Ultimate Road Trip Planner – How to Plan a Fantastic Road Trip

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Road Trip, Tips & Tricks

Road trips are amazing, but planning a road trip can be a struggle. This guide will help you make the most of your trip!

Planning a road trip can be a lot of fun and makes you look forward to your upcoming trip even more. However there are several things you should do to ensure that you will have an amazing time once you hit the road. This road trip planner will tell you how you avoid issues and help you make the most out of your trip.

By now I have done several road trips of varying lengths, with different modes of transportations and in different countries including Australia and Sri Lanka. And if there is one thing I can say about road trips, it is that they are the most amazing way to explore a country. It gives you the largest amount of freedom and with the right group of people, it will be a blast.

Hopefully reading this road trip planner will help you plan an incredible road trip. And that reading this will make you laugh at my explanations of why certain things are important. Let’s just say that there is a backstory for most of these points even if I did not include all of them in this guide.

The open road in Australia with two lanes and red dirt at the side of the road.
Highway 1 in Western Australia

Plan my Road Trip – First Planning Experiences

When I planned my first road trip back in 2017, the only thing I prepared in advance was a list of places I would like to see. I knew that we would pick up our campervan in Cairns and would return it eight days later in Sydney. I did not know how tight this timeframe would make our schedule. The driving time itself was more than 19 hours, but it seemed doable in 7 days. We were determined to see everything so we did not really consider the fact that it would be best to adjust our plans.

As can be expected, things did not work out the way we planned it. Looking back, I should have expected as much. We did not even check out the ferry schedules to two islands we wanted to explore, or any prices or places to stay ahead of time.

Guide on a dashboard that I used to plan my road trip through Western Australia

We had to skip things on our list left and right. And we often found ourselves desperately looking for a place to stay long after it had gotten dark and roos had taken over the streets. In the end, the road trip was still amazing, but it could have been a lot less stressful!

Looking back the road trip planning process was a total mess and I would never do it that way again, but it was a very educating experience.

Everything on this list is based on my own experience. I learned a lot since my first road trip and later road trips were much more relaxing as I did the things on this list.

Road Trip Planner – Initial Planning Phase

This is the starting point of your road trip plans and where you should answer all the main questions. It is the crucial step of how to plan a road trip. You have to work out a framework and a general overview that says when, with whom and where you will be going. And if you decide not to drive in your own car, you should also answer the ‘how’.

Find a Road Trip Buddy

Maybe it’s just me, but there are several road trips I would love to do in the coming years. However, I have no idea who will join me on those trips. And while I might be a solo female traveler, a road trip is so much better with others.

On one hand, it is a lot more fun to share the experience with someone else, and on the other hand, it adds another layer of security. Depending on where you will be driving and your activities, having someone else around might be crucial. Especially if you end up driving very long distances between individual stops. Having someone to talk to while you drive and being able to switch drivers makes the entire venture better.

If you do not have a friend that wants to join you, I recommend checking out Facebook groups about the destination. Traveling a long distance with a stranger might seem dangerous or weird at first glance, but it can lead to amazing friendships. Obviously, you should meet up with the person in a public location to be safe before you start your trip. But if you use common sense and trust your gut feeling, everything will be okay.

I more or less did this twice and it was the best decision I could have made. Planning a road trip with people I just met allowed me to get to know incredible people and form profound friendships. Back in 2018 I hit the road in Australia with nine other women I only knew via Facebook and I still remember the adventure fondly. During this trip, the rental was through a shared rental agency, so it added another layer of protection.

Make a List of Places you want to See

I recommend that you and your road trip buddies should each create a list of places you want to see. Everyone has a different dream road trip itinerary, and it is important to merge the different preferences. Oftentimes the majority of stops will overlap, but if more of you research your route, you might just find some hidden gems to include in your itinerary and it will be a great trip for everyone.

My favorite resource for finding stops along the way are travel blogs, Pinterest, and sometimes even Instagram. Just browse through location-specific blog categories, hashtags, and boards.

Create a Road Trip Map: Find the Best Route for your Road Trip

The best route for your road trip might not be the one you expect. So be sure to move around all your stops in Google Maps or in whatever navigation software you use. If the road trip map looks messy once you have entered all stops, you should definitely reorder them. That way, you can save fuel and limit the car’s exhaust.

Sometimes the direct route between two locations is not the best route overall or the most scenic one, so click on marked spots along the way.

Check the individual Distances on Google Maps & look up the Driving Time

And do not forget to adjust the driving time based on your vehicle. Some cars cannot drive full speed on certain terrain. Alternatively, you might have a different speed limit if you are driving with a trailer.

It might be better to plan an additional stop if the distance is too long. There are bound to be hidden gems along the way, so just split everything above 500 km into a two-day drive. This way, you will be able to see more and feel less exhausted.

Doing this helps you schedule your trip and make it a lot easier to know how much time you have for exploration.

I failed to do this for my first road trip and some days we ended up driving way longer than we had planned. Therefore we had a lot less time than we wanted to spend at the individual location and everything felt too rushed.

Check your Route can be driven with your (Rental) Car

If it is a rental car, there might be restrictions if you do not book a specific package. Meanwhile other road trip routes might require a 4WD. So be sure to look for a car, RV or camper van that is suitable for your route.

Determine the Length of your Road Trip

Figuring out how long your planned trip will be consists of three steps. If you have a more open time frame, you can simply follow the steps below.

When you work with a limited timeframe, which is the most likely scenario, it is best to make a list of your priorities. You might have to skip some things while planning your intended road trip itinerary. If you end up not needing your buffer days, you can always add them again during your road trip.

Plan how long you will be at each of your Stops

Always plan more time for each stop than you would at first glance. After all, you never know how crowded the place will be. It is possible that you will have to wait a while to take a picture at that perfect spot. You might also be slowed down by others ahead of you. Therefore I recommend adding about 30 minutes more to each of your stops.

This is especially important when visiting national park. Here it is best to spend at least two days within the park as they tend to offer a large range of activities.

Write down how long you want to be at each stop and then allocate the timed stops to individual days.

Schedule a Relaxation Day

Plan at least one day where you don’t plan anything or schedule a two night stay at one location per week. Otherwise the constant driving might stress and exhaust you. Taking a rest will allow you to enjoy the things you do so much more!

Schedule these days after a long drive on the previous day and do easy things to relax after sitting so long the previous day.

Add Buffer Days to your Road Trip Itinerary

Chances are that your plans will be derailed at one point. This could be due to bad weather, unplanned events such as blown tires, or even oversleeping. Flexible buffer days ensure that you do not have to skip things just because you are running out of time. I did not do this when I planned my first road trip and ended up missing out on activities that remain on my bucket list to this day.

I recommend one buffer day per 10 days you spend on the road. If you end up not needing them, you can always stay longer at a location you really enjoy. Just plan accordingly when you book an activity or your accommodation.

Plan your Road Trip Budget and Stick to it

It is easy to get caught up in the excitement of the moment. This might lead to you spending more on spontaneous things than you wanted to. If you set up a budget (with a buffer), you are more likely to stick to it.

Knowing how much money you are working with helps you decide where you should spend the night. If you are renting a car, campervan, or RV, your budget can influence your decision as well. Furthermore, it helps you decide which activities you can add to your road trip itinerary.

I honestly have no idea how much I ended up spending during my first road trip, but I definitely exceeded my initial budget plans.

Glamping in Western Australia

Next Steps of Planning a Road Trip

Rent a Car, campervan or RV

Now that you know where you will be going and how long you will be traveling, it is time to rent your car, campervan, or RV. If you have set your budget you can look around until you find something that works for you.

Alternatively you should get your own car checked as you will most likely be driving a long distance. A blown tire or other issues is the last thing you want.

When planning my first road trip this was actually one of the first things I did and I ended up regretting it. Some of the things I really wanted to see like Fraser Island (K’gari) require an 4WD and therefore our campervan was not suitable.

Read up on the rental agencies and their policies as some of them have additional fees. This could be due to the number of drivers, the drivers age, a oneway fee or maybe even an additional cover if you enter areas that can be considered off-road.

This is especially important if you rent a vehicle in Australia as some of the rental agencies consider all parts of the Outback off-road. I can only advise you to take the time to read the policies and not to rush this step. If you are renting a motorhome in New Zealand you should ensure that it is self-contained, as many free camping spots are only for self-contained vehicles.

If you are planning a road trip that is longer than a month or several road trips, it might be a good idea to consider building a caravan or camper van.

Research where you might Spend the Night

Finding the right place to stay can take a while, so it is best to do so before you hit the road. You do not want to spend hours during your trip researching hostels, hotels, or camping spots.

And researching places to stay can also help you create an accommodation budget. It furthermore ensures that you do not end up stranded at an unfamiliar location without knowing where you can sleep.

Keep in mind that some places have to be booked in advance. Book them before the road trip starts or a few days before you arrive there.

It is not necessary to decide on a specific place to stay if you do not plan to stay in hostels or hotels. Just write down a list of possible places in the area of where you plan to spend the night.

As already mentioned at the beginning of this road trip planner, this is one of the steps of planning a road trip that I failed to do the first time around. I can still vividly recall driving around in the area of Airlie Beach for over an hour and looking for a campground that was still open and that had open camping spots.

Decide when you feel comfortable Driving

Decide if you want to or can drive after dark. In some locations driving after sunset can be dangerous. Or maybe you will have to set up a tent or cook before the last sunlight has faded. So check the time of the sunset if this is the case and adjust your schedule accordingly.

Check if your Drivers License is sufficient

Some countries and territories require an international driver’s license. Also, keep in mind that some countries require that you obtain a national license once you have to spend a certain amount of time there.

In other countries, like Sri Lanka, you have to get a national driver’s permit. Most of the time rental agencies can arrange it for you for a small fee or you have to visit a local office before you pick up your rental.

Research Regional Traffic Laws and Speed Limits

Speed limits and the like can vary by region, so it is always best to look them up. After all, it is a lot more fun to spend money on activities than on a speeding ticket.

Look up the Opening Times of Places you wish to see & other Schedules

Many places have opening times, so be sure to look them up before your road trip starts. You do not want to stand in front of closed doors.

Believe it or not, but this is one of my biggest mistakes. On the way from Cairns to Sydney, we wanted to take ferries to two islands, but somehow it never crossed our mind to look up the ferry schedule or where exactly the ferries depart.

One time we looked up the time just before we arrived in the town of departure and ended up at the wrong ferry port. It is safe to say that we never made it to the two islands we wanted to visit.

Minibus with Trailer at Vlamingh Head Lighthouse

Book Trips and Activities that are Popular in Advance

There are always activities that are extremely popular or that have to be booked in advance. So be sure to check which ones you cannot book on the go. This can include anything from dives, boat tours, museum visits, or day trips.

At this point, I can continue my tale of missed ferries and unfit campervans when you need a 4WD. After we missed the ferry and realized that our car did not allow us to visit the second island, we tried to book a day trip there. And as our luck with island visits would have it, all of the day trips were fully booked for several days in advance. So it is safe to say that this is one of the more important steps in this road trip planner. You definitely do not want to miss the great things because you forgot to arrange them ahead of time!

Last-Minute Road Trip Planner Steps

Download Apps

While I cannot list every app you should download ahead of your trip as there are many region or country specific apps, I can highly recommend the following apps.

  • Google Maps or MapsMe
  • Weather Apps
  • Regional Alert Apps
  • Spotify
Planning a Roadtrip - Necessary Apps
The Best Camping Spot – discovered this gem by using WikiCamps

WikiCamps (available for Australia, New Zealand, the UK, Canada, and the USA): this app lists all camping spots and while it costs a small fee, I would call it a must. It lists some amazing camping spots and tells you which kind of camper can stay there or what vehicle you need to get there. There are similar apps, but so far I have not found one that can compete with WikiCamps.

Download Offline Maps

It is always a good idea to download a roadmap of the regions you are driving through. You can do so by creating an offline map in Google Maps or use MapsMe. This way you will be able to navigate even if you have no cellphone reception.

My Tip: If you drive larger distances it might be better to create smaller offline maps. Doing so allows you to download more information and takes up less storage space.

Check the Weather a Week before your Trip starts

Additionally, it never hurts to check out the average weather for the time of the year. This allows you to pack accordingly. You do not want to end up without a rain jacket during the monsoon season or without warm clothes when it gets cold at night.

Also, check the weather forecast and check if anything like bushfires, flooding, or roadblocks might alter your route. Obviously, the first two points I just listed in this road trip planner are more important in countries like Australia and Sri Lanka than in others.

Create a Road Trip Playlist

As the name says, you will spend a lot of time on the road, so start creating a road trip playlist. It might not be the most important step of this road trip planner, but you will want a good playlist when you spend hours on the road.

Add your favorite songs about hitting the open highway and do not forget to click download them. Otherwise, you will quickly exhaust your mobile data.

My favorite song that has to be on every good road trip playlist: ‘Life is a Highway‘ by Rascal Flatts.

How to Plan a Road Trip Considerations

Ignore Your Road Trip Planner: Plan not to Plan – Be Spontaneous

Planning ahead is good if you do not want to miss things and it is crucial to do it. However, planning too much can lead to the same result. Sometimes the best things are those you do not plan in advance.

If you see a road sign for a scenic detour or a lookout sign, you should dare to be spontaneous.

The view you will see might end up being one of your favorite memories of the road trip.

Road Trip Detour: Korora Lookout (NSW)

Always calculate random stops into your driving time. You might see something great and want to stop there or maybe you just need a short break at a great location.

Unexpected Road Trip Stop: Nilgen Lookout (Western Australia) during Sunset

Plan when you will go Grocery Shopping

There are several reasons to do this: Grocery prices might vary at different locations. Additionally, you might be unable to buy food at certain locations like national parks. Furthermore, things that have to be cooled can only be stored for a certain amount of time. So check out the best places to stock up on food while planning your road trip. Doing so can save you a lot of money and ensures that you do not run out of food.

Road Trip Planner Tip: I recommend buying fresh fruit and things you store in the esky every three days. In warmer climates most fuel stations sell ice, so you can easily buy more whenever you need it.

Get the Best Road Trip Planner Freebie

This road trip planner checklist includes everything I do when I plan a road trip and covers all points in this guide. Therefore it will guide your planning process while turning it into a fun activity.

Great Road Trip Itineraries

If you have never planned a road trip before, it might be easier to adjust a tested road trip itinerary according to your own interests. So take a look at these itineraries. Go ahead and make them yours!

Australian West Coast: Perth to Broome Itinerary – 3 Weeks

Australian East Coast: Cairns to Sydney Itinerary – 2 – 3 Weeks

Sri Lanka Loop Tuk Tuk Road Trip

When will you plan your ultimate road trip?

It took several road trips to compile all the steps of this road trip planner, and I sincerely hope that these tips will help you plan an amazing road trip!

And despite all these points: Relax! You will have a great time on the road and the planning process should be part of the fun. You are only reading this list to make your trip even more amazing. Have a fantastic road trip!

And let me know how your trip goes!

Is there anything else you do when you plan a road trip? Let me know in the comments!

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37 thoughts on “Ultimate Road Trip Planner – How to Plan a Fantastic Road Trip”

  1. I appreciated it when you mentioned booking a place in advance if you are planning to stay the night during your road trip. My friends and I are planning to go for a short getaway next week as we haven’t had the chance to do so ever since we finish college a few years ago. I will suggest them to find a nice hotel so we can have a place to spend the night comfortably.

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  2. My husband and I are planning to go on a long road trip, and since car break downs are inevitable, we’re thinking of looking for a towing service that may help us just in case something happens. Well, I agree with you that it would be a great idea to list down all the places that we would like to go to because this will make the trip easier. We’ll also keep in mind spend at least two days at a national park.

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  3. Awesome tips, everything I would say too. I think this year we will all take more road trips than planes…

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  4. I generally do not prefer road trips because of the unnecessary carbon footprints. But I do love them when my car is full! It’s a brilliant post considering all the exhaustive tips you’ve mentioned.

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  5. Good tips for planning a road trip. I would add check on how many places you can get fuel. We almost ran out of fuel in Iceland, since there were not that many gas stations and one of the gas stations on the map was closed.

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    • Thank you so much for pointing this out! I will be sure to add this to the post when I next edit it.
      I tend to travel with on extra emergency fuel can (and had to use it in the past), so this slipped my mind.

      Knowing where the next fuel station is can really be a life saver when exploring remote areas.

      Reply
  6. Awesome tips on planning a road trip! I agree, mapping out your route and knowing realistically how long it will take and then adding time for a buffer is so important. Too often it takes longer than expected. I’m hopefully heading on a road trip in a few months so it will come in handy!

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    • That’s so exciting! Road trips in Australia are the best! Do you already know your general route? It always feels impossible to find the perfect road trip in Australia as there are just so many incredible things to see

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  7. I always get a little anxious when I hear people say that they’re just going to find a place to stay when they get to the place they’re driving to. My brain goes to a million “what ifs” and I totally admire people who aren’t hung up on worrying if they’ll end up in a bed-bug infested place!

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    • I guess it is possible to end up in a less than favorable accommodation. But if it makes you feel better – out of over spontaneous 30 road trip accommodations (hostels, hotels, camping spots) only 1 was not what I expected as we ended up in a different place due to a broken pipe. Thanks to booking . com and the likes it has gotten so easy to filter out the bad places. The same can be said for camping parks as there are so many apps out there that have a review section. If you read those, you should be good to go and have no reason to worry. 🙂

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  8. This is such a fantastic way to plan a road trip. So many things to consider and I love how you have laid all of this out so well.

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  9. Love this guide to planning a road trip. I am such a planner so I follow most of these ideas, but thanks for this list 🙂

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  10. This is the definitive road trip guide for sure. Great ideas and great points. I’m definitely an air traveller. I prefer a hour flight to driving. But a road trip is fun. We drove from Toronto to Cape Cod last summer and it was great fun! Planning our next one right now. Thanks,

    Mark / Mark’s Travel Journal

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  11. This is such a comprehensive guide that I’ll be saving for some potential road trips I might take in the second half of the year. It was interesting to learn about your first road trip in Australia and how that turned out to be such a good learning experience. I am not always the best at looking up things like ferry schedules, and I’ve definitely had times where I had to pay a small fortune to find a suitable hotel last minute.

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  12. You definitely put a lot of thought into this and I bet this will help a lot of people organise their trips more easily! But it’s always important to keep the spontaneity in the trip! In hindsight almost always the best part is the unplanned one! ?

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    • That’s why I added the last part. 🙂
      I honestly love all those unexpected things that happen during road trips, but based on my previous mistakes I sure do like having some parts organized.
      It’s why I think that adding relaxation days and buffers days to ones road trip itinerary is so important. It allows you to diverge from your plans without missing out and gives you time if something goes wrong. 😀

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  13. Road trips can be fun, but also very stressful. For me the offline maps is a must. I agree about being a bit spontaneous too.

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  14. Road trip is my way of traveling and guys this is really a very exhaustive list. You have some very critical points which sometimes get missed. Thanks for this awesome list.

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  15. Road trips are fun and creating a playlist to accompany the trip is very important. We generally ask all the friends to suggest 10 songs so that no one complains that their choice of tracks are not playing.

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    • It really is 🙂
      I found so many wonderful places during road trips because I / we saw a brown attraction / scenic view sign in decided that a detour was a good idea.

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  16. Woooah you traveled with 9 other ladies that you had not met before!? That sounds like it could either be truly amazing, or a total nightmare. I am glad your experience was the former!

    I have to admit, we never went on road trips until we moved to Canada. The huge distances in places like Canada /USA and Aus really can make epic road trips! Your tips are fantastic. 🙂 I’m planning a few road trips this year, so I’ll come back and read this again before I book everything.

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  17. Great post! We love road trips and have done quite a few in Europe and in the USA. While those here in Europe are good, we must admit that the USA is probably the best country for road trips. It’s just so easy over there, so we never have to plan much ahead. During our 3 weeks in the East Coast from NYC down to Key West, and also the 3-month long road trip we had in the West Coast, we always booked our hotels on the same day. While Google map is awesome, we think that it’s important to always carry a good old paper map though!

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    • We did the same in Sri Lanka. Before we started the road trip we worked out a rough itinerary and then looked for accommodation as we went along. But it was super easy there.
      In Australia it was a lot harder. Even on the East Coast as many camping places had no check in after 4-6 PM. So not booking something in advance is a gamble I would not recommend.
      I think the important thing is to check how easy it is to find a place to stay and to look up some alternatives if it is harder to find something.

      Let’s just say that I nowadays prefer to stick to mobile maps that are constantly updated. In the past I ended up on a road from hell because the paper map said it was a good option. Too bad that the map did not tell me that said road was not tarred. It was a very long and bumpy ride. But I guess that’s only a real issue if you end up in the Outback or other remote locations.

      Reply
  18. We love road trips and do it all the time. We drive up to Canada and even drive down to Mexico every year aside from around the US. We have increasingly done so instead of fly since we have the time anyway. These tips are things we have followed, too. We depend a lot on an updated GPS and have our phones always charged to help us, too. Offline maps help a lot, too.

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  19. I love a good road trip and I agree, a road trip is definitely more fun with a travel companion. It’s nice to switch off who’s driving. I’m definitely a spontaneous road trip. I know Point A and Point B, but kind of travel on a whim in between. Thanks for all the great tips and considerations!

    Reply

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