One week from today, Michelle and I are hitting the road (for nearly a month) to dominate the southeast United States, road trip style.
In this article, I’d like to share our plan and give some tips for planning a long road trip of your own.
I wouldn’t consider myself much of a planner, but this is the longest road trip I’ve ever embarked on, so I didn’t want to completely wing it. I also didn’t want to plan every detail. You gotta leave room for some spontanaeity and excitement.
We focused on the important stuff like coming up with a general route, choosing cities and national parks to visit, identifying potential accommodations, brainstorming things to do, making a packing list, and coming up with a basic budget/cost estimate.
I hope you can use this guide as a starting point for your own road trip adventure.
Our Road Trip Plan: Overview
The picture above tells the story (click to enlarge). Starting in Wilmington, NC, here’s a list of places we plan to stop:
- Washington D.C.
- Peaks of Otter Campground
- Knoxville TN
- Great Smokey Mountains
- Nashville TN
- Memphis TN
- Little Rock AR
- Dallas TX
- Austin TX
- Houston TX
- New Orleans LA
- Atlanta GA
Here’s the plan by the numbers:
- 11 States and District of Columbia
- 58+ hours driving
- 3500+ miles
- 12+ major cities
- 18 nights
How We Developed the Route
Step 1. Pick Major Points of Interest.
We already had plans with old friends in Washington, DC, so we knew that was the starting point. We also wanted to visit friends in Houston, family in Knoxville, and we definitely wanted to see New Orleans and Austin. That’s what we started with.
Step 2. Connect Big Picture Dots.
Once you have your major stops figured out, connect the dots and define a basic direction and route. Just getting a basic idea on a map will give you a chance to see what parts of the country you will be passing through. This will spur other ideas for places to visit. We came up with a few additional places that were close to some of our original points of interest like the Great Smokey Mountains, The Blue Ridge Parkway, and Skyline Drive.
Step 3. Break the trip into manageable chunks.
We didn’t want to drive more than 8 hours in any one day, preferably under 6. So, I looked at the directions between the places we wanted to visit, and when one of the routes was longer than I wanted to drive–I started to look for interesting places in between. I actually enjoyed doing this because it allowed us to plan stops at places we otherwise would have ignored. In the end, it makes for a more enjoyable plan because we eliminated really long driving days.
After you do this, you will have a route for your trip and a complete list of places you plan to sleep for at least one night.
Fitting Everything Into a Time Frame
If you can plan your trip is such a way where you don’t have a set schedule, that’s ideal because it gives you the freedom to stay longer when you find yourself enjoying a place. It’s my preferred way to travel.
Unfortunately, we had a set end date for our trip. The nice thing about this, though, is that it forced us to come up with a better plan before leaving.
Since we knew how many days we had, the next step was coming up with a rough idea for how many days to spend in each place. We didn’t exactly plan each day, but based on friends we were visiting and their availability, we created anchor points and developed a rough plan:
- 8/31-9/3: Washington DC
- 9/3-9/4: Peaks of Otter
- 9/4-9/6: Knoxville (Michelle’s Mom)
- 9/6-9/10: Some combo of Great Smokey’s, Memphis, Little Rock, and Dallas
- 9/10-9/12: Austin TX
- 9/12-9/15: Houston TX (The Hurdles, Winsky, and Mike Salvatore)
- 9/15-9/17: New Orleans
- 9/17-9/18: Atlanta
Figuring Out Places To Stay
I love doing trips on the cheap because it forces you to be creative. Yes, I could spend the money and hop from hotel to hotel, but where is the fun in that? I like meeting people, spending time in nature, and putting myself into questionable situations. This creates the highest potential for fun, interesting experiences.
Here’s the basic process we used:
Step 1. Reach out to friends and family.
What are friends for? I’ve always tried to open up my house to friends and strangers alike, and while I don’t expect anyone to return the favor, good friends are usually willing to host you for a few nights. For this trip, we are lucky enough to have plenty of good friends along the way.
In some cases you may not realize that old friends now live in the places you are visiting. In our modern world, people move all the time, so go on facebook and do some research. Try to find out where some of your old friends are living. Not only is this a great opportunity to get in touch and visit friends you haven’t seen in a while, but it’s a great way to save money.
The other thing I recommend is that once you have a rough plan or list of destinations, post it on facebook and see who is willing to help. In our case, an old high school friend of mine saw my facebook post and reached out. She offered to let us stay with her for 2 nights in New Orleans, which would have cost us a significant amount of money (Thanks Katie, I owe you a few drinks).
Using this process to reach out to friends and family, we were able to find lodging for 11 out of 18 nights.
Step 2. Think About Camping.
We enjoy camping and spending time in nature so we picked several spots along the way to do some hiking and camping. In particular, we wanted to camp along the Blue Ridge Parkway because the Blue Ridge Mountains are beautiful. And, we wanted to do some hiking and spend the night in the Great Smokey’s.
That takes care of 13 out of 18 nights.
Step 3. Check Flyer Miles and Credit Card Points.
If you a big traveler like me, you’ve probably dabbled in the game of collecting points for travel rewards. In the process of planning for this trip, I did an inventory of my points. I currently have 250,000 flyer miles or travel rewards points.
You can often get really good deals on expensive hotels by booking with your miles. I prefer to use my miles for flights, but there is a special case when I use them for hotels: to prevent expiration of points.
Many points programs have rules that you must follow to prevent your points from expiring. For example, I signed up for a British Airways card several years ago for 100,000 Avios (BA points). I hadn’t touched the account in a few years and some of these Avios were set to expire due to inactivity.
In order to prevent them from expiring and reset the clock, I used Avios to book one hotel night stay in Atlanta. This cost me 11,000 Avios, but it prevented me from losing my balance of about 80,000 remaining Avios.
That takes care of 14 out of 18 nights.
Step 3. Try Couchsurfing.
It’s beyond the scope of this article to convince you that couchsurfing is a good idea. I will tell you that I’ve hosted over 10 times and surfed over 5 times, and I’ve had nothing but great experiences.
Couchsurfing is not as relaxing as staying at a hotel, but I prefer it. Staying with a couchsurfer is a wildcard. Sometimes, you end up meeting an awesome person and having a blast. Other times, you meet someone a little weird and end up with a cool story. Either way, it’s a lot more enjoyable and cost effective than your typical hotel.
With the remaining 4 nights that we still need a place to stay, we are in the process of sending out couch surfing requests. As we hear back from couchsurfers, we will finalize our overall plan and have a complete list of accommodations for our trip.
Step 4. Backup Plan.
The biggest downside with couchsurfing is the unreliability of some hosts. There is no guarantee that your host will come through. I’ve had hosts cancel in the past, so I always like to have a backup plan.
Since we are already bringing camping gear, I figured camping was a pretty good backup plan. For the cities where we are relying on couchsurfers, I did some research and found nearby state parks and campgrounds. In a lot of cases, the camping in these areas is free.
Now, instead of being out of luck if our couchsurfer host bails, we can make a quick detour and spend a night in nature.
Road Trip Packing List
The nice thing about road trips is having plenty of space to pack: You don’t have to pack light when you have a trunk. Here’s our basic packing list:
- Basic Clothing for all weather (include raincoat and swimsuit…expecting some colder nights in the mountains)
- Laundry Detergent
- Snacks (5 lbs Trader Joe’s Nuts, Apples, Bananas, Dried fruit, Granola-type stuff)
- Camping Gear (Blankets, Pillows, Sleeping Bag, Tent, Water Filter, Flashlight, Toolkit, Knife, Lighter/fire starter, bug repellent, first aid kit, rope)
- Vitamins, Antacid, Ibuprofen, sunscreen
- Birdnoculars (binoculars for bird watching)
- Paper and Pen
- Selection of mixtape CDs
- Phone and charger
- Laptop and charger
- Frisbee/Games/Playing Cards
- Camera/Video Camera
- Folding Chairs for camping
- Motorcycle Gear for riding with Hurdle
- Paper Towels and Toilet Paper
- Duct Tape
- Trash Bags
Documenting It All
One of the focuses of this trip will be documenting it via writing, photos, and video.
I’ve always struggled with this and it’s something I want to get better as Michelle and I prepare to do some long-term, international traveling. I want to be more conscious of my experiences and take time to be introspective and write about them while on the road. Often times, I ignore this because my memories seem so vivid, but I’ve forgotten too many travel stories to have faith in my memory alone.
I also want to do a better job of having a camera ready to go and taking more pictures. I never seem to bring a camera anywhere because I don’t want to damage it. When I owned a DSLR, I never used it because of size and fragility, so I downgraded to a high quality point and shoot. I’ve noticed, however, that I often leave the smaller camera behind because I’m still afraid of breaking it.
To solve this problem, Michelle and I purchased a durable, waterproof camera, the Panasonic Lumic TS-5. This thing is basically indestructible (shock proof, dust proof, water proof to 43 ft), so I’m thinking it might solve the problem of being afraid to bring a camera. You can actually use the camera for underwater photos and videos. By most accounts, the camera gets solid reviews. We just purchased it and are planning on using it for this road trip as a trial run. If all goes well, this will be our go-to camera for travel. You can expect a detailed review in the future.
Finally, as a part of documenting our travels, Michelle and I are starting to experiment with travel videos and video editing. We want to get better at this and our goal for this trip is to create an awesome video montage of our experience. I can’t wait.
We don’t have a strict budget, but I still wanted to make a target budget so that we have an idea of what the trip will cost and a goal to keep spending under control.
- Gas: $410 (Using approximate total mileage, mpg, and gas price)
- Lodging: $150 max for entire trip (depending on couchsurfer/camping situation)
- Food: $540 (Based on $15/person/day. Food cost will be reduced by eating healthy snacks instead of dining out every meal, and will include some nice dinners because those are fun)
- Entertainment: $400 (Gives us about $20/day to have fun with. I’m sure some days we will go over, but most of the sights we want to see and things we want to do will be FREE.)
Total Estimated Cost: $1500 (2 person, 18-night vacation)
This is purely a cost estimate. I plan on tracking our spending and reporting back in a future road trip recap.
We are extremely excited to hit the road. This will be our first significant trip since leaving our jobs and will be a good warm up for our future extended travel.
If you’re planning your own road trip, don’t over think it too much and don’t get attached to your plan. Although we have a good plan to start, I know it won’t go perfect. There are variables we can’t control and there’s no use trying. Remember, the joy of a roadtrip is the freedom and adventure. So be free and look at the tough times in a positive light.
I hope you found this useful in planning your own road trip. If you have any tips, leave em in the comments section. Thanks.