How to plan a road trip. With actual paper, even.

Road trip plan for West Texas (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Despite my enjoyment of technology, social communications and apps for travel, there’s one area where paper still trumps trons for me.

Planning for multi-day road trips.

Since I’ve just returned from such a journey with my parents (for which I loved playing tour guide but felt I needed to have options for everything) I thought I’d describe the process that has worked for me for getting the most out of each day of travel while still allowing plenty of discovery time.

Here’s how I do it:

1) Get the big picture with a map. I do use Google Maps both on a laptop and a phone, but for big trips, a paper map is so much easier to spread out on a table and study with fellow travelers. I’ll run my proposed route through an online mapping site, get an idea for how many miles and how many days it will take, then look at a paper map. That’s usually when I’ll notice a state park or some other gotta-see near the route, and start adding detours.  I am all about the detours.

2) Lay out your proposed route as a rough itinerary. Depending upon the time available, decide how many miles you can comfortably drive each day, allowing for driver fatigue, bathroom breaks, serendipity stops and meals. Can you get on the road, breakfast eaten, by about 8 or 9 a.m., then drive till noon or one? After lunch, how much more can you keep trucking until it’s Hotel Time? Some days you’ll dawdle and won’t get too far because there are so many things to see, and other days will be “Get In, Strap In and Add Lots of Miles to the Odometer.”

3) Add waypoints to your rough itinerary; something like, “Day One – Hometown to X City – overnight in X hotel. Day Two – X City to Y National Park – overnight in park cabins (need reservations!) Day Three – Y National Park to Z Small Town With Awesome Drugstore Soda Fountain….” and so on.

4) Key To Road Trip Success – one sheet of paper for each day. This is what makes you a planning genius. Take one piece of unlined, blank paper for each day of the trip and write the day of the week and date at the top. Using your rough itinerary, lay out where you start and where you finish for each day, with approximate number of driving miles and driving hours. Based on where you’ll be that day, list the attractions that you’d like to see, scenic drives to take and unique local restaurants where you’d like to eat. THAT is when you discover that, say, Hellen Keller’s Alabama home at Ivy Green (or some other literary travel destination) doesn’t open on Sunday until 1 pm, and you’d planned to have your tour complete and be on the road from there by noon. Whoops.

5) Tweak and revise. When is that famous BBQ place closed? When does that excellent museum have late hours with reduced entrance prices? Are you going to be in X City on the same night as a concert or maybe a home game at their local Triple-A ballpark?  I know all this might seem like a lot of trouble, but why take the chance that you’ll pull up to some place, all excited, and find that (D’oh!) it is closed on Tuesdays?  List everything you’d possibly like to do in each place on each day, so if there’s some crisis or you finish early somewhere, your list of possibilities is right there to choose from.

6)  Why not do all this on a phone or tablet? Because some advance work (plus paper notes that always boot up and are pretty indestructible) saves you time, avoids roaming charges and helps prevent aggravated teeth-gnashing because of slow data rates and sites timing out when you need info. I used Yelp to find a backup dinner spot when a place in my notes was unexpectedly closed, but it wasn’t always my starting point, and I was lucky that I had a decent signal at the time.

7) Set up a playlist of music to match the journey.  OK, this is WAY over-the-top planning for many (sorry, can’t help myself!) but I love to put together a digital “mix tape” of music that matches the destinations. For example, I chose Tennessee WaltzRocky TopTennessee Flat Top Box and Arrested Development’s Tennessee to play as we drove through the Volunteer State.

What are your favorite road trip planning tips? Please share in the comments below.

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