When we first thought about a grand, summer-long road trip through the American West, we were a bit optimistic, I’ll admit. America is a large country. You can’t see half of it in a summer. We learned, however, some important lessons about how to build a workable itinerary:
Start with your budget – both in terms of time and money. And honestly, your time budget is probably going to be the limiting factor in this equation. There are always ways to cut back on the money you’ll spend, but if you want to see both Yosemite and Yellowstone, you know you’re not going to be able to experience much in a week.
Make a list of the must-see destinations you want to visit. You’ll certainly be able to see more than just these destinations, but having this list will allow you to prioritize your itinerary around what’s most important. If you’re traveling with others, or with children, be sure to involve them in this step as well. The activity of planning a trip together is sometimes almost as much fun as the trip itself. It also helps to have a variety of opinions going into the planning, as it ensures that your travels are going to be more interesting.
Put the must-see destinations on a map. That’s right, go out and get a map of the locations you’ll be visiting, and physically circle your must-sees on the map. When we were planning our Western US trip, we bought a laminated map, and gave each family member a different color dry erase marker. We spent three months researching travel in Colorado, Utah, Montana, and Wyoming, with each person picking out different points of interest. We found that more of our interests were concentrated in just three locations, with a few more that rested along a route from point A to point B. And just like that, we knew where we were going, and which roads we would be taking. This step will not only tell you where you need to travel, but also how long you need to stay at each location. More things to do and see? Spend three or four nights! Too many people make the mistake of planning a road trip by deciding on the route AND THEN deciding on what to do along the way. If a road trip is about the journey, not the destination, it make sense to give priority to the sights along the way rather than focusing on the most efficient freeway route.
Decide on your overnight locations. Now that you know where you’ll be going, and how long you’ll be staying in each area, you can plan on your accommodations. This could be hotel, campground, or a friend’s house; what matters is that you’ll know where you’ll be resting your head each night. Ideally, keep these overnight stops close together; 300 miles of travel in one day doesn’t leave much time for sightseeing, side trips, or good meals. If you’ve got a really long stretch, consider breaking it into two legs, and find some interesting activities along the way. If you must schedule a long travel day, be sure to leave some stationary days on either side for recovery.
Put together the itinerary, with dates, miles, and estimated expenses. A spreadsheet comes in handy here. Start with your departure date, and build a list of where you’ll be on and what you’ll do on each day and night thereafter. Include the number of miles traveled each day. This would also be a good place to start estimating how much money you’ll spend each day – consider gas money, hotel or campground fees, meal expenses, and activities planned. Pay special attention to where you’ll be on weekends or holidays. If you’re visiting National Parks, you’ll want to avoid visits on the weekend if possible. You’ll probably want to avoid checking into a new campground on the 4th of July. But what do you do if your trip isn’t lining up with the calendar? Easy answers include shifting days from one location to another, or skipping somewhere altogether. A more innovative plan is to consider re-ordering the stops, or simply reversing the order of the trip: start at the end, and end at the beginning!
Share the itinerary with family and friends. Now give the list to your family. Have them research fun things to do in each town you’ll be visiting, on the days you’ll be there. Give each person an assignment to be the travel director at one location, to be an expert on local sights, restaurants, and activities. Send the itinerary to friends or relatives who live in or near the locations you’ll be visiting. Invite them to stop by for some time by the campfire, or a meal at a local restaurant.
Start making reservations! The itinerary is done, you know you can afford the trip, and you know where you’ll be each night. Now get out there and make reservations, buy advance tickets, and prepare for your road trip.