We love a good road trip. Heading down the road with people you enjoy, windows down, music playing. It’s a great way to see the world, with easy access to pull over and jump out to explore things at a moment’s notice. It can be the perfect opportunity to catch up with someone over deep, and not so deep, conversations as the miles rush by. With a road trip, the journey really does become part of the adventure and that is why it is one of our favorite ways to travel.
We’ve done our fair share of road tripping together over the past 14 years, including quite a few during our round the world journeys. We’ve explored the back roads of both Ireland and Australia by car. And, in 2012, we spent an epic 56 days on the roads of New Zealand, exploring the landscape in a Spaceship, a Toyota Sienna minivan tricked out for camping, sleeping in our vehicle the entire way.
After so much time on the road, here are our tips and tricks for having the ultimate road trip.
Plan out your daily route and stops (but leave room/time for the unexpected)
The best road trips are a perfect combination of good planning and spontaneity. Map out your general overall route, as well as daily routes, including stops along the way, and plan your accommodations (or at least your stopping point for the night). But leave room for those unexpected things, because they are what will make your trip so great. Make time to stop off and see something cool or visit a site that you didn’t plan on.
When we’re on a road trip, there are definitely things we know in advance that we want to see, and we plan out our route based on those things. But there are always so many other cool, weird, or fun things that pop up along the way and you want to have the time to stop off and check those things out too. We always leave ourselves time to stop and enjoy the unexpected.
Take it easy
A road trip is not a race or a marathon and it shouldn’t feel like either one. Nobody wants to spend their road trip vacation driving thousands of miles every day. So minimize the mileage & don’t plan too many things on any one day. Give yourself time to have a leisurely meal, stop off to take a hike, or explore a town. In New Zealand, we traveled & slept in our minivan for 56 days. But we never drove very far in a one day, averaging about 150 km (93 miles) a day (keep in mind that the speed limit in NZ is 100km/hr (or about 62miles/hr), so significantly slower than many highways in the US). Limiting our daily mileage left us loads of time to enjoy leisurely breakfasts, take the time to really explore places along the way, do a good bit of hiking, stop off for picnic lunches in pretty spots, enjoy coffee in small towns, and still pull into our holiday park at the end of the day before it got dark. When you’re on the road for an extended period, it’s easy to get burned out on being in the car. By limiting your mileage, you stay fresh and excited for the next day.
There is also no rule that says you have to drive to someplace new every day of your trip. Quite often, we ended up spending a few days in one place, exploring the area or just relaxing. It can be the perfect break from the road.
Plan out your budget
It might seem like a road trip is an economical vacation, and it can be. But it can also become a money pit, especially if you don’t plan out your budget. So take a look at your route and price out your accommodations, gas, food, and activity costs. Because a road trip is made up of lots of smaller costs, it can be easy to not realize what the overall cost will be. So take the time to plan things out and set a budget. It’s better to set off on this trip with a realistic idea of what it is going to cost you (and make sure you can afford the budget) than it is to come home and realize how far over your budget you went.
After doing our research, we usually set a daily budget that we try not to go over. Of course, since every day is different on a road trip, some days you may go over budget and other days you may come in way under. But make sure you’re setting a realistic budget that will balance out over the duration of your trip. And then stick to it.
We’re both rather infamous for getting hangry if we don’t eat regularly, so we always make sure to pack plenty of snacks for the road. Make sure you pack snacks that are easy to get to and easy to eat in the car. Packing snacks and picnic meals means that you can stop to eat whenever you are hungry or ready for a break, not just when you see a restaurant. Bringing your own food is also cheaper and healthier than eating out on the road. Plus, nobody wants to eat fast food every day.
Organize your Stuff
Nothing is more stressful than not being able to find what you need in your car when you’re on the road. You don’t want to have to take it all out and then have to put it all back in just to find the one thing you currently need. So make sure you organize it all well, so that things are easy to access when you need them and easy to take out and put away. We drove and lived in our minivan for almost two months. That meant that every single day we had to reconfigure the car back from sleeping mode into driving mode, cook, get into our toiletries and clothing, and make sure our cameras and other things were not only safe and protected, but also easily accessible when we needed them. Then, at the end of the day, we had to configure the car into sleeping/hanging out mode, cook dinner, and get back into our wardrobes and toiletries. Having an organized vehicle where everything had its place made it a LOT easier and meant that we didn’t have to unpack and repack our minivan twice a day.
Make an Epic Playlist (or series of playlists)
One of our favorite things about road tripping is putting together the playlists of songs for the road. But one problem we ran into in New Zealand and Ireland was that our playlists weren’t long enough and there were not enough of them. We ended up creating new ones in the middle of both those trips because we were getting sick of the playlists we had started out with. We have similar musical tastes, but if you don’t why not consider creating individual playlists and then switching them out based on who is driving. Or create a playlist combining songs each of you likes.
Make the most of your GPS and Maps
GPS and different mapping apps such as Google Maps and Pocket Earth can be great resources for finding your way around while on the road. But use them wisely and plan for those times when they might fail. GPS doesn’t always work or could be out of date. Or you may not have cell service in certain spots, which can limit your access to real time maps. So we usually use more than one map at any given time. That way, if one isn’t showing us the right information, we can always check the other one to help us figure out where we are and where we need to be headed. Both Google Maps and Pocket Earth offer you the ability to download maps for offline use, which can be extremely helpful if you don’t have cellular or internet service on the road. Make sure you plan ahead, and never underestimate the value of an actual printed map or atlas. They’ve saved our butts on many occasions. Another option is all else fails is to just pull over someplace and ask for directions.
Prep Your Car
Nobody wants to spend their vacation broken down on the side of the road. So make sure your vehicle is ready to take on the road with you.
- Make sure all your lights are working (brake lights, headlights, taillights)
- Check your tires (make sure the tread looks good and that the pressure is correct. Correct tire pressure can also help improve your gas mileage)
- Make sure your wiper blades are good
- Fill up the washer fluid
- Top up the water level
- Check your engine coolant and top that up too
- Check your oil levels and get an oil change right before you leave, if needed
- Make sure your insurance, registration, and driver’s license are up to date
- Know what sort of roadside assistance you have available. It might be that you have some through your car insurance. Or you may need to purchase some, just in case. At the very least, make sure you know who to call if you do need help.
Pack an Emergency Kit
Nobody wants to have an emergency, but being ready for one is always a good idea. Here are a few things we always keep in our car for emergencie
- A few blankets (never know when you might get stranded and have to sleep in the car or cover someone suffering from shock after an accident)
- Hazard triangle or flares
- Spare tire & the tools to change out a tire (make sure it’s the right spare for the car and that it’s not flat – we’ve learned both these rules the hard way)
- First Aid kit
Write a Quick Daily Recap
Make sure you take a few minutes every day to write a quick recap of what you did that day. You may think you’ll remember things, but all the small details that really make the trip can often slip away, especially if there are multiple days full of them, as is often the case on a road trip. By taking the time to jot those things down now, you’ll have a great little accompaniment to all the photos and stories from your road adventure.
You may think you’ll remember those things, but you won’t. Even now, when we look back at our trip diaries, we find them full of little details and memories that we had completely forgotten about and that not even looking at photos of that day can trigger. A few minutes can leave you with much richer memories of your special trip.
Take advantage of some of the great new apps for road trips
Back in the old days, we used to go down to our local AAA office and have them print us out a Triptik booklet of our road trip route, complete with maps and step by step driving instructions. But these days we’ve all gone digital and there are some really powerful road tripping apps out there. Here are a few of our favorites.
Roadtrippers – This is an amazing app. Put in your starting and ending points and how many days you want to spend and it will generate a route for you, complete with suggested stops along the way to see silly roadside attractions, historical spots, and even suggestions on places to eat. It even has a built in weather forecaster so you’ll know what the weather is going to be. It will even show you places to sleep, from hotels to campgrounds. Such a fun app to play with for your next road trip. It makes it so easy! You can do it all online, or download their app for both iOS and Android.
Road Food – You know we love to eat. This is a great app for finding those hidden (& not so hidden) gems to stop off at eat at along the way. Put in a city or town and Road Food will show you all the off the beaten path places where locals go to eat.
So what are you waiting for? Get out there and plan a trip!