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Seven steps to the perfect summer road trip

by , SmarterTravel Staff
On the road to Monument Valley (Photo: PhotoDisc)
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on April 18, 2005. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: activity, adventure travel, car rental, Molly Feltner, road trip, student travel.

For students and the young at heart, roadtripping is more than a way to get from point A to B. It's a rite of passage and a means of exploring your surroundings and yourself. "The great thing about road trips is that they allow for improvisation and creativity," says Tom Mercer, project editor for St. Martin's Press, the publisher of the new Let's Go Roadtripping USA. "It perfectly suits the ambition of a young traveler."

Whether you hope to rediscover the back roads of your home state or retrace Route 66 all the way from Illinois to California, a successful road trip requires a mix of advance planning and flexibility while traveling. Here are seven steps to help you put together the perfect summer trip.

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1. Choosing your travel partners

Choosing companions for your road trip adventure might be the most important decision you make. Remember, you'll be spending almost 24 hours a day, day after day, in close quarters together, so it's extremely important that everyone's personalities and interests mesh well.

Mercer suggests that prospective road trippers sit down together and discuss what each person's goals are for the trip. Talk about what you want to see, how much money you want to spend, what pace you want to travel at, and how open you are to changing the itinerary once on the road. You and your partners might not agree on everything, but you should share some common interests and try to build some flexibility into your trip.

Figuring out how much money you want to spend on things like accommodations and food is also vital to your partnership. For instance, a traveler who primarily wants to camp and eat out of a cooler probably won't work well with someone who'd rather stay at hotels and dine at restaurants for every meal.

2. Figuring out where to go

Brainstorming your itinerary is the fun part of trip planning, and you can do as much or as little of it as you like. "Some people just have a general idea about where they want to go and let their impulses drive them while others plan a general route and then improvise along the way," says Mercer.

You might start by studying maps or browsing guide books like Let's Go Roadtripping USA. Or, there are countless online resources you can use to generate ideas:

  • Find scenic roads around the country by visiting the website of the National Scenic Byways Program. The site covers 96 nationally designated scenic drives in the U.S. such as the Kancamagus Scenic Byway through the White Mountains of New Hampshire and the Big Sur Coast Highway along Route 1 in California. Detailed information is listed for each route including maps and directions, points of interest, and events happening nearby.
  • Link to the official tourism websites of all 50 states through the Tourism Offices Worldwide Directory. State tourism sites include a wealth of information about state attractions, accommodations, events, weather, and more. Most also link to the visitors' bureaus of individual cities and regions within the state.
  • Locate national parks by state or zip code using the interactive map on the National Park Service website. Each park has its own homepage where you'll find maps and information about activities, climate, and park services.
  • Find obscure sites and landmarks in the U.S. through HamptonLandmarks.com, a site that allows you to search through a database of more than 1,000 U.S. landmarks by city, state, or category. The website also details sample road tours that combine visits to numerous sites such as the Diamonds in the Dust tour of baseball sites in the Midwest and the Smile and Say Big tour of photogenic landmarks in West.
  • If you're really into visiting oddball attractions, you should also browse RoadSideAmerica.com, which lists more than 5,000 offbeat sites in the U.S. and Canada such as the "world's largest hairball" in Webster, SD, or "Prairie Dog Town" in Oakley, KS.
  • Plan your itinerary around events and festivals happening around the country using WhatsOnWhen.com. Search by location, theme, keyword, or date to find reports on thousands of notable events.
  • Read instructive and inspirational articles about roadtripping on RoadTripAmerica.com. The site also has a forum where you can post questions and ask for suggestions.

Planning is helpful, but don't get carried away scheduling every moment of your trip. Part of the fun of roadtripping is the serendipity of stumbling upon unexpected sites or interesting people.

3. Planning the route

If you prefer to let the road take you where it will, you can skip this part. But if you'd rather know where you're going in advance, there are several online tools you can use to map your route. Keep in mind, however, that no online planning tool is perfect and none are completely comprehensive or fully up to date, so bring along a separate road atlas and guide book.

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