Are you planning a road trip? If we’re friends on Instagram you’ve probably seen me on my very own six-week road trip – eating southern biscuits, sweating in NYC traffic and visiting weird museums. For the last 45 days, I’ve been working my way around America and Canada on the biggest road trip I’ve ever attempted.
While I’m no stranger to road trips, this trip took things to a whole new level and I learned many, many new things about how to drive all over the country without losing your damn mind. You learn a lot about road trips when you drive 9,000 miles!
Planning a Road Trip – The actual driving part
1. If you, like me, have an old, janky car, consider renting
I know this seems ridiculously, insanely decadent but hear me out. Rental cars are new, reliable, get great gas mileage and feature things like heated seats, OnStar, and Sirius. My own car features things like roll-down windows, slightly questionable brakes, and 27 mpg.
If you’re road tripping alone or through the mountains, everyone who loves you will appreciate this choice. You will appreciate this choice when you’re driving Highway 1 by yourself as the sun is setting and you’re working your way through those brake pads.
Also: if you’re like me, renting a car for six weeks is literally cheaper than all the repairs necessary to get your car up to par. Also also: if this is a business trip, a rental car is tax deductible. Car repairs are not.
If you’re renting a car, be sure to check if it’s covered by your own car insurance before you take on that super expensive loss damage waiver. 99% of the time, you don’t need it!
2. Have a backup plan for your phone’s GPS
There are huge swathes of the country that a data-less (I’m looking at you, most of Montana). It’s scary to drive through the mountains alone with a phone that’s crapping out. My Garmin uses satellites so it works 99% of the time, even in the middle of nowhere and it never hurts to grab an actual, paper map at those state border welcome stations.
If you don’t have a Garmin, download the amazing Navmii app; GPS with downloadable maps that doesn’t require data.
3. OMG, get AAA
IT IS 100% WORTH IT. You’ll get discounts on hotels and attractions, they’ll jump your car, tow you, and help you when you lock yourself out of your car. It pays for itself in one use and you’ll feel sooooo much better knowing you have it. (It’s also a great birthday/graduation gift for the traveler in your life!)
4. Fill your phone with awesome, free audio treats
You should be able to check out audiobooks from your public library or take advantage of Audible.com’s free 30-day trial. Of course, you should also download a jillion podcasts – my favorites are Oh No Ross And Carrie, My Brother My Brother And Me, and You Made It Weird.
If you want to take it to a whole new level (which I always do) you can listen to audio books that match your destination: Grapes Of Wrath for California or The Shipping News if you’re visiting the Maritimes. Or put together a playlist that matches! We listened to surf rock the whole time we were in L.A.
5. Stock your glove compartment with the right stuff
Sunscreen for your left side (yes, really), wet naps, snacks, gum, face spritz so you’ll feel refreshed and clean, cash and change for tolls.
6. Limit your driving to less than six hours a day
This is a personal preference, but I don’t like to drive more than six hours a day; I actually prefer about four. Four hours of driving means you can have a leisurely start to your day, make a few fun stops on your route and reach your destination before dark and in time for dinner. More than six hours and I’m cramped, cranky, and too exhausted to actually enjoy the wood paneled supper club with all the horse paintings.
7. Use your cruise control and know the local laws before you go
In my experience (cough, cough) you’re a lot more likely to get pulled over when you’ve got out of state license plates, so just set that cruise to two miles above the speed limit and let people pass you if they’re in a hurry.
Right turns on red are illegal in NYC and Montreal and a lot of state troopers want to see your registration – not just your proof of insurance (which is what they ask for in Minnesota).
All these insights are brought to you by my own learned-the-hard-way experiences.
Planning a Road Trip – The lodging part
1. (Probably) don’t book your hotels ahead of time
I know this seems counter-intuitive, but when you book lodging ahead of time you’re locking yourself into a location.
You’ll feel obligated to stay there even if you find something cool along your route that requires attention and dawdling. You’ll feel obligated to stay there even if the museum is closed and you’d prefer to drive for another two hours that day.
Of course, if you’re staying somewhere specific and awesome (like the Madonna Inn or a bizarre ‘wigwam’ hotel) you should book ahead. Otherwise, I’ve had great success using the Hotwire app once I’m done driving for the day.
2. Make your cheapo motels a bit more homey
I’m a regular patron of the $45 motel. This means I’m extremely accustomed to those horrible, shiny, infrequently washed bedspreads and hard pillows. I make my less-than-luxurious spaces nicer by bringing my very own high-thread count duvet and perfect feather pillow.
Yes, I feel slightly ridiculous every time I trundle them through the halls of a Motel 6, but good sleep is important! Feather pillows are important!
3. If you’re staying with friends, be an awesome guest
I’m sure you already know how to do this, but here’s a refresher, as learned from Mom Von Bargen. Let your hosts know when you’ll be arriving and when you plan to leave. Make your bed every day and/or fold the sofa back up so you’re not monopolizing the living room. Take them out for a meal. Bring them a host gift. Send them a postcard as a thank you note.
4. Ask for a motel room on the upper floors and/or at the end of the building
You won’t wake up when cars pull up and shine their lights into your window and if you’re on the end, it’s that much less likely that you’ll have noisy/creepy neighbors.
Related: Airbnb is always an affordable option and if you’ve never used it before, here’s a $40 credit towards your first booking!
Planning a Roadtrip – The food + health part
1. Bring your own water bottle and coffee travel mug
This is a bizarrely specific suggestion, but I love water bottles with a flip up straw – that way you’re not fumbling with twist off caps or tipping water bottles in front of your eyeballs while you’re driving.
When you bring your own coffee travel mug you’re not filling your car with discarded styrofoam mugs from all the delicious gas stations cappuccinos you buy.
2. Eat cheap (and healthily) on the road
IT IS SO EASY TO JUST EAT COMBOS but this is not a good long-term plan. I do the best I can with free motel breakfasts (raisin bran and all the fruit I can manage).
Hearty whole wheat bread holds up in a car for several days and makes for great avocado and tomato sandwiches; if you buy cherry tomatoes in the clam shells they’ll last for a few days and not get smooshed.
The other healthy, cheap travel meal I discovered? Those ‘microwave in a bag’ vegetable meals from the freezer section. Most motels have microwaves and most grocery stores carry these. For $2.50 you can make yourself ‘asigo parmesan risotto vegetables‘ or ‘brown and wild rice with brocolli and carrots.’ I’m just dorky enough to travel with my own ceramic bowl and plate so these motel room microwave meals don’t feel tooooo depressing.
3. Start your day with a walk around the town where you’re staying
Let’s be real: I’m not going to maintain a workout plan while I’m on the road. I will, however, lace up my pink tennis shoes and start the day with a 45-minute wander around the town where I’m staying.
It’s a nice to feel like you’re actually seeing a place, rather than just passing through. (It’s also a good excuse to ogle front porches and landscaping.)
4. End the day with stretches and a few exercises if you’re feeling ambitious
Driving for 4+ hours every day is hard on your back, shoulders, and hands. These yoga poses help or even these hand stretches. If I’m feeling super ambitious (which I’m usually not) I’ll do 10 minutes of pushups, planks, and sit-ups or I’ll just stretch on the floor while I watch the news.
5. Sunscreen and hats, obviously
But you already knew that, right?
Planning a Roadtrip – The money part
1. If you’re self-employed, find a way to make your trip at least partially tax deductible
I’ve spent much of this trip meeting up with internet friends and clients, gathering insights and information for future projects, and documenting everything on Instagram – all of which means that I can count certain portions of my trip as a tax deduction. Dreamy, right?
You can do the same by working a conference into your trip, blogging or Instagramming about your adventures, or creating products inspired by it. Use an app to track your receipts; I love Smart Receipts.
Here’s more info about how to make your travel tax deductible. If you’re not 100% sure, schedule a call with your accountant. I work with Fox Tax, an agency that specializes in self-employed creatives – they’re amazing!
2. Use Groupon
If you have the Groupon app on your phone, it will sense your new location and alert you to deals in your new city! My BFF and I saved 40% having all off our skin scrubbed off at the famous Korean spa Tikkun!
3. Eat out for breakfast or lunch
One can not exist solely on motel breakfasts and microwave-in-the-bag meals, but eating out can be expensive! Breakfast and lunch out are always cheaper, rarely require reservations, and you can sample local specialties like cheese grits, chilaquiles, biscuits and sawmill gravy.
4. Travel with a friend
There are many reasons to travel with a friend: it’s a bonding experience and you’ll have someone to share memories with. They will also make gas, food, lodging half as expensive. Here’s how to travel with friends without killing each other.
5. Use a credit card with travel rewards
Credit cards are great for emergencies and they’re great for reward-earning. I put e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g on my Capital One Venture card and on this trip alone, I earned 20,000+ miles. Of course, pay off your card at the end of every month.
Planning a Roadtrip – The safety part
A note about solo travel and safety: I think it’s important to walk the line between being prepared and being paranoid. In 15 years and 32 countries, I’ve never been mugged, touched, or seriously harassed. 99% of the people in this world are good and kind and they want to help you.
That said, traveling isn’t just about you. It’s also about the friends and family that you’re leaving behind and they will probably feel better about your trip if they know your itinerary and they know you have a good method of self-defense.
This self-defense key chain costs $8 and it’ll take you 15 minutes to throw together an itinerary; it’ll make everyone feel better. Just sayin’.
1. Be sensible and trust your intuition
This is the best and most important safety-related advice you’ll ever get. Don’t wander around dicey neighborhood at night by yourself. If a place or person gives you bad vibes, leave – even if it’s awkward. Don’t let your gas tank get too low, don’t drive when you’re tired, pay attention to your surroundings.
2. Be prepared
Here’s what I’ve got in my proverbial and literal ‘not scared box’
* a Garmin for those moments when my phone is out of range
* real actual maps (you can usually get them for free at visitor centers)
* a usb phone charger (one for your car and one that’s portable)
* this self-defense key chain (which the Canadian border guards actually confiscated)
* a gallon of water
* a shared Google calendar with my itinerary and phone numbers of the friends I’ll be visiting
* a road kit with ‘fix a flat’ and road flares
* a list of important phone numbers if I ruin/lose my phone (which happened on this trip)
* a tracker app so a few people can see where I am (for those times when you inadvertently book yourself into a remote ‘man camp’ in the Bakken oil fields)
All the other roadtrip planning tips I have
1. Use Roadtrippers.com
So how do you actually find awesome things on your road trip? Things like deep, cold swimming holes in northern New Mexico? Or an ancient pueblo built on top of a butte?
Roadtrippers.com is – hands down – the best travel tool I’ve found. It’s basically Tripadvisor + Googlemaps + Roadside America in one handy, dandy website. It allows you to map routes and see the best stuff in any number of categories – independent restaurants, natural wonders, even “weird stuff.” I looooove it!
2. Ask your social media friends for insights + advice
I bet your Twitter and Instagram buddies have some good ideas for you! My Instagram friend Sarah told me about the Spy Museum in Washington DC (which I loved) and two years ago my world was changed by the reader-suggested Sleep No More which can only be described as “Eyes Wide Shut + a haunted house + performance art?”
3. Know that you can’t see everything ever
At various times on my trip, I’d get disappointed and stressed out that I couldn’t stop and see absolutely every awesome thing that ever existed. I kicked myself for missing the valley of Buddhas in Montana and I didn’t make it to the Esalen hot springs. But the nature of travel (and life) is that we have limited amounts of time and money and that’s okay.
4. Don’t force yourself to see ‘important’ things you don’t care about
I’m not particularly into art museums, cathedrals, or historical tours. I will, however, happily hand over all my money for a ‘sound bath‘ or mermaids. I literally went to Athens and skipped the acropolis. If you don’t feel like seeing something, YOU TOTALLY DON’T HAVE TO.
5. Give yourself a ‘day off’ every once in a while
If you’re traveling for weeks at a time, you will need do laundry, return emails, fill your cooler, and maybe just watch some Netflix in a quiet, dark room. It’s okay to set aside a day or two every couple of weeks for general maintenance, planning, and calm. This time doesn’t mean you’re ‘traveling wrong,’ it means you’re a human and you need time to recharge your batteries.
6. Find a way to capture memories that works for you
I’m way too lazy for scrapbooking, but I love to ‘set’ the memories of a trip by using a new perfume. Scent is the sense most closely tied to memory; from now on every time you smell the perfume you used on your trip, you’ll be hiking through the hills of Idaho all over again! I’m also a big fan of the ‘100 memories’ list if you’re traveling with someone.
7. Don’t force yourself to buy souvenirs
For a long time, when I traveled I was obsessed finding The Best, Most Locale-Specific Souvenir Ever. So I accumulated some lovely Chinese teapots and Fijian cannibal forks and Brazilian blow darts guns … and all of that is awesome, but they’re mostly gathering dust in a trunk or bookshelf.
These days, I buy things I love when I travel – tops, earrings, shoes, books. They might not have anything to do with the city where I bought them, but I use them more often than I’ve ever used that cannibal fork. If you really want that cannibal fork, buy it. But you can also buy a cute pair of earrings, a cd from a local musician, or a bottle of wine.
Roadtripping is both an art and a science. I hope this small novel has helped you – if you know someone who’s planning a road trip, pass it along!
I’d love to hear from you! What are you best road trip tips? Share them in the comments!
P.S. 7 travel tools that I won’t shut up about
Growing up whenever my family went on road trips out west we always rented a car for the same reasons you said: they’d get better gas mileage and be more reliable, but the big thing for my parents was they weren’t putting on thousands of miles on their everyday car.
My mind is still blown at that recommendation to bring your own pillow AND bedspread/duvet/quilt from home. That sounds like the best way to make the most of cheap-ass motels and save money at the same time.
Great recommendations, will be bookmarking/sharing!
So glad you found it helpful! Brining your own pillow WILL CHANGE YOUR TRAVEL LIFE.
Awesome tips – thanks! I’ll be leaving on a 2,000 mile trip in a week to move and some of those ideas will make it better! Another tip: If you’re moving for work, it is tax deductible!
I really like your advice on not feeling obligated to see the “important” things you don’t care about and to give yourself some time off. I recently went to Spain and I skipped a lot (no regrets). And I even spent a few hours one day just reading my book in bed. I know I could read in bed at home but when do I ever actually make time at home for that? Also I needed a break from running around and seeing everything I did care about.
Yes to skipping the stuff we don’t like! Internet high five!
Hey Sarah! Just as a head’s up, the Instagram icon under your picture in the upper right goes to someone else’s account. 🙂
Thanks for the head’s up!
This is a perfect post. I’m doing a California road trip in August and will have to remember to hit up Roadtrippers.com … thanks for that!
Safe travels Rachel! In January I did a road trip from Joshua Tree to Napa up the coast, solo until meeting a friend from Sonoma in Big Sur. I can’t even begin to describe how breathtaking the whole thing was. I’m stoked for you!! Have a blast!
Yes! I always recommend renting a car if your car isn’t the best. It’s newer, you don’t have to clean it out first and if it breaks down, the rental company deals with it, but I still concur with having AAA. It’s pretty amazing for saving travelers money, especially at theme parks and hotels 🙂
I have been following along with your road trip from day one, silently (and not so silently) wishing I could just get up and go. And then my friend asked me to move him from California to PA. So this post could NOT come at a better time!! Thanks for amping up my excitement and making me feel a little more prepared. 🙂
Yay, Korean spa Groupons FTW!
My husband loves road trips but I hate the idea of being trapped on the road. I like destinations, not “the journey.” But with this awesome advice, just maybe I’ll reconsider… I definitely like the audio book idea and the suggestion to only drive 6 hours a day. That might make a cramped vehicle vacation okay.
Oh, I adore road trips and this post makes me eager to set out on another. Thanks, especially, for the app recommendations. My favorite road trip involved Glacier National Park. Oh, what a beautiful place!
Ah jeeze. (My best internet Minnesota accent). Your blog is killing my productivity. These are really really great tips!
Gah, I can’t believe I didn’t share my roadtrip tips with you before you left!
1) Lipton Cold Brew Iced Tea bags are my favorite thing in the world, and that goes double for road trips and camping. They weigh nothing and take up next to no space, and when you’re sick of drinking water but don’t want to spend $3.xx on an overly sugary drink at the gas station, you just pop one in the water bottle you discreetly filled in a sink somewhere. Best.
2) Stopping at a grocery store typically isn’t *that* much more out of the way than a gas station, and then instead of making do with a sad banana and some combos, you can get normal-quality fruits and veggies. Bell peppers, carrots, pretzel rods, and jar of PB for dipping those last two is pretty much all I need to keep me going.
3) Jalapeños. In case of a driving-at-night or while-exhausted emergency, a bite of one of these bad boys will wake you RIGHT up. It costs about $0.20 to keep one on hand, and then you don’t have to manage all the stomach aches/jittery-ness/inability-to-sleep-once-you-hit-your-motel that come with chugging coffee or Coke.
4) GasBuddy is an app that will show you the price of gas at gas stations all around you. Particularly great when crossing state lines and wondering, “should I fill up in Ohio, or wait until I get to Pennsylvania or New York?” States can have wildly different taxes on gas, and I saved myself *over* $0.50 on the gallon with this on my trip home for Christmas.
5) Good info to know – Interstate numbers can tell you a lot. Odd numbers run North/South (25, 35, 87), even numbers East/West (80, 70, 40). If you have a route with a 3-digit number (say, 394 or 494), the first number tells you whether it’s a spoke that juts from a main highway (odd numbers) or a circumvention of an urban center (even numbers), while second two numbers reference the interstate it’s connected to. (For example, 394 is a spoke off of 94, while 494 is a loop that allows you to go around Minneapolis instead of being forced through the center of the city.)
Bonus – if you’re ever driving through Central/Western New York, do yourself a favor and go to Wegman’s. There are several that aren’t that far off of highways, and goddammit, Wegman’s is so great.
THIS IS SO HELPFUL I CAN’T EVEN STAND IT.
Mind. Blow. Those are great tips! And the interstate route number info?? That is not only incredibly useful but trivia worthy, my friend.
Very good tips! Thank you!
When doing a road-trip I love staying in one place for some days from time to time. For finding rooms I use sites like yelp or http://www.reservationcounter.com/. So I get nice deals! Very often I just sleep in the car or a on a campground too.
I’m doing a road-trip in September and I cannot wait!
If you have AAA, they will give you FREE paper maps and state-specific travel “books” that include lodging, restaurants, attractions, etc. They have state-wide maps, city maps for larger cities, and regional maps. All included in your membership, just stop by the AAA branch and ask!
Thank you for this post! I’ve read so many road trip and travel posts, and this is honestly one of the best.
My travel tip: you can download a map in google maps on your phone to have access to it (for 30 days) when you’re out of service. I used this when traveling to Canada – I downloaded a map of Vancouver onto my iphone from google maps – the GPS still worked, which was awesome, and I could still look up restaurants and directions within the saved map area.
Thanks so much, Zoe!
This is Awesome! I am def saving this post. Very helpful! Planning a big road trip trough Oregon in the spring and this was very helpful! Thank you so much, love your outlook on things! Happy Traveling!
So glad you found it helpful, Amanda!
I am about to drive across the country somewhat unexpectedly, and I am SO GLAD THIS POST EXISTS.
I sweaaaar by it! Have so much fun!
I am taking a month long roadtrip in February and this was a FANTASTIC post. Thank you. I can’t wait to say goodbye to MN winter for a little while.
So glad you found it useful, Laura!
Do you have any recommendations on avoiding bedbugs? That is my only fear with motels. Thanks.
I don’t! Though I will tell you I’ve stayed in literally hundreds of motels and hotels of all price ranges and never, ever gotten bed bugs. 🙂
Wow, I am so happy and impressed with this post! Most articles I find regarding road tripping tips and tricks say generally the same thing. Thanks for the unique ideas! I especially love the pillow/duvet covers for Motel 6. LIFE. CHANGER.
Yay! So glad you found it helpful, Emma!
This was a great article. Thank you! Informative but also well written. The flow had me eating up every word.
All great tips! I love the souvenir advice. I buy items that I would wear like socks. It sounds strange but, I always need them and most likely will use them 🙂
YES to these tips! I’ve started road tripping with my kids and am always looking for good tips. You have many!
My favorite new addition for our road trip last summer is the RoadXPro Crockpot. I only used it once and it is small, but that was probably the best meal of the trip! Spinach Pesto Lasagna for 3 with leftovers. And we could stop anywhere or eat on the road.
I’ve done several long road trips and this list is perfect! Love it!
These are great tips! We road trip fairly frequently so we’ve got a *lot* of stuff covered, but every time I read a list I come away with something new – bringing your own pillow is a great idea! We also swear by our Garmin and it’s gotten us a lot of places our phones couldn’t find!
so helpful! hardly know where to start.. two women 65-75. from Idaho..want to see the south. can be gone around a month in Oct. not interested in touristy or big cities. back roads and local venues are our style. concerns: safety, weather, fairly tight budget. Interested in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama. maybe northern Texas. Where do we start? We will hurry through western states.
Hello Sarah, and thanks for the very informative article! It was well written and I used many of your tips during my last trip to the Baja in Mexico. One other tool I used was the free trip planner from Geovea https://geovea.com/trip_plan/new_trip to create and share my trip, and estimate my trip budget. You can also take your itinerary with you on your phone for navigation. I really appreciate all of the great help and already planning my next trip 🙂