Ten Rules for Free-Form Driving Trips

Seniors on the Go
Kate Sitarz is an Editorial Assistant at SmarterTravel. In addition to fact-checking and copy-editing, Kate keeps the hotel, vacation package, and car rental deal sections up-to-date with the latest discounts and offerings. The best travel memories Kate has are of the 12-hour family road trips taken in her youth to places like Washington, D.C., Montreal, and Acadia National Park. Though she has fallen in love with the sights, sounds, and culture of Paris (and dreams of living there one day), Kate first wants to explore all of the vast and diverse 50 states. 

Take a classic road trip, hitting every state in the U.S. and stopping at American landmarks along the way like Mt. Rushmore, the Alamo, Gateway Arch, the Seattle Space Needle, and the Everglades. 
Spend an entire year living in Anchorage, Alaska. See the aurora borealis, Denali National Park and Mt. McKinley, Fairbanks, and plenty of reindeer. 
Hike the Appalachian Trail. From Spring Mountain in Georgia to Mt. Katahdin in Maine, this trail meanders through 14 states along its 2,000+ mile course.
Visit Auschwitz.  
Take off to Fiji and stay in a hut with a hammock. 
Herd sheep in New Zealand. With more sheep than people, I can't think of a better place to be amongst wooly companions.
Go scuba diving at the Great Barrier Reef.
Snowboard the Swiss Alps. While trekking through the Alps is on the do to list, I first want to leave the icy New England trails behind for some first-class riding.
Go backpacking in Patagonia. Highlights I'd want to hit include the Perito Moreno Glacier in Argentina and the Torres del Paine National Park in Chile. 
Walk the Great Wall of China. Maybe not all 5,000 plus miles of it, but enough to get a sense of just how large it is.

Do you have a favorite stop along the road? Is there anything else you would add to Kate's list? Please leave comments in the field below.

(Photo: iStockphoto/Andrew Penner)
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on October 29, 2010. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: car rental, Ed Perkins, low season, Seniors on the Go, senior travel.

My friend Don, back home in the High Country from a driving trip in Europe, told me he "hated" most of France and Spain. Why? Because, as was his usual pattern, he pre-booked all of his hotel accommodations in city and town centers, and found the traffic to be terrible and the cities to be packed. The only places he enjoyed were the small towns and countryside. This was a predictable outcome. He now recognizes that he would have been better off on a free-form trip, keeping to the countryside, and staying anywhere along the route he found attractive.

My wife and I have done that sort of trip often, in the United States as well as in Europe. Armed with good maps and guidebooks, we've driven around some beautiful areas, stopped when we saw something worth a stop, and crashed at funky country inns along the way. Here are the 10 "rules" I've developed for that sort of free-form driving trip:

Find Cheap Flights!
Find Cheap Flights!
Get Prices
Find Cheap Vacation Packages!
Get Prices
Find Cheap Hotel Deals!
Get Prices
Find Cheap Car Rentals!
Get Prices
Find Cheap Cruises!
Get Prices

1. Select a region you'd like to explore. Choose on the basis of what interests you: scenery, food, buildings and monuments, historical sites, whatever. Make sure the area is large enough to provide a reasonable range of stops, but small enough that you don't have to drive more than a few hours each day.

2. Before you go, get one or more guidebooks covering the area's attractions and activities and another one or two covering accommodations and restaurants. In the U.S., that means some combination of a good destination guide and the AAA or Mobil guides. If you like B&B accommodations, get one or more B&B guides, or download and print online regional directories. In Europe, that means, at a minimum, the appropriate Michelin "Green" regional destination guide and the national Michelin "Red" hotel and restaurant guide. Research the region carefully—both the sights/activities and the general highway layout. You don't need to map out a detailed itinerary; spontaneity is part of the fun of free-form touring. But you should have a feel for the region's "must see" stops, regardless of the order in which you visit them.

3. Get the most detailed maps of the region you can find. In the U.S., that means the usual state highway maps, plus whatever AAA maps are available for areas within the region. In Europe, that means however many of the highly detailed minimum-area maps you can get from Michelin or its several competitors: They're available at any good travel bookstore or online through Amazon.

4. Plan your trip for the low season. This is critical. Free-form touring just doesn't work in a region's high season, when you can expect most accommodations to be fully booked and restaurants mobbed. You don't do free-form touring in New England during the fall foliage season, or the U.S. coasts in summer, or the Colorado Rockies during ski season, or Normandy or Tuscany in August. We've found some really nice overnights on the Oregon coast in late fall, in Tuscany in late fall, and in the French Alps in early summer.

5. If you're renting a car, rent one in which you feel comfortable. Your car will be "home" for the duration. Skimping on rentals is a major mistake.

6. When you start touring, pack so you can keep most of your stuff in the car's trunk and schlep only a toilet kit and one change of clothes each time you check into a hotel.

7. Avoid big cities and even sizable towns—free-form touring doesn't work well there. Even if it did, most city and suburban accommodations are now chain motels. If you just have to go into a city or two, stay in the outskirts and use public transportation to get in and out of the center.

8. Stick to the side and back roads; forget freeways and main highways.

9. Stay overnight when and where you feel like it. In Europe, some of the least expensive countryside accommodations are "restaurants with rooms," and you can get some great meals there, as well.
10. Take it easy and have fun.

Your Turn

What are your best tips for hitting the open road? Share your advice by adding a comment below!

Read comments or add your own insight!