Plan too much and you’ll miss out on the spontaneity that says Road Trip. Plan too little, and you could end up sleeping in your car. What’s the right amount?
By Mac McCarthy
Planning a road trip? Just how much planning are you doing? Should you book your hotels in advance, line up the restaurants and pit stops beforehand, book the sightseeing tickets before you leave, to make sure everything goes smoothly on your trip?
Yep, that’s how a lot of people do it. But there’s a down side to overplanning your road trip: If you have to be somewhere at a particular an hour (or lose your reservation), you won’t be exploring many side roads, heading off on the Blue Roads (smaller roads on the maps that are shown in blue), stopping at a quirky roadside attraction. And without being able to take advantage of those unexpected opportunities, well: It’s not a real Road Trip. It’s just a trip in a car.
The Highway Thousand-Mile Stare
In my youth, I had a wonderful weird opportunity — An LA producer I knew offered to send me to New Orleans to pick up a Mercedes sports car belonging to his about-to-be in-laws and drive it back to LA. He’d fly me out, put me up overnight in the French Quarter, and I’d get to drive halfway across the country in a hot sports car I couldn’t dream of affording.
I was an unemployed wanna-be screenwriter, so I jumped at this chance. I learned several lessons from this trip, the relevant one in this case being the opportunities I wasted because I didn’t take my time driving back, but shot along the wide-open highways of the Southwest like a bolt, stopping to see nothing.
I remember there was a sign on the highway pointing to cliff dwellings I could visit if I headed off in this direction. But I was totally focused on my destination, so I sped on by. I had then what I recognize now as the Highway Thousand-Mile Stare — the inability to turn off the highway, to diverge even slightly from my obsession with reaching my goal.
I still haven’t seen those cliff dwellings. I regret that.
Don’t let this happen on your next road trip — by definition, a road trip should not be planned in every detail.
Yet some of us do. Anxious that we not be stranded or lost, we have every day’s distance, destination, pit stops, and side trips mapped out to the mile and quarter-hour.
But will you do if you see a sign pointing to something interesting — but it’s not on your itinerary? If you’ve planned in too much detail, you won’t be able to stop — it’s not on your schedule! You will feel compelled to drive on by!
The Right Balance
On the other hand, if you just drive off in the car with little more than some vague intention to end up somewhere — you might find yourself sleeping in your car some nights for lack of planning. Or at least, that’s what you fear.
So what’s the right balance? How planned-out must you be for your big road trip?
The good news is that you can do a certain amount of — not planning as such, but preparation and goal–setting – enough that you can relax and enjoy your trip while minimizing your worries of being stranded.
Let’s take an example: A road trip that might consist of an intent to drive from San Francisco to Chicago, via Denver, then back to San Francisco either by the northern route through Montana, or the southern route through the Southwest, depending on your mood when you turn around. How’s that for vague? You’ve got three weeks, let’s say, which is plenty of time to wander.
Worries About Road Trips With Too Little Planning (And How To Deal With Them)
–The biggest inconvenience/fear is that you might not be able to find a place to stay in your price range. Are you willing to sleep in your car? If so, have plenty of blankets and pillows, or a vehicle that’s more comfortable than a car.
But in this day of Web access to full information services, you don’t have to run that kind of risk the way you had in the past. You can open your smart phone, or fire up the laptop wireless at a fast-food restaurant in the middle of the afternoon, and see what’s available motel-wise in the area you happen to be. This gives you options even if you are far behind ‘schedule’ or far off your intended route.
–With unplanned travel, you run the risk of driving right past interesting sights without realizing it. Not everything you might want to see will be mentioned on a highway sign, after all. But here’s the thing: Not planning your route or your stopping points in detail does NOT mean not doing any research at all! You can, and should, check travel guides to find out what must-sees are along the way. At least bring some travel guides to the areas you’re likely to wander through, so you can look up the local interests over breakfast or lunch.
—Disagreements with travel mates about what your actual unplanned plans are. “But I thought we were going to see this place, or get to that place by this date!” Unstated expectations can mess up a road trip. But not having plans does not mean not having goals. Decide how much time you’re spending on your road trip portion and how much at the destinations — Even if you’re retired and have all the time in the world, you should all agree on whether you’re leaning towards a two-week trip or a six-month trip. If you’re driving to Chicago and back, are you willing to change destinations partway through and head to Memphis or Minneapolis and skip Chicago? Or is does one of you have his heart set on spending a few days eating Chicago-style?
—Oh No! It’s Sold Out! A low-itinerary road trip does make it hard to reserve tickets for popular venues that might be sold out if you don’t buy ahead. This is something you’ll just have to live with. Be flexible: If it’s sold out, have a Plan B. Or, if it’s really important to you, go ahead and buy those tickets in advance, and make arriving at this specific location on the required date one of the anchor points in your otherwise-underplanned trip. If there’s one specific big-deal thing you want to go to/see/participate in, you might plan to head directly there for the outbound part of your trip, and save the underplanned road-trip portion of your journey for the return.
The big win in a lightly planned road trip, versus a rigid preplanned tour, is the opportunity to stop on whim, take divergent paths as they appear, spend more time looking at something, following that interesting sign — or ending the day early and spending a leisurely afternoon, mid-road-trip, lying by the motel pool just because you’re suddenly feeling lazy. You’re not under that pressure to hit your marks and arrive at that hotel you booked. As long as you are all in synch about your major goals.
So agree on the must-see attractions along your route, maybe pick some themes (eating a cheesesteak in every town, visiting a music club in each city, seeing every art museum, every comic-book store, or every Frank Lloyd Wright-designed building). Don’t plan how long you’ll spend at each, or when you’ll arrive.
Have a rough schedule: Pick several key points along the way and plan to arrive at specific if approximate times at each — with plenty of slack. If you know you’ve got three days to get to someplace 500 miles away, you know how much slack you have and that will encourage you to dawdle – but not too much.
On the other hand, you may be the kind of person who doesn’t like not knowing where you’ll be able to sleep tonight, who feels better having a reservation so you’ll be sure to see your favorite band or ballgame or artwork, who just doesn’t enjoy the notion of “winging it” — well, don’t torture yourself. Plan enough of your trip to make yourself comfortable — and enjoy the trip and the destination.
A Great Place To Plan Your Road Trip — And Share Your Memories
On Zenergo — the social network for activities instead of chatter — you can plan your trip in as much (or little) detail as you need — together with your road trip friends, then share your experience and your pictures on the way or when you get back. Even find road-trip partners for the journey. Find travel groups and events in your area. It’s free — it’s easy — it’s fun!
A sample Road Trip Activity Profile
What do you think? What is your favorite piece of advice for those considering a road trip? What favorite (or awful!) memory do you have? Add your comment below!
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