How to Plan a Road Trip in 19 Steps

A woman smiling while she is hanging out of a car.

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Planning a road trip can be as exhilarating as it is overwhelming. Still, you can make your journey enjoyable and memorable with some foresight and a few strategic decisions. Here’s a comprehensive step-by-step guide on planning a road trip, drawing insights from the many trips I’ve taken in California and nationwide.

How to Plan a Road Trip

I’ve traveled with one person many times on a road trip, two people and a van full of family (5 total), which was challenging to say the least. It’s hard to travel with siblings when you are over 18.

Below is a detailed list of things to do before hitting the open road.

A man and woman stand by a van and look at a map on a country road.

1. Decide on what car to take

You may want to rent a car depending on where you’re traveling to and how many people you’re traveling with. I own a car but not a convertible, so I use Discover Cars to rent a convertible when I drive up the Pacific Coast Highway. I’ve done this twice in a convertible. There is just something about driving in California along the coast with the top down and music blasting. It makes me feel free, and the possibilities are endless.

You may be road-tripping to a place that gets snow, like Lake Tahoe or Mammoth, and you’d instead rather rent an SUV than drive in your small Tesla. Sometimes it just makes more sense to rent a car than it is to take your own.

Or, even better, try renting a campervan in Scotland.

Discover Cars secures the best rates for car rentals by comparing prices across 500 partners in more than 10,000 locations worldwide. They negotiate deals in bulk with car hire companies, allowing them to offer consumers lower prices directly​.

Discover Cars includes all mandatory fees in their quoted prices, ensuring no surprises at the rental desk​. I save the most money by using them.

If you’re taking your own car, ensure it’s road trip-ready to avoid unexpected breakdowns. This includes checking tire pressure, fluid levels, lights, and wipers. If you’re not mechanically inclined, having your vehicle inspected by a professional​ is wise.

Also, pack emergency supplies such as a first aid kit, tools, and spare parts​.

Pro Tip: Get the car cleaned before you go. You’ll be in the car a lot. Make sure it’s clean and organized. Also, bring a few plastic bags for trash, like the peels from oranges or the shells from pistachios you’ll be snacking on.

2. Decide on a destination

Decide on the kind of road trip you want. Do you want to travel into the country to spend time in a national park, stopping in small towns, or do you want to travel to a large city and go there and back?

In California, there’s a great road trip waiting in every direction. Road trips for nature from San Francisco are endless, like the ultimate road trip to Big Sur we just completed, or from Los Angeles, like the Joshua Tree National Park road trip we take at least once a year.

If you are stuck, ideas abound, just open Instagram or Facebook and search using the hashtags #USAroadtrip or #[your state] road trip.

A windy road right on the side of the Pacific Coastline.
The PCH, also known as, Highway 1.
A windy road around a mountain.
From our last road trip to Big Sur.

3. Create a flexible itinerary

Now that you’ve decided where to go, it’s time to get more detailed on how many days you plan on and what stops you want to make along the way. This is the research phase.

I like to pull out an actual map of California (I mostly road trip in California), look at the place from which I’m starting and my destination, and see what’s in between those two that I’m interested in seeing. There’s something about holding and looking at a physical map; the national parks are all marked in green, and then I can do more detailed research online to find local gems and the best hotels to stay in.

I spread the map out on the table and look for obvious stops in between.

A woman's legs hanging out the car window while looking at a map on her lap. How to plan a road trip.
A woman standing on a road while looking down at a map, perhaps wondering, how to plan a road trip.

4. How long should a road trip be?

There’s no definitive answer to how long a road trip should last; personal preference plays a big role.

A 5 — 7 day trip allows for a relaxed pace, enabling you to soak in the scenery, enjoy leisurely meals, and even explore spontaneous finds.

However, if you need more time or are new to road-tripping, starting with a long weekend or a 3-day journey is an excellent introduction.

A road threw Joshua Tree.
The main road into Joshua Tree National Park.

5. Set a budget

Establishing a budget early on is crucial. It influences your choice of accommodation, dining, and even the routes you can afford. If you’re looking to save, opt for shorter routes, budget-friendly eateries, and camping or motel stays. For those wishing to splurge, consider luxury lodges, gourmet restaurants, and off-the-beaten-path tours.

Come up with a number and then create a spreadsheet on costs to consider, like gas, hotels, meals, rental car, and entrance fees. When you see the numbers on a spreadsheet, you will know what the trip will realistically cost. Then add 10%.

I use to find the lowest rates on hotels.

Pro-road-tripping tip: Inform your bank of your travel plans to ensure your account is not blocked. This has happened to me so many times. While I appreciate the extra security, it is a hassle when your card is declined, and you must call the bank. Being far from home, especially in remote areas, can make resolving these issues stressful and challenging. I rarely take my advice, but I give it often. 😜

6. Don’t try to cover too many miles in one day

The maximum number of hours of driving in one day is about 7. So plan to make it to your hotel for the night by driving for at most 7 hours. Seven hours is a lot, and you want to be alert and well-rested on the road.

The ideal amount is between 5 and 6 hours in total. If you’re planning on driving at most 5 or 6 hours, this allows for that impromptu stop that calls to you as you are road-tripping. There will be those places you see along the road that you must stop and visit.

It’s been proven that driving while sleep-deprived is as dangerous as driving while intoxicated. Make sure you have adequate rest before you go on a long drive.

Rolling lush green hills.
The rolling hills in Cambria on our road trip from Los Angeles to Big Sur, right before Hearst Castle in San Simeon.

7. Enhance your experience with tech

There are some great apps out there to help you map out your road trip. I still use Google because it’s pretty accurate when it comes to estimating the time it takes you to get from point A to point B.

You can create a map beforehand of all the places you plan to stop, with pins and send it to yourself via email.

Once you start your journey, you can just plug in where you are heading first to get accurate information on traffic, road closures, and accidents. I leave Google or Waze up the entire drive, so I’ll be alerted of any accidents ahead.

A white and yellow VW bus on a road driving toward large, red mountains in Arizona.

The best smartphone holder you will ever use. You’ll never use another one after you try it.

Always use a smartphone holder or the screen in your car. Never hold your phone while driving. I’m always shocked at how many drivers still hold their phones while driving. It’s very dangerous.

8. Get more granular on where to stop

If you plan on stopping at local popular attractions, you’ll have to work that into your itinerary ahead of time, especially if you plan on taking a specific tour, like the one at Hearst Castle. Many tour tickets must be purchased in advance. If your tour starts at 10:00 a.m., you’ll need to work that into your itinerary so you can attend your tour.

Before you head out on the road, decide what attractions you want to see, and go from there. Make a flexible list of sights and attractions, or add pins to your Google maps.

An orange VW bus parking on the sand.

9. Download Google Maps

Many times, you will run into a situation where there is no Wi-Fi, especially in National Parks. For example, there is no Wi-Fi in Big Sur or Joshua Tree National Park, two of my favorite places. I’ve read online that many of the restaurants in Big Sur offer Wi-Fi, but I was just in Big Sur, and that is not true. Hotels, yes, but that is about it.

It’s always surprising how useless I become when there is no Wi-Fi. So I carry a map and download Google Maps offline. 

To do this, follow these steps:

  • Sign into Google Maps
  • Search for your destination, like Big Sur
  • Click on the picture that appears on the bottom of your screen
  • Click on the 3 dots on the right-hand side and download the offline map
  • You have to do this when you have Wi-Fi
  • You can also download the Google My Maps app

10. Book tours and activities

Hotels, tours, and activities book up quickly, especially in California. Since the COVID restrictions lifted, people have been traveling a lot, and hotels and attractions book up faster than usual.

Even in the off-season, I recently had trouble booking a ferry to Catalina Island a month and a half in advance.

The stress you avoid by planning is worth the effort. Tours book up quickly. I use Viator Tours to book tours because they have many different tour options for booking in advance.

11. Book your hotels

Where to stay is one of the most important things to decide when planning a road trip or any trip. I’m selective. I want to stay in a hotel that is clean, safe, quiet, and also, in a convenient location.

You don’t want to be stuck in an unfamiliar town and not have a hotel; that can be stressful after a long drive.

I use to find the best hotels based on hundreds of customer reviews. I can see real pictures from travelers and what they write about the hotel to ensure that I am getting the real deal.

As a travel blogger and frequent traveler, I’ve become an expert on what to look for. Now that we have the internet, it’s very easy, with even cursory research, to get a good vibe of a hotel before you book a room.

Hotels aren’t cheap, let’s not be disappointed.

12. Research opening and closing times

Your road trip partner can do this on the drive, but it’s best to know the opening and closing times for attractions you want to hit and the hotels you plan to stay in.

Occasionally, we arrive at a hotel really late. I always call and ensure the hotel knows this so they don’t give our room away and that someone will be there to check us in. Even some National Parks have opening and closing hours, and most restaurants do.

13. Pack snacks and water

Maintain your health and well-being. Long hours on the road can be taxing on your body. Regularly stretch, hydrate, and take breaks to restock energy levels.

two people in a car, the passenger is holding a container of celery and carrots out for the driver to grab.

For some reason, taking a road trip makes you hungry. It may be the long hours of staring at the road and the inevitable boredom that sets in that makes me reach for a snack. We travel with healthy snacks, so we aren’t tempted to stop for something unhealthy at a gas station or a fast-food restaurant.

You can also cover more ground when you don’t have to stop for food. Healthy snacks, water, and meals keep you energized and alert during your journey.​ On road trips, I always carry at least a gallon of water in a plastic container.

We travel with an easy-to-access cooler that we put behind the driver’s side, so the passenger can easily reach back when hunger, or boredom, strikes.

Pro road-trip tip: Small trash bags are the first thing I pack. You can fill them with ice at hotels to keep your snacks and water cool in your cooler.

14. Stay flexible and open to changes

Embrace spontaneity. While having a plan is important, some of the best road trip experiences come from unplanned adventures. Allow yourself the flexibility to explore a roadside attraction you just learned about from a local or take a scenic detour that catches your eye​.

Driving the PCH can take a long time because there are so many vistas you want to capture on film, one as beautiful as the next.

The side of a car with the ocean on it's right.

15. Talk to locals

I get my best recommendations for my readers from locals. Everywhere I travel in California and beyond, I talk to as many locals as possible. They know where the good coffee shops are, what events are happening, and hidden gems you can’t get from Google.

My mom is great at talking to strangers; I picked that skill up from her. Be open and friendly, and ask questions; people love to talk about their community.

The last time I was in Monterey, I had the worst cappuccino of my life near Cannery Row (it’s super touristy, like Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco). That night, when we went out to dinner, I asked the waitress, a college student, where she gets her morning espresso, and she told me about Counterpoint Coffee, just outside of the tourist area. They served me a cappuccino in the correct way, with perfect crema on top.

A young lady of about 18 walking into a coffee shop.
Counterpoint Coffee in Monterey, a local find.

16. Road closures happen a lot lately, check before you go

Once again, the last time I went to Big Sur, I didn’t take my own advice and check for road closures along the PCH. I’ve lived in California longer than anywhere else; I know about the closures on the PCH; it just escaped me this time to check them.

We got past San Simeon and had to turn around, backtrack about 30 minutes, and then go around a totally different way inland.

While the detour was stunning and I’m glad it happened, I was not thrilled about the time it added to our trip. Everything had to be pushed back a few hours. Also, I don’t like surprises. If you don’t either, check for road closures.

17. Make safety a priority

Always prioritize safety by preparing for various scenarios. Have a plan for dealing with emergencies, from vehicle breakdowns to medical issues. Knowing the nearest hospitals and repair shops and having an emergency contact list can significantly reduce stress in unexpected situations​.

Traveling with travel insurance reduces stress. If and when something unexpected comes up, you’ll be covered.

Safety Wing is 30% cheaper than other big travel insurance providers! Travel can sometimes come with unexpected bumps in the road (no pun intended), so it’s best to have insurance to cover the unexpected. I use Safety Wing to travel with confidence.

Check out the widget below for up-to-date rates and to get a quote. ⤺

18. Road trip essentials to pack

We’ve established that small trash bags are essential, but what else do you need when packing for a road trip? Below is a list. For a more extensive list, check out our Road Trip Essentials Guide.

One thing I love about traveling by car is you can pack a lot more. My essentials are my own pillow, UGGS, and a fluffy blanket so I can curl up and be as comfortable as possible.

Other essentials:

  • Car charger for mobile devices
  • Smartphone holder
  • A cooler with a few ice packs
  • Water and snacks
  • Reusable water bottle
  • Hiking or walking shoes
  • Sunblock and sunhat
  • Maps
  • Paper towels, t.p., Ziplock bags, and small garbage bags (like the bathroom kind) 
  • A flashlight (always good to have)
  • Jumper cables
  • AAA card
  • Driver’s license and registration card
  • Spare tire (trust me)
  • Cash (some activities, taco stands, and parking lots only take cash)
  • A spare car key
  • Roadside emergency kit
  • First aid kit
Backside of a women in a bikini approaching the bright blue ocean.

For a deep dive into what to pack for a California road trip, check out our,
California Road Trip Essentials: Your Ultimate List

19. Respect the Environment

Wherever you go, travel responsibly. Respect local environments by sticking to designated trails and areas, disposing of waste properly, and minimizing your ecological footprint. This not only protects natural beauty but also ensures it remains intact for future travelers​.

How to Plan a Road Trip: Summary

As your journey winds down, start organizing your memories and experiences. Sorting photos, jotting down highlights in your travel journal, and reflecting on what you learned can provide a satisfying conclusion to your adventure​.

Following these tips ensures that your road trip is successful, safe, and a deeply fulfilling experience.

Whether traveling solo, with family, or with friends, the open road offers endless possibilities and the chance to create lasting memories. There’s nothing like a good road trip to feed your soul.

Don’t forget to check what’s open before you leave home on a road trip, including roads, visitor’s centers, bathroom facilities, etc. Need some packing guidance? Check out my California Road Trip Essentials list — I’m constantly updating it with new recommended equipment!

California Travel Planning Guide

🚑 Should I buy travel insurance for California?

100% YES! – With basic coverage averaging $1.50 USD per day, enjoy peace of mind with a plan from SafetyWing, one of the biggest names in travel insurance. (Read more)

💦 Can you drink the water in California?

Yes — But I wouldn’t. It doesn’t taste very good and there are contaminants in it. You’ll want to buy a Water-To-Go Bottle, which filters drinking water while on the go (traveling) and helps keep you hydrated.

🚙 Is it safe to rent a car in California?

Yes — Renting a car in California is one of the best ways to explore this vast, awesome state, and kind of a must! I always rent with Discover Cars, which checks both international companies and local California companies, so you get the best rates. (read more)

🏨 What’s the best way to book my California accommodations?

For California hotels, Booking is the best site, but for hostels, use Hostel World. If you’re considering a California Airbnb, don’t forget also to check VRBO, which has better rates than Airbnb.

🧳 What do I pack for California?

Head to the Ultimate California Packing List to get all the information you need about packing for a trip to California.

🛫 What’s the best site to buy airfare to California?

For finding cheap California flights, I recommend Skyscanner.

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