Road Trip Planner: How to Plan an Epic Road Trip 

Cindy Richards Avatar

Road trip planner - get the kids involved. in the back of a large vehicle.
Photo credit: altanaka via Shutterstock

Since the advent of the car and the post World War II creation of interstate highways, road trips have been the Great American Way to travel with kids. Parents in the front seat. Kids in the back. The open road ahead.

But, as veteran road trippers know, getting a road trip right takes some serious planning. It starts weeks before the trip, choosing the destination, planning the route and taking the car for a check-up to ensure the vehicle is up to the challenge. (If it’s not, don’t despair. You can always rent a car — most companies offer unlimited mileage options. Check out these tips for saving money on car rentals.)

Let’s get started.

Read More: The Complete Road Trip Packing List, so you never forget the essentials again!

Road trip planner -- plan for kids getting messy
Photo credit: volkovslava for Shutterstock

Road Trip Planner Step 1: Decide Where You Want to Go

There are 5 parts to this:

1. How many days do you have?

This is such an important question because a road trip is as much about the journey as it is about the destination. You’ll want to make time to investigate those intriguing roadside attractions and other points of interest.

2. How many hours a day do you want to spend driving?

If you’re a road trip rookie, err on the side of less, especially if you have younger kids who need to get up and move. Four or five hours a day in the car, with stops every two hours to let the kiddos out of their car seats to run around a rest stop can be plenty. If you only have a few days for your vacation and you only want to drive a few hours, choose a destination closer to home.

3. Get out a map.

I’m talking about an old fashioned, paper map. Decide how many miles you can get in that five-hour trip (five hours @70mph=350 miles). Draw a circle on the map of 350 miles out from your house and spend some time studying the destination options.

4. Have a family meeting.

Discuss the options that are within the family budget.

Road trip planner -- use in-car technology.
Photo courtesy Allen Tibbetts.

Road Trip Planner Step 2: Outline the Route

I’m a map geek so I like planning a road trip the old school way: I get out my Rand McNally book of maps and let my fingers wander, tracing the best route to my planned destination. What I like most about that is it’s easy to find fun detours. It’s how we discovered Plaines, Georgia, and a charming museum about the man from Plaines, former President Jimmy Carter, on a ride home to Chicago from Florida.

But then, I tend to be more of a spontaneous traveler. I like to be able to take the detours. We like the “blue highways,” those little blue lines on the map that connote the non-interstates. It lets us explore the small towns and the places that call themselves towns but feel more like a small gathering of houses along the road.

If you are a super planner who prefers having a well-laid-out plan, there are many easy ways to do that. You can simply let Google maps do the work for you. Plug in your starting and ending points, set a few parameters (highways or not, toll road or not, etc.) and the app will design the trip for you.

Or you can turn to one of these online road trip planner sites:

RoadTrippers

RoadTrippers claims to be the best road trip planner app. It’s the “holy grail” of road trip planning apps. Choose your starting and ending points, then build the trip with suggested attractions and hotel stops.

Visit the USA

Visit the USA offers a bunch of pre-planned road trip itineraries in varying lengths and for different interests, including families, solo, couples, LGBT and more. It also has a option for planning your own road trip route.

My Scenic Drives

Create your trip from hundreds of pre-planned scenic routes on this road trip planner which includes recommended stops.

Mapquest

This is the original trip planner — the one your parents used to plan a road trip, then print out the directions. And it still does the trick.

Road Trip Planner Step 3: Along the Route

You finished the route planner, now you need to figure out where you will spend the nights along the way.

Are you a camping family? If so, you’ll want to research campsites along the way. Do you prefer hotels? Airbnbs? And do you need to have the reservations made before you leave home?

Or does spontaneity work? If so, you’ll want to download the Hotels Tonight app. It’s the one I use to find a room nearby when we’re ready to stop for the night. I find the hotel with the pool, check the price and then call the hotel directly and ask the front desk to match the price. If so, I book directly with the hotel. If not, I book through the app.

Road trip planner - empty road on a foggy day
Before you head out on a family road trip, pack an emergency car kit. Photo Credit: Pixabay

Road Trip Planner Step 4: Pack Right

This is the getting-ready phase. It’s when you do things like make sure the family car is up to the task, the bags are packed, the apps are downloaded and the snacks are bought.

Road Trip Checklist

The first thing on this list should be making sure your family vehicle is up to the task. Take it to the mechanic for a once-over. Have the tires checked, including the spare. Put on new washer blades and fill the washer reservoir. Read this for more pre-trip advice.

Pack Right for the Trip

You have that whole big trunk to fill, right? Or that roof top cargo carrier you bought for the trip. But just because you have all of that space doesn’t mean you have to fill it. Packing light makes just as much sense on a road trip as it does when you’re flying. Extra weight in the car uses more gas, which can add up on a long road trip.

And, if you’ll be checking in to different accommodations each night, you’ll need to drag all of that luggage into the room for the night and back into the trunk the next morning. If that is your road trip plan, pack one overnight bag. Include toiletries, pajamas, a change of underwear and bathing suits for each member of the family. (When you’re choosing the hotel for the night, choose the one with the pool. It can make all the difference to the kids after a whole day in the car.)

Road Trip Planner Step 5: Download These Apps

Your smartphone is your best friend on a road trip. In addition to whatever road trip planner app you use, download these apps for smooth sailing.

Gas Buddy

This app has saved me more times than I care to remember. Because we like off-the-beaten path road trips, we don’t see gas stations every few miles like you do along the interstate. Gas Buddy will find the closest station with the best gas prices. And, of course, those oh-so-bad-for-you gas station snacks!

SheBuysTravel Tip: Fill up any time the gas tank gets to half full. Don’t ask me why I know this.   

Spotify

What’s a road trip without a great road trip playlist?

Audible

Audiobooks are our favorites for a long road trip. The Harry Potter series read by the incomparable Jim Dale got us from Florida to Chicago several times, then on future Chicago road trips to St. Louis, Kentucky, Mackinac Island and more.

AAA

This app or another that provides roadside assistance is one of those peace-of-mind things. If there is a problem along the way, you’ll know who to call for help. AAA also offers hotel and attraction discounts. Find out everything they offer in our full review of AAA.

Wifi Finder

Got kids? You’ll need wifi. There are plenty of ways to find free wifi on the road. There also are apps for finding wifi that work on iPhones and Androids. Read the reviews and test the apps before you leave on your trip.

Road Trip Planner Step 6: Pack the Snacks!

Snacks are the secret to a successful road trip!  Don’t skimp on the snacks. Ever.

Road Trips planner -- don't forget the snacks!
So many choices that are good for road trips! Photo: Tim Jones

Road Trip Tips

If you’re road tripping with kids, you need these tips we learned the hard way:

Keep everyone charged up. 

If you’re driving a newish car with a plethora of USB ports and a regular outlet, then I want to road trip with you. But, if you are an average American, the car you drive is more than 12 years old. I am only slightly better than average — my newest vehicle, a Ford Ecape, is a 2017 model. It has one regular plug and one USB port. Count ’em. One. So we supplement with adapters and this this power strip so everyone can plug in.

Stop often. 

It’s a road trip. The whole point is to be able to meander. So take the detours. Stop at the roadside attractions. Get that Instagram shot of the World’s Largest Ball of Twine. Or whatever oddity you find along the way. At least that’s the way my family has always preferred it. But, some road trippers have a different approach:

Or stop as little as possible.

This is the advice offered by one SheBuysTravels contributor who road trips alone with her kids. Nasreen Stump, who regularly drives from Texas to New Hampshire and back again stops only when she has to. That’s because stopping involves getting four kids out of the car, letting them run a bit, then getting four kids buckled back in.

Choose the hotel with the pool.

Did I mention this already? It was always the “reward” for the kids after a long day in the car.

What’s your best advice for planning the perfect family road trip? Share with us in the comment section below.

Cindy Richards Avatar
Cindy Richards is a Pulitzer Prize nominated journalist who serves as the Editor-in-Chief of SheBuysTravel.com. She also is the mom of two now grown kids who have traveled with her since that first, fateful plane ride when one preschooler discovered a barf bag in his seat pocket and his sister, finding none in hers, demanded, “I want a barf bag too!” She has been a reporter, editor and columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune, an editor at Chicago Parent and Catalyst Chicago and an instructor in the graduate school at Northwestern’s prestigious Medill School of Journalism.
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10 responses


  1. The Masks For All Website seems not even close to updated. I wonder if there is another, similar resource?

  2. These road trip tips are really helpful. Nowadays, there are many road trip planner apps, which are also good options for planning a trip.

  3. It really helped when you talked about road trips and how to have the best one! Recently, my wife and I decided it’d be fun if we organized a road trip for our family. We’d like to visit different cities and go on a few local tours, so we’ll look into it. Thanks for the advice on making stops during our trip, and enjoy every second of it!

  4. These are great tips! Taking my teens on a road trip next week! So many things to think about that you can forget.

  5. I thought road trips must be boring. But after reading these tips I feel exciting. I was planning a trip by plane but now I think should travel by car.
    By mistake I landed on your blog, I feel great after reading your blog. Thank you!
    I will follow all these steps in my next trip. Once again thanks.

  6. Planning is the hardest part of travel and a lot of people don’t know where to start. Thank you for your helpful guide.

  7. is it safe to go in February ?

  8. This post is something that I was looking for. I haven’t planned any trip this year because of covid-19, so I am planning for March 2021. Thank you for sharing this post with us!

    1. Where will you go on your road trip? We need to live vicariously through everyone’s travels (or even travel planning) this year!

  9. Awesome! Thanks for sharing these tips. These would be a great help.

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