Grossglockner High Alpine Road, Austria | Jess Shanahan
The open road has few rivals but there's one thing that comes a close second to the joy of a road trip: planning one.
Getting excited about the car, the roads and the places you'll see just enhances the anticipation for the trip itself. There's a skill to planning the perfect road trip, though. It's not as simple as picking some places then going for a drive.
This guide will take you through how to plan a road trip from discovering the off-the-beaten-path destinations and epic driving roads, through to practical things like what to take with you and how to make your trip as enjoyable as possible.
Think about where you'd love to go
Before you start planning, you'll probably have a good idea of where you want to go. Is it a road trip through the deep south, across the most romantic destinations in Europe, or a tour of the Great Lakes?
Knowing the general area you'll be driving gives you a starting point for creating your route. Look at the area and consider your must-see stops. Is there a mountain you'd like to hike, or a city with incredible food that you know you need to try?
Start making a list of those places then see what route begins to form.
Find the off-the-beaten-path roads and places
Going to seven cities you could just fly to on a weekend break doesn't really embody the spirit of a road trip. The freedom of having a car allows you to go almost anywhere (especially if you're equipped with four-wheel drive). Look to local knowledge and insider info on your destinations to find the best roads, destinations, and places to stay. Local Facebook groups are great for this.
Once I've found my destinations, I like to scour Google Maps for the mountain passes, county roads, and coastal highways that bring me so much driving joy.
It's also a good idea to look at Trip Advisor for a deeper dive into what there is to do in each place. Instagram and Pinterest are also great tools for finding a bit of inspiration. Just look for the accounts and hashtags related to the places you'll be visiting.
As your route begins to form, look closely at the distances between each place, making sure to take into account any extra miles your chosen roads take over the standard highway route.
A good reason for doing this is so you can see where your drives might be a little excessive. When I did my first road trip, I had a few days of six-hour drives and it was too much. To comfortably enjoy your drive and to have the freedom to stop along the way without cutting into time at your destination, four hours of driving is plenty.
Sometimes you might need to go for longer but try and keep these drives to a minimum.
Once you can see how much driving you have between each destination, you have the choice to alter your route, add destinations, or shorten it slightly depending on your preferences.
Plot it on a map
This is a big part of the fun. Use Google Maps or a physical map to plan your entire route to get a sense of the distance, the roads, and the total time it'll take. This will help give you an average of your driving time each day.
Plan your days but allow for flexibility
A lot of this is down to how you like to travel. Some people love to plan everything in advance while others are content to wing it. If you've given yourself loads of time at each destination (at least two days in your main stops), you can be a little more free and flexible with what you do but if you're on a tight schedule, a little planning might be in order to make sure you see everything you want to.
Take some time to research each location and make a list of the roads, sights and attractions you'd like to see. If you find yourself pushed for time, you can pick from your shortlist but if you have a little more time, you're free to explore at your leisure.
Tweak the trip before you book
As you go through the planning process, you'll begin to see other opportunities for stops or incredible roads you just have to drive. This is why it's so important to let your plan sit for a little while before you book.
When the time comes to hit that book button, go through your trip, looking at each destination and drives between them. If you need to make tweaks, this is the time.
Get the car ready
If you're taking your own car, there are a few things you need to do to prepare for a big trip.
- Check your fluid levels - Make sure all your fluids are topped up ahead of the trip to ensure your car runs smoothly.
- Replace your cabin air filter - If you're traveling somewhere dusty or during allergy season, a clean cabin filteris especially important.
- Check tire pressures - This is key for maximum grip and efficiency, as well as safety. And don't forget about the spare!
- Stock up on essentials - Fix-a-Flat, an emergency roadside kit, and, of course, snacks. Check out our road trip packing list for more inspiration.
Of course, if you're renting a car, all you need to do is make sure you get the right one for your driving style and the roads you'll be tackling. Four-wheel drive is essential if you think you'll be tackling rugged terrain or inclement weather, but think about your transmission choices too. A smooth automatic makes the most sense over long distances but would you actually prefer the control a sporty stick shift gives you when navigating mountain roads?
Take your time planning your dream road trip and enjoy the process. Give yourself a chance to get excited ahead of the trip and it'll be even more special.
Have you been on a dream road trip? Let us know how you planned it in the comments.