How to Plan an Epic USA Road Trip

Road trips are our very favorite way to travel. No only do you have the ultimate freedom of being able to come and go as you please, but you can get off the beaten path and take detours that you never would be able to on public transportation.

Our preferred mode of transportation is in a campervan, as this means we don’t have to worry about booking hotels, and we can wake up in some pretty epic locations.

We’ve spent several months on the road, making us expert road trip planners; and we’re here to help you plan the journey of your dreams!

We’re going to go over how to plan a perfect road trip route, what road trip mistakes to avoid, what to pack for your road trip and tips for visiting National Parks.

Regardless of whether you choose to travel in a campervan or a car, this guide is packed full of resources to help you plan an epic road trip you’ll be talking about for years to come!

Note: This article has some tips specific to the United States, but most of this article will apply no matter where in the world you are planning a road trip.

Affiliates: Also, there are some affiliate links in this article, which means when you click we get a small percentage of the purchase at no extra cost to you. This allows us to keep sharing great travel tips with you, so feel free to click away!

Article Contents

Campervan vs. Car

After trying out the whole #vanlife thing, there’s no going back for us! We think a campervan is literally the best way to travel. But we know it’s not for everyone.

We built our own campervan a few years ago and had the best summer of our lives. However, if you’re not in the market to buy or build a campervan, that’s totally okay. You can always rent one to try it out and see if #vanlife is for you!

For a budget-friendly option that is equipped with everything you need, we recommend Escape Campervans.

BONUS: We’ve partnered with Escape to give you a 10% off discount when you use the code WANDERING10.

But not everyone is into campervan life, and that’s fine! Having an actual mattress to sleep on and a roof over your head (not a car roof) are some of the nice things about staying in a hotel.

If you’re flying into an new city and want to hit the road right away, we recommend booking a car on RentalCars.com. We’ve used them before on our travels and have found some great rentals. For example, we rented a small SUV for a road trip in Washington state and paid less than $30 per day.

Prices vary depending on your location, number of days, season and type of car. Try searching your starting destination and see the deals you can find.

Related Reading: If you’re trying to stick to a budget, check out these money-saving road trip tips!

Road Trip Planning: Step-by-Step

So you have big road trip dreams, but how do you even begin to plan?! Don’t worry, we’re here to help you lay it all out on the map in 4 simple steps.

1. Make a list of all the places you want to go.

If you have an area in mind, but you just don’t know what there is to see along the way, start searching for some inspiration.

Get inspiration from:

  • Travel blogs

  • Instagram

  • Pinterest

  • Guidebooks

  • Friends and Family

  • This list of the best road trips in the US. We wrote about our very favorite road trips, and asked other bloggers to share theirs!

Travel Hack: Make it a habit to keep track of places you want to go. I keep a note of cool places people tell me about in my phone. Maybe you write them down in a notebook. Just keep them somewhere, so when it comes time to plan your next trip, you already have a list!

2. Start plotting pins on Google Maps

Now that you have places in mind, it’s time to put them on a map!

There are a ton of apps and website out there that claim to help you plan your route. We’ve tried a few of them, but you know what? We end up forgetting our passwords, or we find a different app we like better, or suddenly the app is no longer available, and all of our hard work is gone. Lost forever.

We like sticking to tried and true Google Maps. We know it’ll be around forever, because, well, Google runs the world. And I like having all my routes and starred places together in one spot. Thank you, Google.

From the list you made in step 1, search each location in Google Maps, then you’ll see a little icon that says “save”. You can even create a new list specifically for this road trip!

Repeat this process until you have all the hot spots you want to hit marked on your Google Maps.

3. Perfect the route

Now it’s time to Prune and Primp!

Prune: First, take a look at all those pins scattered throughout the map. Are there any that are obvious outliers? If so, figure out how long off course it will take to get to that point, and ask yourself if it’s worth it.

Sometimes it is: Perhaps that pin is the whole reason for your road trip, and you absolutely want to go. But on the other hand, maybe it’s just a rock formation that would be cool to see if you’re in the area, but it’s not worth the 2-hour drive.

Start eliminating any pins on your map that don’t make sense with your time frame.

Primp: Now, you should have pinned locations for all the attractions you’d like to see along the way. This is a great basic “framework” for your road trip. But if you want to take it a step further, you can use the search bar in Google Maps to add more.

Search for things you enjoy on road trips, like “brewery” or “coffee” or “hot spring”. You’ll see a button at the top that says “search this area”, so it will display all the breweries along your road trip route.

From here, use the “top rated” filter to show only the highly-rated ones. You can even look through recent reviews and photos to see if it’s what you’re looking for.

We use this little hack to find restaurants along our road trips that we probably never would find otherwise.

Helpful Hint: One thing to keep in mind is you shouldn’t think of these pins as written in stone. Instead, they should just serve as a suggestion. So if you’re on the road and you’re getting hangry (been there!), you can look at the pins on your map to easily see good eating options. And you’ll know that 1 mile past this McDonalds, is a cafe that’s a local hotspot!

4. Download Google’s Offline Maps

Alright, now you have a map of all the spot you wanna see, but imagine this: You climb over a mountain pass and lose cell service. Now you can’t see any of those pins and you miss the secret hot spring you’ve been itching to see. Bummer!

But there is a way to prevent this.

Google Maps is also pretty amazing because you can download sections of the map so that you have access to it even when you don’t have cell service. If you don’t already do this, it’s gong to be life-changing!

How do you Download Google Maps Offline?

It’s super simple, just follow these steps:

  1. Sign into Google Maps (it’s connected with your Gmail account).

  2. Search for a destination in the search bar. (Example: “San Fransisco” or “Idaho”)

  3. You’ll see a white bar that pops up at the bottom of the screen. You may need to swipe right to find the “download” icon.

  4. Make sure you’re in Wifi, and click the “download” icon.

The map data from this region will now be on your phone, and can be accessed even when you have no cell signal! You’ll even be able to see your current GPS location as long as you have it authorized. (Settings > Google Maps > Location > select “Always”)

Now that you have a road trip route, let’s go over some common mistakes so you know how to avoid them…

Biggest Road Trip Mistakes

We’ve made a ton of mistakes over the years. We’ve learned our lessons and we want to pass on our tips to you.

Take our advice it’ll help you avoid the same road trip mistakes we’ve made over the years.

1. Not giving yourself enough time

It can be tempting to pack as much as possible with your given time frame, but we’d strongly encourage you to build your road trip with a bit of “buffer time”.

It’s easy to plot pins on a map of all the things you want to see, but it’s just as important to take into account the driving time needed to get there.

When you’re planning your route from behind your computer screen, 10 hours of driving might not sound that bad. But when you’re on the road, even a few hours can get old. And when you have long driving day planned after long driving day, it gets exhausting. You might even be too tired to really enjoy the actual sightseeing.

As you’re planning, take into account that things might go wrong. Bad traffic or a flat tire night delay you. Or maybe the weather turns dangerous when you have an epic through hike planned, and you want to stay an extra day.

Have added days in your road trip plan so you can be flexible. We like at least 1-2 “flex days” on our itinerary that have no plans. This will also allow you to stay longer in places you really love instead of having to rush through.

2. Sticking to your route EXACTLY

After planning a road trip route, you might feel the need to follow it exactly. But we’d advise otherwise… Use it as a guideline, but stay flexible.

The best kind of road trips are those that are planned enough so you don’t miss the epic sights along the way, but with enough “wiggle room” to give you the opportunity to get lost and explore some hidden gems along the way.

Often times our favorite memories are the cute towns we stumble upon, or the hikes suggested to us by a local we meet along the way. Be sure to have some time for following the sign that says “Best Clam Chowder: Turn Right” or “Berry Patch: 2 miles”. We’ve followed those signs and are so glad we did.

I mean, check out that photo above and tell me you don’t want to follow a few random signs on your road trip — that’s exactly how we ended up in a lavender field with views of Mount Hood!

3. Going during the wrong season

A lot of times we think of summer as the perfect season for planning road trips. And it can be great, but it can also be the hottest and most crowded time of year.

On the opposite hand, planning a road trip through the mountains during spring or fall can sometimes mean you’ll encounter road closures and will need to make a detour. This can be a huge bummer when the mountain road was the thing you really wanted to see.

Think about where it is you’re planning to go: If it’s the desert, summer may not be the best time (unless you want to melt!). And if you plan to visit National Parks along the way, summertime will be the most crowded. If mountain passes on along your trip, do a little research to see what time of year the roads are typically open.

4. Not planning ahead during busy season

Sometimes the busy season is the only time you have to travel. We’ve certainly been there.

If you’re traveling during the summertime, a festival or a holiday, be sure to spend a little extra time planning:

  • Book your accommodation further in advance.

  • Research hidden spots and hot to get away from the crowds.

  • Budget a little more money.

  • Plan to start your days earlier than you typically would.

5. Not talking to your road trip buddy BEFORE the trip

If you’re road tripping with a companion, listen up: Being stuck in a confined space with someone can put a big strain on any relationship — yes, even if it’s your BFF or significant other.

Before setting out on the road, be sure to discuss what your expectations are, especially when it comes to budget and how much time you plan to spend on the road. I mean, you don’t want to get stuck out on the open road with a partner who plans on driving 12 hours a day when you just wanna chill.

We’ve even written up a whole list of questions you can ask them so you know you’re both on the same page when it comes to road trip tunes and how many McDonald’s stops are allowed.

6. Forgetting to Pack an Emergency Kit

Listen up, because we’ve got a road trip horror story for you…

We were in Utah in the dead heat of summer (big mistake!), and we decided to catch the sunset at Canyonlands National Park. We were above the canyons with epic golden hour views, and we were just lost in the moment. Smiling and soaking it all in. And then it happened…

A man approached us frantically, “Is that your van over there?” Sure enough, he was pointing to our campervan, which was surrounded by a group of men and teenage boys (we later found out it was a Boy Scout Troop). As we walked closer, we noticed there was a huge puddle beneath the car, and hot liquid was spewing out, making it larger by the minute.

At the time, we were not very handy with cars and we immediately thought “Oh no, we’re going to be stuck up here on this viewpoint, until the park rangers find us and give us a fee.”

We opened the hood with hot steam fumed out, and we tried our best to diagnose the problem, not knowing what exactly we were looking for.

Luckily, all the fathers of the Boy Scout Troop started poking their heads under the hood and quickly pointed to a radiator hose that was leaking. They told us it was a quick fix and could get the part back in town. We followed their instructions to patch the leak with duct tape, pour all the spare water into the radiator and try to coast back to town. And we did and it worked!

If that Boy Scout Troop and dads weren’t there at that time, we’d probably still be stuck at that viewpoint. We will forever carry an emergency roadside kit with us on any road trip.

Hopefully you won’t need it, but you’ll feel so much better knowing it’s there in case of emergency.

Other handy items that might not come in a kit: flashlight, pen, extra water (for drinking and for cooling the engine).

Also, you might want to consider getting a AAA membership so you can take advantage of roadside assistance in case of an emergency. I’ve definitely had to use this a time or two…

7. Forgetting to download Google Maps in Wifi

Road trips are a great time to go “off the grid”, and you might just have to. Depending on where you’re driving (especially if you’re going through the mountains), cell service might be patchy at best. So you’ll want to download anything you need on your phone before you set off on your road trip.

While you’re in Wifi, download Google Maps of the regions you’re driving (directions above). This goes for all your podcasts, music, and audiobooks too.

Even if there is good cell service, your data might go quickly if you’re constantly streaming music and directions.

8. Not bringing hard copies

Having a paper map might sound archaic, but trust me, you’ll want it when your phone dies and suddenly the charging cord isn’t working. This has happened to us. #truestory

You’ll want to have paper maps for each of the states you’re planning on driving in. You can pick these up at any AAA or gas station. And at many rest stops you can find them for free, but sometimes they’re not the best quality.

9. Tempting hunger

When I’m hungry, I can turn into a cranky monster. Anyone else?! If you know you get hangry, be sure to pack snacks for your road trip. And I don’t just mean a bag of chips. Because we all know junk food ain’t gonna make you feel good.

Plan ahead, and pack a small cooler. Fill it with fresh veggies, hummus, cheese, fruit, sandwiches, salads —whatever you’d like. Bring wholegrain crackers, beef jerky, nuts, dried fruit, protein bars for quick bites on the go. And bring some guilty pleasures too, like dark chocolate or your famous homemade banana bread.

Try out one of our 7 favorite camping meals that are easy to make and healthy!

Having food on hand will not only prevent the hangry monster from emerging, but it will save you from making poor food choices, like grabbing a Big Mac because you’re about to blow up. It’ll also help save some money too. Win, win!

10. Forgetting you get Carsick

Motion Sickness is a pain in the ass, but it can be dealt with if you prepare. If you are prone to getting carsick — I’m raising my hand right there with ya! — pack a little “kit” to help prevent nausea.

Also, it goes without saying, but try to avoid reading or looking closely at your phone screen, especially on winding roads.

If you’re feeling sick, stop the car and get some fresh air. Sometimes that’s the best form of relief. Having some dry, bland crackers can soothe your stomach, as will sparkling water.

Take it slow and be patient. Carsickness happens to the best of us!

11. Not wearing sunscreen

It’s easy to forget to put on sunscreen during road trips. You’re inside the car, so you don’t need it, right? Wrong!

Sure enough, the sun’s rays can come through the windows of your car and give you a nice burn! The worst part of it is all if a sudden, you’re going to have one red arm and one pasty one (since you’ll only get burned on the side nearest the window). Slather up and stay even!

Oh, and one more reason to apply: Did you know that one of the fastest places people age is on their hands? (Think brown spots!) Your hands will be very exposed when your hands are on the steering wheel, so protect them, damnit!

USA National Park Tips

The United States is an amazing place to plan a road trip, and one of the biggest reasons is all the National Parks to explore around the country.

From ultra popular parks like Arches, Yosemite, and Zion to those that are far less crowded, like North Cascades National Park (one of our absolute favorites!), there are so many sights to be seen and adventures to be had in the parks of America.

If you plan to visit any National Parks on your road trip, we’ve got some useful pieces of advice for you!

1. Buy a National Park Pass

The America the Beautiful Park Pass costs $80 for a family and lasts for a year. Considering that most National Parks cost $25 - $35 per vehicle, this means that if you visit 3 or more National Parks over the course of a year, you will save money!

  • Senior rate is just $20 for an annual pass or $80 for a lifetime pass!

2. Be prepared to be without cell service

In many National Parks, you’ll have cell service at the Visitors Center and in more popular parts of the park. But it is a good idea to be prepared to lose signal. It’s a perfect time to disconnect and go “off the grid”, but you’ll want to at least be prepared.

Download the park on Google Maps (instructions above!) so you have map access during your visit, and be sure you’ve pinned the locations you want to see. This is one more reason having a guidebook can be really handy.

3. Avoid peak weeks

If possible, plan your road trip before or after the school year (before June or after the beginning of September). This will mean you avoid the huge summertime crowds. But we know it’s not always possible to avoid this time (especially if you have kids or work in a school).

As you’re planning, take holiday weeks into consideration and avoid them if you can. Memorial Day weekend, the week of July 4th, and Labor Day weekend are all very popular times to travel, and National Parks are often at their busiest.

4. Get into the backcountry to avoid the crowds

If you want to avoid the crowds and have a sense of adventure, consider getting into the backcountry, either for a day hike or better yet, for the night. The photo above was taken at Yosemite during a super busy weekend in July. Even though there were tons of people in the park, we saw NOBODY else in this backcountry camping area.

When we were registering with the Park Ranger, he told us only 3% of visitors to Yosemite stay in the backcountry. So even on a busy day, you can avoid the crowds with a little bit of effort and planning!

5. Book your campsites in advance

If you plan to stay in the National Park campgrounds, you’ll want to book in advance, as they fill up quickly (especially during popular travel times). Booking online will help you avoid disappointment.

Where to Stay on your Road Trip

As we’ve already mentioned, our favorite way to do road trips is in a campervan, so we typically stay in campgrounds or in places where overnight parking is allowed.

Campgrounds

  • National Parks usually have nice campgrounds, but they typically require you to book in advance, especially during the popular summer months.

  • State Parks and Private Campgrounds are another option for camping.

  • If you’re in a self-contained campervan, you have more options: some rest stops, parking areas (be sure to read all the signs) and Walmart parking lots are popular options.

  • If you’re planning to stay in campgrounds but are on a tight budget, BLM land (Bureau of Land Management) is a great option. The site is a little old school, but it has a lot of helpful info and reviews. Campendium is an app that shows campsites (in the US only) and allows you to filter them by price. We’ve found that FreeCampsites.net is another good resource for finding free spots, that are sometimes not listed on Campendium.

Not camping?

If you’re traveling in a car or just need a break from campgrounds, here are our 2 favorite sites for finding accommodation in the United States.

Airbnb: This is usually our top choice for finding accommodation in the United States. Whether you’re looking for a really unique rental or accommodation that’s cheaper than typical hotels, Airbnb is usually a good option. Plus, you can look for ones with a kitchen so you can cook meals.

We also love their new feature where you can filter to see “unique stays”. I mean, take a look at these listings (all in Oregon): Tiny Home, Tree House, Earth House, Yurt… And that’s just the beginning. I also found a Farm Stay, a Mud House, a House Boat, and a Barn!

  • Save Money! If you use this link, you can get $40 off your first Airbnb stay! The only thing we’d say before booking is to do a little research on the city you’re staying in. Some cities have made Airbnb illegal, so be sure to look before booking.

Hotels: In Asia, we swear by Agoda for finding the best deals, but in the United States, Booking.com has been where we find the best options. If you’re on a super tight budget, you might even want to consider staying in hostels along the way.

Road Trip Packing List

When planning for a road trip, we tend to get carried away with packing. Instead of having to fit everything into a suitcase or a backpack, we have unlimited space… or so we tell ourselves. But it’s no fun ending up with a car so packed full of stuff that you can’t find what you need.

If you’re doing a campervan road trip, we’ve got you covered with an ultimate packing checklist that’ll ensure you’ve got all the essentials.

But even if you’re traveling by car, there are some not-so-obvious things you should be sure to pack!

  • Dashboard mount: Safety first! You’re not allowed to use your phone while driving in most US states, so attach your Google Maps to your dash.

  • Power inverter: plugs in to your 12V socket and can charge your large electronics like a laptop.

  • Water jug: Always nice to have on hot days. Fill up at any state or local park.

  • Collapsible cooler: Handy when you want to go down to the beach or hang out in a park.

  • Water bottle: Must have on a road trip. Our favorite is Hydro Flasks because they keep your water so cold!

  • Collapsible coffee filter: easy to use, easy to clean, pack up small and makes a great cup o’ joe!

  • Travel Mug: Bring your own coffee cup in to cafes and save on waste (and sometimes a few cents!)

  • Flashlight and/or Headlamp: Nice to have if you show up late to a campsite or you lose something under your seat. We’ve had Black Diamond’s for years and love them.

  • Emergency First Aid Kit: Make sure you pack a emergency first aid kit for accidents along the way.

  • Emergency Car Breakdown Kit: Including blankets, candles, flash light, Jumper cables, ponchos, tow straps, and wiper fluid.

  • Charcoal air freshener: Absorbs bad odors instead of trying to mask them.

  • Camera: It’s a road trip after all, you have to document it somehow. This one packs up really small and takes great quality photos.

  • UV Window Shade: Sun protection for any passengers in the back, especially kiddos.

  • Windshield Cover: I never understood the importance of this until we were on a 3-month road trip in the summer heat. Trust me when I say you’ll want to get one of these (you can pick them up along the way at places like Home Depot, Target, or Walmart for cheap).

  • Sunglasses: Umm, yeah, this is a must. No explanation needed.

  • Small Pillow: Not a bad idea if you’re switching up who is driving. The passenger can use it to nap, or you can slip it behind your back when driving to make things more comfortable.

  • Reusable shopping bags: Must have when going into grocery stores.

  • Day Pack: Best for hikes and walking around town to carry water, snacks and rain gear.

  • Sunscreen: Yes, you CAN (and will!) get burnt through the windows of your car. It’s important to apply sunscreen even when you’re inside the car with your windows rolled up!

  • Phone charging cords: You don’t want to run out of battery in the middle of nowhere when you’re using your phone’s GPS for directions. Trust us. Be sure to pack your cords so you can charge your phone by plugging it into the car while you’re driving. A back-up battery pack is a good idea too.

  • Hotspot Device (or SIM card): Nice if you are traveling with more than just cell phones. You can connect a SkyRoam Solis Wireless Hotspot up to 5 devices and you don’t need a SIM card.

  • Travel Insurance: We always travel with insurance and so should you, especially if you’re on the road. But be sure you look closely at your travel insurance because most of the time it won’t cover everything if you get in an accident.

Best Apps for your Road Trip

Taking a road trip today is much different than it was 10 years ago. On our phones, we each have access to so many different apps that can make your road trip so much more enjoyable and easier.

Here are some of our favorite road trip apps:

Apps for finding campsites:

  • Campendium: Shows campsites on a map (USA only) and lets you filter them by price.

  • Free Roam: Similar to Campendium, but sometimes has different sites listed, so it’s good to check both. This app also rates sites by crowdedness, road difficulty, cell signal, shade, and other factors.

  • iOverlander: This app lists GPS coordinates of campsites, and it also has propane fill-ups, water, hotels, restaurants, mechanics, and other points of interest for those on road trips.

  • FreeCampsites.net: While not an app, this website has a lot of info on where to park for the night if you’re searching for a campsite or BLM land. The site is pretty old school, but it’s helpful because the sites are crowd-sourced and sometimes don’t appear on other apps.

Other Road Trip Apps we love

  • AllTrails: If you plan to do any hiking during your road trip, this app is essential! It has detailed maps, trail notes, difficulty levels, photos, and users can even leave reviews.

  • 1 Second Everyday: Wanna document your road trip in a video?! This app costs $4.99 (one-time payment), but it is so worth it! You’ll take short video clips each day, and the app mashes them together in a super cool video. No editing necessary. It makes a really cool souvenir from your road trip.

Watch our summer road trip video below:

  • Google Maps (download map): Best for directions and reviews. Download a city map before you get there, so even if you don’t have data you can find restaurants and landmarks.

  • Audible: You’ll have plenty of hours on the road, so why not listen to a book. Start a trial for 30 days with one free download. And it’s $14.95 per month after that.

  • Trail Wallet: Budgeting app for travelers to keep track of spending. Also, if you’re on a budget, check out this list of cheap road trip tips!

  • Gas Buddy: Find the cheapest gas nearest to you.

  • Polar Steps: Automatically tracks your travels on your phone. No need to upload data or input locations. Produces a pretty neat map once you’ve traveled a bit. (See photo above)

  • Vanlife App: The complete guide to everything Vanlife. Connects you to campsites, facilities and the vanlife community.

  • Waze: If you plan to drive through lots of cities, this app will show you live traffic patterns so you can plan the best route and avoid being stuck in traffic jams.

Our Favorite Road Trip Podcasts

Those long stretches of road can get boring sometimes… Staying entertained on the road is essential on a long road trip.

We love listening to music and audio books, but sometimes we need a break and that’s where podcasts come in!

Here are some of our favorite podcasts for road trips:

More Road Trip Planning Resources

As you can probably tell, we are HUGE fans of road tripping, and we have learned a lot along the way. We are stoked for you to plan your very own epic road trip, and so we’ve created some more resources that we think will be helpful for you.

  • Cheap Road Trip Tips: Traveling on a budget? These tips will help you save money on your road trip!

  • Eco-Friendly Road Trip Tips: Reduce your footprint while road tripping or living in a campervan with these easy and practical tips!

  • Build your own Campervan (quickly!): We broke down the exact steps we took to build our own DIY campervan on a super tight budget, in less than 1 week. Yes, seriously! Go check it out and let us know if you have any questions.

  • Campervan Packing List: This is a super comprehensive list of items to be sure to pack if you’re traveling in a campervan.

  • Questions to Ask your Partner Before a Road Trip: Asking your travel companion these questions will help avoid arguments and fights along the trip. Trust us, when you’re cooped up in a tiny space for hours on end, you’ll wish you had asked these questions ahead of time…

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We want to hear from you!

Where do you want to travel in the USA? Have any additional road trip planning questions?! Comment below and we’ll do our best to get back to you!