Few things in life are as satisfying or memorable as heading out on the open road with nothing but a daypack, your thoughts, and a great playlist. Hitting the road for the sheer fun of it is becoming a bit of a rarity these days. Maybe it’s because work and family demand so many hours, or because in recent months the cost of gasoline has been prohibitive.
Whatever the reason, road trips are worth a closer look, as they are almost always the perfect antidote to stress. There are many things to love about a road trip as a way to clear your head and see the sights. Even if you embark upon the venture — gulp — solo!
Perhaps you’ve always had your dream trip in mind but no one else quite shares your enthusiasm. Or, you are a parent or student in need of some time away from the grind and looking for a way to recharge. Rather than trying to convince a friend or family member to join you on the road, why not treat yourself to an adventure?
You don’t need much to plan a successful road trip, but here are some tips to get the wheels turning.
Planning a Solo Road Trip? Keep These Tips in Mind
1. Dream about the Vibe/Theme
Sometimes when we’re behind a desk, working away, a certain song or image calls to us. Pay attention. Is it calling you to the woods? The desert? The ocean? If there is a place you yearn to go, listen to that small voice and consider indulging it.
You might plan your road trip around a theme, like food or family history. Or maybe it’s a specific destination you’re after. Maybe Dollywood nestled in the Smoky Mountains is on your bucket list or seeing a concert at Red Rocks. A road trip can even be based on a famous road or scenic route. Maybe you were chatting with a coworker about their recent drive down the Pacific Coastal Highway.
Even the rustic roads in your home state can be infrequently traveled, hidden gems. Close your eyes and think, “Where do I see myself?” This is usually a great way to hatch a plan.
2. Decide on a Budget
Ok, so you see yourself cruising California’s Highway 1, but you’re in the Midwest with a budget and PTO days that aren’t likely to get you there (this time). What to do? Find the “Best of” in your area with a similar feel: Cruise up the shore of Lake Michigan on the Wisconsin or Michigan side. Get some sun and seafood on a road trip along the Gulf Coast. Is it California? No, but you might fall in love with Michigan’s dunes or Louisiana’s laid-back Cajun flavor.
Another way to be budget savvy is to balance out your accommodations and food choices. Save some money with prepared snacks and classic, open-air picnics along the way. Travel a shorter distance (saving on gas) but treat yourself to a night or two in a luxe hotel. The point is, always have a budget and stick to it. This way, you can road trip guilt-free and you might even be surprised by what you discover when you get a little creative.
3. Prep your Vehicle
So, this may not be the most “fun” tip, but it’s probably one of the more important checklist items before venturing out. Give your road trip vehicle a once-over to lessen the chance of any unpleasant or costly surprises on the road. Make sure you’re up-to-date with oil changes, check and double-check your tire pressure (and travel with a gauge). Top off the wiper fluid, and follow up on any “check engine” or “service” lights that might be illuminated. Toss in a first aid kit for good measure.
Remember to brush up on your insurance details and have the card on-hand just in case. Do you have roadside assistance available should you need it? Do you have a spare tire and tools in the trunk?
Finally, consider treating yourself and your car to a deep clean before the trip for maximum enjoyment. Once you’re confident in the state of your car, truck, or RV, you’re ready to ride.
4. Gaze at the Map … Take Your Time
Road trips are about the small details (which end up being the “good stuff” in hindsight). These days, when traveling it’s easy enough to pop our destination’s address in the car’s GPS, which then has us traveling the fastest route, which is usually highways. Road trips are not that, so you will have to do some slow navigating.
You might even consider traveling with a paper regional map or road atlas (remember those?). Maps are better anyways when you’re out in the country with plenty of stars and no wi-fi.
On a road trip, try to avoid main highways as they don’t offer much in terms of scenery or local flavor. Instead, loosely plan a route with plenty of country roads and rustic terrain. It can be a mental shift to focus less on “efficiency” and more on the “slow road” but this is where you’ll find the magic in your journey.
5. Arrange your Stay(s)
If you’ll be on the road for days or weeks at a time you’ll need a place to rest your head. You can book a campsite, RV park, hotel, or AirBnB ahead of time if only to have something lined up. Just be sure to study each venue’s cancellation policy to give yourself flexibility and wiggle room.
Some campsites will refund/not charge you if you cancel 48 hours ahead of time while others will charge a fee should you change your mind. Sometimes places don’t allow for cancellations at all. Make sure to have the contact and cancellation information for each venue on-hand for quick reference, and so you don’t have to waste time scrolling in an area with spotty wi-fi.
It’s a good idea to go with lodging options that are flexible if you can, as road trips are very “go-with-the-flow” and you might love a small town so much that you decide to spend an extra day or two. Depending on the region or time of year, it’s possible to leave everything to chance and “book as you go,” but understand your options could be limited.
6. Choose a restaurant or two
You don’t have to map out every meal on your road trip. Leave plenty of opportunity for a small picnic mid-hike, impromptu stops at roadside diners, and burger joints suggested by locals!
That said, do consider researching one or two places ahead of time that look delicious or intriguing. It then becomes part of the destination and something to look forward to. And if you have a restaurant in mind that is somewhat popular with lots of fresh food and great views, a call the day before to make reservations takes any worry out of “What’s for dinner?” on that particular day of the trip.
For some people, dining alone can feel a bit awkward. If you are someone who’s a bit intimidated by the thought of eating solo, or if you’re just not used to it, fear not. Dining solo is increasingly common.
Research the restaurant and even the menu ahead of time so you feel comfortable and confident in what you’d like to order. Bring a book (guidebook?), phone, camera, or notebook to help pass the time while your food is being prepared. Also, never underestimate the free entertainment that is people-watching.
Finally, if you’re traveling solo but don’t wish to eat solo, a local food tour or culinary tour is the way to go. These tours offer a unique opportunity to try several different eateries, learn about local food, and meet people.
7. Have an Activity Lined up
Yes, a road trip is about the drive. And in theory, you could drive all day, stopping only to eat and sleep, but what’s the fun in that? A couple of choice activities will break up any road fatigue nicely, refresh your body and mind, and get you revved up for the next leg of your journey.
And consider this: there’s no compromise when traveling solo; this is your chance to do what you love! Want to immerse yourself in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s history, then party like it’s 1899? If presidential libraries are your passion, what’s stopping you?
The point is to make it personal. Get out and stretch your legs with a hike, disc golf, or bike ride. Or, sit back and let someone else do the navigating on a riverboat ride or sightseeing tour through town. Get underground in some caves, or simply plan to lie on the beach or soak in a hot spring. Do whatever your heart desires, learn something new, or just “be.”
8. Pack Light, and Well
How you pack for your trip will depend greatly on where you go, when, and how long you plan to stay. That said, it’s good practice to travel as minimally as you can get away with, and this can take some time to master. A backseat stuffed floor-to-ceiling with suitcases doesn’t necessarily scream “Free-spirited adventure happening here!”.
Be sure to pack for the activities you’ll be doing and check the weather just ahead of your trip so you have that umbrella or extra sweater ready. You can get away with packing less if you put together a collection of clothes that mix and match, often called a “travel capsule wardrobe”. Think basics, mostly neutrals, with pops of colors happening in accessories or statement jewelry. Check with your accommodations to see if and where laundry is available.
Remember the picnic scenario? You’ll savor the picnic experience even more when enjoying simple, local meats, cheeses, breads, and spreads on a dedicated blanket, with drinks in a small cooler chilled and ready to go.
Finally, prep any activity gear (bike? tackle box? camera?) alongside those road trip essentials like maps, sunglasses, chargers, and bug spray. Include anything that you think will help you to travel safely, comfortably, and worry-free.
9. Curate the Perfect Playlist
Don’t forget the tunes! It’s not the days of mixed tapes anymore, but the spirit remains. What’s a great road trip without an epic soundtrack to go with it? Understandably you might not wish to have every moment of your trip paired with a “travel-themed” song (though, there are many to choose from), and It’s fun to happen upon small, local radio stations while rolling through a Kentucky holler.
The radio won’t always deliver, though, so a personalized collection of backup music is essential. This is perhaps the second greatest perk to a solo road trip.
Here again, in choosing music you can pick a theme or explore artists local to the region you’re traveling. You can traverse different time periods, cities, and countries. You can have some go-to songs selected to energize, and others to slow things down.
If you’re on a streaming service like Spotify, shake things up pre-trip and add some new tunes to your usual mix or even create a dedicated ‘road trip’ channel. Ask friends for new music recommendations to experience on the road, or finally do that deep dive into an artist or band you’ve always wanted to explore (no one can stop you from listening intently to the lyrics, or playing a song on repeat a few dozen times).
Always, always download your playlist for those times when you’re offline. A final word: Not all cars have CD players anymore, but if you’re one of the lucky ones, dig out your old discs and invite them along for a roll down memory lane.
Exploring independently is one of the great, under-appreciated experiences one can have in life. Perhaps the secret to a great solo road trip is the right mix of careful planning and spontaneity. Get the budget planned and the basics out of the way so you’re not fretting about what to do or where to gas up. Then, just sit back and enjoy the ride. Reflect on the past, dream about the future, and appreciate how the sunset hits just so coming around that hillside.
If you’re not sure where to start, start small. An amazing road trip can last as little as a few hours or stretch over a few days or weeks. Think of it as an investment in your mental health and overall well-being. A solo road trip can be the ultimate form of self-care in our busy lives.
Leslie is a freelance travel and health/wellness writer who gets butterflies from telling stories and sharing information with readers across the globe. Her voice comes from a place filled with passion and dreams.
With over 10 years of experience in crafting words and years of embarking on travels that have taken this Montana girl to some incredible places, Leslie loves the adventures of both body and mind her writing takes her on.
To see what Leslie’s up to in the writing and design world, visit her website here.