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How to Plan the Perfect Road Trip

If you’re planning a road trip for your next vacation, check this guide to make sure you’re ready for snacks, detours, emergencies, and more. We got your back.

Road trips are a dream vacation. Infinitely customizable, they can take an extraordinary amount of detail, but when done well, the pieces fall into place and it’s beautiful. Whether you favor a packed schedule or the thrill of spontaneity, a road trip lets you have it. So go ahead—embrace the freedom of the open road—but don’t leave those details to chance. From packing and directions to food and lodging, here’s how to road trip like a pro.

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PHOTO: Shutterstock/Evgeniya Lystsova
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Planning Ahead

Start with the fun stuff: Ask yourself what kind of trip you want. Do you like nature or cities or a little of both? Are you hoping to avoid crowds or trying to hit all the touristy spots in the region on one epic journey? There’s no wrong answer. Chart a loose itinerary of where you want to go. For now, just make sure to know where you’ll end each day (because this is extremely important!).

Next, you need a budget. Estimate costs for each place you’ll stay overnight and include any big-ticket items like theme park admission or that private hot air balloon ride. Figure $150 per person per day in a mid-sized U.S. city. Then use cost of living calculators, such as the ones by NerdWallet (for U.S. cities) or Expatistan (international), to adjust up or down.

INSIDER TIPNotify your bank and credit card companies that you’ll be traveling and where to so they know it’s you and don’t lock down your account—this can cause an exorbitant amount of stress and might be difficult to fix mid-trip, if you find yourself in an area with spotty cell service (aka the middle of nowhere—a ubiquitous place commonly visited on road trips).

 

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PHOTO: Shutterstock/ImYanis
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Timing Is Everything

Once you know where you’re going, you need to figure out how long it takes to get there. Plan no more than seven hours of driving in a day if you want to sightsee, up to 10 if you have multiple drivers and absolutely have to get somewhere by nightfall. If you do have long haul drives, keep those to a minimum and sandwich them between days where driving is light. It’s easy to dream big when you’re looking at a map and not realize how draining it gets to be constantly behind the wheel. Aim to keep the average under around four hours per day, and you’ll be fine.

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PHOTO: Shutterstock/Africa Studio
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What to Pack

One of the joys of road trips is being able to bring along more than you ever could on a flight. Fill one suitcase with the essentials you’ll need to take into the hotel each night. If your trip is more than a week, bring a smaller suitcase for dirty laundry so you can leave it in the car. Keep anything you’ll want to access on the road, like books, blankets, brochures of destinations, and snacks, in a separate container within easy reach, organized with the items you’ll want most often toward the top. Have plenty of bottled water, too, and at least one refillable bottle per person.

After that, you can fill the trunk with anything else that will make your trip better. No TSA or overhead storage bins here, so bring all the lotions and pillows you want.

INSIDER TIPPack plenty of plastic bags in varying sizes: sandwich, freezer, grocery, and garbage. They hold not just food and trash but loose toys and ticket stubs, and the larger ones can even double as floor liners when shoes get messy or spills seem likely.

 

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PHOTO: Shutterstock/Tanasan Sungkaew
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Car Care

At a minimum, get an oil change so you’re starting off fresh. Check the air in your tires, including the spare. You can do this yourself with a tire gauge. Double check you have a tire iron and jack in case you get a flat and jumper cables or a jump starter if the battery goes dead—the latter is a safer bet since there might not be another car around to help.

And while we’re talking safety, it’s a good time to refresh your emergency kit. A flashlight, bandages, antibacterial, cotton swabs, and ibuprofen or aspirin cover the basics. Throw in road flares, a fire extinguisher, and duct tape if is more your thing.

INSIDER TIPGo ahead and locate your car’s manual, too. It’s probably in the glove compartment, but you don’t want to hunt for it when you’re miles from cell reception and a mystery light on the dashboard blinks on.

 

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PHOTO: Shutterstock/Jacob Lund
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How to Be a Good Copilot

Riding shotgun? Congratulations. You’re the navigator. But in a nice way, not an I-told-you-to-take-that-turn-three-times kind of way. You’re also the designated snack getter. You don’t want the driver with one hand on the wheel and the other reaching 180 degrees backward toward the cooler. If you have passengers in the back, especially kids, no napping on the job. Help keep everyone entertained and settle any squabbles so the driver can focus on the road.

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PHOTO: Shutterstock/Jacob Lund
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Keeping the Peace With Fellow Passengers

You start out as friends, even family, but after six hours cooped up in the car, you have nothing left to say to each other. Or worse, you have nothing nice left to say. To head things off before they reach crisis level, bring items like earbuds, noise-canceling headphones, and chargers for personal devices. You can have silence or the sounds of your choice on demand.

If you find yourself getting frayed nerves, clear communication wins every time. Say something like, “I’m going to read for a while;” then pick up a book. It sounds cheesy, but if you focus on saying what you would like instead of what they should do, you can avoid a lot of hurt feelings.

INSIDER TIPIf all else fails, pull over for a bathroom break and a little alone time.

 

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PHOTO: Shutterstock/OLOS
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Synchronizing Pee Breaks

About that, it’s a truth universally acknowledged (by road trippers) that multiple people traveling in a vehicle will never have to stop for the bathroom at the same time. While the average person needs to urinate around six to seven times a day, as with most laws of averages, individuals vary all over the place. A good rule of thumb is to plan to stop every three hours. It’s frequent enough that you won’t make that one rider with the pint-sized bladder feel guilty for asking to pull over, and everyone can stretch their legs. If no one needs to go, you simply drive on. If you’ve just had a meal, figure in a stop about an hour afterward. You’re accounting for something called the gastrocolic reflex. If digestion is a train running through your body, think of it as making room for the next car.

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PHOTO: Shutterstock/Aleksey Korchemkin
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Directions

You’ll probably rely on GPS, but what if you lose signal along the way? Download an offline map over Wi-Fi before you head out as a backup. For longer routes, especially backroads in less populated areas, consider printing directions. Make notes of landmarks to help you stay on track and ask locals if there’s anything you should watch out for. It’s always in the out-of-the-way places that technology fails, and there may not be anyone on hand to ask.

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PHOTO: Shutterstock/Soloviova Liudmyla
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Where to Stay

Lucky you, you don’t need a hotel downtown or near transit if you want to see the sights. Take advantage of having your own wheels and stay outside major tourist hubs. Nightly rates are cheaper in the suburbs, and you get to see a side of the city most tourists miss. Make sure to figure in parking costs, though, when you’re calculating how much you’ll save.

 

INSIDER TIPAsk the hotel if they have a mini fridge so you can store perishables. Then fill your cooler with ice the morning you check out.

 

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PHOTO: Shutterstock/cvrestan
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Roadside Attractions

To squeeze the most fun from a road trip, look for sights on the way to your destination. If you’re driving through or even near a city, search for nearby attractions. It doesn’t matter how small the town; that might be the place hiding a museum on your favorite subject.

If you’re taking a famous route, like Iceland’s Ring Road, rely on the wisdom of those who’ve gone before you. Many highways have alternate scenic routes that are worth the detour if you can spare the time.

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PHOTO: Shutterstock/Krivosheev Vitaly
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Eating à la Road

Fast food gets old and doesn’t always sit so great on the stomach after hours in the car. Instead, make strategic grocery store hauls throughout your trip for food that’s healthier and more affordable. Stock up on convenient, mess-free snacks like nuts, apples, and string cheese. Toss in a can opener, plastic utensils, plates, and a few storage containers and you open up a world of possibilities: tuna, olives, hummus, lunchmeat, salad, and more. You’ll be ready to pull over for an impromptu picnic or dine on the road.

INSIDER TIPWhen you do eat out, don’t be shy about taking a to-go bag. Those lunch leftovers will fit snugly in your cooler for snacking or even dinner later.

 

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PHOTO: Shutterstock/Filipe Frazao
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The Art of the Playlist

While the driver gets the final say on music, this is a power to be wielded wisely. Choose tunes everyone likes or a mix with favorites from each passenger. Curate with care. It’s the soundtrack to your vacation.

For variety, download podcasts or pick up a few books on CD at the library. Bear in mind what will keep you alert and the timing. A sonorous nonfiction audiobook may not be best for night driving.