According to AAA, in 2019 over 66% of American families planned a family vacation in the spring or summer. With the majority of those trips being car trips, that is a lot of time spent on the road. In addition, with so many people working remotely, road trips are no longer limited to just the summer months. This road trip guide will help alleviate the bumps in the road so to speak.
Often when people think of a road trip, they think of endless hours of non-stop driving in a car with only bathroom breaks until they reach their destination. Nobody wants to go on that road trip. I am talking about going on an ultimate journey where the whole trip is part of the experience. This road trip guide is meant to help you plan and execute an ultimate experience.
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Road Trip Guide: Choosing a Destination.
How many days do you plan to travel?
The first thing to do when planning a road trip is to choose your end destination. To begin, figure out how many days you have for the trip. On a good road trip, you don’t want to spend more than 3 hours in the car at a time. And you don’t want to drive more than six hours in a day. Remember this is your vacation, not a race. You want to allow time to sleep late some days. At times you will want to stay more than one night in one place. Of course, you won’t be driving anywhere those days.
Also, it is important to stop between 3 hour stretches of driving to do some sightseeing. Don’t forget you need to allow time to do the same on the way home. For example, my Road Trip to New Orleans was an 11 day trip. However, New Orleans is less than 12 hours from my home in South Florida. Guess what, I didn’t follow my own rule, and we had a six hour drive on day 10 from Ft. Walton Beach to Deland. We only stopped for a quick picnic lunch at a rest stop. We were dying to get out of the car by the time we reached Deland! Don’t do that to yourself!
How long do you want to stay at this destination?
Another thing to consider when choosing a destination is how long you want to spend at that location. We spent four nights in New Orleans which was sufficient to do everything we wanted to do there. But if you are planning a family road trip to Disney and you have never been there before, you will need much more than 4 days. Or you will need a vacation after your vacation. So if you are choosing a destination where you want to spend more time, the closer to home it needs to be.
Research things to do at your final destination before deciding how long you plan on staying there. Often when reading about attractions the writers give an estimated amount of time it will take to see the sight. This will help you decide on a reasonable amount of time to stay at your destination. If you can’t fit everything into five days or less, its not a good choice for a road trip destination. A longer stay at a destination requires air transportation.
Who is traveling with you?
Also, think of who you are vacationing with. Do you have young children? Will you have to stop every hour for a bathroom break? Is it going to be a romantic trip? Or are you going on a girls only weekend? All of these factors will make a difference as to how far and where you travel to. It is also important to consider your participants when choosing your activities. For instance, you don’t want to plan a wine tasting if some participants hate wine. Or plan a camping trip with people who hate the outdoors.
Road Trip Guide: Overnight Stops
Plan where you will be stopping each night
Now that you have chosen a destination and figured out who is traveling with you, it is time to pick where to spend the night. In short, you want to chose nightly stops at a maximum of 6 hours apart. But don’t let that keep you from making them less than 6 hours apart. On our Road Trip to New Orleans, we stayed in Ybor city on Day 1. We only traveled 2 hours and 20 minutes to our destination for Day 2. This was because we wanted to take in a brewery tour prior to leaving Ybor City. Then we needed time to shop for dinner before arriving at our condo in Cedar Key.
Keep in mind, the longer you plan on driving in one day, the less time you have for enjoying the sights. Again, the drive for Day 3 was only a 3 1/2 hour drive because we stopped at a winery on the way. Once we arrived in Marianna we needed time to go spelunking and set up our campsite before dark.
Choosing Appropriate Lodging
This brings me to my next point. You want to vary your types of lodging. During our trip we stayed in hotels in Ybor City, Biloxi, New Orleans, and Ft. Walton Beach. In Ybor City, our goal was to eat dinner and see the Flamenco show at the Columbia Restaurant. Therefore we chose the Hilton Garden Inn for its proximity.
In Biloxi, we chose Hard Rock Hotel because we didn’t have any sightseeing planned. We wanted a hotel with its own sights. Again, in New Orleans our goal was location. We chose the Royal Saint Charles because it was in the French Quarter. Therefore it was within walking distance or trolley stop of everything we wanted to do. Consequently, we chose the Wyndham Garden in Ft. Walton Beach because it was located on the beach.
Alternately, hotels aren’t always your best option. Consequently, we chose to go camping in Marianna while at Florida Caverns State Park to complete our nature experience. In Cedar Key we chose a condo where we could cook a romantic dinner. Our last night in Deland, we wanted a bit more luxury. We picked an inn with a suite complete with Jacuzzi tub. Again, your accommodations should reflect your reason for choosing that overnight destination.
How long to stay at each Destination
Sometimes you will want to stay more than one night in a destination. We learned from our New Orleans road trip that staying only one night at a beach destination is not enough. So when planning our Memphis Road Trip this summer, we opted for 2 nights in Panama City Beach. This way we had a full day at the beach in addition to the first evening and last morning.
Likewise, our plan after Memphis was to travel home through Georgia and stay overnight in the mountains. After several days of active sightseeing and Blues Clubs we wanted time for relaxation. We didn’t think one night was enough. We intended to stay two nights in a cabin so we could take advantage of hiking trails and soaking in a Jacuzzi.
Road Trip Guide: Driving Breaks
Once you’ve figured out your final destination, nightly stops, and accommodations, you need to decide what you want to do along the way. Remember, you are only in the planning stages so give yourself several options. You might decide to make changes before you book anything if you can’t fit in some of your choices. We had really wanted to go to a carnival museum in Alabama. Unfortunately, on the days we passed through it wasn’t going to be open. We decided to skip it rather than derail the rest of our plans. Likewise, we wanted to go on a shrimping boat in Biloxi. However, it was full so we went to the beach instead.
Estimate driving time between nightly stops
I recommend using Google maps. In addition to getting driving directions when you embark on your road trip, you can use it to figure out distances between stops. Once you know how long you will be driving, you can look for activities you will enjoy around the halfway point. Or you may want to look for extra activities at your destination for the night or prior to leaving in the morning. This app also makes it easy to locate bathrooms and gas stations while on your trip.
I also use Trip Advisor. You can look up places you want to go ahead of time, research restaurants, things to do, and lodging. The app allows you to save your favorites under a labeled trip. This is useful later if some of your initial plans don’t work out. You will already have back up ideas saved. This happened when we went to Destin. We left our campsite in Marianna early but the parasailing company in Destin had no availability until the afternoon. We ended up posing for old time photos and tasting flavored olive oils near by while waiting.
I cannot stress this enough. You may like museums, but after 7 days of seeing museums every where you stop, you will never want to look at another artifact or piece of art again. Mix it up. If you like adventure include some outdoor activities such as spelunking, camping, or parasailing. If you like nightlife, find unique places to go where you won’t have to drive back to your hotel. Hosts at some Airbnbs will offer to drop you off and pick you up at local spots for free or a small fee.
Remember, if you plan on going out every night you will not be able to see much the next day. Take some nights off! Include time for relaxing. For instance lie on the beach. Stay at a place with a spa. Schedule a massage. Stay somewhere where you can cook a romantic dinner or enjoy a sunset.
Road Trip Guide: What to Pack
No matter where you are going, what to pack can be divided into two categories: food and trip specific essentials.
Unless you want to waste a lot of time and money, packing food is a MUST on every road trip. These tips will help prevent weight gain while traveling as well. Of course, you want to eat some meals out, but you will still need items for breakfast, snacks and lunch. A large cooler with wheels and a pull handle is a necessity. Also a small cooler bag to use for day trips is great.
Unless you find a unique place with a must have breakfast, this meal should be eaten on the go. Breakfast bars, pick up fruits like bananas and grapes, and string cheese are easy to eat in a car, waiting for a trolley, or on the beach. They can easily be put into a purse for a snack later as well. Big breakfasts are for Sunday morning at home. On vacation they just make you sluggish and waste valuable travel or sightseeing time.
However, if you find a worthwhile experience that involves breakfast, by all means indulge. In short, the breakfast then becomes part of your travel experience. For instance, in Deland we went to the Old Sugarmill Restaurant where we cooked breakfast on a griddle built into the table! How’s that for an experience?
When sightseeing, snacks can either make or break your day. If you are anything like me, you will try to cram as much into your vacation as possible. Often lunch interferes with tour schedules, shows, etc. Either you are left starving or you waste a chunk of your day trying to have lunch. On action packed days, snacks will save you. If you keep some protein bars or nuts with you, these will hold you over until you have time for a meal.
Feel free to skip lunch if you have protein filled snacks. Then, late afternoon when you are ready to relax you can stop somewhere for a drink and an appetizer. If you plan to be driving during lunchtime pack some sandwiches to eat in the car. Sandwiches are also a good option for a day at the beach or park. We always start a road trip with some deli meat and other sandwich fixings. In addition we freeze extra deli meats, cheeses, bread, and bottled waters ahead of time to double as ice packs for our cooler. This maximizes cooler space as well.
We always make sure we stay somewhere that has a mini fridge to store our food overnight. Then we just add ice to the cooler as needed. A lightweight mini cooler is great to pack lunch for a day at the beach or national park so you don’t have to drag your large cooler around. Don’t forget the napkins!
Dinner has options. If you are staying late at the beach or had a long day out you may choose to have a sandwich or a premade salad. If you are staying in a condo or cottage with a full kitchen, you may choose to pick up food at a local market and cook your meal.
Two summers we spent a week in Sanibel on the beach. We spent our days paddle boarding, kayaking, and swimming. Before arriving at the condo we stopped at the local wholesale club and bought food for the week. We had a range of teenagers, kids and adults with us so we bought some microwavable foods. This made it easy for kids and teens to cook on their own. Also, we cooked up a large batch of chili which was recycled as tacos and nachos. We never went out to eat, making the most of our time on the beach.
Alternatively, in New Orleans, part of the experience is the food. However, instead of filling up on big meals, we chose to restaurant and bar hop. We would try a cocktail and an appetizer at one place. Then have a drink and split a meal someplace else. Everyone wants to try local food while traveling, but nobody wants the stomach problems, sluggishness, or extra weight that come from it. By eating healthy snacks and breakfasts and only having small portions of local food you will be able to enjoy your vacation with limited health hassles.
Road Trip Guide: Trip Essentials
Besides food, you will need to pack your clothing and toiletries, gear, and most importantly prepare your car.
Get your vehicle ready
Your vehicle is your best friend on a road trip. Treat her right. At least one week ahead of time make sure you complete any regular maintenance such as 30,000 mile check, oil change, etc. Make sure your tires and brakes are in top condition. The last thing you want is a blow out on the highway. Also important, make sure your insurance, registration, and license are up to date. That being said, having a road side assistance agency is a necessity for those unforeseen events.
Stock your vehicle with emergency supplies. Our van didn’t come with a spare tire. We made sure we brought an extra tire, tire iron, and jack with us just in case. Road flares and a first aid kit are essentials as well.
Clothing and Personal Items
In addition to clothing and toiletries I make sure to bring travel laundry detergent, and kitchen garbage bags for dirty or wet clothing .
Don’t over pack, but you want to make sure you have the right clothing for your activities. A rule of thumb is the warmer the climate the more you can pack. Summer clothing takes up less room and is more likely to be worn only once before washing. Plan to bring a few bathing suits if you will be at the beach. Nobody wants to put on a damp sandy bathing suit on day two of the beach or to swim at the pool. Check ahead for laundry facilities. You can always do a load of laundry half way through the trip. If none are available, you can still hand wash bathing suits in the evening to dry overnight.
If you are traveling someplace cold you can reuse a heavy sweater or pair of pants. Winter clothes take up more room so you will need to pack less. On the other hand they are less likely to get sweaty so you can use some several times before washing them. Make sure to pack extra socks in case they get wet.
Also important, a fold up rain slicker and small compact umbrella. The key is the word small. You want to be able to fit these items in a purse or backpack if necessary. We got some rain slickers on a college tour that we ended up not using. We keep them in the glove compartment of our car for emergencies.
Depending on where you are staying many toiletries will be provided for you. However, it is good to check ahead of time. Most hotels provide the basic shampoo, conditioner and soap. That being said, I have stayed some places that also provided mouthwash and toothbrushes, whereas others did not, but provided body lotion. Also, make sure you have sunscreen. The last thing you want is to ruin your trip due to a bad burn from the Arizona sun because you forgot the sun protection.
I hope you find this road trip guide useful in planning your trip. Please feel free to leave any comments or questions that would be useful to improve this road trip guide.
Donna Emperador is a travel and food blogger and copywriter. Donna believes in learning about different cultures while sharing good food and cocktails. She has lived in South Florida for over 20 years and enjoys spending time exploring the road to find unique places to share with readers. She can be found on Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest.