Living out of your trunk, noshing on trail mix and beef jerky, and playing classic games like 21 Questions while you drive down lonely country highways is a rite of passage for every traveler.
They may not be as luxurious as sipping cocktails at the airport bar, but road trips offer you the greatest flexibility when it comes to planning your itinerary, and they’re a fantastic way to experience the local culture of the land you’re exploring.
With roadside attractions, historic towns, and stunning vistas lurking around every corner, road trips are especially popular for exploring the Southwest, including hotspots like Las Vegas and Sedona, as well as iconic National Parks like the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, or Zion National Park.
Whether you’re planning a two-week Southwest family vacation or a quick weekend getaway with your friends, the key to any successful road trip is to plan it properly—and that means not planning everything. You’ll need a rough idea of your itinerary, including what you want to see and where you plan to stay, but overplanning and accounting for every hour of every day can suck the spontaneity out of your trip, leading to stress and conflict for everyone who’s along for the ride.
Follow these 6 steps to plan a smooth road trip:
1. Determine how much time you have
How many days do you have, from start to finish? Knowing your time constraints before you hit the road can help you plan where to stop along the way, as well as determine how much time you have to explore each location. Setting realistic expectations about timing can save you a lot of stress when you’re on the road, especially if you’re road tripping with your kids.
2. Sketch out key stops
Plot out the major sites and must-dos along your route first, then add in some quicker stops along the way for gas, bathroom breaks, and food.SMOOTH TRIP TIP: Take store hours into account—if you know ahead of time that you’ll need to stop for groceries, plan to stop at a store you know will be open so you don’t end up going hungry if they are unexpectedly closed when you arrive.
Setting up goals for each day, such as “arrive at campsite before sunset” or “check in to hotel by 8 PM”, can help you get an idea of where to stop en route, as well as how much time you can spend there.
3. Choose activities for everyone in the car
While you’re planning your trip, sit down and discuss your goals and must-dos with everyone you’ll be travelling with to find out which types of activities appeal to everyone. Do your travel buddies prefer mountain scenery or deserts? Are they more interested in hiking, sightseeing, or binging on local delicacies? Understanding everyone’s priorities before you hit the road can help you avoid a meltdown or blow-up later on.SMOOTH TRIP TIP: Let each person in the car choose one stop, activity, or restaurant each day. That way, you can ensure everyone is satisfied with at least one aspect of the day. It’s also a great way to get your kids involved and let them know you trust them with a little extra responsibility.
4. Decide what you will drive
Are you going to rent a car or drive your own?
If you’re driving your own car, take it in for a tune-up before you hit the road. Nothing derails a road trip like a surprise breakdown.
If you plan on renting a car, you might want to consider designing your road trip as a loop so you can avoid leaving the rental in a different state than where you picked it up (and any extra surcharges for doing so).
5. Don’t overplan
The beauty of a road trip is that it gives you the flexibility to make changes to your itinerary in the spur of the moment. Instead of scheduling each day down to the minute, leave yourself some time every day for unexpected photo ops, food breaks, exploring small towns, or checking out local secrets.SMOOTH TRIP TIP:Schedule time to relax and decompress through your trip, whether that means arriving earlier in the day or staying somewhere for a few days.
6. Don’t rush!
Just because you’re on a road trip doesn’t mean you need to spend every day on the road and every night somewhere new. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with staying 2 or 3 nights in one place if there are lots of things to do or see, or if you just need a day or two off from driving.
The trick to planning a successful road trip is to narrow down what you want to see and not overplan. Leave yourself time to explore unexpected places, sample local cuisine, and check out the “World’s Largest Whatever” you happen to drive by. Follow these steps when you create your itinerary:
- Determine how much time you have
- Sketch out key stops
- Choose activities for everyone in the car
- Decide what you will drive
- Don’t overplan
- Don’t rush!
The Ultimate Grand Canyon Road Trip Guide
Get more tips for your Grand Canyon road trip in our comprehensive guide: