make that photo my home screen image when we're on a long road trip.
11. Get your meds and prescriptions in order
Depending on whether you're traveling in your own country or not, you may need to get medications for the entire trip in advance.
Even if you're an American taking a road trip in the US, some types of medication may have limitations on where you buy them. Talk to your doctor and/or pharmacist in advance to make sure you have all of the medications you need as well as the documentation required for getting more of them.
Sightseeing along the way
12. Look for scenic byways
Whenever I plan a long road trip, I go to the official Scenic Byways website and check the states that we're about to go through. If possible, I work at least one or two into our route.
Give yourself time to explore these byways. They are often dotted with interesting points where you can stop for scenery or attractions.
13. Try to work national parks into your plans
National Parks are always worth a stop. Always.
At the planning stage, I search Google maps for national parks along the way. I actually look for national monuments, historic sites etc. Anything that's run by the National Parks Service, basically.
Now, here's the thing.
Some of these park units are worth dedicating several days to. If you're going through Yellowstone National Park and this is your first visit, you should allocate a minimum of three days for that detour. At least that - up to five says would be great. Check out my post about Yellowstone to see why.
Other places may only require 1-2 hours to see in full. Or maybe half a day. My point is - take a few minutes to check ahead of time so you can plan accordingly.
Oh, and do yourself a favor and buy the National Parks Pass. You can get it in the very first part unit you'll visit. It costs around $80 per vehicle and will cover all of your future visits to any NPS units for a year. A bargain for any long road trip in the US.
14. Some state parks are worth visiting too
State parks are trickier.
Many state parks are not worth going out of the way for. They're basically recreation areas designated by various states. Which is great if you're a local who wants to spend the weekend fishing and ambling by a lake, but not worth a stop during a road trip.
Having said that - some state parks are definitely worth a detour during a road trip. To mention just a few of our favorites -
- Custer State Park, South Dakota
- Franconia Notch State Park, New Hampshire
- Point Lobos State Park, California
- Ecola State Park, Oregon
- Watkins Glen State Park, New York
- Goblin Valley State Park, Utah
And there were many many more. So do your research and allocate time to the better state parks too.
15. Follow the seasons
Some places are perfect during some season but not so much in others. Traveling, you have at least some ability to go to the right place at the right time.
For example, when we first visited New England it was during a July heatwave. Not so much fun. We celebrated the 4th of July in Maine and headed out west to cooler areas. When we returned in early October, New England was entirely magical. Fall colors and crisp clear air. This is the view we had from Mount Washington -
16. Look for festivals and special events
Don't let the crowds deter you. Festivals can be the secret ingredient that would make your road trip perfect. It can be a local Pumpkin Festival or 4th of July parade, a State/County Fair or something as big as the Balloon Fiesta which we attended in Albuquerque -
Whenever I plan a road trip, I actively look for festivals and fairs along our route and in nearby states. Some events are well worth going out of the way for. We have great memories of many such occasions.
17. Look for wildlife sighting opportunities
Wildlife is always a huge attraction on a road trip. We've seen over 100 bears in the wild during our travels. Our animal sightings included bison, elk, moose, pronghorn antelopes, beavers, snakes, bald eagles, seals, sea lions, and whales.
While many of the sightings are entirely spontaneous, there are ways to increase the odds of seeing animals.
- Hike in national parks.
- Find out where animals are usually sighted and go there.
- Go out at dusk and dawn.
- Take tours such as whale watching cruises.
18. Check opening hours ahead of time
Imagine going out of your way to visit a special museum only to find out they're closed on Mondays. And yes, you arrived on a Monday.
You're not likely to stick around while on a long road trip, so you're going to miss out on that museum. Checking their hours ahead of time could have given you some flexibility. You could have rushed things a little to make it a day earlier or spent an extra day along the way, to make it a day later.
19. Have time for unplanned detours and adventures
You just never know - and that's part of the fun on a road trip!
During one of our road trips, we stopped for the night in a small motel in a tiny town in Wyoming. The owner was fascinated by our adventure and the fact that we had been traveling with two young boys.
The following morning, she introduced us to her husband who turned out to be a drag racing instructor. We spend the next couple of hours with racing cars and trucks - quite an adventure and an unexpected one! Fortunately, we had the time for it.
So, don't rush things and enjoy the opportunities that come up during your journey.
While on the road
20. Download maps in advance
You won't always have access to online data as you're crossing vast empty spaces with few inhabitants. Which means an online navigation app like Waze could run out of map resources.
Now, normally this isn't much of an issue. If an area is so remote it has no cell reception, that usually also means there won't be too many turns to take along the way. You shouldn't have any trouble finding your way relying on signposts. That's how we crossed the Alaska Highway last year.
Just to be on the safe side, here's what we always do.
Start your navigation app when you're still using the motel's WiFi or some other form of internet connection. Let it download the map for your day's journey and only then head out. This shouldn't take more than a minute or two.
21. Watch the weather forecast
Weather and natural disasters are always part of a long road trip.
During our road trips, we've come across tornado warnings, snow, hailstorms, huge forest fires and more. It's part of the adventure!
Just keep an eye on the forecast for the area you're going through. If you're traveling in the West during summer or fall, keep an eye on the fire situation as well. We've had to change our plans more than once due to severe smoke conditions - to the point of roads being closed.
22. Get a cooler
A spacious cooler is a must-have in your vehicle. Ice is easy to get at any motel you overnight at - or in gas stations. It's such an easy way to get fresh food along for the road. Which brings me to my next tip -
23. Have snacks and drinks in the vehicle
When you're driving for 3-4 hours straight without a break, a cold drink is a godsend. Fresh fruit, string cheese, or other healthy snacks can really revive both driver and passengers.
We always carry a bunch of snacks - both fresh and dry - with us. We stock up every few days and make sure we never run out of snacks and drinks for the kids or grownups.
24. Eat right while on the road
It's too easy to fall into the junk food trap when road tripping. Don't do that.
Here's how we keep eating healthy on long road trips -
- Eating out? Always order a salad first - even Macdonalds has them.
- Buy plenty of healthy food and prepare your own meals. A healthy sandwich from wheat bread, low-fat cheese and lots of veggies make a great - and cheap - lunch or dinner.
- Keep your snacks healthy too. You can buy pre-washed and pre-cut fruit and vegetables and keep them in your cooler. Delicious and very healthy!
25. Don't carry too much stuff
This is something we've learned over several trips. It's easy to pack too much - and it's really not necessary. You can do your laundry on the road, not a problem at all. We do that once or even twice a week. Which means there's no need to carry too many sets of clothes.
26. Use a plastic drawer set to organize things
On the first day of any long road trip, we buy a Sterilite plastic organizer with five spacious see-through drawers. It's great for storing all of those little things that we always need while on the road. Eating utensils, plastic bags, socks, first aid - whatever we might need while on the way is kept in that storage device.
27. Keep things inside baskets
Cheap plastic baskets cost only a few dollars and they're great for storing shoes and other large items in the back of an SUV/minivan. We try to get the collapsible ones. That way, we can store one or two flat and use them when we need additional compartments in the back of the vehicle.
28. Document the trip
Consider getting a road camera for the trip. It's fun to document the drive and it can also come in handy should you get involved in an accident.
29. Backup your photos
We take lots of photos pretty much on every day of a long trip. Mostly just using our phones. A week into the trip, the phone usually gets filled up.
We used to manually back up everything on our laptop at the end of every day. Fortunately, it's much easier now, as our phones back up everything directly to Google Photos as soon as we connect to the WiFi at the end of every day.
30. Plan activities for the whole family
If you're traveling with kids, plan ahead to make sure they don't get too bored. Our kids loved taking the Junior Ranger programs in every park we visited. They have a collection of over 60 Jr Ranger badges and patches each! I can highly recommend that for kids aged 4-12.
Generally, make sure the mix of activities is balanced, so people of all ages feel they're doing something fun every day. Just sitting in the car without anything to do, day after day, just isn't enough.
31. Don't overcrowd the vehicle
When you're spending 5-12 hours a day in the same vehicle, it's really important that everyone has enough personal space.
In our experience, a 7-seater minivan was great for a family of four. I wouldn't have liked to take a very long road trip in a smaller vehicle.
32. Arrange to meet people on the way
Whether friends and family or other traveling families that you meet via a Facebook group or forum - don't miss out on a chance to meet people.
When on a long road trip, it's good to get some variety and get the chance to talk to people other than your trip mates.
33. Consider Couchsurfing
We found Couchsurfing to be a great way to meet new people, get to know locals and gain some fantastic memorable experiences. Read my guide about Couchsurfing as a family to learn more about our experiences.
A few more safety tips
34. Know your driving limitations
Long road trips often cover a large distance. That's part of their appeal.
Don't be rushed to cover more distance than you can do safely. Just how much depends on your own driving abilities and experience.
Be mindful of your limitations and how they change. If the weather turns bad, or you happen to feel tired - don't push it. Safety comes first and the greatest risk on a long road trip is that of a road accident.
35. Check your car regularly
Modern vehicles are very good about letting you know how they're doing. Keep an eye on the car and make sure it's current on oil changes etc. If you don't have an air pressure monitor, make sure to check your tire pressure manually at regular intervals.
You're putting a lot of strain on your vehicle when road tripping. This usually isn't a problem with newer vehicles but with older ones, it can be. Be mindful of the state of your vehicle.
36. Mountain driving and other special conditions
Road tripping is likely to take you through some fantastic scenery. It could also mean going through types of terrain that you're not used to driving through in your daily life. I'm talking specifically about mountain passes.
If you're from a flat area and don't have experience with mountain driving, take care to refresh yourself on the basics of mountain driving. Know how to use the lower gears of your vehicle. Don't go too fast, and use pullovers to let faster drivers take over safely.
37. Watch for wildlife on the road
This is a good rule pretty much anywhere where there's wildlife. However, when road tripping you're more likely to find yourself driving through areas where wildlife on the road could be an issue.
Take special care when driving early in the morning and late in the afternoon. And look for signs warning you against the presence of animals. They're there for a reason.
38. Don't leave valuables in the car
In the end, the real danger is from humans - not animals. Other than traffic accidents, as a traveler, you're also more at risk for burglary and theft. Follow these basic rules -
- Lock your car when you leave it.
- Take the most important valuables (wallet and phone) with you.
- Avoid leaving cameras, laptops and other valuables in the car - and cover them if you have no other choice.
You can also look into insurance but honestly, we never take one. We just accept the risk of theft as part of the traveling experience and "cover ourselves". So far, I'm happy to say we never had anything stolen from us during over a year and a half of road tripping in the US and Canada.
39. Carry first aid with you
It's always a good idea to have a small first aid kit in the car. You just never know when someone will get a small cut or other minor injuries. It's just easier to have that with you rather than start looking for a pharmacy in the middle of nowhere.
Don't go overboard with it though. Unless you're a paramedic, you're not likely to need much more than some antiseptic and band-aids.
Hey, that is actually sort of a tip too! Try and get into the road trip mood. For us, that usually takes a day or two but once we're "in the zone" there's nothing quite like it. Just rolling from one beautiful place to another, literally leaving your worries behind you!
How about your own road trip tips?
I'd love to hear from fellow road trippers! Do you have your own special tips for a successful road trip experience? Don't be shy and leave them here in a comment!
As always, thank you in advance for sharing this post on social media. Here are a couple more images for Pinterest. Like the rest of the photos in this post, they were all taken during our road trips -