My father turned 90 in September 2020, right in the thick of the pandemic. He lives in Walla Walla, Washington, in the southeastern corner of the state. I live in St. Louis, Missouri. I didn’t want him celebrating his 90th birthday alone but I was reluctant to fly and risk bring the virus with me. So I drove over 2,000 miles from St. Louis to Walla Walla and then 2,000 miles back. The road trip took about 30 hours in each direction. This taught me a valuable lesson on how to plan a road trip.
Though I travel to Walla Walla multiple times per year, I had never made that trip by car. My husband couldn’t go with me and it wouldn’t have been safe to travel with anyone else (nor would I have wanted to), so I went by myself.
I’m a professional organizer and I love to plan things, especially trips. Thanks to the pandemic, I had lots of time on my hands for planning.
Here’s how I divided up the trip-planning process. I’m hopeful that you might find it useful to read if you’re planning a summer road trip (or a road trip any time of year, really). Let’s get started so you can learn the exact process of how to plan a road trip.
Summer Road Trip Guide
Let it be easy
For me, narrowing options makes everything easier when I’m trip planning. There are always so many different options (routes, places to stay, sights to see, places to eat) I knew I wanted to look for ways to narrow things down, starting with focusing on the purpose of the trip.
I think the very first step of the planning process for a long road trip is to get in touch with the purpose of the trip and why the trip is important to you. This can really help you plan a road trip to remember. Focusing on the why of the trip helps you edit out the extraneous options.
I identified that my purpose was to get safely to Walla Walla in time to celebrate my father’s birthday. I chose not to plan to visit the sights along the way because I wanted to minimize the time on the road and, even more importantly, I wanted to minimize my exposure to COVID-19. By choosing not to sightsee I was able to plan a more direct, streamlined route.
Since this was probably the only time I would make this trip by car, it was tempting to pack as many experiences into it as I could. But that would have lengthened the time away from home (or shorten the time with my father) and exposed me to the virus even more.
Plan the route
If you’re a planner like me, you’ll want to plan your driving route to avoid unexpected complications. On a 4,000-mile trip like mine, it was especially important. I started with Google maps to figure out the possibilities for the route and narrowed it down to two direct routes, one for the way out and a slightly different one for the way back. The tricky part in traveling in the wide-open spaces of the West is planning where to stay because highway exits can be few and far between.
I knew that I did not want to have to find a place to sleep after a full day’s drive, so I made a hotel reservation for each night. That had the benefit of giving me a designated end stop for each day, which kept me from driving longer than was safe.
I used a free mapping website called furkot.com that allowed me to enter my origin and final destination, as well as how long I wanted to drive each day (for me, that was eight hours). It used that information to show me approximate places to stop on the map, so I knew the general vicinity in which to look for hotels.
On the way home, I was able to plan the route so that I could visit the cemetery in Nebraska where four of my great great great grandparents are buried. I’m a genealogist, so that was a special treat. And the cemetery was only about a half-hour off the interstate.
Planning your route accordingly is one of the most important factors to remember when learning how to plan a road trip.
Have a reliable space to record the details
I created a Trello trip planner board to keep track of the details of my itinerary and hotels. In it, I had lists for my itinerary, my information on all the hotels, my anticipated expenses, and importantly, my packing lists. I also had made a list for travel resources (like AT&T wireless coverage maps and the CDC travel page), as well as sanitation procedures on the road, and even suggested yoga poses I could do at rest areas. It was great to have one place to store all this information.
I also created a road trip planner spreadsheet, which really came in handy. In it, I had a row for each day and recorded the origin and destination cities for the day, the distance between the two cities, the expected driving time, the time zone, the sunrise for the origin and sunset for the destination, and the average overnight low temperature for the origin and high temperature for the destination, as well as the name and location of the hotel I’d be staying at that night. (Can you tell I love planning?)
This took a lot of the guesswork out of the planning and I referred to it multiple times as I planned my route. I printed out the spreadsheet for easy reference when I was on the road trip.
Make reservations for accommodations
It can be really easy to be overwhelmed by options when you’re trying to decide where to stay on a road trip. My recommendation is to narrow down your options by sticking to one hotel brand, and/or focusing on a specific location or price point.
I made a reservation for each night of the journey. In an effort to minimize the options and make decision-making easier, I stuck with Marriott properties. I am a Marriott Bonvoy member and have always had good luck at Marriotts. The brand has many different chains, so I was able to find a Marriott property in all of my destination cities, except Butte, Montana. (Google helped me find a hotel there.) That gloriously limited my choices. In Walla Walla itself, I stayed in a great Airbnb where I had stayed previously. It was meticulously clean and very well located.
Create packing lists
In my opinion, having a good packing list for vacations or other trips is absolutely essential. When you plan a trip thoroughly with good packing lists, you have time to launder clothes and make sure you have the necessary supplies on hand before it’s time to pack the car. And you avoid stressful last-minute scrambles.
Since I had a lot of time to plan for this trip, I may have gone overboard in creating packing lists. I had ten different lists (they didn’t overlap) divided into categories like clothing (of course), toiletries, cooler contents, self-care, anti-virus safety, and items I needed to bring for my dad and my brother.
Each of these categories has its own card, with a checklist, in the Packing Lists board in my master Trello board. Having them together like that, accessible on my phone, making it easy to pack and it gave me peace of mind because I could easily jot down items that occurred to me during the pre-trip planning period.
My planning spreadsheet was helpful so I could figure out which clothes to pack based on the temperature and the various places I stayed. It was 90 degrees when I left St. Louis, but I actually had to deal with snow on this trip just two days later. So I was very glad I had the forethought to throw my down coat into the trunk!
Learn more and check out our car organization ideas!
Think about transportation
If you’re driving your own vehicle on your trip, it’s easy. But it can be a good idea to get an oil change, check your tire pressure, and top off your fluids to avoid the potential for car trouble.
I opted to drive a rent a car, rather than my less-than-luxurious 2014 Ford Transit Connect van. I love using Costco Travel for car rentals and I booked the most reasonable deal I saw a couple of months in advance. Then I checked the rental prices periodically, in case a better deal materialized (and it did!).
My Ford Fusion turned out to be a terrific car for this journey. A pebble hit my windshield on the penultimate day of my trip and cracked it. I was thrilled to discover that the credit card I’d used (Chase Freedom) had rental car coverage that paid my insurance company’s deductible. When you’re planning a trip using a rental car, it can be worthwhile to look at your credit card benefits.
The benefit I used was called Auto Rental Collision Damage Waiver. I wouldn’t have known to check for it and apply for the benefit if my auto insurance company hadn’t mentioned it.
Plan your time in the car
On a road trip, you’re going to be spending a whole of time in your vehicle and you might as well make it enjoyable. Whether you’re on your own, like I was, or traveling with others, it can be smart to select things to listen to. I consider podcasts essential for traveling. I subscribed to Stitcher Premium, which allowed me to create a playlist of specific episodes of podcasts, so I would always have something interesting to listen to without fiddling with my phone’s controls. (Apple CarPlay made it easy to skip podcast episodes without handling my phone.) I also had a number of audiobooks queued up on my phone, courtesy of the public library.
I knew that I might not have access to a restaurant when I was hungry, so I brought along lots of snacks to keep hunger away. The passenger front seat was my command center and I wish that I had known about the meori desk insert for the small and large cubes.
I used one on a May 2021 trip to Walla Walla, my first post-vaccination trip. I flew to Portland, Oregon, and drove the four hours to Walla Walla. The desk insert gave me easy access to my phone, wallet, masks, beverages, and snacks. And it kept those items from tumbling to the floor. It will be my go-to accessory for any future road trips!
Another great insert I used on the 2021 trip was the meori 9-bottle wine insert. Walla Walla is wine country and the insert allowed me to safely carry wine in my trunk without dealing with a bulky box.
Try to stay healthy on the trip
One of my biggest preoccupations in the planning process was making sure I had what I needed to stay healthy on the road and not bring COVID with me. Thankfully, this isn’t as important these days, but it’s still a good idea to plan how you can keep from getting sick when you’re on the road. Making sure you have access to water, for example, can you keep you hydrated and focused while driving.
Keeping healthy snacks with you in the car is a great idea so you don’t depend on fast food. I brought along a small cooler that I was able to fill with ice from the hotels I stayed in. This expanded the snack options available to me!
One thing we’ve learned from the pandemic is wearing mask wards off all sorts of viruses. So it can be a good idea to keep one with you when you travel.
I was also concerned about needing to pee on my long road trip and not being able to find a bathroom. To be honest, I am not someone who camps or hikes or otherwise finds herself needing to urinate outdoors. I did not like the idea of peeing by the side of the road or wandering far from the road in search of privacy. So I bought some female urinals. I ended up not having to use them, but I was sure glad I had them.
Making your health a top priority is a huge underrated tip in learning how to plan a road trip.
Expect the unexpected
As you might have gathered, I had this trip planned to the last detail. One of the best tips I can give you on how to plan a road trip is this: of course, things didn’t go as planned. One big unanticipated variable was the wildfires in California, Oregon, and Washington that caused a terrible smoke problem in the west. I ended up taking a different route home than I’d originally planned to avoid the visibility and health issues caused by all the smoke. I drove through Idaho, rather than Montana, which worked out just fine.
The other unexpected thing that happened was that my MacBook’s battery started to swell en route. I casually mentioned it to my husband on the phone and he told me in no uncertain terms that I should not turn my computer on until the battery was replaced. I was in Montana, one day away from my arrival in Walla Walla, and my father’s 90th birthday present—a video of birthday greetings and kinds words from several dozen friends from various parts of his life—was on that computer.
So I ended up driving out of my way in an ultimately fruitless effort to get it fixed. (There may have been tears at the Apple Store in Spokane.) It all worked out, thanks to my online backup and my iPhone, but it was stressful with a capital S. I don’t think there was anything I could have done about that (save for not letting myself get so stressed out about something I couldn’t control). But the online backup saved the day.
These unexpected events were a great reminder that it’s a good idea to build a buffer into your plans to accommodate the unexpected. We can plan all we want but leaving space to roll with the punches when things don’t go exactly according to plan is a really good idea.
Conclusion – How To Plan A Road Trip
This was easily one of the best road trips I could imagine taking. Strange as it might sound, I had a wonderful time being by myself in the car for 60 hours. After being cooped up at home for the first six months of the pandemic, the freedom of the wide-open road was practically intoxicating.
If I hadn’t learned how to plan a road trip so thoroughly, the trip could have been stress-inducing. (And, even so, there was a little stress, due to the unexpected weather and computer problem.) But having planned for so many possibilities meant that I could really enjoy my time on the road. It was certainly worth the time spent planning and traveling it. I am so very grateful that I was with my father when he turned 90.
I don’t plan to take such a long road trip in 2021, but the lessons I learned planning my great journey west will help make any future road trip fun and easy. And I hope it will help you too!
Where are you going on your next road trip?
Janine Adams is a Certified Professional Organizer® in St. Louis, Missouri, and owner of Peace of Mind Organizing®. For over 15 years, she has been helping clients create order in their homes. With life coach Shannon Wilkinson, she is the co-host of the podcast Getting to Good Enough about letting go of perfectionism so you can do more of what you love