Create Your Own Road Trip Map and Itinerary Using This Foolproof Five-Step Method

I was sorely tempted to create a road trip map or many maps that my visitors could click on to get a custom trip, but when I started to try to do this I realized that there are just too many places to see in the U.S. to just pick a few, too many different personalities that would be looking for different things from their road trip, and too many variables that would effect whether a road trip map I created would even work for people, such as time constraints that would make such a route impossible.

Road Trip Map

The kind of road trip map that’s really going to work for you is one that you create yourself. But, you ask, how do I do that? Well, the answer came to me recently when I was planning a road trip for my husband and I up the coast from NC to CT for a visit home.

As you would guess, I wanted to make it a real road trip and spend as little time on the highways as possible while checking out new places and any attractions that appealed to us along our route. So, I was doing my usual mapping routine with all of the websites I use open on my computer and my guidebooks scattered around me when my husband, Ash, said, “Why don’t you write about how you create a road trip map?”

Aha! That solves the conundrum perfectly! My husband is a genius! So here it is - my five steps to creating your own road trip map and itinerary for your next vacation.

Step One: Create Your Own Road Trip Map
Start by selecting your destination. As I’ve said before, when making this choice consider two very important things: the people you’re traveling with (and their preferences) and your vacation’s timeframe.

Whatever you do, do not try to go somewhere too far away in too short a time. Try to pick somewhere close enough that you’ll spend a reasonable amount of time behind the wheel every day (I aim no higher than 4-5 hours max per day) and have enough time both along your route to check out sights/attractions/stop for a meal and enough time at your destination to actually enjoy it.

Next, go to one of the various online mapping tools (my favorite is Google Maps) and enter your home and destination locations. Hit enter to get directions and then see how much time they estimate the drive will take on highways (this is usually the default and it’s a good idea to use this as your starting point). Multiply that by two to get the round trip estimate and you have an idea of how long your trip will take sticking to highways. Add to that the time you would like to spend at your destination.

When I was planning our trip home to CT from NC, I already knew that it takes at least 9 hours depending on the traffic to get home, so that’s 18 hours round-trip. Add to that the four full days we’re planning to spend in CT and that gives us a minimum of 8 days if we plan on enjoying the road trip itself.

Step Two: Create Your Own Road Trip Map
Next, figure out how much time you can spend on your road trip to and from your destination – we have two days each way going to and from CT, which translates to 4-6 hours each day to spend on stopping to see things along the way. Some of that time will also be used up by traveling on the back roads and two lane highways that make a road trip interesting. With 4-6 hours a day to drive and see sights, I say to aim for 1-3 stops along the way each day. The number of sights/attractions depends on how much time you want to spend at each place. The more time you want to spend there, the fewer other sights you can see that day and still make enough headway towards your destination.

A good rule of thumb is if you’re going off of the highways multiply your driving hours by two for every hour off of the highway/using back roads. Then, see how many hours you have left. Those are your sightseeing hours. If you have a lot of sights you want to see (you’ll get tips on how to pick those out next), you may want to travel primarily on the highways and use up that time visiting various sights along the way. Just remember, highways are boring so the excitement of the sights should be high enough to make up for it. I’m a big fan of a mix-and-match plan that has both highways and back roads included in the route.

Step Three: Create Your Own Road Trip Map
Now that you have that number of hours you can spend sightseeing, you’ll need to figure out what you’d like to see along the way. For each state that you’re passing through, come up with a list of 5 or more things to see that interest you. Good places to find interesting things to see are:
  • Guidebooks
  • Internet sites that specialize in that state and offer a list of must-sees.
  • Internet sites with reviews of attractions like tripadvisor.com. This site makes you pick a city/town to get a list of recommended attractions rather than something state-wide. Look at a map to see what towns or cities will be close to your route.
  • Roadsideamerica.com offers lists of attractions and zany things to see by state, so you don’t always need to select a town (though they have that feature as well).
Now that you have your list of sights to see, get back on an online mapping tool and find out where they are in terms of routing. You could have three attractions on one side of the state and two on the other. Make separate lists of the sights according to where they are in the state/proximity to each other. Star or highlight any sights you and your group prefers the most.

Step Four: Create Your Own Road Trip Map
With your lists of attractions in hand, now take a hard look at your route. Do you want to get off the highway?Yes? I don’t blame you!

Get back on your online mapping tool and pick the closest state attraction in the first state you’re visiting and plug it in with your start address. I always start off with the highway route to quickly get to my first stopping point and then wander the back roads from there. Print out each "segment" of your road trip directions and any available printable map as you take each of these steps.

Continuing from there, where is next closest attraction that will have you continuing in the correct direction? Find out how to get there from your first attraction using back roads. Google Maps lets you request a non-highway route.

After your second attraction (or third), select your lodging destination (don’t have to make a reservation yet, that’s next) and either take highways or back roads to get there depending on how much time you’ll have left. Make sure you’ll have enough time at each attraction plus plenty of time to travel between all the attractions and your lodging. I also always make my road trip lodging destination one that has some kind of attraction or other point of interest there.

Repeat these steps for each day of your road trip until you reach your destination.

Step Five: Create Your Own Road Trip Map
Finally, you have to figure out lodging and food along the way as well as at your destination. Breakfast is usually a no-brainer, just go to a local restaurant or get something easy in town to take on the road.

Lunch is a different matter. Look at each day and figure out where you’ll be on your route between noon and 1:30 pm. The larger towns usually have restaurants that you can find online. Do your research and find a town with a restaurant or other eatery that will be along your route during that time slot. Check to make sure they’re open for lunch on the day you’ll be passing through.

Definitely try to fit in as many interesting and regional restaurants/diners/hamburger huts/drive-ins/etc. as you can. Half the fun of a road trip can be the different road foods you can sample and the unique and funky eateries that are attractions unto themselves.

Do the same homework to find out where you’ll eat for dinner at your lodging destination. In fact, now it’s time to figure out where to stay! When you make your lodging reservations, it’s a good idea to call the hotel directly to book your room and while you’re on the phone, pick their brain about where to eat. Once you get a recommendation, though, you still need to get back online and make sure there aren’t a ton of bad reviews about the recommended restaurant. There’s always a bad review or two most of the time – you can’t please everyone – but what you’re looking for is a general consensus.

Once you’ve got your trip to your destination figured out, all your lodging reservations made for the trip to your destination, lodging for your destination itself, and all meals figured out, do the same thing for your return trip. Try to travel a different route on your return and hit some of those attractions and interesting towns you missed before.

Put all your printed directions and road trip maps for each "segment" of your trip in a small binder to keep them together and prevent them from getting lost. Put each part of your road trip map in sequential order so you’ll be able to follow it easily. Make sure to pack “real” maps, too – or, even better, get a GPS system or get GPS technology on your cell phone from your service provider.

Now you’ve created your very own road trip map /itinerary that will get you to and from your destination with the maximum amount of entertainment and adventure!


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