On any Great American Road Trip, the journey is the destination. A smart itinerary—and we’ve curated several for you— will have enough stops to erase the glass window between you and the places you’re passing through. It will build in time for spontaneous adventures—for exploring back-roads and embracing quirky surprises. After all, when you see a sign that says, “27 Miles to the Best Apple Pie You’ve Ever Had,” you’ll want to follow it. You’ll also want to keep everybody sane for long periods of time together in a small space.
How to ensure that everyone in the car, no matter their age or activity level, stays happy—and comes home with precious memories? Here are a few hard-earned pointers, gleaned from my own family road trips—both as a kid and as a parent—across America.
- Pick an itinerary that offers something for everyone in the car.
Discuss trip goals with your fellow passengers in advance. What scenery appeals most: Mountains? Desert? Coastline? What activities would you most enjoy along the way: Hiking scenic trails? Tracing history? Sampling every barbeque joint? What’s your Holy Grail: Seeing the Grand Canyon at sunset? Snapping a selfie at Mount Rushmore? Soaking your feet in the Pacific Ocean? If you and your travel companions can articulate your likes and dislikes in advance, you’ll have a better shot at keeping everybody happy.
- Are you flying to your road trip and renting a car? Consider a loop route.
Renting a car in one state and dropping it off in another can be expensive. So can flying into one city and back from another. So consider a route that starts and ends in the same place. If you prefer a one-way route, research city pairs that allow for an affordable open-jaw ticket (say, flying to Los Angeles and back from San Francisco) and that have no drop-off fee (if you return a car within the same state—especially California or Florida—there’s often no drop-off charge).
- Are you driving your own car? Consider whether to return via the same road or a different one.
Driving through what you’ve already seen can be anticlimactic. On the other hand, you might be surprised how different a road can be when you see it from the opposite direction and at a different time of day or in different weather. Retracing your steps can also enable you to accomplish on your way back what you missed the first time. You can visit that shop that was closed, get into that famous lobster shack when there isn’t a long line, buy that antique that grew on you or re-shoot that photo you accidentally deleted.
- For one-way trips, consider whether one direction is better than the other.
If your route is between cities A and B and you’re trying to decide whether to start at A and end at B or vice-versa, compare prices in A and B on your travel dates (as well as airfare to each). Consider sunlight, weather, and timing too. East-to-west is better for enjoying sunsets through your dashboard; west-to-east is preferable if you’re an early riser who takes pleasure in the sunrise. If you’re driving along an ocean or river, you may want to drive on the waterfront side of the road, so that your view of the water isn’t across a lane of cars. Also, scientific studies have found that people tend to remember the ends of trips more vividly than the start, so be sure that city B will allow you to end your trip on a high note. Say your drive is along the Mississippi River: Would you prefer a grand finale at the Mall of America in Minnesota or on Bourbon Street in New Orleans?
- Map out a few key stops.
Pull out a map—yes, the paper kind that few can fold back into its original form—and plot the major sights along your route. Decide how far you think you’ll want to drive each day, and be realistic. Must your stops for gas or food be like Indy 500 pit stops, or can you linger? Break your trip down into daily goals, with arrival at your hotel marking the end goal for each day. Choose hotels where there’s enough to do if you get there early (say, mini-golf), as well as enough still open if you get there late (say, fun local eats). College towns often make for good overnight stops: They have affordable hotels, inexpensive eateries that stay open late, and a lot going on.
- But don’t overplan.
Allow for kismet (a word we don’t usually associate with the Interstate highway system). Assume you’ll be taking secondary roads when possible, checking out small-town goings-on and asking for recommendations from the people you meet. They may tell you about a beloved secret swimming hole or quirky museum not to miss.
- Give each passenger ownership over a daily portion of the trip.
Everyone in the car should get to choose one stop, activity or restaurant each day. Perhaps you want to divvy up control and let each passenger take charge of one day of the itinerary. The more each traveler is invested in the agenda, the happier everyone will be.
- Seek out small-town festivals and events.
America is full of county fairs and folksy celebrations where you can hang with the locals. There might be a pie-eating contest, an apple-blossom parade or a festival featuring some zany event such as pillow-fighting championships. There are free events in national parks, as well.
- Don’t assume you must change your hotel every night.
Staying only one night in each hotel can be a little exhausting. In areas where there’s plenty to do, consider staying two nights. Arrive in the evening, spend the next day exploring, spend a second night, then leave the next morning. The driver(s) will appreciate the day off.
- Plan for a soothing activity when you arrive at each hotel.
Chances are, when you pull into your hotel at the end of a long day of driving, that’s when everyone will be at their crankiest. Counteract that potentially negative mood by planning to do something soothing and reinvigorating upon arrival at your hotel. A swim in the pool can do wonders.
- Embrace those things you can’t see or do anywhere else.
America’s byways are chock full of surprises—both natural and man-made, both astonishing and kitschy—from Natural Bridge in Virginia (a giant limestone arch carved by nature over many years) to the world’s largest pistachio in New Mexico to a life-size chocolate moose (sculpted from 1,700 pounds of milk chocolate and standing in a white-chocolate pond) in Maine. There are mystery houses with secret passageways and even a Mystery Spot—a visual illusion near Santa Cruz, California, that must be experienced to be believed. It’s these things that you can’t find or do anywhere else that will help make a road trip vividly memorable.
Check out our epic road trip itineraries, already mapped out for you:
Route 66: Illinois to California
Pacific Coast Highway—Route 1: California
Blue Ridge Parkway: Virginia to North Carolina
The Overseas Highway: Florida
Great River Road: Minnesota to Louisiana
Coastal Highway US 1: Massachusetts to Maine
Discover the Great Northwest: Oregon to Wyoming