Our family has (not to brag or anything) perfected the art of road trip travel. Whenever we come back from one of our traditional 2-week road trips people always tend to ask how we manage to pull off these amazing vacations. The truth is, taking a road trip allows you to do more and see more while sticking to a more modest budget than most people think. You just have to be strategic about it. Here is the rundown on how taking multiple stops on a big cross-country road trip can help break up your trip, allow you to see more, and how you can do it all without totally breaking the bank!
Planning a life of exploration and travel
Years ago, when we first started the process of downsizing our house and paying off our debt, our family made the decision that we were going to travel more. It’s been 5 years since that day and the more road trips we’ve taken, the more places we have added to our bucket list of places to go.
If you have been dreaming of a life of travel, my top recommendation is to get as much information as you can from people who are already doing it.
By simply deciding travel and exploration is something you want to be a part of your life, you instantly put that energy out to the universe and things begin to fall into place. Of course, my biggest recommendation (especially if you’re nervous to get started) is to start right where you’re at. A lot of times people dream of these big, grand travel adventures and don’t realize that more than anything you are seeking a feeling. That feeling of freedom and happiness that you seek can be found right in your own backyard!
Think you’re ready to start making a travel part of your life more consistently but aren’t sure how to get started? I created a step-by-step program (that you can do in less than 30 days) that guides you through everything you need to create a life of freedom on your own terms. It’s called Rich Minimalist. Click here to check out Unstoppable Purpose and learn how to escape ordinary living in 30 days or less.
Plan your prime places
Of course, when you head out on a road trip, it’s kind of nice to have a stopping point. Choosing your final destination(s) can help you better create a course that allows you to maximize how much you are able to see and do. Because our family takes 2 whole weeks we usually plan 2 -3 major destinations that we want to be sure to spend several days at.
The idea of just hitting the road and seeing where you end up is fun and adventurous for sure — but knowing you’re going to end up somewhere amazing kinda sounds like a better idea. (At least in my book.)
That’s why the first thing to do is to land on your absolute must-see places. For our family’s last road trip, these places were:
- Mount Rainier National Park
- Olympic National Park
- Astoria, Oregon. (Astoria is where The Goonies was filmed. Call me a nerd if you want, but this was a location I have been dying to get to for years!)
Book and plan your prime places
To ensure you can get into your must-see places during the dates you have carved out for your trip, I highly recommend making sure to book these ASAP. This way you also have time to shop around, find the best rates, and you can plan the majority of your budget on the places that are the most important to you. So much better than just stopping and spending on hotels as you go only to get to your must-see locations and have very little cash left. Click here to save $40 on the cost of an Airbnb.
After you’ve booked lodging, take the time to do a little research into the area and find the key things you want to do or see.
Taking the time to put your focus into your prime areas will ensure that you take full advantage of these locations and make sure you are optimizing your budget.
Plus, road trips can get a little chaotic. You never know what might happen on your route to your final destinations which is why having things in line when you get there can really help relieve any stress.
Decide where to splurge and were to save
When it comes to booking these fantasy vacations it can be really easy to just go buck-wild and splurge on everything. Before you get too excited, take the time to consider what you value the most during this trip. Is it the excursions? Do you really want to make sure you have a luxury hotel to stay in? Are you wanting to spend a good chunk of money on eating all the local foods?
Taking the time to pre-decide where you want your money to go can help you make more affordable decisions on the areas you’re not as worried about. Grab the Fun Sized Budget Bundle for help organizing your vacation budget.
Your list might look like this…
- Excursions like zip lining and boat tours
- Renting kayaks
- Dining at local breweries every other night
- Enjoying free beaches or hiking 5 out of 7 days
- Pre-making breakfast and lunch ahead of time so we don’t go out
- Affordable lodging since we won’t be there much (Opting for an Airbnb can help save on out-to-eat costs as well if you find a place that has a full kitchen available. Click here to save $40 on your Airbnb booking.)
Know your driving limit
Not everyone has conditioned their children (or themselves) to sit in a car for long periods of time. Thankfully, I adapted to long car rides as a kid since my mom’s family lived 6 hours away from us when I was growing up. This means we can usually swing a 7 hour day without getting too antsy.
It’s important to know your limit (and maybe get comfortable with pushing it a little) so that you can time out when you are going to want to stop. This way you aren’t driving for 5 hours straight and panicking because you have found yourself on a road that seems endless.
When you know your limit you can better plan how your stops whether it’s just to pause and stretch your legs a bit or if you want to find bonus locations to add to your adventure journey.
Locate your perfect stopping points
Once you have booked your must-see places, have an idea of what you want to spend money on and know just how long you can push your driving limits before you’re going to have a nervous breakdown, it’s time to use Google Maps to start finding your perfect stopping points. Be sure to use the Route Planner in my free Ultimate Fun Sized Travel Planner.
Step 1: Type in your starting point to your futhest prime stopping point
Step 2: Find potential stopping points
When looking for potential stopping points, it’s a good idea to start close to your starting location and work your way out. I personally like to look for areas that mark National Parks or National Forests or cities I have heard of that I might want to stop in.
This can give you good ideas for places to stop where you know you’ll be able to take advantage of the culture, atmosphere or experiences it has to offer in order to optimize your trip.
Step 3: Check the driving time of potential stops
When we planned our last trip, we noticed Medora, North Dakota was large enough to be marked on the map (therefore it probably had losing options) and was located within Theodore Roosevelt National Park. It was a little over 8 hours and 6 minutes (As you can see in the white box with the car,) according to Google Maps which means only an hour past our driving “limit” that we had set.
Be willing to explore
Based on the maps I shared above, the first time we stopped at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, we didn’t take a lot of time to research and Pinterest the area like crazy. We simply bought a National Parks Pass, (since we knew we would be using it multiple times over the next year,) and figured we would at least find a place to stretch our legs.
Taking the time to research and plan out each stop of your road trip might be exhausting and less relaxing. If you take the time to see each stopping point as a chance to relax and unwind it can make the trip a whole lot more enjoyable.
After stopping to go to the bathroom and get gas in Medora, we simply followed the signs for Theodore Roosevelt National Park and found ourselves experiencing a really fun trail/rock climbing experience.
Let the internet research for you
Let’s not be coy, we all know the internet and our phones are already stalking everything we do. May as well take advantage of this while you plan your road trip.
The second you start typing in your final destination or researching fun things to do in your prime location areas, your phone, social media, and internet searches will gladly help you along by bringing videos, ads, and more into view.
I continued to be shown TikTok videos for hikes in Washington state and every time I saw one that looked interesting, I saved it. Because I saved it, TikTok continued to show me more hikes and experiences I could have in Washington.
When it came time to book my Washington stops, I went back into my saved TikToks to find some of the locations I had previously saved to see if any of them happened to fall along the paths we were planning to take to our prime locations.
You can easily save locations you see on:
Take detours for your must-see stuff
Thanks to my TikTok videos saves as well as some research I had previously done for future travel in the US, I remembered a little town called Leavenworth, WA that was just a few hours away from one of our final destinations (Mount Rainier National Park).
Taking the detour to Leavenworth added a few more hours to our trip, but I knew this would be a place where we could easily spend an entire day, would be a fun addition to our trip, and would allow for a good, hearty meal before we spent the next 3 days camping without showers!
If you happen upon a place that makes your heart skip-a-beat, and your time and budget allow for it, don’t hesitate to add these must-see places to your road trip stops! You won’t regret it.
Set a perfect time to “hit the road”
When you have calculated out how far you have between each stop, take the time to consider when you are going to want to be in the car and on the road.
For example, after leaving Leavenworth to head toward Mount Rainier, we had an easy 4-hour drive. However, leaving Leavenworth a little after 3 meant we didn’t make it to our campground until 7. This made setting up camp a little exhausting and left us with no additional time to start to see the park itself.
Consider in advance what you are going to want to do and accomplish at your next stop or destination and be sure to leave ample room to accomplish this.
Power through boring places if you can
My biggest recommendation to you is to drive at night, switch drivers, or do whatever you can to get through places that you have no interest in exploring::cough::Nebraska::cough::
I know you might now be interested in doing a long haul and maybe you’re cool with paying just to crash in a hotel. To each their own. Just consider for a second, hear me out, if you were to push yourself to drive say an extra 4 hours to a location where you might actually enjoy the sites, food, or entertainment of the area. Even if you’re kinda in “chill mode” once you get there…it might be worth the extra push.
Places on my power through list:
- The entire state of Nebraska
- North Dakota until you get west
- South Dakota until you get west
- The middle of Minnesota (up north is pretty, I promsie)
Setting your budget
Chances are you have a whole budget you’re looking to stay within. Now that you’ve been able to go through and plan your stops and book your “Prime Places” you can start to get an idea of how much you have left for additional excursions, food, and gas. Click here to grab my gas mileage calculator in The Ultimate Fun Sized Road Trip Planner.
Another awesome option for travel is to look into travel hacking with credit cards. This is of course something I only recommend if you have gotten a solid hold on your financial situation and don’t struggle with racking up credit card debt.
Stay for free when you can
There are a ton of places you can actually stay for free while you are stopping during your road trip. Click here for my full list of free camping places in the US.
When it comes to finding places to stay for free, things are going to be a lot simpler (and quicker) if you are traveling in something like an RV. If you already have everything you need ready to go it’s very easy to pull into a Walmart parking lot and just camp out for the night.
If you don’t have an RV, you can always look into things like RV Share that allow you to rent RV’s from people (kind of like Airbnb on wheels).
Keep in mind, you can always find free camping from your vehicle if you have enough room. We often do this with our minivan (sexy, I know) but during our longer road trips, we usually don’t have enough room.
Consider campground hopping instead of hotels
Also, keep in mind that staying at campgrounds that have cabins (like KOA) is usually more cost-effective and just as simple as booking a hotel. This past summer we signed up for KOA Rewards which gives you a 10% discount on all of your stays and can really add up if you plan on staying at multiple KOAs during your road trip.
To give you an example, when we were looking for lodging in Montana on our way home all local hotels were priced around $250 and a KOA cabin was only $80 and included an outdoor pool. Not bad if you ask me. Plus, we saved $170!
Plan for comfort on the way home
Speaking of the drive home, keep in mind that you are going to be way more exhausted as you make your way home (especially if you have kids in the car). You might want to consider taking shorter trips on the way back and staying in more comfortable lodging.
This has become our routine. On the way to our “Prime Places,” we will generally take longer trips and are ok with less than 5-star hotels (wink, wink). On the way home, we try to treat ourselves to places that have more pillows, longer pool hours, and good (free) breakfasts!
Coming home is usually the pits after a road trip. Chances are, you have soaked up so many amazing experiences and you aren’t totally psyched about being home (maybe that’s just us). If this is the case, be sure to allow yourself a little extra pampering before you pull into the driveway! You deserve it.