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Seven steps to the perfect summer road trip

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.

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.

Mark Sedenquist, the publisher and managing editor of RoadTripAmerica.com, recommends TripKing, a free planning tool that can be found on RV.com and several other sites. This tool can help you plan your trip hour-by-hour, allowing you to not only map out a route but also find restaurants, lodging, attractions, and other points of interest along the way.

Megan Edwards, the president and editor of RoadTripAmerica.com, also suggests a similar free planning tool, TravMatrix. “What makes this tool interesting is the amount of customized information a road tripper can gather about the availability of certain travel service amenities along a particular Interstate highway,” says Edwards. “For example, it is easy to get a list of all of the hot tubs along a certain stretch of highway.”

4. Finding cheap accommodations and dining

If you have friends or relatives who live in interesting places, a road trip is the perfect way to visit them. Not only will you fulfill those long-time promises to visit, you’ll also cut down on lodging and food costs and have access to a free tour guide.

If you can’t stay with friends, try mixing camping with occasional stays in hotels when you feel the need to clean up. For camping, Mercer suggests staying in official campgrounds rather than at rest stops or other locations. You can find and reserve camp sites in 44 states through ReserveAmerica, but to find out all the options, you may need to consult a guide book or ask around at a local gas station or visitors’ center.

Find affordable hotels on your route by using a guidebook or a hotel-booking site like PlacesToStay.com or Orbitz. It never hurts to try calling the hotel directly to see if lower prices are available. You can also try looking for hostels on HostelWorld.com, but keep in mind that many U.S. hostels require an international passport.

The cheapest way to eat is to stop at grocery stores and stock up on bottled drinks, sandwich fixings, and other snacks. You can always stop at fast-food chains, but you’re on the road to experience new things. So, try to fit in some meals at local diners, farmer’s markets, and the occasional restaurant.

5. Keeping gas costs under control

Gas may be your biggest expense, but there a few things you can do to reduce costs. Here are some ideas:

  • Bring one or more friends along to split the costs.
  • Choose a fuel-economy car over a gas-guzzler if you have a choice.
  • Fill your gas tank and drive during the cooler parts of the day when fuel consumption is less, suggests Edwards.
  • Find the lowest fuel price in any area of the U.S. or Canada using RoadTripAmerica.com’s Fuel Cost Calculator. “[The calculator] allows road trippers to obtain fuel costs when comparing different types of vehicles, fuel efficiencies, and miles traveled,” says Sedenquist.

6. Keeping safe and happy on the road

Problems and tempers are bound to arise at some point along your trip, but keeping cool and being prepared can help minimize the trouble. To keep peace between yourself and your travel mates, Mercer says to not get too ambitious with your itinerary and to schedule time outside the car every day. Flexibility and the ability to compromise also go a long way. “Sometimes you get stuck in places unexpectedly and you have to leave yourself time to stop and enjoy where you are,” says Mercer.

It’s also important to treat your car well and be prepared for roadside emergencies. Keep an extra set of keys and carry basic repair tools, plus a safety kit with flares and extra water, says Mercer. Before traveling, you should also make sure your car insurance is up to date and look into roadside assistance services like AAA. Reading up about car maintenance and repair is helpful too.

7. Documenting your journey

Documenting your trip through journaling and photography is now easier than ever with digital cameras and travel blogs. Several free online travel blogs allow you to write journal entries, upload photographs, map your route, and keep in touch with friends and family as you travel. Before you hit the road, set up your personal travel blog on a site like TravelPod and TravelBlog and then write entries as you travel. Both sites automatically send e-mail notification to your friends and family when you update the blog.

Or, you can keep a written journal on the trip and then put together a scrapbook with photos when you get home. Include ticket stubs, maps, postcards, addresses of new friends, and other memorabilia from you trip. With a scrapbook, you’ll have a tangible way to recall your epic adventure for years to come.

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