How to Plan a Road Trip

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Today, we set off on this summer’s adventure… A road trip out west. While we have taken several road trips “out west,” this one will be our longest and most adventurous yet. We are excited to share our travels all over the American West with you! But first, let’s talk about how we planned this road trip and give you tips on how you can plan a similar adventure of your own.

This particular trip is about seven weeks. Yours may be longer or shorter, but the planning stages are the same, regardless of the amount of time spent on the road or the exact budget.

Taking our new RV home.
We love road tripping with our travel trailer and F-150.

Planning any trip can feel overwhelming, at least in the beginning. Even I get nervous when I start thinking about planning a trip and I’ve planned many trips and generally enjoy doing it.

The key to planning your road trip is to take it one step at a time. Do what you can, when you can and don’t stress about the details until the time comes to think about the details. You can’t figure out what hotel you’re staying at if you don’t know where you’re going. Start with big ideas and then narrow things down from there.

(Disclaimer: When we link to places you can buy our stuff or places we stayed, we are using special codes which earn us commissions on the sales at no additional cost to you. Please see our Review Policy  for more information.)

Road Trip Itinerary

When choosing your itinerary, choose a few big stops that really fuel your trip and get you excited. Then, add additional stops in nearby places along the way.

Our itinerary will have us on the road for 50 days. This beats last year’s “longest road trip to date” by a whopping 12 days… Wow!

We chose this itinerary for several different reasons. Traveling west is truly one of our favorite directions to go. Almost all of our long-term trips have taken us west of the Mississippi River.

The Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse is one of the most photographed lighthouses in the world.
The Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse is one of the most photographed lighthouses in the world.

Last year, we forced ourselves to New England for a new adventure. While we loved it, we now feel the fact it’s been three years since we explored the western frontier in the summer! Quite simply, we are ready to return to our “happy place.”

In planning our itinerary, we considered just about all destinations West, focusing on Far West. We considered California, Oregon, Nevada, Utah… You get the idea. Ultimately, we had to narrow things down so that we wouldn’t be moving too much! We decided our main two stops would be Yosemite and Yellowstone National Parks.

We chose Yosemite because we have not traveled to California together. Not only do we get to add another state to our list, but we get to add one of the most amazing national parks as well. Who wouldn’t be excited about that?

Among the bison in Yellowstone National Park - one of our favorite road trip stops.
A calf among the bison in Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park. Wildlife viewing is one of many reasons why we love Yellowstone.

We are returning to Yellowstone because it is truly one of our favorite destinations in the world. This will be our fourth trip together and we are still very excited. We can’t wait to see geysers, canyons, wildlife and so much more! It never gets old.

Wherever you decide to go, make sure it is something that you are really excited about!

Road Trip Route & Details

Once we made the decision on the big stops, it was time to fill in the details and find additional sites to visit. National Park sites fuel many of our road trip routes. We try to string together several sites to make an interesting route, both on the way out and on the way back.

Suggestions for planning your route:

  • Use Pinterest to search for interesting ideas.
  • Ask coworkers and friends for suggestions.
  • Visit family or friends in the area.
  • Retrace the steps of a memorable childhood vacation.
The RoadTripper app makes planning your road trip a breeze.
The RoadTrippers app is one of my favorite road trip planning apps. You can see a visual of your route and it will estimate your drive time and gas costs.

Our first real stop after leaving Woodstock is in the Flagstaff, AZ area (after three days of driving). A work colleague told us about Meteor Crater and, with a few Google searches, we were sold!

There are several National Park sites nearby as well, which is always a plus for us. We, of course, will also spend some time “standin’ on a corner in Winslow, Arizona” while we are in the area!

Another big stop, after Yosemite, is Great Basin National Park. We have considered Great Basin for a few years. Since it is more-or-less between Yosemite and Yellowstone, this works out perfectly for this trip!

National parks books and maps help us plan our road trip.
We use these books and the map of the National Parks System to do a lot of road trip planning.

After a trip I took with my dad and sister many years ago, I knew driving the Extraterrestrial Highway across Nevada would be interesting. My research with Google and Pinterest searches also brought up information about Cathedral Gorge State Park. And, just like that, we have an interesting route across Nevada from Yosemite to Great Basin!

Another big stop will be western Colorado. It is “on the way back” and will allow us to visit several National Park sites we haven’t seen and see some family.

Reservations

Once you have the route mapped out, it is time to start making reservations. We sometimes struggle with how detailed we should plan things out. When we were tent camping, we could be a bit more spontaneous and wait until the last-minute for campgrounds or hotels. We have found we are not comfortable doing that with the trailer and the cat.

First, we simply have to find a place with hookups so we can leave Alee during the day. Second, when pulling a trailer, hotels are pretty much off-limits unless they have ample parking. Even if we could park, many hotels do not accept pets, much less cats.

Sadly, we lost Alee, our camping kitty to a tumor in 2019. We miss having her with us at home and on the road.

Alee, the camping kitty, hanging out in the camper. We love that she can now travel with us on long road trips.
Alee, the camping kitty, hanging out in the camper. We love that she can now travel with us on long road trips.

So, we now find ourselves planning the details a bit more rigidly than we might really want to.

I use Campground Reviews and TripAdvisor to research campgrounds and find us the best place to stay. I also created this document to help me compare campgrounds and pick the right one.

For hotels, we prefer the Hilton chain, where we love earning and redeeming Hilton Honors points. If there isn’t a Hilton hotel in a particular area, we like Booking.com to find hotels.

Once I start making campground reservations, I keep a record of everything using my Campground Reservation sheet. This allows me to know exactly what I booked and all the pertinent information of the reservation. This is especially useful for campgrounds, which are less likely to send an email confirmation than a hotel.

When to Make Reservations

If you have more flexibility, you could certainly wait and make at least some of these decisions on the road. How much you plan in advance is totally up to you, your travel style and where you are visiting.

On that note, some places fill up quickly. Do your research and know if you need to book in advance. Yosemite is very popular in the summer, so I made those reservations back in December. Others weren’t made until April.

We stayed at one of the Army Corps of Engineers campgrounds on Council Grove Lake... One of the best campgrounds we have ever been to.
While we love tent camping, sleeping on an air mattress gets really old after four weeks.

Every destination is different, so do your homework early and know what to expect. And, if you aren’t making reservations in advance, be ready to not have as many choices or possibly even miss a desired stop because there is no availability.

That actually happened to us on the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park a few years ago. We didn’t have a reservation. We visited several campgrounds and hotels and found no vacancies. Cell phone coverage was basically non-existent, so we couldn’t call or do much research.

Read about our attempted stop at Rocky Mountain NP here.

We ended up driving all the way to the other side of Denver and skipping Rocky Mountain all together. That is always a risk when you don’t have a reservation.

On the flip side, we once had a three-night reservation at a state park in southwest Montana. Bad conditions, along with the remoteness of the campground, led us to leave early. We ended up moving on after just one night and forfeiting our payment for the other two nights.

That’s one of the fun things about travel: you never know what will happen!

Budget

A big consideration for any road trip is the budget. Your budget will often dictate, or at least influence, where you go, how long you are gone, where you stay and much more.

Hopefully, you think about your budget before you start planning. Grant wrote a series of articles on Travel Finance, which covers many aspects of budgeting for travel. If you have questions on budgeting, start at Travel Finance 101.

Budgeting for a long road trip can seem overwhelming. But there is one benefit to a long trip that is sometimes easier to deal with than on a shorter trip: You are able to use your “normal” monthly budget.

A screenshot of Mint on the phone
Mint is a great tool for giving you the big picture of your finances.

Of course, you have fixed bills at home which have to be paid even when you’re away.  Mortgage, car insurance, and electric bills are still due, even when traveling. Sure, you could turn off your cable or internet if you’re gone for a while, but that may not be worth it if you’re just gone a few weeks.

What you can use is your food, gas and entertainment budgets. Those are costs you don’t have to worry about too much (assuming your income is still consistent) since you would be spending money on them anyway. You may even find food or gas costs are lower on the road.

Traveling in a trailer allows us to keep food in a refrigerator and cook meals “at home” even when on the road. This allows us to save money by not having to eat out every meal.

If you want to compare costs on different travel styles, check out this article: Road Trip Styles – A Cost Breakdown. In this article, Grant compares of the costs of staying in hotels, tent camping and RV (or travel trailer) camping.

Read more about how we save money on the road.

Leaving Your House

Of course, leaving your house for several weeks can be nerve-wracking. That is one reason we now live in a condo. We feel much more at ease when we are traveling knowing there are 100 or so other folks living in the building. If anything goes wrong, they can notify us easily.

If you don’t live in a condo, you just need to make sure you have a neighbor or friend set up to come by once or twice a week to check on things. How often will depend on what you might need to be done at home and if you are leaving behind any pets.

The new F-150 towing the camper.
The new F-150 towing the camper.

Even in a condo with no pets at home, we still need someone to check the mail and just make sure nothing crazy happens. As a thank you, we generally pick up a bottle or two of a local spirit for whoever helped us out. When we left the cat at home, we would pay someone to check on her regularly. Thankfully, we can take the cat with us now. That saves us some money and saves Alee the bit of sanity she has!

Our Road Trip: Wander-Filled Out West

You can follow along with our road trip this summer through social media using the hashtag #wanderfilledoutwest. We will be posting (hopefully) daily updates and photos on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. I say hopefully because we will be in some areas that have a definite lack of cell phone towers and WiFi.

We will post articles once or twice a week, sharing the highlights of our adventures and what we discover along the way. As always, you can find our most recent articles on the front page of our web site. We link them on Facebook and Twitter as well.

If you have any suggestions for places to visit, restaurants or other can’t-miss sites along our route, please leave a comment or contact us directly. We are always up for trying out other folks’ recommendations!

Travel Resources
What do you use to find a flight?

We use Skyscanner to find deals on flights. Skyscanner has a great interface and compares tons of airlines for the best pricing and routing. That said, it does not always have every airline and some airlines will have better deals on their website. Still, Skyscanner is a great place to start.
Click here to search for a flight.

What do you use to find a hotel?

We typically stay at Hilton properties, so we use the Hilton website. We can find good Hilton Honors discounts or AAA discounts for a hotel there. We make great use of our free night certificates from our Hilton Honors American Express.
Click here to book a Hilton property.

If there are no Hilton properties available, we use TripAdvisor to read reviews and book the hotel. We find we can get the best price that way.
Click here to search for a hotel.

What if I need more space than I can get at a hotel?

We use Vrbo for the times when we have rented a cabin for a weekend getaway, like this cabin in Townsend, TN, or needed to rent a house for a large family vacation. We had a great experience with them in terms of refunding deposits when COVID hit and will continue to use them.
Click here to search for a vacation rental.

Who do you use for rental cars?

As a general rule, we book with Hertz for rental cars. We have had nothing but good experiences with them. Plus, we really like unlimited mileage and not worrying about crossing state lines. We have even rented from Hertz overseas in both Slovenia and Croatia.
Click here to book a rental car.

How about booking a cruise?

We have found some amazing prices booking a cruise through Cruise Direct. We have saved a lot of money on our cruises compared to what we found elsewhere, making a last-minute Bahamas cruise even cheaper.
Click here to book a cruise.

What if I want to rent an RV?

We highly recommend Outdoorsy for RV rentals. We rented a camper van for a week to visit Rocky Mountain National Park for the elk rut and Custer State Park for the Buffalo Round-Up and had a blast. The program was easy to use and we really enjoyed the freedom of having a camper van for that trip.
Click here to rent an RV.

What do you use for booking tours?

We don’t often book tours. Typically, we like to do stuff on our own. That said, there are some experiences you just can’t have any other way. So, when we do want to book a tour, we always check Viatour first.
Click here to book a tour.

Do you use anything to get discounts on the road?

We make extensive use of both Good Sam and AAA on the road. Good Sam is normally regarded as a discount card for RVers at campgrounds and Camping World but anyone can use the 5 cents off a gallon at the pump at both Pilot and Flying J.
Click here to get a Good Sam membership.

We have had AAA as long as we have been married and it has more than paid for itself in discounts at hotels, aside from the peace of mind of having roadside assistance. Add in paper maps and the ability to get an international driver’s license and it is more than worth it for any traveler out there.

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9 thoughts on “How to Plan a Road Trip”

  1. Great article! I have now done 13 big cross-country summer road trips with my family and you covered the planning process very well.

    Did you like Great Basin? We stopped there a couple years ago and loved it. The pure silence away from the usual sounds of civilization was simply amazing.

    Reply
    • Thanks so much! To say we loved Great Basin NP is an understatement. Baker is a neat town to visit and hiking the trails was something to behold. We went out to the nearby archeological site one night to watch the stars come out. WOW! That’s something we just don’t see in the east.

      Reply
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  3. I actually had some complications of earlier cars and trucks from Enterprise rent an automobile provider, however lately, together with James assisting me with my own reservation I’ve received everything I desired. Amicable and prepared to support. That’s exactly what I can say regarding their employees. Many thanks and keep on being successful!

    Reply
    • Thanks so much, Myrah! I have used Enterprise and Hertz in the past for rental cars. In the past, at least, Enterprise has had a restriction on crossing too many state borders, which would not work for our longer trips. That said, both companies are great in terms of service from my experience.

      Reply

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