Top 10 Keys to a Successful Long-Range Road Trip

I did not imagine that road trips, as a topic, would generate such fervently held opinions. Yet this was my discovery when I began to blog on the subject many months before our cross-country sojourn began.

DSC00357According to some, we were going to be slaves to an insanely aggressive schedule. The whole trip might be awful. These words were posted with swagger, as if chin-forward and repeated finger poking at my chest. One offered his own tale of past trip woes including blown tires, exhaustion and vows of never again.


Fenway Park, Boston, MA

Well, we had a wonderful time, even with just a few setbacks. I will refrain from giving my critics the “neener, neener” taunt. Instead what I ought to do now is offer a good list of reasons why it went well. And despite my so-there attitude toward the folks who warned us, I have some of them to thank for our good time. A few of their warnings actually helped.

It is easy to have a miserable time on the road. These top ten keys to a successful road trip just might help you avoid that. Or you might even decide that you are not road-trip material, which is not a bad thing; if true, this realization will prompt you to choose a different travel idea.

But let’s approach this positively. You really want to do a long-range road trip, maybe to camp and hotel your way from sea to shining sea. It sounds like a kick with funky diners, hard-to-fold maps, great music in the car, little towns and American wilderness. How can you maximize your chances of succeeding in this?

photo-11. Love the Road. You simply must love the road. It’s a showstopper if you don’t. The 400-mile day should be valued with as much excitement and anticipation as the day by the pool or in the park. The highway’s line over the horizon should hold as much charm as the resort. If the road is simply to be endured as a way to get where you want to go, you might not like road trips. It is indeed about getting there, though it is to be enjoyed as much in the getting as in the there.

Screen Shot 2013-11-15 at 11.00.07 PM2. Prepare Your Head. Attitude is nearly everything. Preparing your own outlook on the trip just might spell the difference between a lousy time and a great one. Decide in advance that you will think this way:

  • You do not serve the trip schedule; it serves you.
  • You are not in a contest (for speed, distance covered or early arrival).
  • If you have a reservation, it’s ok to be late. Play a little on the way. Don’t be a schedule Nazi.
  • There will be disappointments; be flexible.

IMG_11043. Pin the Map.  This is the first route-planning step. Pick a few key spots to pin on the map. This will begin to tell you if the trip can even be done. How long between them? How much will you drive? Will this be the kind of trip you want? We had 10 pins which gave us a wandering line versus a boring straight-shot eastward, weaving a route up to Tetons, southeastward to Iowa, northeast again to Niagara, etc.

At this point in your planning you start to face some choices. Read on.

Screen Shot 2013-11-15 at 10.48.37 PM4. Pace the Plan. Decide in advance what kind of trip you want and translate that into plan “settings” you will use to calculate the trip. How much time do you have? How much of it do you want to drive? Is it all camping? Is it about slower roads? How long in each place?

Our settings were: a) about 50% will be driving days, b) averaging about 350 miles per driving day, c) put in a hotel stay about every 5 days and d) try to stay off the interstates. That sounded great to us; it was 4000 miles wide and an inch deep, to adapt a phrase. (This kind of trip is about loving the road. Remember?)

We actually enjoy researching sites and parks and getting reserved!

We actually enjoy researching sites and parks and getting reserved!

5. Be Reserved. Well, now you have to decide how much plan to have. Styles differ here. We created just enough plan with nightly reservations to give us some peace of mind. We could relax, wander, and not worry about whether we would have a place to stay or spend time calling ahead to places late each day. However, aside from a ballgame and two theatre shows, we did not fill each day with things to do, and kept open to spur-of-the-moment changes. By choice or chance we abandoned our overnight plans 20% of the time.


6. Prepare Your Vehicles. Talk to mechanics, tire stores and to other travelers on blogs. It’s hard to be specific here; each vehicle is unique. Our pre-trip need was to fix our tow vehicle’s engine after a leaking head gasket soaked our alternator. And even after determined attempts to prevent trouble, it can still occur once underway. Under-inflated tires were an issue, and I can blame the store that mounted them on our trailer, but I still need to check it. I know this now. (By the way: The tire store was sorry and refunded on the tires).

IMG_12037. Pack Minimally. This keeps you agile. For 7 weeks we packed one suitcase each, plus a small batch of hanging items. This can be stretched over the span of the trip thanks to some laundry detergent and a roll of quarters. We included options ranging from camping clothes to theatre-going duds. With minimalist packing, we still brought too many things, but it was nice to have options.

8. Dial Back Expectations. Even after all the above re-thinking about your attitude, you can end up demanding more from this trip than it can deliver. Like a lot of big-deal plans in our lives, anticipation is often sweeter than the real deal. It does not have to be that way with your road trip.


Jenny Lake, Grand Teton National Park, WY

The trick is to drop the demand, be in the moment, and practice a kind of mindful enjoyment, living out the phrase “wherever you go, there you are.” From a practical standpoint this might mean that if you intend to see three things on a touring day, reduce it to two; then don’t be surprised if you get to only one. Maybe sleep in to get rested, go to that one thing, and then see how many unplanned joys appear in the day.


… or you might need to tape a leak on your water intake!

9. Manage the Disappointments. In point #2, I said one of the head-prep attitudes is to expect disappointments. Easy to say, hard to do when real trouble comes. National parks may close. Wall Drug may be the biggest drag to ever waste anyone’s noon meal. The Swedish town in Iowa might be depressing. The guy in the next site in Maine might run his RV generator after quiet hour. Your trailer tire might blow and give you an extra half-day to get to know Decatur, AL. Expect to be disappointed somewhere along the line. Go with the flow, change your plans and decide not to let anything get to you.

10. Be Open to Surprises. I alluded to this at the end of point #8. If you leave room to be surprised and you stay aware, you can catch the graces that come from wanderlust. Not everything happens because we planned it; otherwise we would be entirely too proud of our schemes. In fact, it’s even good to have some days with no plans in them at all. There were cliff walls in Wyoming that rivaled anything in Utah (who knew?) There were verdant rolling hills in SE South Dakota (who knew?) and a sweet Georgia State Park campground that held church on a Sunday (who knew?) You cannot plan these things.


After church in Georgia


About Cal Stevens

Learning professional, a training manager, speaker, writer; two careers in helping others succeed. Travel writer for the common road trip.
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4 Responses to Top 10 Keys to a Successful Long-Range Road Trip

  1. Monica says:

    Cal, I really enjoyed following your trip from coast to coast and back…you have inspired my wanderlust and a trip like this will be in my own future. These tips are great: simple, practical and are apt reminders that I can use in everyday life: don’t over plan and leave room for adventure and the unexpected. Thanks!

  2. coatesoft says:

    Thanks for sharing. I very rarely find a blog compelling enough to go the the beginning and read the whole thing, but I did with yours. Sounds like you had an amazing time!

  3. trips4us says:

    Enjoyed this entry / article on long distance road trip. We are planing a 2015 trip from Pittsburgh to Portland, OR, via Lake Tahoe & northern CA. (Any tips on those areas are appreciated.)
    Going to read the rest of your blog now… what an amazing experience!

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