The Beginners Guide to Developing a Road Trip Itinerary

Road trips are a timeless American classic form of travel that allows for spur-of-the-moment memories and endless discovery off the beaten path. With a solid plan to experience jaw-dropping destinations and a little wiggle room to make it up as you go in between, you can utilize your time and feel your best on the road- here are a few steps on how to prepare. 

Step 1: Decide on a road trip concept 

Building a general idea of what you expect your trip to include can help guide the route you take. I found that naming my itinerary “West Coast Waterfall Roadtrip” or “Southwest Red Rock Girls Trip” can help set a theme for the adventure and solidify an agreed-upon experience with anyone else joining. Here are a few questions I like to ask when dreaming up the framework of an itinerary.

What region do you want to visit? Picking a key destination such as a National Park, a unique accommodation, or a bucket-list experience can help you decide what other activities to include along the way.

How long can you travel? Depending on your car-mates schedules, a country-wide Scenic Byway road trip may be compressed into a weekend getaway. Consider how much time you have, including taking weather implications on drive time into consideration.

How active do you want to be? Pick activities that offer something for everyone in the car, and try to have at least one day where you are not driving or being active at all. Another component of activity is drive time between destinations. How many hours do you want to be in the car out of the day? I recommend limiting drive time to 8 hours or less per day, stopping every 2 or 3 hours to stretch and fuel up.

What is your budget? Talk with your car-mates to agree upon expectations around money. Costs to consider before a road trip include accommodations, gas, activities, parking, and food.

Step 2: Map it out 

I find that even with all of the road trip planning apps and digital tools available, writing down your plan is a good place to start brain-dumping ideas and sharing with others in your group. I use Google Docs to develop a go-to piece that can be updated and edited in real-time and accessed without service. In a document form, you can add check-in details, dinner options nearby, and links to accommodations or activities. I build the document by numbering out each day, including the furthest point from home as the “middle” day to make it back in time. This way, you can determine the amount of time it will take to get to your furthest point and divide those hours by the number of days you have to get there. You would follow this same process to determine your route and stops on the way back as well, dividing your drive time over the days left. Another way to see more is to consider doing a loop. If you can find another way to travel home, this can make each mile a new one, adding more excitement in the end when the driver’s eyelids are heaviest. 

Step 3: Plan your route 

Once you have developed the basic outline of your road trip, now it’s time for the fun part! Research the best things to do in the areas you will be visiting, and add them in on days where you have ample time. I like to look at the AllTrails app for hiking ideas and look at each destination on Instagram to see the top things to do. The key here is to not over-plan so you have enough wiggle room for spontaneous opportunities along the way. I like to list them all out in a document so I have a written plan for each day, but a map for driving is easy to develop from this information. Once you have your list of destinations in order, you can start to plug them into Google Maps for a better visual of your route. To do this, take the following steps 

  1. Log into Google Drive and open Google Maps.
  2. Click on the menu in the upper left corner > Your Places > Maps.
  3. Type each destination into the search bar and click “Add to Map” to save the location. You may have to use coordinates instead if the attraction isn’t in Google Maps.
  4. Click on “Add Directions” under the search bar to connect each destination in the order of your written itinerary. 
  5. Copy the link to your itinerary and paste it in your itinerary guide for easy access on the road.

And that, curious reader, is how an explorer on a budget crafts an itinerary. It doesn’t include ever-changing apps, overly detailed maps, or paying a travel agent. You can tweak it to your liking and edit it with those you choose to share it with as you go. As a hiker, keeping an open mind is always a part of my preparation routine- that at any point things may go differently than expected and that’s okay. This same way of thinking can be applied to anything in life and is the true finishing touch to the Guide to Developing a Road Trip Itinerary. 

Hit the road, 
Madison Ford

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