How to plan your first road trip: The easy 10 step guide
Planning your first road trip can be a daunting task, especially if you let yourself get overwhelmed by the details.
While it's true that there are lots of things to factor in, from time off work to booking hotel rooms along the route, that doesn't mean it's not doable!
In fact, anyone can plan the perfect road trip, even if they've never been on one before, as long as they plan ahead and have access to a car.
The key to planning your first road trip is deciding on the length of time you want to spend driving, where you want to go, how much money you can afford to spend, and what you want to get out of your trip.
Here's a simple ten-step guide to help you plan your first road trip and make it as memorable and epic as possible.
Step 1: Find out how much time you can take off
The first thing you need to think about is just how much time you can take off from work or school.
If you only have a week free, for instance, it's probably not feasible to do a massive trip around Australia, or to drive cross-country across the U.S.A.
Those long-distance adventures require a lot more time, and even if you could do them quickly, it's never good to rush a road trip!
Luckily, there are plenty of road trips that take under a week, like our 4-day driving itinerary through Holland and Belgium, or a scenic 6-day excursion on Scotland's North Coast 500 route.
Step 2: Decide where you want to go
Once you've settled on a length of time for your road trip, the next step is to choose which destination you want to travel to. This is often the trickiest part of the whole planning process. The world is your oyster, after all, and it's an awfully big one.
If you're struggling to decide where to go, ask yourself these questions:
i. Is language an issue?
English may be the lingua franca around the world, but some travellers don't feel comfortable not being able to communicate with the people they meet on the road.
If this is the case, it might be worth looking into doing a road trip in a place where they speak the same language.
The Great Ocean Road and the Gold Coast are both super popular routes in Australia, where you'll have no trouble getting around speaking English.
In Canada, you can see everything from glittering aquamarine lakes to cities, national parks and mountains on a road trip.
The UK has some incredibly scenic road trip routes (South England, we're looking at you), and of course the U.S.A. is the unofficial home of road trips, with countless options available to you.
On the other hand, if you're up for a challenge or want to perfect a language you're in the midst of learning, there's no better way to immerse yourself than on a road trip.
You'll be able to practice asking for directions, ordering food, and making general conversation with locals, a sure-fire way to improve your language skills!
ii. How about money?
Another thing to consider when you're trying to decide where to go on a road trip is money.
If you're trying to stick to a tight budget, that will no doubt affect your decision. Some destinations are simply more expensive than others, especially when it comes to things like car rentals, petrol, hotel room costs and eating out.
On the cheaper end of the spectrum you have countries like Mexico, Thailand and Spain, where you can expect to pay between £40 and £60 per day on car hire and petrol combined.
Depending on which cities and towns you include on your road trip, the food and accommodation in these countries can also be pretty budget-friendly.
Norway, Iceland and Sweden tend to be on the more expensive side of the scale, with road-trippers having to fork out up to around £100 per day on car rental and fuel.
Of course, there are several ways you can keep your costs down while on the road, from making your own sandwiches to choosing a fuel-efficient vehicle.
But a good place to start when deciding which places to visit is to weigh up the costs in each destination.
iii. Do you want to go somewhere new?
For some people, the whole idea of travelling is to get away from all, and to get out of their comfort zone by experiencing something brand new and unfamiliar.
For others, it's the journey that matters; rolling down the windows, feeling the breeze, listening to music and watching the world go by.
If you're in the former camp, you'll probably want to go on your road trip in a place you've never been before.
Make a list of all the destinations that are on your travel bucket list, then narrow it down until you find the right place.
If you care more about the journey than the destination, or perhaps you prefer to be somewhere somewhat familiar, think about venturing just a little bit further out than you normally would.
A different state, region or county in your home country is a great place to start.
iv. How do you want to get there?
Do you plan on flying to the starting point of your road trip, or would you rather drive the whole way?
This is an important question to ask yourself when you're planning your first road trip.
If you want to take your own car there, obviously you have to choose somewhere that's within driving or car-ferrying distance of your home.
For road-trippers from London, this can be anywhere from Scotland and the Lake District to France, Belgium, or the Netherlands.
Opting to fly to your first road trip destination offers a lot more flexibility and options when it comes to where you can go.
It does mean, however, that you'll have to rent a car once you get there - which is an added cost that can be pretty hefty, depending on the country.
Deciding whether you want to fly or drive to your starting point is something you'll definitely have to consider when planning your first ever road trip.
Step 3: Plan your route
Now that you know where you're going, it's time to map out your route.
Here at LazyTrips, we strongly believe in a healthy dose of road trip spontaneity, even if it is your first time. There's nothing better than pulling off and taking a detour simply because something unexpected caught your eye.
This, in fact, is one of the main reasons we love road trips above all other means of transport. On a plane, a coach, a train or a group tour, you simply don't have the freedom to explore and discover at your own pace.
That being said, it's still wise to have a rough idea of where you plan to stop each day so that you can estimate driving time and find out where you need to book hotel rooms.
Start by searching your first stop on Google Maps and having a look at the towns and cities surrounding it. Click on the towns, and see if any of them strike your fancy based on the photos and descriptions provided online.
Keep an eye out also for any coastal routes, historic sights or national parks that look particularly intriguing, then factor them into your plan.
You can also ask your friends for tips, read a guidebook by Lonely Planet or Fodor's, and search the destinations on social media to see what pops up.
If you need any more inspiration for places to see along your road trip route, check out our Road Trips page, where we have some pre-planned itineraries in lots of amazing destinations.
You can always change and adjust the route according to your own personal preferences.
Step 4: Set some money aside
There's no getting around it: travelling in general is expensive, and that goes for road trips as well as every other type of trip.
Luckily, there are lots of ways to keep costs down and stick to a budget while you're on the road.
The first thing you need to do is set aside a pot of road trip money as soon as you decide you're going to go on one.
You don't have to put away loads, but as long as you donate a small percentage of your paycheck to the pot every month, it should start to add up.
Even once you have a bit of money saved up, you still need to make sure you don't blow it all on the first day of your road trip.
Try to make an effort to visit free attractions, minimise your eating and drinking out, and make your own coffee wherever possible (those daily £3 lattes can really add up!)
If you follow all these guidelines, you should be well prepared - economically at least - to embark on your first road trip.
Step 5: Prep your car or select a rental
It's obvious, but no road trip can go ahead without a happy and fully functioning vehicle.
Breaking down in the middle of a road trip or having a flat tyre and no access to a spare is an easy way to spoil your holiday.
That's why an important step in planning your first road trip is making sure your car is up to scratch.
A couple of weeks before you set off, take your car to a mechanic for a professional tune up.
A mechanic can help make sure your vehicle will survive on the road by changing your oil, refilling your windshield wiper fluid, repairing any broken lights, and making sure your tyres are properly inflated.
You should also have them check the tread on your tyres, repair your brake pads if necessary, and check that your AC and heating work properly.
If you're planning on renting a car rather than using your own, now's the time to start researching what make and model you want to hire.
Luggage, people, and fuel efficiency are all things to consider when deciding what car to take on your first road trip.
Step 6: Book some hotel rooms along the way
As we said before, an element of spontaneity is a beautiful thing, especially when you're on a road trip.
But there's no harm in having at least some plans set in stone, to avoid the potential for total disaster on the road.
Imagine, for instance, you've mapped out the perfect route, only to discover there are no hotel rooms available in the town you've selected for night 1?
That's why it's important to book hotel rooms for at least the first few nights ahead of time.
If you know where you're staying and how much each room costs, it will also give you an idea of how much money you should (or shouldn't) be spending on other things that day.
You might want to book a luxury spa hotel in one destination, for instance, and balance out the cost by making your own sandwiches for lunch.
At LazyTrips, we have more than 300,000 hotel options in destinations all across the world, all at seriously affordable rates. Just type in the place you want to go into the hotel search bar and have a browse for some inspiration.
Step 7: Create a packing list
OK - you know where you're going, you know how you're getting there, you've planned your route and you know where you're staying.
Now it's time to get packing!
You may think of yourself as a pack-frantically-the-morning-of kind of person, but trust us - road trips are a different kind of travel.
There's nothing worse than being on the road and realising you've left something crucial behind at home.
When you're driving long distances, sometimes you won't see any shops for miles - which means replacing whatever it is you forgot can be a serious challenge, if not impossible.
Avoid calamity by composing a well thought-out packing list ahead of time.
Here are the things you need to consider:
Are you going somewhere cold?
If so, it's all about the layers! Make sure you put plenty of thick socks, scarves, jumpers and jackets into your suitcase. Throw in some waterproofs as well for good measure. Hat and gloves too!
Are you going somewhere warm?
Lucky you! The good thing about travelling somewhere with warm weather is that your bag will probably be significantly lighter.
That being said, there are a few things you'll absolutely need to bring along, including sunglasses, flip flops, sunscreen and a towel. Head to our blog post on the ultimate summer road trip packing list for a more comprehensive list.
Will you be doing lots of physical exercise?
If you plan on hiking, biking, kayaking,skiing, StandUp Paddleboarding, or doing any other type of sport during your road trip, you'll need to make sure you have all the proper kit.
For hikes, those trendy sandals simply won't cut it. Pack a pair sturdy walking boots or trainers, as well as a lightweight T-shirt and athletic leggings or sweatpants.
Water sports obviously call for a swimsuit and towel, plus goggles if you plan on swimming. And if you're biking long-distance, don't forget to bring (or rent) a helmet and some cushioned bike shorts!
Are you travelling with kids?
Doing a road trip with kids or babies is a whole different story, and one that deserves its very own blog (here it is!)
As long as you plan ahead and make sure you pack all the necessities to keep the little ones happy and entertained, your road trip will be a seriously fun experience for everyone.
Make sure you bring along snacks, drinks, and plenty of changes of clothing for those times when you can't avoid a mess.
Activities and fun road trip games will also make the hours in the car fly by - in good way.
Step 8: Get your documents in order
It's all well and good being mentally and physically prepared for a road trip, but it's equally important to make sure you've covered all the legal elements, too.
If you're road-tripping around America, you'll need to look into purchasing roadside service insurance. This guarantees you won't have to pay for a towing service if you happen to get stranded on the side of the highway.
Here are some documents you should make sure are in order and up to date before you go on your road trip:
- Full driving license
- Car insurance
- Travel insurance
- Breakdown number
- European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) if you're travelling in Europe
Step 9: Download some great playlists and podcasts
No matter how much you love driving, there's no denying that inevitably, it gets a little boring after a while.
Boredom is okay in itself, but it can become dangerous when it turns into tiredness, increasing your risk of falling asleep behind the wheel.
Plan ahead by downloading plenty of playlists filled with upbeat songs you and your travel companions love.
If you're looking for some musical inspiration, check out Auto Accessories Garage's post on the ultimate road trip playlist, featuring some tips from yours truly. It's got everything from Elton John to contemporary pop, rock 'n' roll, and everything in-between.
Another great way to keep yourself entertained on the road is by listening to a funny or fascinating podcast, or an engaging book on tape.
Some of our favourite podcasts are:
- This American Life
- Grownups Read Things They Wrote as Kids
- How I Built This
- TED Talks
- Wow in the World
- Story Pirates
- What If World
Step 10: Go with the flow
Even if you follow all the steps above, there's bound to be some unexpected events on your first road trip - and that's okay.
It's important to go with the flow and simply appreciate the joy and freedom of a road trip, no matter where it takes you.
And if things don't go to plan, remember: it's about the journey, not the destination.
Road trips are, by definition, incredible adventures, and ones that everyone can enjoy - as long as they are prepared and have some idea of what to expect.
Don't be disheartened if you've never done one before; it's simple, fun, and completely doable to plan your first road trip and make it a great one.