Road trips have long been associated with freedom. The anything-can-happeness of the open road has inspired everything from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road to National Lampoon’s Vacation.
Yet, as freeing as the road should be, road trips often fail to meet their purpose.
Road trippers overschedule and underexplore. They aim for destinations, instead of fully experiencing the miles between.
A road trip done right is a road trip that experiences every bump and groove like it’s part of the adventure, that finds the unexpected places and has time to stop and put its toes into the cool mountain stream.
We won’t pretend to be experts on road-tripping, sometimes we’ve just got to get where we’re going like anyone else, but after years of road trips, some great, some just blah, we think we’ve found the secrets to road trips done just right.
Here are our top tips for making a road trip the liberating experience it’s meant to be.
1. Ditch the interstate.
It might be a given, but unless you’re driving in certain places out west where the interstate blends so seamlessly with the landscape it looks as if it was built by wind and time alone, there is nothing you’ll miss on the interstate.
But there’s plenty to miss on those side roads you don’t take.
Our recommendation: Get your map out and start Googling.
Look up your points of destination and the small towns in between.
Build your road trip around cool things to see and do, or the road you want to be on, like Route 66 or the Pacific Coast Highway, not the easiest (and certainly not the quickest) path.
Every so often, the things you want to see and do may wind you back up to the quicker roads, but don’t let them dictate your trip.
2. Give yourself plenty of time.
This may be the absolute most important factor in making a good road trip a great road trip – how much time you have to stop along the way.
The worst thing you can do on a road trip is push your daily limits.
Trying to cover too many miles in a day is how you end up putting the pedal down instead of enjoying the drive.
Our recommendation: Give yourself four to five hours of daylight beyond your drive time.
On the darkest nights of winter, this may mean you’ll only cover a couple hundred miles a day.
Let that be fine.
Four to five hours will give you plenty of time for a leisurely lunch stop, to get out of the car and stretch, and to stop at those random roadside attractions.
Downtime on the drive is what makes the road the main part of your road trip.
And, if you roll into your destination early, you’ll simply have more time to explore there.
3. Plan the essentials.
I’m not big on homework, but if there are popular attractions you want to see along your route, you should really do some research before you go.
There’s nothing worse than arriving at the amusement park you drove cross-country to visit only to find out its closed for renovations. (Just ask Clark Griswold.)
Our recommendation: Check the websites of every attraction you definitely want to see. Note their schedules and whether or not you need reservations.
You’ll be surprised how many things are randomly closed on Mondays.
4. Find the other essentials.
This goes hand in hand with ditching the interstate and planning around attractions, but it’s worth repeating:
Look for those attractions you don’t know are there.
If there’s one thing almost as bad as arriving at your destination to discover it’s closed, it’s getting back home and realizing you drove within a mile of the world’s largest fork (Springfield, Missouri) and didn’t stop to see it.
Our recommendation: Research every town you’ll pass through or near.
On a road trip, nothing is a destination and everything is a destination.
It’s a lot of work, but it’s the only way you’ll find those jewels you would otherwise drive right past.
And if all of this research seems the exact opposite of liberating to you, you can always just pop off the road from time to time and see what you see.
5. Stop at the unexpected stuff and crazy attractions.
This is why you need to leave plenty of time in your road trip schedule.
Some of the most amazing experiences you’ll have on a road trip are those you don’t know about yet.
There’s some truly weird and wild stuff out there in our crazy world.
Our recommendation: Leave time for the weird things, and always ALWAYS get out of the car.
6. Enjoy the scenery.
A real road trip is just that – a trip that’s focused on the road and what’s around the road.
It’s not about getting from one point to the next. It’s an exploration of the miles between.
It’s rolling through the bright, popping colors of fall and watching mountains swallow the road ahead.
Driving down I-70 through Western Colorado, or in Upstate New York, or across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, or through the Swiss Alps into the Dolomites is the point.
Our recommendation: When there are no other cars on the road around you, minimum speed limits are a suggestion.
So, slow down and enjoy the ride.