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It’s time for planning your next road trip

It’s the end of March. So it’s the perfect time to start planning your next road trip! Some of you might think: “Easy, just pack your clothes, stuff it into the trunk of your car and drive away.” Is it really so easy though? Yes, it could be – and I would love it if you’d actually do this! But today we will focus on a slightly more organized way of planning a road trip.

Getting your thoughts sorted out – Start planning a road trip now!

I know it can be a bit overwhelming: Where shall I start my road trip? What car would be best? Camping or hotels and motels? What do I wanna see? How far can I drive each day? How much money do I have to budget? And so on and so on. I wanna sort these messy thoughts for you to give you a starting point, from where you can start planning your individual road trip.

Wide empty street with mountains in the background at sunrise
Looking forward to a road trip with wide empty streets?

Let’s start with the basics of planning a road trip:

  • Available time: How much time do you have? A few days? A few weeks? Or even months? Are you flexible in choosing the dates? Do you have to do it in summer or can you go before/after peak season? This factor and the next are indeed affecting each other and are also very different on an individual basis.
  • Available money: Think about your budget. How much money can you invest in an awesome road trip? This can either shorten the time or limit the route of your road trip. It also could decide for low or peak season, if you’re flexible in the time period.
  • Available resources: This is an important factor for budgeting your journey. Do you have a car already or do you need to rent a car? Do you have a tent, mattress, sleeping bag or other camping utensils? If you have to buy a lot of things, this adds onto your budget. Lots of people forget about “pre-vacation” expenses or basic purchases and don’t calculate it into the budget. However, Walmart can be your friend for this. 😉

No idea about your budget?

No problem, I’ll show you what you have to save up for. It can be difficult to plan your next road trip if you have no idea what to expect financially. If you have your own car, you have a big advantage! If you actually have a big car, in which you could fit a mattress, you have an even bigger advantage! This leaves only gas costs, purchases (camping, groceries, etc.), camping fees and the entrances to parks on your side.

Sunset scene from the inside of a car
Enjoying the sunset on the road

We saved a lot of money on our trip by sleeping in our own car. This saved us hotel, motel, and camping costs a lot of times. So if you have to decide about renting or buying, I’d say buy a car and sell it afterwards. For people, who come from other countries, you might want to rent a bigger car. But that’s also a task of calculation. Compare the prices before (size vs. gas vs. price – it has to be worth it). Most of the times, you could probably pitch a tent somewhere instead of sleeping in the car. We just found it handy here and there, that we could just park wherever and get some rest before we would continue on the road. If you are just traveling for a few days or weeks, you’ll be fine with a smaller car as well.

Approximate costs:

  • Car rental: between $20-35 per day, depending on the area you are renting from, length & insurance (check out Travel Buddy and Kayak to compare prices).
  • Campgrounds: $4 to $25, depending on primitive or developed campgrounds
  • Optional: Hotel costs – around $30-50 per room
  • National Park Pass and entrance fee: $80 for America the Beautiful Annual Pass OR $10 to $20 each national/state park – so it depends on how many you are planning to visit
  • Food: Obviously depends on your preferences – healthy, unhealthy, dining out, cooking on the campfire ($10-30 per day)
  • Gas: Depending on your car and how far you plan to drive – you gotta have to calculate this on your own or try GasBuddy’s Trip Cost Calculator. Gas prices vary from state to state between $2 (North Carolina) to $3 (California).
  • Optional: Purchases for road trip and camping equipment

Where to???

West, East, South, North, Cities, Nature – Where do YOU want to go to? What do you prefer? Do you have a starting and end point – your home or an airport? This will determine your route already.

Coastal drive as a route for your next road trip in the U.S.
Coastal drives are still my favorite road trips

If you need some inspiration, I will write about many destinations within the next few weeks – so come back to get some inspiration. In the meantime, you could also check out this website for the best road trip routes. Have you heard about the ultimate road trip route yet? This route leads to all major attractions in the U.S. However, this is a monstrous route. So it may not fit into your time plan.

My tip: Don’t plan too many miles. That’s just stressful and not vacation-like. If you fly in from another country, choose the cheapest flight and go from there or fly to the city, which is closest to the places you definitely want to see.

Rentals

Once you decided on a rough tour, you will need a vehicle. If you cannot use your own car, you will much likely rent a car or RV.

Whenever I rent a car, I use RentalCars.com. It provides the best prices. They have not let me down once. I checked all websites (Dollar, Budget, etc) but nothing could beat their prices. Are you ready to find your rental car? Then book here!

If you want to skip the whole hotel booking thing, you might be looking for an RV. Most people book their RV here. However, I have never rented an RV.

Sleeping

I think this can be a huge factor for the budget. If you plan to go in summer, prices are higher for almost everything. Hotels are always more expensive than campgrounds. Maybe think about making a mix – one night in a hotel, and 7 days of camping.

There are also some camping hacks, which can save you money. Camping in national forests and on BLM land is for free and legal. So you can pitch your tent almost everywhere. Campgrounds in national forests are generally cheaper than state parks or national parks (mostly $4-$12) but offer no showers, so you probably won’t sleep there all the time.

Read: Ultimate Guide for Camping in the U.S.

Quick-tips from my experiences

  • Don’t plan too tight, let flexibility plan your next road trip! It will happen that you like one place or even more places so that you want to stay longer. You’ll be sad if you have to leave before you could explore everything. I am usually just booking the first and last hotel in advance and am flexible for the rest of the trip. You can just go to the campgrounds on a first-come, first-serve basis. If I want to stay in a hotel I book it on booking.com.
  • Explore – Make side stops on the road trip! Although driving through the scenic U.S. for hours can be interesting as well, you should take your breaks. Read street signs and stop at attractions on the way to use the drive to the fullest.
  • Don’t do 1000 miles per day for 4 days in a row! Plan your distances wisely and allow stops in between. Check out the tools below, to find attractions along routes. There might be some whole days of driving, but it shouldn’t dominate.
  • Always have the big picture in mind! Don’t forget about time, distances and end points – especially if you have to catch a flight or have to start working again.
  • Baby wipes are the heroes when you can’t find places to shower! If you want to do dispersed camping, baby wipes will do the work until you find the next public shower. It’s a good way to at least get rid of the dust on your arms and legs. It’s not perfect, but you won’t feel as dirty anymore.
Waterfall in Big Horn National Forest - U.S. Road Trip
One of our side stops was this waterfall hike in the Big Horn National Forest

Tools for planning a road trip

Roadtrippers for mapping

This website is very convenient if you want to visualize your road trip on a map. It allows you to add as many stops as you want – unlike Google Maps. You could also just add the places you really want to see. You can change routes, delete stops, add more stops etc. This way you can also experiment a little bit and get a feeling for the distances between attractions. Maybe you will change your mind after playing around with this maps tool a little bit!

Google Maps saved places

Since the last Google Maps update, you can also save places to a list. So if you found a place, that you want to visit on your road trip, you can save it in Google Maps. Just search for the place or choose one on the map, tap the name to see the details and you will see the Save button. You can even organize the saved places in different lists. It’s a great tool if you can’t wait planning your next road trip and love to explore on Google Maps like me.

Pinterest for inspiration

I get a lot of travel inspiration from Pinterest. I often use this platform to plan my next road trip. There are tons of great photos on Pinterest that show stunning places in the U.S. So have a look and let them inspire you. Warning: You may wanna pack your bags right away! If you are not following me yet, you should now.

There are a lot of things to consider when you plan your next road trip. However, the most important questions are: “What’s your budget?”, “How much time you have available?” and “What do you want to see?” These will determine your whole road trip.

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Curious who writes here?

Curious who writes here?

Adventurer, digital nomad, and freedom seeker - that's me, Nate the Nomad!
In October 2016, I packed my bags in Berlin and been roaming the world with my husband ever since.
We are slow travelers, who enjoy the freedom of the location-independent life! We love to go on little adventures and to learn about new cultures everywhere we go.

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