11 Tips and Tools For The Road Trip Planner

So you’ve decided to take the family on a road trip and you are the road trip planner.  How exciting, you are in for the time of your life!  All you have to do is plot a route, find a few activities, a place to rest your head at night and you are done.  No sweat, right?

Road Trip Planner

NOT!  

Usually in a family there is one person that is the main planner or perhaps the planning is divided among various members of the family.  A road trip is a bit different from a vacation where you set up shop for a week or two in one location.  A road trip is meant to move you around and let you explore.  Last summer, we successfully planned and completed a 6 Week European Road Trip.  We learned a few lessons along the way and can’t wait to share them with you.

Handy Tips and Tools For The Road Trip Planner

  1. Understanding the cycle of road trip planning.  Do keep in mind that planning a road trip isn’t once and done.  You often make a plan, research, refine and re-plan.   It is up to you, how many times you would like to go through this cycle.  It may get frustrating, but with clear goals they will help keep you on track.
  2. What do you want from this trip?  Why do you want to have a road trip?  What do you want to experience or see?  Is this a checklist trip to see as much as possible, to relax and go with the flow, a time to create lasting experiences, or something in between?  What are your Can’t Miss items?  Have each family member contribute to this, so you can try to meet everyone’s needs.
  3. How much time do you have?  This is of course the first bit of key information you will need.  Will this road trip be for 1 week, 2 weeks, a month, 6 months?  Do factor in time to recoup once you return from the trip.
  4. Where are you going to go?  Selecting your location or destination is sometimes trickier than it sounds.  There is plenty of research that goes into this decision, but we are going to assume you have a general idea of where you want to go.  Many of the tips are interchangeable and you will go back and forth between them often.  We first decided we would like to cover western Europe, with our home in Spain as our starting and ending points.  After much research we continued to alter that plan and even made adjustments during the trip.
  5. How to gather information and inspiration?  Research can be performed in many ways, but we prefer to use the internet.
    1. Have each family member do some research and make a contribution.  We have found the kids are more invested, if they have done some research as well.  When they were younger, we would do some research together.
    2. We usually function with a digital footprint, but sometimes we refer to a Lonely Planet guide,and on very rare occasions, we request brochures.  Trying to reduce paper waste is always a good thing.
    3. We find hearing or reading about someone who recently visited is helpful.  If you have family or friends that can provide recommendations, that is wonderful.  If not, we find travel blogs to be of the most use, but how the heck do you find travel blogs?  Google for them!  We would do all kinds of searches to drum up what we could about the various countries we wanted to visit.
    4. I would also recommend searching for Google+ groups, Facebook groups and Pinterest Boards to help you research and plan.  It is amazing how the internet and so many total strangers can help you with information.
    5. There are also quite a few Expat Blog Communities, so you can reach out to someone from your home country living in the country you would like to visit!  This is usually a great resource to tap into, and we have found most people are more than willing to share the love of their new country.  Heck, we do all of the time.  We love to help people out with Spain.
  6. Plotting the Route
    Summer Road Trip
    1. I often check websites for “guided tours” and check their route plan.  These are often 1 – 2 week tours, so I just adjust it at a slower pace and then modify to fit our needs.  If we can spare the time, we would usually double or triple the amount of time of a guided tour for our self-guided route.  That said, if we are crunched for time we may follow the plan of a guided route exactly, but do it on our own.  If there isn’t a pre-planned route available, well we just make one up.  For our Summer Road Trip, we mapped out a random path on a map.  It looked easy enough to cover Spain, France, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Italy.  Hey if we had time, why not Greece and Croatia too?  After much research and checking the driving time for all of that we kept shrinking our lofty route.  This went back and forth for a while until we felt we had something that was manageable.
    2. Dig deep and decided on the duration of your “driving” days and how often they will occur.  We tried to have our driving days last no longer than 5-6 hours, that was inclusive of a 15-20 min pit stop for each 2-3 hours of driving.  Sometimes we would factor in a sight to see along the way and that would extend our driving day.  We also wanted to spend at least 1 week in each location and then satellite out on day trips.  We did not stick to that plan and the family felt it.  You know your family best and will need to set limits based on your needs.
      Cascatta della Marmore - Belvedere Superiore
    3. Socialize –  You will meet other travelers or locals, who may share a must-see sight that you will want to allow time for.  Don’t set your route in stone and by all means allow for some flexibility.  Our plan vs. reality.  We added a country to our route and Austria turned out to be one of our favorite spots on the trip..
    4. Road Trip Planning Tools – Here are a few tools to help plan you route.  They can even estimate the prices of fuel and some even show nearby activities.  Mappy,  Michelin, Tripomatic
  7. Deciding what to do, see, and experience
    1. You don’t have to see it all.  Do keep in mind it is a holiday and you don’t need to run yourselves ragged trying to see everything.
    2. I tend to use TripAdvisor to do a quick scan of activities and even accommodation for a given area.  It is great because I can read reviews from recent visits and even filter to read reviews by a family like ours.  I sometimes take the reviews with a grain of salt, but it is a start.
    3. Again, it is a good idea for each family member to express the activities which are of interest to them.  This helps teach the kids (family) to compromise and prioritize.
    4. Also to a quick search for the tourism board or tourist office in the area you will likely travel.  Google Search “free tours” for your destination.  Many cities have free walking tours, so do try to seek them out.
    5. For experience seekers, home schoolers and curious people, try to find something made locally and see if you can get a tour.  Near our town in Spain we discovered a local olive oil press, Spanish guitar maker and a lavender farm. In Italy we toured Pagani, a local dairy and learned how traditional balsamic vinegar was made.
      We are in the Cheese
    6. Make a list of all of the activities, fees, hours of operation and is advance booking required.  I have this at the ready on our trip, so we can wake up in the morning and decide how we feel and what we want to do.  It is more prep work to have all of this ready in advance, but it beats not knowing what to do.  Even worse, would be having everything planned like clockwork and not getting the vibe of the family.
    7. Don’t over-book or over-plan your days.  Allow for downtime or days, so everyone can have their own space.  If you are up at the crack of dawn and dragging the kids around museums and tours all day, you will be in for a heck of a time.  Try to schedule in a little siesta time or down time.  This can be at a park, your accommodation or even a rest stop along the road.
      Camping Interlaken Switzerland
  8. Finding the right accommodation 
    1. Depending on the length of your road trip, I would recommend only prebooking your first week or two of accommodation.  This will give you flexibility to “go with the flow” and change your route if needed.  Again this is up to you, but you may find you would like to spend more time in one area than anticipated or you may even change your route.  When we are on the go, we usually book a couple of days in advance using Booking.com as our last-minute go-to resource (the best!).  It has worked very well for us.
    2. When at all possible, we rent an apartment.  Yes, even for 1 or 2 nights!  It gives us all that extra space we need after a long travel day and it is most often cheaper than a hotel.  This is great for the road trip planner, as they will have more space and privacy to plan on the go. Booking sites we use, Booking.comHomelidays, Ownersdirect, Wimdu, AirBnB, Homeaway, Agoda, Tripping and GoWithOh.

      Venice Italy Apartment

      Venice Italy Apartment

  9. How much is this going to cost?  
    1. Of course you will need to price out each of your options and this may also help you modify your route, change the duration in a certain area, or the length of your entire trip.  It is good to double-check the cost of living in the locations you plan to visit.
    2. Do factor in fuel, toll roads and unexpected needs.  We share with you the Cost of our 6 week European Road Trip, but know that it is just a guide for you.  We did capture everything we spent, but realize it is just a guide for you.  You may opt for different accommodation, food, activities or visit during a different season of the year.
    3. We found Camping in Europe to be very cost-effective.  This not only allowed us to have more indoor space than a hotel, but we also had the outdoors as our playground.  The campsites often had activities for the kids along with a big swimming pool.
  10. What to pack?
    1. Pack what you think you need and then take about 1/4 to 1/2 of it out.  You should try to pack for 5-7 days of mix and match clothing.  Don’t take the one pair of shoes, which can only be worn with one pair of pants.  Everything should be able to be matched up with a few other items to provide you with variety.  Road trips aren’t like a cruise where you need to change your clothes 2 -3  times a day.
    2. Clothing should be wash and wear with the bonus of something quick dry.  You may be hand-washing your clothing and air drying.  Allow your clothes enough time to dry prior to your travel day.  There is nothing worse than a bag of wet smelly clothes in the car.
    3. Bring a small ice chest.  This is very handy for keeping cold drinks in the car and saving on making a purchase from the gas stations.  It is also handy to keep condiments or produce cold as you travel between destinations.  If you are renting apartments it is nice to have mustard, jelly, or hard-boiled eggs handy, and the ice chest is the perfect solution.  Even if you spend a night or 2 in a hotel, you can empty the mini bar fridge and keep items in there.
    4. Emergency supplies – one small first aid kit, flashlight and local emergency numbers printed out.
  11. Make sure everything has its place!  Once you pack the car, try to keep things in their same location each time you pack and unpack.  This will also help you from “collecting” too much stuff many souvenirs on your trip.

Have a great time on your trip.  Remember to stop and smell the roses!

Other Road Trip Info:

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About Heidi

Heidi has a passion for travel and has been exploring the world with her husband and 2 kids, since August 2012. She's visited more than 50 countries and loves to write about their family adventures, mishaps and costs. She has been an inspiration to others wanting to live their dreams. Her travel tips, planning posts, cost breakdowns, accommodation, and product reviews are also very popular. Her current home base is in Spain.

25 thoughts on “11 Tips and Tools For The Road Trip Planner

  1. What a comprehensive list! I love the tip about checking where planned tour groups go. Usually I’m fairly familiar with the sights along the roads I’m taking (could be my years of creating TripTiks at AAA in college) but when we roadtripped through Canada last year I did a lot of experimenting with Google Maps to find good stopping points along the route to see how long it took to get from place to place.
    Tamara Gruber recently posted…Why Keep a Travel Journal?My Profile

  2. Appreciate your tip re: apartment rentals even for a couple of nights – one great thing about last-minute planning is you can sometimes fill the gaps between longer renters just when an owner needs you to, and you’ll get a price break. Always beware the possible cleaning fee, though, which can sometimes make a 1- or 2-night stay too expensive overall (circumstances always vary on that one!).
    Shelly recently posted…Ten Reasons Traveling with an Infant May Be Easier than You Think… (an excerpt)My Profile

    • Hi Shelly, you do need to look out for cleaning fees for sure. We have found several apartments in Europe that have the fee as optional. If you clean it before leaving, there is no fee. We have also stayed in apartments (condo) that are treated more like a hotel. You don’t have to clean at all (we have found many like this in Spain and Portugal). So it just depends on the where you are, but do read the fine print.

  3. Great post. I love this blog and follow it and a lot of other travel blogs. We are heading off to Spain in two weeks for a six week road trip. We have been before so we are visiting some favourites and seeing some new places on the way. We pack very lightly and booked mostly apartments but a few hotels for short stops. We have gotten a great rental car deal for the six weeks. We’re very lucky that my husband travels overseas each year for his work and we (our 10 yr old son and I) are able to accompany him. I’m not at the stage where I can “go with the flow” as I like to know where we are spending the first night in each place and I love the planning, researching and dreaming part of the trip as much as the actual trip. We’ll be using this time away to reflect on our current lives and whether we are living it the way we want to. Perhaps we could do what you have done, Heidi, you never know.

    • Oh Peggy, I just love this!

      I am so excited for you. If you can take that time to reflect on what is really important to you, it is amazing how things can all just click into place. Over time, we realized the material things and the big house weren’t the things that made us happy. Yes, we enjoyed all of it, but being able to travel was really our passion. Not everyone needs to go with the flow. You have to do what feels good for you and your fellow travelers. I am pre booking all of our time for the month of July in Holland, Belgium, France and Sweden. I want it to be a little more stress free and a little less internet/planning while we are on the road that month.

      I am thrilled you get to have 6 weeks and really take the time to reflect, unwind and enjoy. If you make it to Almunecar, please do contact us. We have met up with many fellow travelers during our journey and it is nice to connect.

  4. So glad I found your blog! My husband and I are currently childless, but are planning to start a family soon. I’d been feeling sad about having to “give up” our traveling, but it’s encouraging to find families like you who keep on doing so with kids!
    Katrina recently posted…Destination: LondonMy Profile

    • Hi Katrina. Well hey, we are glad you found us too!

      No need to give up on travel. Think of it like anything else you expose your children to. It’s just a little extra to come along with you and perhaps at a slower pace, but that isn’t a bad thing. It gives you time to really enjoy yourself and not burn out. The kids love it, but they know no different. They have been traveling their entire lives. There are loads of families traveling full time and some even having babies along the way.

      Thanks for the comment and can’t wait to get to know you better.

  5. Great tips, you have covered it really well I think!

    We did a 3.5 week road trip in the US recently (we are Australians). It was absolutely awesome, but it was A LOT of work. I especially found google map useful for planning our route as we decided 4 hours was enough for us to drive in any one day. I would add to not underestimate how tiring it is to travel every day or two for that length of time so i definitely agree with the advice of having some down time afterwards! It made it much easier knowing we had three weeks in the Dominican Republic to relax afterwards.

    I would also add to not overly worry about how your kids will cope. Our 1 and 3 year old were fine. They loved it and the pace did not worry them, it was just the adults who had problems keeping up!! 🙂
    Sharon @ Where’s Sharon? recently posted…10 ways that I increased my website traffic from 0 to 12,000 in 3 months!My Profile

  6. What a wonderfully extensive and comprehensive list! I also check to see what routes packaged tours take and then copy it. Not trying to do EVERYTHING seems to be my biggest problem, and I’m trying to really get the kids involved in planning our next trip. With all the technology that is out there today, I was surprised to discover when I was at the AAA getting my international drivers license that there are still people who go to AAA for customized, printed booklets with turn-by-turn directions with suggested hotels and attractions along the way.
    Michele {Malaysian Meanders} recently posted…Family Trip Tips: Angkor Wat and Siem Reap, Cambodia with KidsMy Profile

    • Hi Michele! Thanks. Yes, do get the kids involved, it helps loads. WOW! Turn by turn directions at AAA? I can’t believe it. I see you link is for Angkor Wat, can’t wait to check that out. We should be over in SEA late July, can’t decided where to go first as that is rainy time. We arrive into BKK and not sure if we will head south or east from there. We will look you up whenever we make it to Malaysia.

  7. Thanks for posting it here..I will be really happy if you post it in joguru’s trip report section so that you will get more popularity and all travelers will get more tips..

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