Current travel restrictions have many of us mourning the cancellation of a holiday planned months ago or disappointed about the prospects of our future travel plans. But don’t fret just yet! There are still plenty of ways to enjoy a proper getaway without setting foot on a plane — one of the best options being to hit the open road and embark on a cross-country road trip. Read on for our top road trip planning tips.
Road trips are an excellent way to vacation because they can be as long or short, intense or relaxed, planned or unplanned as you like. But where do you start? How do you actually sit down and start planning out your trip?
We’ve asked some road trip enthusiasts at Skyscanner and beyond to share their top tips for planning, preparing for, and taking the perfect road trip. Here’s what they said.
- What would you do to start planning a road trip?
- What do you need to think about when planning a road trip?
- What would you recommend packing for a road trip?
- What are your favorite road trip snacks and meals?
- What games, songs, or other forms of fun would you suggest for keeping road trippers entertained?
- What road trips would you recommend checking out in the US?
- What are some road trip mistakes you’ve made and how do you recommend others avoid them?
- Frequently asked road trip questions
What would you do to start planning a road trip?
Some people love planning out every last detail of every trip, others would rather wholly wing it. Wherever you fall on this spectrum, it’s definitely best to make sure you have at least a semi-formed plan in place before you embark on a road trip. A few great places to start:
- Choose an incredible endpoint. Finish your journey somewhere you’ve always wanted to visit and allow for some extra time to celebrate once you’ve arrived. This will give you something to really look forward to!
Pick a fantastic endpoint and build time into your schedule to enjoy it once you get there.— Gemma, PR Manager at Skyscanner
- Choose a route. You can select an iconic route or one a bit more off the beaten path. When choosing, it’s important to first determine what you’re optimizing for. Do you want something scenic? Something quick? Or maybe something that brings you past a far-away friend’s house? Once you determine this, you can build your plan around it.
Define the purpose of your trip. Map out all the places you want to visit and create an “optimal route.” If you have limited time, rank your location priorities.— Eliana, Market Researcher at Skyscanner
- Do your research. Do some digging to learn more about your rental car options (if necessary) and what lodging options, restaurants, petrol stations, attractions, etc. you’ll find along your route. While you don’t need to plan out every last detail, having a good idea of what’s out there and what your options are will come in handy. Understanding costs and creating a budget (more on this below) is also really helpful. And finally, look into your car and travel insurance options for added peace of mind while on the road.
Choose the key places you want to go to and then find the most interesting routes to get there. Ideally, with exciting foodie stops along the way.— Lisa, Communications Manager at Skyscanner
- Make note of must-see stops. When doing the research mentioned above, make note of all of the incredible places of interest along your route and schedule time to check them out. Be sure to have a camera handy.
Work out what cities, sights, and locations you want to see. Create your own custom map in Google maps and add the locations on there, which will let you draw routes between them and see driving distances and times.— Haitham, Global Marketing Manager at Skyscanner
- Create a budget. Things like gas, snacks, accommodations — long evenings out with new friends in new towns — can really add up, especially when you’re on an extended road trip. Once you’ve done a bit of research and have a better idea of how much things will cost, set a daily (or weekly) budget, and do your best to stick to it. It’ll make the trip a lot less stressful.
When figuring out a budget, fuel, and food are likely going to be the most significant expenses. It’s nice to be able to factor in meals at local eateries to support them as well.— Louise, Employee Engagement Manager at Skyscanner
What do you need to think about when planning a road trip?
A lot of planning goes into a road trip, but there are a few key things to keep top of mind throughout the process.
- Things will take longer than you expect. Traffic, car issues, inclement weather, waits at restaurants, getting lost — it all adds up. Be sure to always allow yourself a little extra time to get to where you need to be, and remember that you won’t want to actually be driving the whole day. A 10-hour car journey with few stops is actually terribly exhausting.
An easy thing to forget is that you don’t actually want to drive the whole day, but rather, see as many things in each place as you can!— Marijke, Global Marketing Manager at Skyscanner
- Parts of the journey will feel a bit long. To get to the incredible places on your list, sometimes, you have to pass through some less than exciting spots. Being mentally prepared for long stretches of the same (occasionally uneventful) scenery helps alleviate any feelings of boredom. You can also plan to camp or take more frequent breaks to break up long drives.
For the two long trips I’ve taken, the most important thing I’ve found is that you need to be realistic about how long you’re willing to drive for and plan your stops according to that. Though you will have to make pit stops in less-than-scenic destinations, the journey will be better if you and your road trip buddies aren’t totally exhausted from daily 14-hour drives.— Kylie, PR Manager at Skyscanner
- Sticking to your budget is pretty important. As previously mentioned, if you have a budget threshold you’re not willing to surpass, it would be quite unfortunate to do so halfway through the trip. Ensuring you have enough funds to cover your needs for the entire journey will make everything seem more relaxed and less stressful.
It’s also essential to determine your budget beforehand. In my first cross-country trip, my road trip buddy and I chose our “splurge city” ahead of time. We decided we would go all out (massages, wine tastings, etc.) in that destination versus others that we would explore but not totally destroy our budget. It’s easy for meals, hotels, and sightseeing to add up, so I think being intentional with those things can really help the trip.— Kylie, PR Manager at Skyscanner
- Be prepared for the unexpected — both good and bad. Expecting that you’ll just hop in the car, have glorious, traffic-free open roads and no car trouble your entire journey is not very realistic. Make sure you plan for things like unexpected car trouble, no cell phone service, bad weather, and getting lost before it actually happens. As previously mentioned, purchasing travel insurance is a great way to help alleviate stress around some of these issues, so do look into it — buying it in advance can often save you some cash. On a more positive note, you should also prepare for unexpected yet great things to pop up, like cool attractions, new friends, and secret routes you didn’t know existed — all you have to do is allow yourself a little extra time to enjoy them.
One of the main things I think about is that there is no perfect schedule for a road trip. Give yourself the liberty to make stops that were not planned and discover new places that were not part of the itinerary. Don’t stress out if a trip takes a couple of hours longer than what you had initially planned. Relax and enjoy the ride.— Eliana, Market Researcher at Skyscanner
We tend to spend extra on the car and insurance to make sure we get to our destination and back without hitting issues. If your vehicle breaks down, you’ll easily lose a few days of your vacation. And depending on where you are, you might then miss your hotel or flight bookings. If it’s critically important to be in certain places at certain times during your trip, don’t gamble.— Stuart, Tribe Lead at Skyscanner
- Different destinations have different laws. No matter where you choose to go on a road trip, if you are traveling through multiple regions, there’s a good chance various laws will change — especially when it comes to driving. Be sure you’re aware of the local laws in every location you pass through to avoid any unwanted run-ins with local authorities.
It’s a good idea to look up local traffic laws as they may be different from your local laws — things like maximum speed, parking rules, etc.— Marijke, Global Marketing Manager at Skyscanner
What would you recommend packing for a road trip?
The age-old question — what, and how much, should you pack for a road trip? It entirely depends on how long the journey is, where you’re going, and who you ask. However, as little as possible seems to be the consensus, with a few essential items that seem to be pretty universal.
- Driver’s license and registration
- Copies of your car insurance papers
- Copies of your travel insurance papers
- Car manual
- Roadside emergency kit
- Spare tire
- First aid kit
- Warm sweatshirt
Always try to pack light but ensure that you have clothes for all types of weather, especially when traveling in places like Scotland, where you tend to get all seasons in one day, even during the summer!— Emma, Global Marketing Manager at Skyscanner
- Comfortable pants
- Comfortable shoes that you can walk long distances in
Pack as little as possible. You’ll probably wear those comfy jeans and shirts every day!— Fleur, Global Marketing Lead at Skyscanner
- Reusable water bottle
- Travel mug
- Water and other drinks
- Hand sanitizer
- Toilet paper
- Insect repellent
- Small garbage bags for the car
- Travel pillow
- Notebooks, pens, and pencils
Bring a camera of some sort. Phone cameras are great, but action cameras with extendable grips like GoPros or 360s can make for really fun photos and videos while you’re driving.— Fleur, Global Marketing Lead at Skyscanner
- Mobile phone
- Phone charger
- GPS if not available on mobile phone
- Downloaded playlists and podcasts so you can still listen if no cell service
You have to have some great tunes. The “70s road trip” playlist on Spotify is a cracker!— Gemma, PR Manager at Skyscanner
- Downloaded maps from the Maps.me app that are available offline
- Physical map
- Extra cash and coins for tolls
- Patience (see Lisa’s advice below)
Bring your patience. Drive with the expectation that you will get lost and angry at your friend’s direction reading. Be sure to download a bunch of playlists and podcasts so you can listen to them offline, and always have emergency snacks.— Lisa, Communications Manager at Skyscanner
What are your favorite road trip snacks and meals?
Ah, road trip snacks — one of the best things about the journey! While everybody has their favorites, here are a few essential items that can’t miss your grocery list.
- Bottled water
- Chewing gum (great for long bouts of driving)
- Iced coffee (also great for long drives)
- Granola bars
I’m a bit of a health freak, so I always pack almonds, fruit, and granola bars, apples and dark chocolate.— Eliana, Market Researcher at Skyscanner
- Beef jerky
- Regional, specialty items from local shops
Anything foreign, it’s great to try out new things!— Fleur, Global Marketing Lead at Skyscanner
As for meals, eating local whenever you can is a great way to discover the flavor of an area. Who knows, you might just try your new favorite dish! If you have access to a kitchen or cooking equipment, head to the local grocer or farmer’s market and pick up some simple, fresh ingredients that you can grill in local parks or prepare at your accommodation.
One of my favorite parts of traveling and road trips is eating at local places that I know I can’t eat at back home. However, I do have a few go-to spots for quick and easy meals, including In-N-Out in the Western US and Shake Shack in the South and East of the US.— Vita, Market Editor of the Skyscanner USA News Blog
What games, songs, or other forms of fun would you suggest for keeping road trippers entertained?
Games and songs were an excellent way to pass the time on family road trips way back when, and they still are today — no matter your age! Advances in technology have also given us a few more fun ways to entertain ourselves on the road. A few of our favourites include:
- “21 questions”
- Local radio stations
Local radio stations really help you get into the local vibe.— Lisa, Communications Manager at Skyscanner
- “I spy”
Podcasts galore! I alternate between music and listening to something I want to learn about. It might even be a podcast about the destination that I am driving in.— Maria, Partner Success Manager at Skyscanner
- “Would you rather…”
- Spotify playlists (check out Skyscanner’s “Country Roads” playlist for some great road trip tunes!)
I love country music while taking road trips, especially the “Hot Country” playlist on Spotify.— Matt, Global Communications at Skyscanner
- “Guess the song”
Audiobooks, 100%! We listened to the whole of Harry Potter during our Ireland road trip, and it was just magical.— Marijke, Global Marketing Manager at Skyscanner
What road trips would you recommend checking out in the US?
Not yet sure where you want to go during your next US road trip? Here are a few suggestions from our road trip enthusiasts to hopefully inspire your plans.
The Natchez Trace in Tennessee is an interesting drive, and worth extending to Louisiana to support the communities affected by Hurricane Katrina.— Laura, PR Manager at Skyscanner
Driving from Sedona, Arizona to the southern border of Utah was incredible — full of classic Southwest US scenery (think Georgia O’Keeffe).— Cat, Software Engineer at Skyscanner
- Denver, Colorado to Yellowstone National Park
- The Blues Highway from Nashville, Tennessee to New Orleans, Louisiana
- California to Mexico along the Baja Peninsula
- Pacific Coast Highway
The Pacific Coast Highway is like a dream. If you have a couple of weeks and want to explore the US West Coast, this is hands-down the best way to do it. The journey is meant to take around 10 hours total if you do the full route, but if you have less time, just doing a portion of it is worth it — my favourite is the northern stretch near Big Sur.— Anne Marie Crosthwaite, Editorial Lead at Skyscanner
For more road trip inspiration, check out these articles:
- Utah road trip itinerary
- Colorado road trip planner
- Road trip hacks — how to have the best road trip ever
- Seattle to San Francisco road trip
- Oregon road trip — exploring the PNW
- Texas road trip — driving through the Lonestar State
- How to plan the ultimate road trip across the USA
- National park road trip — the best the US has to offer
- The ultimate Arizona road trip
- Pacific Coast Highway road trip — the best of the Cali coast
What are some road trip mistakes you’ve made and how do you recommend others avoid them?
As mentioned, things can — and probably will — go wrong on your trip. It’s the way of the road! To help you prepare, here are a few stories and tips to keep you on your toes.
- Know as much as possible about your vehicle. Being hyper-aware of things like its size, features, gas needs, speed, and how it performs in less-than-ideal conditions are all incredibly important when it comes to ensuring you (and others) stay safe on the road. To compare various rental options, check out our Car Hire page.
Always know the height of your vehicle!— Laura, PR Manager at Skyscanner
We booked an RV by selecting the “whatever is available” option, which was great because it was cheap. But it also meant it was 31 meters long. Turns out it’s very tough to make U-turns with a vehicle that size!— Fleur, Global Marketing Lead at Skyscanner
Even if you have an off-road vehicle, be careful driving through puddles and potholes. You have no idea how deep they actually are, and they can send you flying.— Cat, Software Engineer at Skyscanner
I once left the extendable (metal) awning extended as we drove out of our campsite. It snapped off against a tree as we drove away, resulting in $1,500 in repairs.— Matt, Global Communications at Skyscanner
- Know how much fuel you have and where the next petrol station is at all times. Long road trips often mean long stretches without any sight of civilization. Knowing how much is in your tank and when you’ll be able to fill up again will keep you from getting stranded.
Always, always, always, keep an eye on your fuel and check the road signs for the next gas station. I don’t remember exactly where we were, but there’s a section of the I-10 in California or Arizona where there are no petrol stations for a really long stretch while climbing an incline. Halfway through this road, we realized we missed the signs for the last gas station, and we were dangerously low on fuel. We ended having to turn off our air conditioning and put the car into neutral while going downhill. The gas mileage display showed 0 as we pulled into the only petrol station for miles. I still have no idea how we managed to get to that petrol station, but now I always fill up when the fuel gauge gets down to a quarter tank.— Vita, Market Editor of the Skyscanner USA News Blog
- Don’t assume you’ll always have cell service. There are few proper road trips during which you’ll have mobile phone reception the entire time. Therefore, it’s essential to have pre-downloaded, offline apps, and essential documents that can get you out of a jam if you need help. And again, always be sure to pack a physical map — you really never know when your GPS will decide to stop working.
My dad and I drove from Dubai to Muscat in Oman without GPS as we thought it would be OK to rely on our phones. But halfway through, we lost reception because the road is mainly surrounded by mountains. We somehow missed the exit to the main border crossing and ended up at a far less popular one where no one spoke English, nor did they recognize the country on my passport (Sweden). We spent a good one hour waiting there before someone could come and translate and we were free to leave!— Emma, Global Marketing Manager at Skyscanner
Always have a printed map. Technology is fantastic, but when batteries die, and you still need to get to your next stop, a physical map can save the day.— Gemma, PR Manager at Skyscanner
- Don’t turn off. When driving long distances, especially if using features like cruise control, it can be easy to forget the feeling of actually having to be fully invested in your driving experience. Be sure to always be attentive and aware of what’s going around you, and if you’re in a country with different rules than your own (i.e., driving on opposite sides of the road), you need to be extra cautious.
After a long time driving down straight highways with the cruise control on, it’s easy to forget about the whole driving-on-the-right-hand-side thing (in the US) and mess up at your junction when you eventually leave the highway. I did that and smashed my rental car head-on into a huge truck! Learning: if in doubt, always look both ways.— Gemma, PR Manager at Skyscanner
- Look before you sit. Toilets on random stretches of highway or in remote locations may not have been touched for ages — who knows what could be living in them! It’s always good to check first.
Check the rest stop toilet bowls before sitting down. In some places, like Australia, they’re a known home for frogs and other critters! The lesson should be self-explanatory.— Chantae, Market Editor of the Skyscanner Australia and Skyscanner New Zealand News Blogs
Frequently asked road trip questions
Determine how much time you can dedicate to the journey, as well as your start and endpoints. Try to end the trip in a place you’ve always wanted to visit so you have something exciting to look forward to. Next, ask yourself what you want to optimize for. Are you trying to get there quickly, or do you want to take the slow and scenic route? After that has been decided, start doing your research and plotting your route. Learn about the hotels, restaurants, sights, etc. along the way, and make sure to note them on your map. It’s also good to start creating a budget as soon as possible in the process, as not having to stress about money will make the whole trip more enjoyable. And then, of course, be sure to review our packing list above to ensure you have everything you need for a successful journey.
Your road trip will be whatever you make it, so it all depends on your personal preference. Some people prefer a weekend trip with two to four hours of driving each day, others will take a month and drive six to eight hours per day because they want to “see it all.” It’s really all about your travel style and how much time you have.
Road trip enthusiasts tend to drive anywhere between four and eight hours per day, some may do 10 if they really have somewhere they need to be. However, it is never OK to drive until you are exhausted. To keep yourself and others safe on the road, try to keep your road hours under eight per day, take 15-minute breaks every two hours, and always pull over if you’re feeling tired.
Under normal circumstances, if your car is in good condition, it should not need to “rest” after driving a long distance. However, if you’re driving in extra warm conditions and the engine appears to be overheating, giving the car a break to cool off — while you stop at a local diner or go for a quick hike — is recommended.