Roadtrips are free-spirited, highly-romanticized adventures that can quickly turn stressful and even disastrous if not planned properly. We have spent weeks at a time roadtripping across the the Western and Southern US and Canada, and have (sometimes painfully) learned ways to make the time on the road more efficient and easy.
It may sound counter-intuitive, but the best way to have a successfully spontaneous adventure is to do a lot of research. Which is not to be confused with a regimented itinerary with play-by-play details. Sometimes rigid plans suck the adventure out of a trip like this and add performance anxiety. It's more about having a grasp of the best things to do/eat in an area with a loose agenda of the Plan A activities in mind, but giving yourself the permission and resources to change plans on a whim. When circumstances change (weather, mood, having extra time on your hands), it feels pretty rad to have quick (researched) backup options. Unexpected rain? Cool, here's an awesome museum. Have an extra 3 hours to kill? Beer tasting down the street. There's nothing more anti-climactic than being somewhere new and exciting with no idea where to go next.
Here's a rundown of how we like to plan for a spontaneous-yet-prepared roadtrip.
(1) Research Points of Interest (POI) - Find all the activities, points of interest and restaurants that interest you by using TripAdvisor, Google Maps and Yelp. Think beyond activity must-do's, but also consider any alternate/backup options, should you need them.
Things to research:
TripAdvisor "Top 10 Things to Do" lists (to get a quick idea of all the popular activities)
Breakfast, lunch/dinner, dessert, and coffee spots located throughout the region (including local favorite foods)
Museums and exhibits
Zoos and wildlife sanctuaries
Scenic lookout points
Waterfalls, caves, and natural sites
Farmer's markets and other weekly community events
A health/specialty grocery shops
Breweries and wineries
Local events like festivals, parades, concerts (google "city name" + "calendar of events" or "concerts", etc)
(2) Use Google Maps - We use this app a lot in planning and all day long while in transit. It's the single most valuable asset we have when traveling.
How to get the most out of Google Maps:
Download the regional maps - Download the regional maps for wherever you're visiting. The maps are then saved locally on your phone, so when you inevitably lose cell service on the road you still have a functioning map. Downloaded maps maintain the functionality for GPS tracking and search. This is critical.
Save favorite locations - Login to your Google account on your Google Maps app and "save" each POI. These saved locations show as stars and are a great way to quickly see everything in geographical context. Each location comes with user reviews, photos, operating hours, etc. This includes hiking trails - save BOTH the trailhead and the terminus.
Research distances - Use Google Maps to get a sense of the scale of the region, look at travel distances between POI's and hotels, and reconcile what's a reasonable itinerary. Be realistic about how long your trip is, and how much time you are willing to travel in a day. Know what speed you want to operate at... leisurely ride with time for detours, or action-packed itinerary with lots of distance to cover? You may need to extend your trip or cut out activities/cities if you don't have enough time. Assume you'll be covering about 70mi in an hour. We tend to average 4 hrs a day on the road.
Use the navigation - Make it easy on yourself, and let Google get you from Point A to B. Tap on the saved POI, tap "directions," set the audible instructions to ON, sync/plug in your phone to the car stereo, and let your phone guide you. Saves a ton of stress.
If you're a hiker like us, also check out AllTrails. While Google Maps is awesome for direction on how to get to a trailhead, and they even have trail routes in most cases, it's best used as a supplement on the trail. AllTrails lets you see where other people have gone on the trail and gives much better play-by-play instructions, tips and the option to browse and save trails by locale.
(3) Put a plan together - Odds are you have a limited time, so you want to consistently make progress on your route without wasting time doubling back or zigzagging needlessly.
Streamline the route - Avoid out-and-back routes where you keep one basecamp for several days (unless its central to all your POI's). It saves time to cover new ground each day and stay in a new city each night or two. Maybe that's too much movement for some, that's just how we do it. This is why it's so critical to pack light and remain nimble.
Create balance - If you plan to cover a lot of ground in one day, try to offset the next day with minimal or moderate travel. Also, overload of the same type of activities can burn you out if they aren't balanced with some variety. Whether its museums, hiking or road-side sightseeing, you may lose your appreciation or stamina for the same kind of activity if its not mixed up a bit.
Consider daylight hours - If you like to take photos like we do, golden hour (the hour after sunrise and before sunset) is an important time of day where we want to be somewhere optimal for the pretty lighting. May not matter to some, but a consideration if you want good photo opps. Additionally, we try not to drive at night - especially in the mountains where wildlife is active on the roads, or weather is bad. We've almost hit cows and deer on the dark roads many times, and it is TERRIFYING.
Document the plan - I'm not a fan of rigid agendas, but I am a fan of collecting important details in one place, and having a legible plan. I create a Google Sheets spreadsheet for a Plan A itinerary with any pre-booked reservations/contact info (hotels, tours, flights), and sometimes even continue to manage it on the road - especially for trips of 10 days or more. I share this link with select family members so someone is aware of our whereabouts in case of an emergency, or sometimes I share it for other traveler opinions and recommendations. I save a PDF version on my phone if cell service is lost, and/or I can't access important location details on Google Maps. See sample itinerary here.
Do not speed - Regardless of what the plan says, or what kind of rush you're in, follow posted speed limits. While you can test your luck on remote highways, ALWAYS slow down to the speed limit in the small towns. We have had speeding tickets in UT and OR, and each time we were pulled over the moment we passed into a small town.
Now you're ready to pack and hit the road. Packing in itself can be a monumental challenge, but I've outlined some tips for how we have learned to pack lighter!