Man checking time behind steering wheel

When is the best time to start a long drive?

By Sasha Yanshin | Updated on 2 October 2019

We often talk about ways to plan your trips so that you don't have to drive long distances on any one day. There are times, however, when you just have to do that long drive so it's a good idea to think about what time it is best to set off on your trip.

Making a great plan can make a big difference when driving a long way. The best time to start a long drive is early in the morning to make sure you beat the rush hour and make headway while the roads are clear. Make sure you load the car the night before and get an early night so you can leave as early as possible and get to your destination fast.

Man checking time behind steering wheel

Start your long drive early to beat the traffic

There is nothing as good as driving along a highway without any traffic. A drive that might take you hours of being stuck in traffic jams if you leave the house at rush hour can be a breeze if you set your alarm clock an hour or two earlier.

This might be a tough call if you're not a morning person, but 3 extra hours on the road are definitely not worth the 30 minutes extra in bed.

Except for some rare situations, it is almost always better to get on the road early and cover as much distance as you can before everybody else gets in the car to drive to work.

Most people start their journey from a busy city – after all that's where most of us live. Big cities like London, New York or Los Angeles can take you a good hour to drive out of even before you take traffic into account.

It's a great idea to plan your route so that you are way out of town by the time the morning rush hour starts – your progress in rural areas will not be affected by commuters, so be strategic about picking your start time to avoid competing for space on the road.

If you're going on a really long drive, think carefully about when you're likely to be passing other major cities. Even if you're not driving through, you will notice a big build-up of traffic around each one, so try to avoid driving through these hotspots during the morning and afternoon rush hours.

This is particularly important if you decide to set off after the morning traffic has died down. If the next busy city on your route is sux hours away, you're going to be stuck there instead.

Setting off before rush hour in the first city would mean you are sailing through the second over lunch and can get to your destination in good time.

Take weather conditions into consideration

Weather can really hamper driving progress, especially if you don't take time to consider it when choosing your start time.

Rain will often slow down the flow of traffic and create traffic jams – so check the forecast along your route before you set off and if possible, try to avoid driving through a storm.

We wouldn't recommend trying to alter your route to bypass bad weather. While that works for airlines, the likelihood is that you'll drive a lot further and still hit the bad weather you were trying to avoid.

Remember that conditions are likely to change significantly on your route if you are doing a long drive in one day. If you're crossing mountains, consider the route you're taking and whether you are likely to be slowed down by snow and ice.

When crossing the Alps, taking a scenic route over a mountain pass is a great idea. Tunnels typically cost money and routes over the top are free, but what looks like a 20-minute detour on paper can quickly turn sour as you climb to find the weather conditions are not quite what they were in the valley.

We found this out the hard way when after 40 minutes of driving up a mountain, the road began to look like a ski slope ready for the winter season.

Choose a time that works for your family

Picking the perfect time to start a long drive is often just not possible with the constraints of everyday life.

Starting bright and early might sound good, but if you only got in late the night before, you will probably be on energy drinks and sugary snacks by lunchtime if you don't let yourself get enough sleep.

While driving at night is not always advisable, you might find that you need to start your drive after the end of the working day or when school finishes if you have to pick up your kids.

If you're doing an evening drive, it is probably a good idea to head home first and take a breather, so you can leave after the rush hour has died down.

Top tip for evening drives is not to have a meal before you set off. Even better, don't have one halfway to your destination – there's nothing worse than feeling tired when you know you have a few more hours left. This is especially true if your co-pilot is as tired as you!

Travelling with kids means you might want to make sure everybody has had a good night's sleep before getting on your way.

You might beat the rush hour setting off at the crack of dawn, but you're also going to have tired children, which can really affect your journey in more ways than one.

Remember that children and especially babies will really affect how quickly you progress on your way. You might be able to cover hundreds of miles like a trooper, but once you have child seats strapped in, you will have to stop a lot more frequently and for longer.

For more help, check out our top tips for road trips with babies.

Driving through the night is not a great idea

Setting off late and driving through the night can often sound like a perfect plan. The roads are empty and quiet. There is nothing to slow you down and if you are travelling with family, they will probably just fall asleep.

In reality, all night drives are really tough. We've done our fair share of these so this advice is based on some experience of driving from north England to Monaco overnight and doing a long drive from Puglia in the south of Italy to Belgium in one go.

Firstly, it's really difficult to prepare for a full night of driving. Short of being a full-time night shift worker, your body clock will not like the thought of not getting any sleep.

It is also more difficult if you are doing this after a full day of work or spending time with family – getting a lot of rest beforehand is key and if you are tired by the time you are starting the long drive, you will be really tired by the halfway point.

Even with two people taking turns driving and resting, this can be really hard. Part of the co-driver's role is to keep the driver alert. If everybody else in the car is asleep, staying awake is that much harder and driving tired is a really bad idea!

You will find that if you start a long drive late, the good intentions will wear off by the early hours, and you may well end up parking up and try to sleep in a lay-by, then waking up in a freezing car with a stiff neck at rush hour, negating the whole point of driving through the night.

If you have the time, try to get to bed early and wake up for an early morning drive. You will be refreshed and get to your destination much faster.

Set off at the right time for when you want to get there!

It might seem obvious, but too often things like road conditions and other considerations are the only things that affect your decision on when you should set off on your long drive. In most cases, you should also consider the specific times that you will be aiming for.

For example, you might be driving to see your family for a festive occasion, or to get somewhere in time for a party.

Even if there isn't a specific event you're headed to, you're probably wanting to get to a hotel after their check-in time and before dinner. Most hotels allow you to check in from 2pm or 3pm, so the arrival time window is not as wide as it might seem.

It's a good idea to work backwards and figure out what time you will need to arrive before deciding on the time you need to set off.

Google Maps, Waze and other tools are your friend in working out what the traffic will be like if you set off at a particular time (the desktop version of Google Maps is much better at this than the mobile one!)

Having said that, a top tip is to work out whether getting to your destination early is better than setting off as late as possible.

If you are driving along busy routes and past some major cities, it's a great idea to get going as early as possible and then grab lunch or coffee nearer your destination.

Sometimes starting your drive 30 minutes earlier can shave a couple hours off the total journey time – surely worth it even if you're not a morning person!