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  • Planning Your Getaway

    Some road-trippers know exactly where they want to go, while others have no idea. Most fall somewhere in the middle―you know you want to see the Grand Canyon, but what's the best way to get there from here, and what is there to see and do along the way? If you're going to drive hundreds of miles, it sure would be great to enjoy not only the destination, but the journey.

    Fortunately there is the Internet, and the Internet knows everything about travel getaways. There are numerous online tools you can tap into to narrow your focus, and with the help of satellite maps, these tools can help you plan your getaway with such a level of precision that you can plan every pit stop, every motel room, the exact number of miles you'll drive, and more―without even spreading out a roadmap on the living room floor.

    Settle on the Scope

    Before you go crazy plotting every mile of your journey, stand back and determine realistically how far you want to go and how long you want it to take. Should you drive 600 miles a day to reach your destination ASAP, or will you have time, energy, and money to make some side trips along the way? If you're on your own, this should be pretty simple to determine. If you're an entire family, there's a lot more to consider; if mutiny is not your thing, then you'd better have a plan.

    First, decide how long you can be gone. How much time can you take off work? How much time will you need to shop for supplies and pack beforehand? How long can you and your traveling companions stand being together 24/7? Factor in the time it takes to drive somewhere; if you're spending eight hours in the car, that's one day you won't be visiting or sightseeing.

    Then you've got to think about a general budget. How much money can you throw at this thing? Just because you're not buying plane tickets doesn't mean road trips come cheap. There's the cost of gas, hotels, meals, activities, and attractions along the way and when you get where you're going.

    Online trip planners can help you predict mileage (and fuel costs); they can also tell you how much campsites, motels, and hotels cost. With a budget in mind and knowing how much gas and attractions will cost, you can scale your lodging accordingly.

    Finally, talk to those who are coming with you about their needs and expectations. A pregnant wife won't want to sit for eight hours straight. An elderly passenger probably won't be into hiking to a vista. Pets need vigilant attention because they won't tell you if they're overheated, thirsty, or need to relieve themselves. And if you're taking kids along, allow time for extra pit stops for snacks, restrooms, and temper tantrums (the kids might need extra stops too).

    With your family in tow, you'll be happier with shorter trips each day than longer ones. Aside from having to do less driving, shorter trips allow you the time to do other fun things.

    Plan Your Route

    If you know where you want to go and you're pretty sure of the route, then the hard part is done. Online road trip planners invariably need to know exactly where you are going; we have yet to find one that will invent a fabulous itinerary based on us telling it merely that we want to spend five days driving around New England. Therefore, our recommendation for your first step in planning your getaway if you're not entirely sure of your destination(s) is to invest $10 in a big road atlas.

    Pick a state or region and see what destinations, natural features, or other attractions pop out at you. The Adirondacks? The Florida coast? The Grand Canyon? Then zoom in to find nearby cities you might like to explore and spend the night in. Do an online search for the city and you'll be told about museums, restaurants, entertainment, outdoor recreation, and more. You can also find suggested itineraries online, some by other travelers, by entering a region ("Southwest," for example).

    With a general idea of your final destination and some places you'd like to pass along the way, you're ready to begin plugging queries into the free online route-planning websites. We've tried a few:

    • Rand McNally Plan a Road Trip lets you plug in as many or as few parameters as you like, adding detail as you go. Mileage, how long the drive will take, maps, possible activities, and hotels can all be shown. Then you can search for things to do, places to stay, and outdoor adventure, among other things.
    • Mapquest offers a new Multistop Route Builder tool that lets you easily modify your route, get detailed directions, find the less-traveled roads, and more. Even cooler, if you're not exactly sure yet where you're headed, you can click on an interactive map of the United States to zoom in to a region or state.
    • RoadTrip America actually offers reviews of other road-trip planning websites, so you've literally got the world at your fingertips.

    Then you can further search online any attractions you're interested in to find out how much they'll cost, hours of operation, nearby motels and restaurants, and whether there are any physical challenges (say, hiking required, extreme temperatures, or high altitudes).

    For you creatures of habit, most oil companies offer gas station finders on their websites. Check out Chevron (which can show you all stations along your route), Texaco, and Exxon, to name just a few.

    With the level of detail these online route planners provide, you can plan gas station pit stops to coincide with meals and bathroom breaks. You can book your motel reservation in advance, knowing whether there are accommodations for the elderly and disabled, pets, and kids. And with sophisticated (and insanely cool) mapping software such as Google Earth, you can plot stores and restaurants nearby where you can grab food, snacks, and supplies.

    Before You Go

    There are a number of pretrip chores you can begin to take care of weeks in advance of leaving your driveway so your departure isn't a huge hassle:

    • Arrange a kennel or house-sitter for pets, unless they're coming too. Leave specific instructions including idiosyncrasies, favorite toys, vet's phone number, medications, and food.
    • Stop the newspaper and the mail. A pile of fading papers on your porch and a full mailbox will tell everyone you're on vacation.
    • Get an oil change and give your car a quick checkup: Lights working? Wiper blades intact? Brakes OK? Heat and AC operating as expected? Fix any problems.
    • Clean out the entire car and get it washed soon before your departure day. It's easier to pack a car that's not already cluttered and dirty, and you'll be happier when you're in it.
    • Does your car have a first aid kit? If not, you can make your own.
    • If you're bringing a pet, put a clean blanket (or better yet, the pet's bed) where the animal will sit to keep the fur (and claw marks) off the upholstery.
    • Sign up for a roadside assistance service such as AAA or OnStar in case you break down or get lost. Some automakers even offer their own roadside assistance and concierge services.
    • Check your auto insurance if you will be towing a trailer, renting a car, or driving to Mexico or Canada. You might need to pay a small surcharge to make sure you're covered.

    On the Road

    You've planned your travel getaway down to the minute, the mile, and the penny, and you're finally loaded in and pulling out of the driveway. To make sure you get the best ROI on your meticulous planning, though, there are a few things to keep in mind while you're actually driving.

    Keep an eye on the elderly, small children, and animals to make sure they're not getting either cold or overheated. Even though it will mean more restroom stops, everyone should have a bottle of water if you're traveling through a hot, dry, or high-altitude area. And remember to offer your pet water and a chance to squirt every time you stop.

    Speaking of stopping, if you'll be driving more than a couple hundred miles, you'll enjoy them so much more if you stop an extra time or two for everyone to stretch their legs and hit the restroom (again, pets too). Even doing some actual stretches roadside will loosen your tight muscles and get more blood flowing to your brain―a very effective way to stay alert (and not grouchy).

    Share the driving with other adults to reduce boredom and driver fatigue. Someone should be reading the map or the route plan you printed out while you're rolling. And at the end of every day, go over the plan for the next leg with your passengers so everyone knows what to expect.

    By planning side trips, lodging, mileage, budget, and attractions in advance, you and your precious cargo will not suffer the drudgery of arriving at your destination late at night, exhausted after a longer-than-expected drive, pulling into one motel after another looking for a vacant room and buying dinner from a vending machine.

    Road trips can be so much better than that, and with your thoughtful itinerary you can all actually enjoy the fact that no, you are not there yet.

    Further Reading and Resources

    Road Tips for Road Trips from TravelSense has additional insights about planning your road trip. And if you'd like to bring your four-footed family members, the following websites offer not only travel tips, but also comprehensive listings of motels and hotels that accept pets: