Road Trip Survival Guide – Planning a Trip

This entry is a part of a series. Check out the rest of the Road Trip Survival Guide for more valuable information.

To Plan or Not to Plan?

There’s nothing I love more than grabbing my go-bag, hopping in my truck, and hitting the road for the weekend on a whim. I don’t even need a particular destination in mind. I just point my vehicle in a particular direction and… go. What could be more liberating?


Above all else, have FUN!

But longer excursions demand at least a small degree of planning. If for no other reason than to conserve fuel and manage our other resources in an efficient manner. In this article, we’ll discuss route planning while allowing plenty of room for randomness and spontaneity. But before we continue, please review the scopes and perspectives that I’ll be addressing each of the questions presented in the Road Trip Survival Guide.

Selecting Your Destination(s)

There is no wrong answer when it comes to selecting destinations. It’s your trip, after all. And don’t let anyone tell you that if you visit a city, you simply must visit certain tourist spots. You can, if you want to, of course. But there is no such thing as a “must-see attraction”.

You can visit Paris and not see the Eiffel Tower, if a thousand foot structure of steel beams doesn’t do anything for you. I’m not knocking the Eiffel Tower – I’m sure I’ll visit it when I go to Paris. My point is that Paris has a lot of offer, and not everyone has to be interested in the same things.

Destination Trips

Destination trips focus on – well… destinations. These could be natural or scenic in nature, like the Grand Canyon, Mount Denali, or Niagara Falls. Perhaps you want to visit monuments and landmarks, like the Lincoln Memorial, Statue of Liberty, or Mt. Rushmore. Perhaps you’re more into impressive architecture, like the Empire State Building, Golden Gate Bridge, or St. Louis Arch. Or perhaps you fancy historical sites like Salem, Gettysburg, or Pearl Harbor.

Joy Rides

The opposite of a destination trip is a joy ride. You have no particular destination or purpose in mind. You might drive a particular route, a particular direction, or meander randomly like a Bil Keane drawing. The point is to drive, explore, and see what you discover along the way.

Touring Trips

A touring trip is sort of a hybrid between a destination trip and a joy ride. You’re not focused on a particular destination, but you do have a purpose. And that purpose is to hop from city to city and town to town, sampling the various cultural differences along the way.

What are you sampling? Well, that depends on what you’re interested in. A lot of people like to sample various foods and drinks – restaurants, diners, coffee houses, pubs, and breweries are all very popular touring themes.  Other people might be more interested in museums, theaters, music festivals, or sport arenas. I myself like to visit alleged haunted sites and commercial haunted house attractions. Some people just like to collect things from different places, like shot glasses or handfuls of dirt.

The sky is the limit here. If you have a hobby or a thing you like to collect, it’s pretty easy to design a touring road trip around that hobby.

VW Slug Bug Ranch
Amarillo, Texas

For a truly unique road-trip tour, you might consider visiting off-beat roadside attractions. If you can’t spot them directly off the highway, you’ll usually see billboards pointing you in their direction. Get your photograph taken with huge dinosaur sculptures, a giant ear of corn, or a statue of Paul Bunyan. In fact, you can’t swing a dead cat on an American highway without hitting a half dozen Paul Bunyan sculptures – those things are everywhere for some reason. Some of my most memorable roadside attractions have included the Jolly Green Giant in Blue Earth, Minnesota, Bowlin’s Thing in Dragoon, Arizona, and the VW Slug Bug Ranch near Amarillo, Texas.

Local Treasures and Hidden Gems

In my opinion, what makes a road trip special are not the places you plan to visit or can find on a map. It’s the nooks and crannies. The magical spots you encounter along the way – meaningless to everyone else but sacred to you. Maybe you had a memorable experience with your friends or with a stranger there. Maybe you took a stroll and caught the perfect angle of a picturesque spot. Or maybe you ate an amazing meal in some underrated diner in a random corner of some middle-of-nowhere town.

You won’t find these spots in any map or local guide. You just have to open yourself to finding them.

The Importance of Flexibility & Spontaneity

Captain Spaulding'sMore often than not, the most memorable part of any trip will be unplanned moments. Maybe you’ll meet another group of travelers who convince you to join them on a trip to somewhere you didn’t plan to visit. Perhaps you’ll end up in an epic Foosball competition with locals in a bar while you wait for a major storm to pass. Maybe you’ll pose for silly pictures in front of a silly sculpture you stumbled upon.

Roadside AttractionsNever adhere to a route, timeline, or budget so rigidly that you close yourself off to these great moments. Fuck around and be goofy at a park. Go off on detours and side quests. Stop at random places for no reason whatsoever. Chat with the locals. Play games. Lose track of time and forget what day of the week it is. Embrace the Serendipity of the Road. This is, after all, what true freedom is.

Conservation of Resources & Route Optimization

As fun as it is to go where the wind blows you, it’s also important to plan a route with some degree of strategic effort. Unless you have access to unlimited funds, unlimited time, and driving a clean vehicle, it’s not wise to zigzag back and forth across the country.

If your route has ten waypoints or fewer, you can plug them all into Google Maps‘ driving directions function. Tease the sequence of the waypoints until you find the most efficient route. If you want an efficient route automatically calculated for you, MapQuest will allow you to do so with up to 26 stops. RouteXL will do up to 20 stops for free, but for a fee, you can manage up to 200 waypoints.

Personally, I love planning navigation. When I was studying for my private pilot’s license, plotting my flight route was one of the most fun parts of flying. There’s a sense of anticipation and boundless imagination during the planning stages. So I try to avoid automated route planners if I can avoid it.

Usually, I’ll open a new project in Google My Maps. While you may be limited to 10 waypoints for calculating routes, I don’t believe there is a limit on the number of waypoints you can plot. Once I’ve got all of my stops plotted, I zoom out, eyeball the map, and establish clusters and patterns in my eye. I sketch out a rough route, then I break the trip down into component parts. This is when I return back to the main Google Maps to fine-tune the most efficient route I can. Once I’ve done this for each section of the trip, I put the pieces together in one complete travel route.

There are several options in Google Maps for customizing your route (such as avoiding tolls, highways, or ferries), and Google will typically offer you three route options. But Google is always giving you what it thinks are the most efficient routes by time or mileage. Don’t be afraid to click on the route and drag it away from major cities if you want to avoid traffic jams or do a little off-road driving.

Backup Options

I will always create some form of backup itinerary. Usually this is a printed map or a printed listing of my waypoints. It may be neurotic, but I prefer to rely on geographical coordinates (latitude and longitude) than street addresses or common names. Too often have I typed in a name or an address only to have navigation software point me in the wrong direction because some place had a similar name or address.

If using your cell phone to navigate (as I imagine most people do nowadays) be sure to download offline maps so you can get directions even when there is no data signal. GPS signals are dependent on satellites (not cell phone towers), so you don’t have to worry about losing GPS when you exit a cellular service area.

Other Ideas?

Have I missed anything? What’s your favorite kind of road trip? What’s your favorite unplanned memory? Do none of these solutions work for you because of specific circumstances that I haven’t considered? Whatever you’re thinking – I would love your feedback! Help me make this Road Trip Survival Guide the best it can be.

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