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15 Road Trip Planning Tips You Need Before You Go

Proper prior planning helps you enjoy the road trip even more.

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Planning for a road trip is part of the fun of traveling. You’re able to look up must-see attractions and destinations, direct routes and scenic routes, and hotels and accommodation along the way. However, along with planning the fun things comes planning the essentials, including but not limited to figuring out logistics, mapping out gas stations, and being prepared for worst-case scenarios. From lodging to bathroom breaks, these are a few road trip planning tips to know before you go. For a bit of inspiration before you hit the road, here are the 50 best road trips in America.

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Travel & gas

First things first: Where are you going? Picking out the right destination for you is the hardest part—but it could also be the easiest. Do you already know you’re going on Route 66 or Park Loop Road in Maine, some of the most scenic drives in America? Or do you plan on winging it as you go along? Find the destination that works in your budget, time frame, and then take the appropriate safety measures.

If you’re traveling along the highway and local roads and notice your gas tank is running low, it’s important to stay safe when you stop. When you’re getting gas, protect yourself from scammers and try to avoid paying for gas at the pump. Instead, go inside and pay with a chip card. However, if you do find yourself running out of gas, here’s how far you can actually drive on empty.

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Lodging

After an exciting, jam-packed day of getting out on the road and exploring new places, it’s time to unpack your bags and spend the evening relaxing. A good rule of thumb is to always be kind to hotel staff, especially when traveling during a pandemic. Expecting everything is clean is just one of these 12 things you shouldn’t do at reopened hotels. If you’re concerned about cleanliness or have questions on amenities, take the proper precautions by calling the hotel in advance. Along with the good things, you could also be prepared in advance by knowing the 10 red flags you’re about to stay at a bad hotel. If you’re staying with family, make sure you know these 10 little etiquette tips to use when you’re a guest in someone’s home.

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Shopping

Bringing home a meaningful souvenir allows you to look back on your trip whenever you look at that object or particular item of clothing. But it can be hard to go shopping when in a pandemic. Rushing into your favorite store and touching everything you see are just a few things you shouldn’t do at reopened retail stores. Instead, try visiting stores during off-peak times and start to get used to the idea that dressing rooms, while a haven to try on clothes in peace, might be off-limits in the time of the pandemic. All hope isn’t lost: continue to follow safety guidelines and practice good hygiene like washing your hands. Did you know that you can prevent 15 diseases just by washing your hands?

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Bathroom breaks

We’ve all been there: when the driver asks if anyone has to go, no one says anything, but the moment after the rest stop passes, everyone’s bladders act up and the next rest stop isn’t for another 100 miles. This is why it’s important to figure out on your road trip whether you’re taking highways with plenty of rest stops or local roads where it’s imperative to plan bathroom breaks. Check the rest stop to make sure it’s open, and if you do go, make sure to take the appropriate hand sanitizers and cleaning supplies you’ll need. And when you flush the toilet, make sure to use a paper towel and not your foot. Otherwise, you’ll probably be transferring urine, fecal matter, and other gross things from the floor to the toilet handle. Yuck!

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Important documents

There are a lot of important documents you need for your trip. But as you’re on the road, where’s the safest place for your most important information? “The glove box is the safest place to put any documents that you may need during your travels,” John Burkhauser, an auto repair specialist and director of educational programs at Bolt On Technology, tells Reader’s Digest. “Why? Well, it’s the most obvious place and the first place that anyone will look if need be. Yes, it will also be the first place that any thief may look, so being careful of what you place in there is also important.”

What not to keep in your glove box: Burkhauser recommends keeping your vehicle’s title in your home in a safe. Credit cards, checks, receipts, or any personal information should also not be in your glove box. If you keep your license out of your wallet and someone breaks into your car, then they’ll “know where to go when you are not home.” Before you go, double-check that your license, car registration, car insurance, and any other important documents haven’t expired and are easily accessible to you. Also, make sure you don’t forget any of these road trip essentials.

What to keep in your glove box: For things to keep in your glove box, Burkhauser suggests the owner’s manual (“Maybe a good time to open and read it,” he says), a spare phone charger with cable, a basic first-aid kit, a fully-operating flashlight, paper maps since phone and GPS reception might be sketchy depending on where you are, and a multi-type tool for safety scenarios, including a seat belt cutter or a window breaking tool. Here are a few more tools you should have in your car.

What should be in your wallet/purse: Now that we’ve covered what should be in your glove box, here’s what should be in your wallet or purse. Burkhauser recommends your license or other forms of ID so you can be identified, registration/insurance card, any medical information like current medications or conditions, and a list of emergency contacts. However, your social security card, your work ID, and a list of passwords are just some of the 13 things you should never keep in your wallet.

What extra “just in case” items should be stored under the seat: If you’re out on a long drive, making great time, you may not want to stop and hunt through the lunchbox for a snack even though your stomach is rumbling. For a few extra items stored under the seat of your car, Burkhauser recommends emergency snacks for eating in the car, paper products like paper towels and toilet paper, a silver survivor blanket that folds up neatly, and money (“Good old hard cash for when other payments won’t work,” he says). As you’re driving, make sure you know the appropriate driving etiquette rules, too. After all, being hangry is no excuse to be rude on the road.

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Check your car before you go

Make sure to visit a mechanic and have your car inspected a week or two before you go on your trip. That way, you’ll have plenty of time to address any issues and make sure the car was serviced properly. “It is highly recommended that the vehicle that is being taken on the road have a thorough check out especially if it is only driven locally most of the time and or it is going to be heavily loaded for many miles,” says Burkhauser. “The minimum suggested check out of the vehicle would be to get the oil changed, tires checked, and a courtesy digital inspection of the vehicle so you have a complete report on the vehicle’s condition.”

If you’re going to be on a long road trip with an older vehicle, Burkhauser recommends a more thorough inspection. “Address all safety-related items before the trip so you don’t have a failure on the road,” he says. While you’re having your car inspected, be aware of these 30 things your car mechanic won’t tell you.

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Stay safe when on the road

While bad things can happen to anyone, it’s important to do your part to prevent anything bad from happening to you. “The first thing to do to keep your vehicle safe from break-ins is to not have anything enticing in the open,” says Burkhauser. “Phones, wallets, money, and so on should be hidden.” If you’re driving at night, Burkhauser recommends parking in well-lit, busy areas at your destination or when you end your day at the hotel. Here are a few safety tips for scary driving situations.

Something that might seem obvious but may need an extra reminder is to be sure to lock your vehicle and take the keys with you. “Don’t be tempted to leave the vehicle running with the AC on to keep it cool,” says Burkhauser.

If you’re looking for extra protection regarding deterring criminals from stealing your car, a steering lock might be something to consider. “A steering lock is a good deterrent for someone that wants to take your vehicle but not for them wanting to take something from inside,” he says. “I only suggest one if the vehicle is highly sought after by criminals.” Here’s why keyless entry car systems are getting stolen more frequently.

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Take a break

If you have a long driving day ahead, you may be tempted to skip breaks and drive for a long time…which isn’t a good option. Taking a break from driving is always a good idea since it’s “not only for you to stretch, refresh, and breathe but for you to take a quick walk around the vehicle,” says Burkhauser. “Just do a visual check of all you can see.  Even popping the hood for a peek underneath. Even though you may not be vehicle savvy in all that you are looking over, you may see a problem before it leaves you stuck.” Here are 20 car hacks that’ll make driving so much better.

If you think you’re alone in stopping to check out your car, you’re not. Experts do this, too. “I look at all the tires while doing this. Twice on long road trips with luggage and passengers, I saw objects in the tires that were causing leaks,” says Burkhauser. “Being at a rest stop, I was able to quickly drive to the vehicle to a local service shop and have the issues fixed without the trip being majorly interrupted on the side of the road.”

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Consider getting rental car insurance

“Rental company fleets are generally low mileage, newer vehicles but there are a few things to be sure of before renting a vehicle,” says Burkhauser. If you’re renting a car and not driving your own, make sure it comes with a spare tire. And sometimes it pays to get the extra insurance. “If your trip should take you off the main roads be it a camping site, a dirt road to a hiking trail, or any rural road, really consider taking the extra damage insurance. Without the insurance you may not only be responsible for any damage to the vehicle, you may be responsible for the lost rental days of the vehicle. It can get very expensive quickly.” Here are 18 things rental car companies won’t tell you.

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Set up a budget (and stick to it)

The last thing you want after a lovely vacation is to return home, check your credit card statement, and realize you went way over budget. Yikes! Thankfully, there are ways you can help curb your spending—even while on vacation. If you’re new to budgeting, here’s how to make a budget, according to money experts. If you’re looking for a budget-friendly trip, here are 40 affordable destinations for a family vacation.

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Entertainment

When you’re on the road for a long time, as the driver you’ll be focusing on the drive. But what about if you’re with your family and young children? Your phones should be stocked with the best audiobooks for your next family trip. If you’re looking for more games, these road trip games can liven any journey. After all, there are positive aspects of any trip. Here’s what happened when this father moved his family to the “worst” place in America—and why it was the best decision they ever made.

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Have portable chargers

If you’re spending the day on the road driving miles and miles to your destination, make sure your technology is all charged up. That means phones, laptops, iPads, e-readers, and any other form of entertainment. However, if you’re in a rush getting out the door and find your phone at 50 percent on the road and the next outlet is hours away, you’ll want to have a portable charger with you. If you need power quickly, here’s how to charge your phone faster.

Smiling Black man texting on cell phone in carInti St Clair/Getty Images

Get a VPN and never use public USBs

Once you’ve run through the checklist of making sure everything is packed and ready to go in your suitcase, you’ll want to look over your technology. When you’re out on the road using public Wi-Fi or another Internet connection that’s not you’re own, you want to make sure your information is safe. Here’s how using a VPN can help keep your information safe on public W-Fi.

Along with never sending private information over public Wi-Fi, you should never use public USB ports, including in rental cars. The car may end up saving private information from your phone to the car computer. Instead, invest in a USB data blocker to help prevent syncing between your device and the other port.

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Planning for a road trip can be stressful. Luckily, the experts at AAA can help guide you on your trip-planning journey—for free! The TripTik is a travel planner that maps out various routes and includes important information like directions, maps, scenic routes, and attractions that meet AAA standards. If you’re looking for apps for your phone, Roadtrippers, Hotel Tonight, and Gas Buddy are a few handy road trip planner apps to use before your next trip.

Find the right planner for you

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Be open to change

Road trips are generally fun times with family, friends—or even solo!—and it’s important to release any expectations. As any traveler knows, let go of any prior thoughts of what a trip is supposed to look like and instead let the trip take you where you need to go. As one mother learned on her road trip during a pandemic, expect the unexpected as policies vary state by state and places in small towns can close even when they say they’re open. Next, check out the most charming small towns in every state.

Madeline Wahl
Madeline Wahl is a Digital Associate Editor/Writer at RD.com. Previously, she worked for HuffPost and Golf Channel. Her writing has appeared on HuffPost, Red Magazine, McSweeney's, Pink Pangea, The Mighty, and Yahoo Lifestyle, among others. More of her work can be found on her website: www.madelinehwahl.com