Road trips are fun, and with the warmer weather around the corner and summer break coming up for the kiddos, more Americans will be on the road. I always dreamed of driving cross-country, and recently, I had the opportunity to go from New York to California to see WrestleMania 39 with my son. This 2,800-mile trip took a lot of planning and money, but it was a dream come true for me. I had so much fun and hope to do it again one day. In the meantime, I'm sharing some road trip tips if you want to plan your own adventure!
1. Start Planning Early
No matter how much time you have before your trip, research. I got a late start planning for my three-week road trip from New York to California, and when I finally got started, it took me a solid two weeks – a couple of hours per day – to research every stop, compare pricing, check on hours, etc. I know some people who can jump into their car and hit the road, drive for hours, stop at any old hotel, and do it again the next day.
I could do that for a few days, but I was on a strict timeline for this trip, and there were things I wanted to see. I left New York on a Wednesday and needed to meet my son in Phoenix, Arizona, the following Tuesday. To do this and give me enough time to see what I wanted to see along the way, I needed to plan meticulously.
Determine Your Route
There are many ways to get around, so next is to determine your route. For me, I had to decide between driving from New York to Phoenix by either cutting through Colorado, dipping south, and going through Alabama and Mississippi or the more direct route through Ohio and Indiana and to Route 66. Since Route 66 was a travel goal of mine, I chose that route.
After researching the Mother Road – which is what author John Steinbeck called Route 66 in The Grapes of Wrath – and deciding what attractions I wanted to see, I chose to take the same route back to catch what I missed on my way out. Be aware: Route 66 has a reduced driving speed, so getting to Phoenix would have taken me much longer if I stayed on 66 the entire time. Instead, by jumping on and off when I needed to, I saw some legendary kitschy attractions and still reached Phoenix in time to meet my son.
2. Use Apps and Websites
Travel apps and websites can help you plan your trip. Google Maps has My Maps, which allows you to customize your itinerary and mark the places you've already been. What I couldn’t find was a list of suggested places that I could see by driving from point A to point B.
To fill this void, I found the Roadtrippers site to be the perfect solution for me. There are different tiers to the membership, including a free version. I liked how after you put in your destinations and click on ‘sightseeing,' a list of recommended places comes up. The same goes for restaurants and hotels. Roadtrippers showed me attractions I had yet to learn about during my research. You can click on the ones you want and add them directly to your itinerary.
Since I was driving Route 66, I also downloaded the Route 66 app from Tripbucket. I visited a few national parks along the way, and the National Park Service App gave me all the park information I needed on my phone.
Other useful apps for a road trip
Other apps I downloaded beforehand included Uber and Lyft (to use when I was getting around Los Angeles), McDonald's, and Dunkin Donuts. I built up points on the food apps to get free food and beverages, saving me some money. Upside is an app I heard about on an RV podcast, which became my favorite. I found cheaper gas stations wherever I was and cash back on convenience store items and restaurants. I wanted to save as many pennies as possible on such an expensive trip.
3. Saving Money on Food
I had the Instacart app already installed on my phone, but soon realized how it could save me money on the road. Instead of buying more expensive coffee every morning – not every hotel had coffee I liked – I brought my bigger coffee pot and supplies from home and, when I ran out, ordered the coffee and creamer, and our favorite snacks and drinks, from a local Walmart. This worked out even better when we spent five days in California and saved almost $50 doing it this way. It was ridiculously cheaper to buy them from a local supermarket than from a convenience store, rest stop, or hotel lobby.
Another way I saved money was by sharing meals. Ordering something my significant other and I would eat meant no leftovers, no wasted food, and a cheaper bill. While some hotels had microwaves, others didn’t and I had no way of warming up takeaway food. I did consider bringing a hot plate but didn’t on this trip. It’s definitely on the list for the next road trip.
4. Use Tourism Bureaus
Most cities have tourism websites where you can order a travel guide, either a digital or a hard copy. Most U.S. states also have tourism bureaus. If you're going to Tennessee, for example, search “Tennessee travel guide,” and it should bring you to the tourism website. These travel guides often have coupons and maps that will be helpful on your trip.
And, I can't stress this enough, have a hard copy of a map in your car. There are still some areas in the country where cellular service is difficult, and if you get stuck, it's nice to have a backup.
5. Sign Up For Everything
Since I wasn't sure of what hotels I'd stay in when I started my road trip, I signed up for every hotel brand's loyalty program I could think of. I ended up earning enough points to give me several free nights by the end of my trip.
6. Shop Around
I didn't use just one travel planning website or hotel website to book my rooms. Instead, I checked to see which one gave me the best deal. Sometimes, the hotel or Airbnb website did. Other times, Priceline did. I also discovered that my Capital One credit card had travel discounts, so sometimes it was my credit card that gave me the best rate after the cashback that I earned.
7. Read the Fine Print
The worst thing is finding out that something you wanted to see is closed the day you get there, so note the days and hours of the attractions you want to see. Make sure you have enough time to visit and still keep to your schedule.
Read the fine print on all your agreements, including Airbnb and rental cars, before you book and before you sign. I learned the hard way that rental car companies don't allow you to book with debit cards. If I'd have read the fine print before booking, I would have saved myself some hassle.
What I got right? Signing up for AAA, which was cheaper than the rental car insurance plan. It also gave me peace of mind as I traveled far from home.
8. Have Some Flexibility
I was on a tight schedule, but I did leave some flexibility just in case something went wrong. I was due to arrive in Phoenix on Tuesday and leave for Los Angeles on Thursday, but if I got delayed, I could still arrive on Wednesday and be good to go on Thursday.
9. Expect Things to Go Wrong
Something can always go wrong, causing your plans to change. My son ended up with food poisoning that canceled our plans on the final day of our WrestleMania 39 trip. We discussed it and realized we had done so much and were happy. Stay focused on the positives.
You might find it helpful to brainstorm the what-ifs before you travel and prep your Plan B accordingly. You never know.
10. Watch Your Budget
If you're on a tight budget, plan for accidentals and incidentals. Uber and Lyft in California were much more expensive than I thought they would be, busting my budget for that part of the trip. However, my research helped me to budget the rest of the trip, so I kept some wiggle room.
11. Take It All In
This is not a money-saving or time-saving tip, but just something to consider. At every place I stopped, tourists looked from behind their phones, took photos, and then hopped back in their cars. Step out from behind the camera and take it all in. Memorize what you're seeing. Feel the air on your face and listen to the sounds of nature. If you're in a museum, read and experience the interactive exhibits. You can look back on the trip through photos, but remembering how you felt and what you heard is even better.
This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks Travel.