How to Plan a Road Trip

The great American Road Trip is an icon and everyone has a soft spot in their heart for this adventure.  The road trip hearkens back to the late 30s and early 40s as the automobile became more mainstream for more people and highways became more numerous and in many cases, paved.  This ushered in an era of adventure and change.  Today, modern road tripping is a fast growing hobby, and not just a means of vacationing.  So, if you want to get in on this hobby and have some adventure in your life as well, how do you begin?

It is wise to plan your trip to take advantage of all there is to see and do that is important to you.  If this is your first trip, you want to make sure you have all the information you need to include those things of interest to you personally to maximize your time and pleasure.  If you have done road trips before, I will help you make the next one even more fun and eventful.

My first road trip was with my parents in the late 1940s on a cross country automobile trip from our home in Minneapolis, to Los Angeles to see relatives living in that area.  I was about 8 years old.  I can remember with great vividness sitting in the back seat while my mother read the map and my father drove.  This was during WWII and people from all over America were on the move.  I remember the roads in Southern Minnesota and Iowa as being narrow, concrete and rather winding.  Note: my family had traveled from Minneapolis to Los Angeles and back 5 times in the mid 40s and early 50s as my father’s business took him back and forth over those years during and after WWII.  He spent 3 to 6 months in Los Angeles then traveled back to Minneapolis where the main office was based.  Each time we traveled across country we would take a different route to see the country and the many interesting historic sites, geologic phenomena, and learn about the people of these areas.  We continued to travel across country about every year until I was 15.  During High School and college, I traveled with marching and concert bands from my school to many colleges and cities throughout the midwest.  These trips continued my interest in travel as well.

After I graduated from the University of Minnesota, I began working for the Seaway Port Authority of Duluth and was contracted to do a marketing study on firms in the midwest and west that exported and imported products that possibly could be transported through the St. Lawrence Seaway and through the Port of Duluth.  This was a labor of love as I was on the road almost constantly traveling from city to city to meet with business that where listed as exporters or importers.  This project lasted about 2 years in which time I traveled probably 30 weeks per year.

Since that first road trip, I have probably taken between 200 and 250 road trips over the years and have become a real believer in this way of seeing America.  Some of these have been 3 to 5 days and some have been 1 to 2 weeks. 

When I lived in Minneapolis, besides my cross country travels, I traveled to most areas in Minnesota, North and South Dakota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Michigan, Ontario, Canada, Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado and Wyoming.  I found I loved the excitement of planning a new trip to a new area.  Back in the 50s and 60s there was no Internet or google, no Mapquest or Microsoft Streets and Trips, to do a search about an area, so planning a trip, figuring the best route, learning about what there was to see and do was much more difficult than today.  In 1970 my job moved me from Minneapolis to Phoenix, AZ.  I was Vice President of Marketing for U-Haul International in charge of International Marketing. At that point I began traveling even more.  Mostly by airplane rather than road trip, however, upon my arriving at my destination, I would rent a car and drive to the areas where I was working.  So I continued to enjoy road trips on a different scale.  Eventually I left U-Haul and began my own business which is travel related.  I figured my passion for travel would be a great way to share this passion with others and my wife and I started a tour company. 

One of the things I do in our tour company is to put together personal itineraries for people so they may get the most out of their travels and not have to do all the planning themselves.  I love this part of what I do and my wife and I have become an expert in putting together trips and adventures in the Western U.S.

I will now give you some idea of my methodology in putting together a trip into an area of the West.  First I identify my objective.  Where am I going and why.  Is this a short trip or long, who is going with me, what are their interests, what is there to see and do on the different routes to the destination, what is my budget for travel, am I going to do other activities other than sightsee, i.e. hike, raft, kayak, ski, photograph, spas, gourmet dining, shopping, museums, botanical gardens, historic spots.  Once I have identified these basics and listed them by writing them down, I then begin to do my research. 

Today I find most of the information I need on the internet and do my mapping on Microsoft Streets and Trips.   I have found that when traveling for sightseeing, it is best to travel no more than 200 to 300 miles per day.  That gives you plenty of time to stop and investigate sights along the way.  Sometimes you are able to increase the mileage, depending on your interest and what is available, and sometimes 100 to 200 miles per day is plenty if you have major attractions to visit.  I just did a 10 day historic Route 66 trip from Chicago to Los Angeles for a group of South Africans and I conducted the trip in a motorhome.  I had about 200 to 300 miles per day planned and some days this was too much as they wanted more time at the historic places along the way.  They loved the trip, their only lament was they wanted two to three more days to enjoy all there was to see and do.

Once I have identified my objective – where I am going and why – then I will pull out a map of the area I am going to cover and look at the area between beginning and ending point.  I circle on the map interesting sites, historic sites, scenic highways, National Parks and Monuments, and natural attractions like lakes, caverns, mountains, forests.  Next I will begin my research on line by googling everything I have circled.  At this point I will begin to prioritize what is of major interest to the person I am traveling with and myself.  I will try to include all the major priorities in the areas we are covering.  If traveling with children, I will prioritize based on what they are interested in as well.   If I am traveling to a certain point then returning to the beginning point, I will always figure a way to travel to that point and return a different way so we are visiting twice the places in basically the same distance.

Once I have identified my priorities and have figured the route, then I see how many things there are to see on a 100 to 200 mile segment.  I will try to determine the time we will spend at each of the stops and the type of highway – freeway or two-lane – then I will have a fairly good idea of how many miles we can drive comfortably each day.  I then plot out the overnight stops, trying to plan them for an area where we already have a site we want to see or stop we want to make.  I then go to my Streets and Trips and look at the different motels in the area where we will be stopping for our overnight.  I will list the different hotels, then I go to the individual hotels web site and plug in the date we will be staying in that city and see if they have room availability and what the price for the room will be. 

Today, there are so many hotels and motels on most major highways and in most cities or towns; you will usually have no problem finding a hotel that fits your budget.  I almost always see if the motel has a continental or hot breakfast so I can compare apples to apples on pricing.   The Streets and Trips program also has most of the sights you wish to visit listed when you zoom in on the area you are visiting.  If you are traveling with a GPS in your car, the Microsoft Streets and Trips also lists the address so you are able to program that into your GPS for easy finding your hotel, restaurant or site.  As I am traveling, each night I open my laptop and go to www.gasbuddy.com and search for the least expensive gas in the areas I will be traveling the next day.  Sometimes you can find a considerable savings on your gasoline by using this site.  I will find a station on the route I am taking that has inexpensive gas, and program that address into my GPS as well.

Another hint I will share with you, once I know the towns/cities where I will be staying, I google restaurants for the particular area where my hotel is located to find a restaurant that fits my palate and my billfold.  Once I find a few restaurants that pique my interest, I will then search google for reviews on these restaurants to find out what experiences other people have had.  I have found some great little gems by doing this and places that stick in my mind for future travel.  I try to find the local favorites, not the major chains.  By doing this you will meet and see more of the local people and you may strike up a friendship with someone in this town.  Usually you will have more local cuisine and sometimes locally grown foods.   For instance, I found the best low fat cinnamon roll in a little town of Big Fork, Montana.  They ship their baked goods all over the U.S. by Fed Ex. We had them ship some to us in the Grand Tetons for a group of doctors we were escorting on a 7-day adventure in Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons.  The docs raved about them. 

Here’s another hint if you are planning to do some guided activities on your trip, i.e. river rafting, jeep tours, scenic helicopter flights, hot air balloon flights, horseback rides, guided hikes etc.  You can go to the particular city or town where you want to take part in these activities, do a search for towns name convention and visitors bureau.  The reputable tour operators will be members of this city association and you can do a search in this web site for activities you wish to do.  Once you have names of a few of the operators in that city, you then can go to their web sites and find out what they do and what is available.  Sometimes you may do a search of reviews of these companies as well by googling the name of the company and review.  I will do this religiously as I want to make sure I am traveling with the best.  

Another hint for you I want to know what the weather is going to be during the time I am visiting.  A day or two before I depart on my trip, I go to the Weather Channel.com and enter the names of the cities I am traveling to.  If you look for the navigation button on top that says 10 day forecast you can see what weather is predicted and you are able to pack you clothes accordingly. 

Another hint for you I always do cash needs sheet before we leave.  I will list day by day my motel expense, my gas expense, any activities I have scheduled, the admissions at National Parks and Monuments, and an estimate of my food costs for the time I am gone. By doing this small spread sheet, I have managed to not have any surprises.  I also factor in some miscellaneous expenses each day for those shopping expenses we all have when we travel. 

Bonus hint: if you plan to travel often to National Parks and National Monuments, be sure to purchase the National Parks Pass.  This pass is good for admission at all National Parks and National Monuments and will save you money on your journey.  The National Parks Pass is available at all the entrance stations at all the National Parks.

These are a few of the things I have learned over the many miles and years I have traveled these western United States.  I love to travel, and it shows.  In other articles I am happy to share with you some of my experiences over the years, some funny, some heart wrenching, some exciting and some that have become icons for my travel.  I am so happy for the Internet as I can travel and add to my blog, add to my experiences and share with you new and exciting things to do in our beautiful western U.S.

See my other articles for specialized itineraries for your visit to as well as other areas in the Western United States.

Travel will change your life forever.  Each time you embark on an American Road Trip you will enrich your life, enrich the people’s lives you meet and interact with, broaden your horizons and have a greater appreciation of your beautiful country.  You will find your children will have a new appreciation for our country and have an up close and personal relationship with their country too.  This is a great way for them to grow in their education and they will not feel like they are in school.

6 Responses to How to Plan a Road Trip

  1. Very thorough.
    You have certainly covered all the bases–left nothing to chance. Me, when I road trip, I prefer to leave a lot to chance. Instead of the advice of computer lists, I like to ask friends. That includes people at sites like Fodors and their worthwhile builletin board. And when I get to a town, look of for the restaurants with a lot of local license plates on the cars out front. Of course you can’t leave reservations to chance if you are traveling in high season–so I try to avoid that as much as possible.

    I travel in the mode of Blue Highways and Travels With Charley–which reminds me–don’t forget the great road trip books to read. I have done a couple of articles about them at A Traveler’s Library.

    Happy travels,
    Vera

  2. Wayne says:

    Vera,
    Thank you for your kind words and your insight, I appreciate your comments!

    Your suggestions enhance my article on how to plan a road trip and I am sure others will have more ideas to add as well.

    Thank you and looking forward to seeing you on the open road!
    Wayne

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