Road Trip Planning - Map Your Trip

This part of road trip planning can be really fun!

You’ve got your road trip partners signed up and your destination or part of the U.S. selected. Now it’s all about the route you’ll take. So, do you map it out online/use a GPS, or buy a map?

Road Trip Map

The answer is: both. If you just have one you created online, you’ve got no room for flexibility. You’ll be nervous about going off your original route, or you’ll try going off of it and risk getting lost. If you can afford it, get a GPS system - TomTom and Garmin are the best - you'll love it so much you'll get to the point that you won't know how you handled road trips before you got one. However, a GPS is not your brain - it cannot think outside its box! That's where maps come in.

Once upon a time, my friend Melissa and I got lost in Michigan without a road map (and very little in the way of road trip planning) and there was nothing for miles but corn fields. That’s it – corn. No mini-marts or gas stations where we could ask for directions. No one drove by us while we spent a good half-hour hyperventilating sitting in our car where we had pulled off next to an unending wall of corn. We’d been driving for over an hour completely lost and hadn’t seen a single sign of civilization.

If you just buy maps for your route, you’ll have to wrestle with them constantly. I get nauseous when I read when the car’s moving – how about you? A simple printed out online map with driving directions combined with a GPS is the ticket (Google Maps and Yahoo Maps (opens in new window) are great resources).

Now, it’s not a real road trip if you spend the whole time on highways. Highways are boring. When my husband and I drive on the highway in our home state, North Carolina, all we see are pine trees. Snore!

All the interesting stuff and cool finds are on the smaller roads. When road trip planning, know that this is where the "meat" of your trip will be – where there are people to meet and things to see. Recently, on the way back from Wrightsville Beach, we decided to wing it and get off near Wilmington. I never expected to see old beautiful homes with Spanish moss hanging from all the trees – it was one of those great surprises you get when you leave the highway for the secondary roads.

For the best road trip planning of your route, I recommend the following:

  • First, select the sights you’d like to see along the way. You’ll want to do this first so that you can plan your road trip accordingly. There are a lot of guidebooks and websites out there to help you find them. I’ve written an article about guidebooks With a Grain of Salt: Guidebooks you might want to check out. As far as websites go, definitely give RoadsideAmerica.com (opens in new window) a look-see – they’re the best on the web and have lots of wild and wacky places to see.
  • Next, use your favorite online map to plot your route to include all sights. Google’s allows you to “drag” your route off of the highways it recommends. Try to get off the highways for some of the small towns along the way at the very least. You can still stay close to the highway and jump back on. Once you finish this step, you’ll have the number of miles you’ll be traveling for the Road Trip Calculator. You’ll also have an idea of how long it will take you to get there (most online resources give you an estimate).
  • The next step of road trip planning is to go out and buy road maps for your route – I’m a fan of the bound ones that are like books, but some people don’t mind folding up/unfolding the larger ones. I can never re-fold those things right! You can find maps in bookstores or online. Get these even if you have a GPS system - it's nice to have backup.
  • Plan your hotels along your route, never doing more than 6 hours of driving a day. This will leave you plenty of time to stop for meals and to see your selected sights, not to mention you won’t be miserably tired of driving! When I'm road trip planning, I try to stick to driving two days, and then taking a day off from driving at an interesting sight/town before getting back on the road. This really helps make the trip more enjoyable.
  • Have a destination? Depending on what it is (some places have so much to do you’ll need many days), and how long you want the road trip to run, plan on spending a few days here. You’ll want a breather from driving and you’ll get a chance to really soak it up – your destination is why you planned this road trip in the first place! If you’re really pressed for time, plan to spend a full day there, arriving the night before and staying a second night before heading back.

Now you’ve mapped out a truly great road trip vacation. Check out my Road Trip Games and Songs for ideas to make your road trip even more fun!


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