If you need a quick break from reality, or you want to explore your neighboring US states, a road trip is a perfect excuse to escape your regular routine and into the beautiful surroundings in your own backyard.
Everyone will have a different definition of what makes a great road trip, but most of us can agree on a few key things.
A recipe for a great US road trip will involve several (if not all) of the following:
- Great Company
- A Nostalgic Soundtrack
- A Fun Drive
- A Mix of Unique Stops
Let's break this down a bit.
This should be the easiest part of your planning. Who do you bring along on your road trip? Is it a girl’s/guy’s trip, family trip, romantic getaway, etc.? Depending on the length of your trip there may be certain people that you’d like to have along for the ride. Who can roll with the punches on a long trip when things go wrong? Who can keep you entertained throughout the ride (aka doesn’t fall asleep the second they’re in a moving vehicle)? Remember that you will be in close quarters with them for a significant amount of time, so hopefully you like these people a great deal.
A Nostalgic Soundtrack
Some songs just scream "road trip." A road trip soundtrack should be a great mix of old and new songs that get the whole car excited and singing at the top of their lungs. Whether that be songs you grew up with or blasted in your car when you first got your driver's license, sentimental songs go a long way.
If the song's lyrics have anything to do with being in a car, driving, or about a state or city you're passing through...add it to the list.
Headed through Sin City? Add "Viva Las Vegas." Throw on U2's "Where the Streets have No Name" while wandering the California desert. For long interstate drives add "Life is a Highway" to the mix.
If you need a break from singing, throw in a few instrumentals. My favorite is "La femme d'argent" by Air which is my perfect "stare out the window and contemplate life" song. Don't deny it...I'm sure you have these "soundtrack to your life" songs too!
Create a shared playlist with your group so everyone has a chance to add something they like.
A Fun Drive
A fun drive can be defined by a lot of criteria:
An Interesting Landscape
When I think of a fun drive, I picture a drive along the coast or through the mountains for example. The drive offers interesting changes in landscape and plenty of stops along the way. The icing on the cake are the incredible viewpoints at every turnout.
Nothing bores me more than seeing strip mall after strip mall, so even vast open desert landscapes can be exciting to me. The colors of the mountains/sky and varying shapes/textures of rock formations are phenomenal. No pictures can quite capture the experience of seeing nature up close and personal. Admiring mother nature's work is one of my favorite parts of any road trip.
You may have a very different idea of what you find interesting, so roll with whatever will keep you happy on the road!
A fun drive is also dependent on your mode of transportation. A reliable vehicle makes a trip a lot more enjoyable. If you’re constantly worried about your car breaking down, overheating or getting a flat tire, you’re bound to be stressed out during the entire trip. Take a trustworthy car, even if that means renting one. Maybe now is the time to rent that splashy convertible you’ve had your eye on. Let the coastal breezes blow through your hair as you zip up the California coastline.
No matter what car you take, be prepared with a spare tire (double check to see it is actually still inflated to capacity otherwise it’s not going to help you much), extra water, oil, emergency kit, jumper cables, etc. The more prepared you are, the less you’ll worry.
Flexible but well-researched Itinerary
Planning a road trip itinerary can be daunting. You don’t want to plan every moment down to every itty bitty detail, but you don’t want to completely fly by the seat of your pants either. (Or maybe you do! - and in that case - you do you!)
Driving for 12 hours straight isn't fun for everyone, so try to plan breaks every couple hours for a meal or an interesting sight. Take that time to stretch your legs and enjoy a much-deserved break.
You don’t need to know exactly where you’re sleeping each night, but you should have an idea of what towns may be good options. When I’m on the road, one of the things I value the most is my sleep, specifically if I’m the one driving. I’ve definitely done my share of winging it when it comes to hotels, but that isn’t always the best choice. You may get stuck at a motel next to the train tracks or something equally as undesirable.
If you do a bit of itinerary planning, you may realize that you can time your trip just right to check in to your hotel in Big Sur and enjoy the most picturesque sunset you’ve ever seen. Knowing that you’ll sleep comfortably at that highly reviewed boutique hotel is already peace of mind. So book your accommodations in advance if you know you’ll have plenty of time to get there even with traffic delays, etc.
Timing is important too. Landmarks may close (or open) at a certain time, or may be closed altogether on the date you are passing through. Even natural phenomena are dictated by timing. If you really wanted to see the tide pools in La Jolla, San Diego you’ll want to visit during low tide, for example. Make sure you’ve done your research about timing and closures for everything on your "must see" list so you don’t miss out completely!
When things aren’t going your way, you also have to roll with the punches. Things will go wrong. They always do. But even when they don’t go according to plan, I’d like to think that they make for some really entertaining adventures. Some of my best stories are from some of the worst or weirdest parts of a trip that would never have happened if things when 100% according to plan. These memorable moments are what make road trips so fantastic. Have an open mind and heart and you’re bound to have a good time, no matter what life throws at you.
If you don’t want to plan your whole trip itinerary, we can help. Here are a few great road trip ideas for you to consider:
A mix of Unique Stops
Cars can get a bit stuffy and uncomfortable after a while so hopefully you plan lots of stops to stretch your legs. Depending on where you’re coming from and where you’re headed, you may stop a variety of pit stops on your way to your destination.
A road trip along the coast means you can stop by the beach for a quick refresher. If you’re not on the Pacific or Atlantic coastline, you can check out rivers, lakes, ponds, waterfalls, or whatever other body of water you can find to soak your feet in. Maybe you want to inner tube down a part of the Colorado river, or check out the Dunton Hot Springs in Dolores.
Take a hike up some weathered mountainous trails along your drive. Exercise will leave you feeling a bit more energized after hours spent cooped up in a car. If you're not up for hiking, at least pull over to check out the great views of some of our incredible mountain ranges.
Unique rock formations in Utah's Arches National Park, Antelope Canyon in Arizona, the Bonneville salt flats in Utah, or Death Valley's sailing stones are just a few natural phenomena that you may want to seek out on a road trip. If you haven’t seen the Grand Canyon, that is a great one to add to the list! Have your mind blown trying to understand how this all came to be!
Have you ever seen massive sequoias in the Sierra Nevadas, or the fall foliage through the Talimena National Scenic Byway from Arkansas to Oklahoma? These are just two of our nation’s 154 different National Forests that you can explore while on the road.
If you’re driving through the desert, stop to see Joshua Trees, Ocotillos or Saguaros that only grow in certain altitudes and climates.
Famous or Historical Landmarks
Nature is great, but don’t forget to check out some famous man-made landmarks along the way. Drive across the Golden Gate Bridge or take a picture with Mount Rushmore. If you have the time, schedule a walking tour in the cities you visit or stop by a tourist information booth to learn more about what you can find in the area.
Funny Roadside Attractions
From the Cabazon dinosaurs of the greater Palm Springs area to the famous Freemont Troll in Seattle, you have to throw in a funny stop or two. Be sure to check out Roadside America for lists of all the oddities along your path.
Don't forget to try the local specialties. From BBQ in Texas to clam chowder in New England, fill up like the locals do.
What defines a great road trip for you?
Tell us your tips and your favorite drives!