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12 Steps to Create the Perfect Plan for Road Trip Success (A Complete Guide)

Are you planning an epic road trip? Are you imagining driving windy mountain roads, or coasting along a rocky shoreline, or perhaps you are planning to visit the classic towns and cities of Europe?

Whether you are heading for the mountains or a drive along the coast, planning a road trip can often feel overwhelming. In this article, you can find absolutely everything you need to know to plan for road trip success.

You can find many additional resources on our Essential Road Trips page including suggestions for itineraries. You can also find more general information on trip planning in the article – How to Plan a Trip: The Exact 11 Steps We Use.

We are the Carlson family and we love exploring and finding adventure travel destinations around the world.  One of our favorite ways to do this is on a road trip.  We've done road trips around Europe, across the United States and more.  You can learn more about our family and find destination and activity guides here on Chasing ADVNTR.

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How to Use this Guide to Create the Perfect Plan for Road Trip Success

This is an extensive guide written to cover every aspect of planning the perfect road trip. You can find many links and resources throughout to help you plan and take the perfect road trip whether you are visiting America’s amazing National Parks, road tripping around Europe, or taking a Campervan around Iceland.

If you can’t find specific information, please leave a comment and I’ll try to update the article. You can find everything you need to know for planning a trip by car in the 12 steps below:

  1. Finding the Perfect Road Trip Destinations
  2. Plan the Perfect Road Trip
  3. Where to Stay for the Perfect Road Trip: Booking Accommodations
  4. Where to Eat and Food to take on Road Trip
  5. What to Take on a Road Trip: Road Trip Packing Guide
  6. Road Trip Planning Tips
  7. Best Road Trip Planning: Booking Transportation
  8. Essential Road Trip Safety
  9. How to Budget for a Road Trip
  10. Fun Things to do on a Road Trip
  11. Best Resources when you’re on the Road
  12. Special Situations when you’re Taking a Road Trip
Plan for Road Trip Success: Road Trip in NH to see the Fall Foliage

Finding the Perfect Road Trip Destinations

The perfect road trip starts with an amazing road trip destination or route. If you are planning a road trip, there is a good chance you already have an idea of where you want to go. Many countries make excellent road trip destinations and you can often find beautiful destinations not far from home.

Some of our favorite road trips have been visiting some of the National Parks in the United States, but we’ve also really enjoyed flying and renting a car to road trip around other countries.

If you are looking for destination inspiration, there are so many inspiring photos and stories out there. Here are a few of our favorite places to get travel inspiration for all our trips:

  • Follow a few travel accounts on Instagram (you can find ours here)
  • Pinterest is also a great resource for searching for photos
  • Find inspiration in travel coffee table books – we love keeping these around and flipping through them!
  • Check out a few Travel Blogs – there are many excellent resources and I love to use an image search to explore a new region.
  • See our Destinations Page at Chasing ADVNTR – we are always updating this with new places we’re visiting!

If you are looking to generate destination ideas for the future, get a free copy of FIND YOUR ADVENTURE.

How Long is the Perfect Road Trip?

Deciding how long to take a road trip depends on your own schedule, your budget, and your destination. If you are hoping to visit a few places close to home, a week is often enough time. If you are flying and renting a car, a week can work, although having a little more time gives you a chance to have some days that don’t involve driving.

We’ve done several road trips that last more than two weeks. If you have the time and budget, this is a great way to get to see a new place. I find that it takes a few days to get into the road trip mode, so having a few weeks on the road is truly amazing.

When we road trip as a family, we find that we prefer to do a long driving day followed by shorter drives to explore one place. When you are choosing the length of your road trip and your destination, be careful you aren’t planning 6-hour drives every day as this often feels like too much.

Should you Drive or Fly and Drive?

One decision you will need to make is whether you will drive your own car right from your home to your destination or fly and drive. This will have a big impact on the type of trip you are taking. If you plan to go for an extended time and camp and do a lot of activities, it will be easier to have your own car and the flexibility of packing your gear.

Of course, you can always do this, and oftentimes you will need to fly and rent a car. Be realistic about what you can and can’t bring on your trip as this will have an impact on whether you camp or stay in hotels.

In 2021 we did a month long road trip to National Parks in the United States.  We decided to take out own car and drive from NH out to the Rocky Mountains.  This saved us significant money and allowed us to bring our bikes, camping gear, climbing gear and more.

In the summer of 2019, we took a 2 week trip to the UK and did a road trip around Wales.  Since we had to fly from the US, we rented a car and stayed in hotels and AirBNBs.  We focused our activities on hiking and other things that didn't require as much gear and we did rent bikes for the day.

Both of these trips were amazing road trip experiences!
Boulder Flatirons Hiking Trails
Plan for Road Trip Success: Visiting the Boulder Flat Irons on our Month Long Road Trip

Plan the Perfect Road Trip

Once you have the perfect road trip destination, you can start doing some of the fun work of planning your trip. I’m a big fan of spreadsheets and maps to help plan my trips!

The first thing I do when I’m planning a road trip is to create a list of all the interesting things to do and see. I put these places into a spreadsheet in a list form and drop them on a Google My Map ( see how I use Google maps to plan a road trip). This makes it possible to see where these locations are and approximate driving distances.

My favorite way to do research in this part of the process is by looking through the resources listed above, specifically travel blogs. You can often find first-hand accounts of people doing the exact road trip you are considering. This step takes a while to complete, so make sure to start at least several months before your trip to give you time to book everything.

As you start to narrow down where you want to go, you can turn your list into a more detailed itinerary in your spreadsheet.

You can see an example of how I enter the information into the planning spreadsheet to get started. I may also add a column for driving distances and eventually will add more details about exactly where we’re staying and reservation numbers, etc.

Perfect Plan for Plan for Road Trip Success: Create a Planning Spreadsheet
Perfect Plan for Plan for Road Trip Success: Create a Planning Spreadsheet

Another resource for planning a road trip that I haven’t used but hear good things about is Road Trippers.

Road Trip Planning Tips

As you get more focused on your road trip itinerary, there are a few tips to keep in mind that will make your entire trip run more smoothly.

  • We try to create a concrete plan, with plenty of room to change things up if needed. For this reason, we plan about 2/3 of the activities and leave a few days or parts of days that don’t have specific activities planned. I will have a few suggestions for those days, but nothing concrete.
  • Know your family and the activities they will enjoy. If you will be traveling with young kids, you may want to adapt their total driving time, or commit to driving when they are napping. We did a long road trip when our kids were all under 4. We chose to do our longest driving in the evenings after a short dinner. Our kids would sleep, the adults got to chat and we would pull into a hotel around 11 pm and transfer kids to beds.
  • Get your kids involved in the planning, especially older kids. We try to keep our kids involved as much as they are willing – if they don’t want to plan, they can help navigate, pack or do whatever works to get them involved. Read How to Plan a Road Trip with Kids, Teens and Tweens for more details on planning a road trip with kids.
  • Find some additional sites along the way to stop and break up long drives, but don’t stop all day! We like to plan a few stops during the day to get out and stretch our legs and try to avoid only stopping to eat since we end up sitting then as well. We have found that stopping too much just makes the day feel longer and sometimes we prefer to drive straight for 4 hours, then get to enjoy more time at our destination.
  • Considering the weather when planning a road trip is very important. You might lay out the perfect itinerary, but end up with rain the whole time. Make sure you look at the average weather for the time of year you’re going and have a few activities on hand in case it rains. When we road tripped to Zion, we knew that most afternoon thunderstorms pass through in the afternoon and we planned all our hikes for early in the morning.
Plan for Road Trip Success: Hiking in Colorado on a road trip


Where to Stay for the Perfect Road Trip: Booking Accommodations

Once you have a general plan of where you want to be each night, it’s time to book lodging. In general, you have 2 options for booking places to stay on a road trip. You can book a hotel/motel or you can camp. As a family of 5, we enjoy staying in Airbnb or other short-term rentals, but on a road trip, the fees on these don’t always work for just a 1-2 night stay.

If we are driving our own car, we enjoy camping. Of course, not everyone likes to camp, so this might not be the best option for you. There are many ways to find excellent campsites. The best way to find campsites in National Parks and many other parks is through recreation.gov. We also like to use google maps to search for campgrounds and have recently started using the app – The Dyrt.

Even if we are mostly camping on a road trip, we find that every few days it’s nice to break it up with a hotel. We also tend to book hotels when we will be driving late or getting up early.

There are lots of ways to look for hotels and motels while you are planning a road trip. I often use google maps to search for hotels and recently we’ve booked most of our lodging through booking.com. This works really well for our family because they have a wide variety of lodging options and many of the places they list can accommodate our family of 5.

Booking.com


When you are booking accommodation, consider how long you will be at the hotel (this may make it worth it – or not – to book a place with a pool, view, etc).

Where to Eat and What Food to take on Road Trip

Eating out can easily eat up your road trip budget, so deciding where to eat is an important part of a road trip. We try to balance the convenience of eating out and the ease and budget of either cooking or packing our own food. If you are camping, you will likely be travelling with your own stove, dishes and pots making it easy to cook along the way. We really love having a good 2 burner propane stove when we road trip.

When we pack for a long road trip and are leaving from home, we always pack the following items for storing and cooking food:

We pack one of these bins full of meal-type food and the other bin is snacks and lunch so that when we stop we can simply take this whole bin out of the car for eating without digging through everything.

If we are camping, it’s usually easiest to cook breakfast and dinner at the camp site and if we want to eat out we can go out at lunch time. If we are staying in a hotel, we often eat lunch on the road and go out for dinner.

When finding good places to eat on a road trip, we usually use Google Maps or Yelp.

See 100 Road Trip Snack Suggstions!

Road Trip Success: Road Trip Around Puerto Rico

Best Road Trip Planning: Booking Transportation

Unless you are planning to drive your one car or RV from your home, you will need to arrange transportation on your road trip. This means booking an automobile and arranging how to get to your starting point. This will likely involve flying, but can also be on a train or bus.

We prefer to book our airlines using miles or searching extensively for budget flights. My favorite way to do this is to start the process using Skyscanner or another flight search engine. There are plenty of settings to adjust days, layover options, and search nearby airports. You can see complete details on how we book flights in this article: How to Plan a Trip: The Exact 11 Steps We Use.

Renting a car or and RV is also an important thing to consider. You may even want to rent a car if you are driving from your home and don’t have a car that fits your trip and family. Here are a few things to check when you are renting a car:

  • Is there restricted mileage?
  • Will you have enough space for your bags and people?
  • What is the average mile/gallon? What type of gas does it take?
  • How will you handle tolls?
  • Do you need to add an additional drive?

There are many search engines online that allow you to look for cars and RVs so make sure to do your homework on what works for you. We’ve had success searching for good deals on car rentals at RentalCars.com.

What to Take on a Road Trip: Road Trip Packing Guide

Packing your bags and car for a road trip can take a lot of time and effort. You can find road trip packing lists below. In general, there are several categories for packing including personal items, adventure gear, road trip gear, and car camping gear. These lists will change based on the type, length, and location of your road trip, and if you are flying and renting a car, you will likely mostly bring just personal gear and some road trip gear. Below you can see lists for packing with some notes.

For printable lists and more details, visit: The Complete Road Trip Packing List for Families (5 Lists to Make Packing Easy)

Personal Items (we pack these in backpacks or duffel bags)

  • Shorts
  • T-shirts
  • Long-sleeved tops
  • Pans
  • Underwear
  • Rain Coat and Pants
  • Fleece or puffy coat
  • Bathing Suit
  • Socks
  • Sleepwear
  • Sandals, sneakers and/or boots
  • Head Lamp
  • Toiletries and Personal Items
  • Winter Gear (if traveling in winter)
  • Small Pillow

Car Camping Gear Packing List

  • Tent
  • Sleeping Bags
  • Sleeping Pads
  • Stove and fuel
  • Pots and Pans
  • Dishes
  • Silverware
  • Mugs/Cups
  • Table Cloth
  • Cutting board
  • Bin, soap and sponge for dishes
  • Bottle opener, can opener corkscrew
  • Trash bags
  • Clothes Line
  • Camp Chair
  • Lantern
  • Tarp
  • Mallet
  • Multi-tool
  • Repair Kit and/or Duct Tape

Personal Gear Packed in Day Pack

  • Books and Activities
  • Electronics
  • Chargers
  • Headphones
  • Games
  • Pen, Paper, Notebook
  • Water Bottle
  • Snacks

Road Trip Packing Gear

Adventure Gear Packing List – this list will change a lot based on what you are doing. Below are some ideas (excluding car camping gear which is in the list below.

  • Bikes on a Bike Rack and helmet
  • Frisbee, soccer ball, etc
  • Backpacking Gear
  • Climbing Gear
  • Paddle Boarding Gear
  • Skis and Snowboards

A reminder that these lists will get you started, but you will want to add and subtract items based on your own needs.

things to do on a road trip with teenagers
Plan for Road Trip Success: Driving through Bison in Yellowstone

Packing the Car

Once you have all your gear, the next step is loading the car. I have a few suggestions and will share how we packed the car. Depending on the number of people and size of your car, you may want to consider getting a gear storage box for the top of your car. We did this and it made a huge difference. This is the newer version of the Thule rack we have now.

You will want to think about the item that you will need to access during the day and make sure to put these on the top when you’re packing. This includes items you need for the day’s activities, snacks, water, activities, etc. Keeping the cooler accessible allows you to restock during the day as well.

Items that you only use occasionally can be packed away at the bottom so you aren’t constantly repacking everything. Keep a trash bag going at all times in the car, so wrappers and other trash can be quickly disposed of.

How we packed our mini-van for a month road trip with 5 people
Here is exactly how we packed our van for our month long road trip in the US.  

In the Thule Roof Rack: We packed our tent, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, and camp chairs.  This meant we could pull into a campsite and instantly start setting up camp while someone else dealt with the other gear.

With out Odyssey Mini-Van, we folded down the smaller back seat on one side.  We sat 2 people in the front, 2 in the middle row and 1 in the back.  

In the very back we put all our adventure gear that we used infrequently such as climbing gear.  On top of this we put out stove and car camping kitchen gear and our personal bags on top.  Each day we packed a day bag with ALL the clothes we would need for the day.  This bag went next to each seat so that we didn't need to access our bigger bags until evening.

On the side where the seat was folded down, we put the cooler, food and other miscellaneous bags that we wanted more access to during the day.  We also had 5 bikes on the back of the car.  We loved having our bikes, but with the rack on the back, we couldn't open the back of the car during the day.  This made packing the car more difficult, but I think overall it was worth it. 

It was tight in the van, but completely doable!
The Perfect Plan for Road Trip Success: Packing the Car
The Perfect Plan for Road Trip Success: Packing the Car


Essential Road Trip Safety

It’s important to think ahead about possible safety issues before you head out on your road trip. A little preparation can go a long way to keeping you safe and ensuring that you all have fun. This goes for both preparing for car problems and safety for you and your family in the car.

First Aid on the RoadRoad Tripper

As listed above on the packing list, you should always travel with a first aid kit and also know how to use the basic supplies in the kit. In addition to a first aid kit, it’s important to have food and water to last for 24 hours in case you are stuck due to weather or other issues. You will likely be traveling with plenty of clothes, but if not, you should have a blanket or sleeping bag if you are traveling in cold weather.

Car Safety on the Road

Before you head off on the road, make sure your car has its latest check-up and is in good condition to drive long distances. You will also want to travel with emergency supplies including jumper cables and becoming a member of AAA is incredibly helpful if you have trouble on the road.

You should also be aware of the realities of traveling in a car full of your gear. If you are stopping at attractions or overnight lodging, make sure to hide your valuables to help keep them safe.

How to Budget for a Road Trip

One of the best things about a road trip is that it can be a cheaper option for taking a family vacation, especially if you drive from your home and don’t need to also book airfare. You can easily adjust your trip to save money as you go by booking budget-friendly accommodations, camping, cooking food yourself, and doing free or cheap activities. You can see some general suggestions on how we budget for travel.

Your biggest expenses for budgeting for a road trip will be:

  • Lodging
  • Food
  • Gas
  • Activities
  • Car/RV Rental (optional)
  • Flights (optional)
  • Pre-trip expenses (car maintenance, buying gear, AAA membership, etc)
  • Trip Insurance
Board Travel Games for Kids
Plan for Road Trip Success: Playing Bananagrams

Fun Things to do on a Road Trip

Your trip is planning, you are heading to one, two or more amazing destinations, you’ve booked places to stay and lodging, how to you keep your road trip fun?

If you’ve planned well, you’ve likely already got some fun things lined up. Below are a few additional suggestions for keeping everyone happy on the road:

  • Don’t over plan! Make sure you have breaks worked in, but as long as you leave time in your schedule, you can make changes and adjust as you go along. Are you wiped out from a poor night’s sleep? Skip your morning activities and drive on to the next destination!
  • Have everyone in the car pack a day pack and repack every morning. Before you leave each morning, make sure to pack everything you need for the day so you don’t waste an hour repacking in the middle of the day. If you plan to hike, pack your hiking bag in the morning. In addition, every person in the car keeps a car bag. This bag should have what they need for the day in the car, including water, snacks, a book, electronics, headphones, a layer, etc.
  • Decide how you will spend your time in the car in advance: When we did our recent month-long road trip, we wanted to give our kids a chance to play games on their phone or kindle on some of our long drives, but also didn’t want their heads buried in their screens the whole time. We set clear guidelines BEFORE we left home and it made a huge difference in everyone’s attitudes. How you handle this will depend on your own kids, your priorities, and everyone’s ages. We like to use the 1/3 – 1/3 – 1/3 rule. This means the kids can use screens for 1/3 of every drive. For the other 1/3 they can use their device only for audio (to listen to music or an audiobook), for the other 1/3 it’s electronics off so we can do something together or at least have a shared experience. Everyone knew that this may change on a given day, but for a long trip, this worked well for us.
  • Bring along some games and activities to do together in the car. We always pack a few things to do together some of the best things to keep it fun include: travel games, conversation starters, audiobooks we can all enjoy, and maps and guidebooks for everyone to follow along with on the trip. We always get one audiobook through our library or audible that we can listen to together.
  • Make sure everyone has a say in what counts as ‘fun’ on the trip and everyone knows in advance what the plan is. This doesn’t guarantee fun, but it does at least help manage expectations.

Best Resources When You’re on the Road

While it’s all well and good to plan your road trip from home with books and laptops, the reality is that when you are out on the road, you need resources right at your fingertips. This often means having everything on your phone. It also means that you need to have a backup in case you don’t have cell service or even if your phone dies (gasp).

Before I share the best digital resources for your next road trip, I strongly urge you to consider getting a good old-fashioned paper map or atlas. Having this is a great backup in case you need it and is fun to look at as you go along.

Here is the list of the road trip apps I keep on my phone:

  • Google Maps – This is a must and you should download maps for the areas you are going do you can use them offline
  • Waze – This is another good app for traffic and we usually compare this to Google Maps
  • All Trails – This is such a good resource for finding hiking trails
  • The Dyrt – good for finding campsites
  • Yelp – for help finding restaurants
  • Booking.com is helpful for searching for places to stay. We also use Google to search or hotels.com.
  • Roadside America – a fun app to explore local points of interest
  • Road Trippers – good for trip planning
Plan for Road Trip Sucess: Watch out for Wildlife!

Special Situations when you’re Taking a Road Trip

Maybe you’re taking a road trip through Italy with a baby, or plan to take your dog on a road trip, no matter what you may have some special situations on your road trip to consider. Below are a few common situations that may arise:

How to road trip with a dog: having a dog on your road trip can add to the fun, but takes some consideration. You will need to plan enough stops for your dog and you will need a plan for leaving your dog to eat or do activities. You can’t leave a dog in a car as they can easily die from heat or cold. If you are traveling with a dog you will likely be mostly cooking for yourself. You should also check whether the places you are visiting are pet-friendly including hiking trails, campsites, hotels, and more.

How to road trip with a baby: In some ways, a road trip with a baby can be a great and challenging way to travel! When you road trip, you can adjust your schedule around naps and feeding, however, if you have a baby that doesn’t like the car (we had 1) it can be downright unpleasant! Trying to drive during naps makes a huge difference and keeping lots of small toys and activities to play with goes a long way to keep your little one happy. Definitely plan shorter days when you road trip with a baby!

How to Road Trip Abroad: With a family of 5 we are big fans of renting a car when we go aboard. For us it saves money and it gives us the freedom to visit sites and activities on our own without booking a tour all the time. We’ve road-tripped around parts of Thailand, Panama, Sweden, and Wales (just to name a few). There are a few things when renting and driving internationally:

  • Double-check car insurance and rental car requirements prior to your trip. Always take a video and/or photos of the car at pick up so you don’t get blamed for the damage. Also, ask about how the country handles tolls – in some places you can pre-purchase a toll pass.
  • Know the local driving rules, especially if you are driving on the other side of the road. Don’t be intimidated by fast drivers that honk in other countries – it is perfectly fine to go at what you feel is a comfortable pace.
  • No matter what country you are visiting, practice general safety and follow your gut about where to drive and what feels safe.
  • Note that speed limits and police enforce things differently in different countries. Avoid getting pulled over! In some countries, it is not recommended to drive at night in a rental car – do some research before you go
  • You may be surprised as to which countries are easy to road trip around and which ones are more difficult. When we visited Thailand it didn’t immediately cross our minds to rent a car, but we found it enjoyable and easy to get around.

Plan for Road Trip Success with these Amazing Road Trip Itineraries

Check out this list of 26 of the most Adventurous road trips.

What's Your Next Adventure?

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