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AARP Smart Guide to Road Trips

Before you buckle up, we’ve rounded up these essential traveling tips

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The “Great American Road Trip” is often a travel bucket list item. But before you buckle up to hit the road, we’ve rounded up advice from guidebook authors, travel bloggers and others to help you map out a successful journey. Get road-trip ready with these planning tips, and let the wanderlust ensue.



1. Make a packing list

As on any big adventure, organization is key, so creating a packing list that you can check off as you go can be a big help. Be sure to include essentials such as extra prescription medication and chargers for phones, laptops and other electronics. Consider items you may need for a lengthy trip, such as a small container of laundry detergent if you plan to wash clothing along the way.

2. Budget accordingly

Road trips can be pricey endeavors, so set a budget for gas, food, lodging, entrance fees and activities. It’s always a smart idea to budget for unplanned expenses or emergencies, such as a flat tire or engine troubles.

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3. Secure your home

The last thing you want to be worried about while you’re on the road is your home, so make sure you lock all doors and windows, turn off appliances,  throw out perishable food and take out the trash. For added security, set lights on timers and consider adding indoor and outdoor cameras that you can check from a mobile device. You should contact the U.S. Postal Service and put a hold on your mail delivery, and leave your key with a trusted friend or neighbor who can check on your home and retrieve any packages that may arrive.

4. Get your vehicle serviced

If you decide to drive your own vehicle, “you should absolutely make sure your vehicle is in good shape before heading out on a road trip,” says Sanna Boman, editor-in-chief at Roadpass Digital. “Check your tires, fluid levels, lights, battery and so on. It may even make sense to take your car in for a quick service and oil change.”

5. Lock in your lodging

Before you hit the road, review and confirm reservations you booked at hotels, bed-and-breakfasts or vacation rentals. Because most reservations are confirmed via email, save a phone screenshot of your confirmation number or print out a copy so you have a backup in case cell service isn’t available. Make note of the cancellation policy as well, so you know how far in advance you need to cancel a reservation if your trip timing changes.

6. Download direction apps

You can download a variety of free navigation apps such as Google Maps, Waze and MapQuest. Each offers different features, such as multiple route options, live traffic alerts, information on nearby restaurants and attractions and even gas prices in different areas. You can download the apps prior to your trip and try them out during smaller excursions to see which you prefer. Some apps allow you to download maps to your device as a backup plan. “Before you leave, download offline maps, especially in less populated areas where cell service can be hard to come by,” says writer and photographer Peter Stringer, cofounder of the travel blog Amazing America.

7. Set a trip theme

Take your road trip fun up a notch by building your itinerary around a theme that interests you and your travel companions. “Perhaps you love roller coasters, craft beer, geocaching or history museums. Plan your trip around whatever your theme is,” Boman says. “There are plenty of checklists available for things like national parks, but you can easily make your own list and check off each new niche place you visit.”

8. Perfect your playlist

Good tunes are an essential part of the road trip experience, and Boman has a tip on making that music playlist extra special: pre-trip collaboration. “If you’re traveling with other people, a fun way to switch up the music in the vehicle is to collaborate on a road trip playlist,” Boman says. “Everyone in the car adds their favorite songs before the trip, and then you can play it on shuffle when you hit the road. This is a great way to discover new music and share your own favorites with your friends.” Boman recommends downloading the playlist offline before your trip in case you hit areas with spotty cell service. 

9. Plan your podcasts

Show up at your next stop with knowledge about the local history, culture and attractions by downloading a destination podcast for along the way or listen just to get inspired to seek out new adventures. There are many travel-specific options to choose from, including National Parks Traveler Podcast, Wanderlust: Off the Page and Zero to Travel. Or pick a pop culture, true crime or lifestyle podcast. Ashley Rossi, managing editor at Roadpass Digital, says her favorite is Armchair Expert by actor Dax Shepard, but there are dozens of others.

10. Have a literary listen

Those long hours in the car can be the perfect time to catch up on your reading list. Download an ebook and soak up the story as the miles roll by. Many celebrities, musicians and politicians record their own autobiographies, so you can hear their stories spoken in their own words, and other books are narrated by well-known actors. Or course, not everyone in the car may be interested in the same selections, so poll your riders ahead of time, and make sure passengers bring earphones along to listen to alternative shows or music if they prefer.  

11. Pack the right kind of snacks

Tasty snacks are essential to any road trip, and bringing them along can save time and money on your trip. Pack a cooler with ice packs that can be refrozen at hotels or other lodging along the way. In addition to sugary and salty nibbles and drinks, include water, fruit, veggies and protein-packed snacks to hydrate, refuel and nourish. 

12. Keep an atlas handy

Most navigation apps help offer a foolproof driving experience, but Jessica Dunham, author of Moon Route 66 Road Trip and The Open Road: 50 Best Road Trips in the USA, says it’s wise to keep another road trip favorite handy: a hard copy of an atlas. “Always, always, have an up-to-date atlas in the vehicle with you before you depart,” she says. “I like to mark my route in yellow highlighter on the atlas, so I can visualize what it looks like and where I’m going.”  

13. Pack a road trip supply bag

Nothing’s worse than hitting the road in your new rental car or van only to realize you forgot your favorite road trip items, such as a car charger, a GPS device or a seat cushion. Stringer suggests adding a rental car bag to your packing list. His go-to items include a pair of USB cables for charging, a lighter adapter (older cars may not have easily accessible USB ports) and a smartphone mount. One thing to note is that in many rental vehicles, the actual lighter part (which gets hot when pressed in) has been removed. 

14. Get cozy

Road trips do come with the downside of long hours in the same seat or position, which can lead to back or leg pain. Adjust your seat — and possibly add or purchase a seat cushion — to help keep you comfortable for long periods of sitting. Rossi says her family’s solution is a tried-and-true cushion. 

15. Pack your E-ZPass

Don’t forget your toll-pass transponder, such as E-ZPass or SunPass. “You do save money [by bringing it], especially in areas like the Northeast which have expensive bridges and tolls,” Rossi says. “It also saves you time from having to pay individual toll bills that arrive by mail after your trip.”

16. Plan to take the scenic route

Sure, sometimes you may need to quickly get from point A to B, but the draw of the Great American Road Trip is the chance to see the best of the U.S. — and most times you won’t find that on the major highways, so keep that in mind when you map out your route. Stringer says state routes have numerous hidden gems. “California’s 395 runs from Death Valley to Lake Tahoe and is full of amazing attractions along the way,” he says. “If you’re leaf peeping in the fall, New Hampshire’s Kancamagus highway has a well-earned reputation as one of the country’s most scenic drives. And if national parks are your thing, Utah’s Scenic Byway 12 cuts through the [state’s] amber canyons, aspen forests and alpine peaks.”


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17. Rent your ride

Driving your own vehicle can be cheaper, but it adds mileage and wear and tear, so consider renting a vehicle for better gas mileage or more space. If you do, take a video and photos of the rental before you leave — it may save you from false and costly damage claims when you return the vehicle. If the company gives you a list of previous damage, confirm that and make sure nothing new is showing on the vehicle that isn’t stated.

18. Find deals

It’s important to book your car early, but read the fine print about cancellation policies. Before you book your ride, Dunham has some bargain hunting tips: “Shop around for price comparisons; consider renting for a full week or even a month as longer durations sometimes include reduced rates; ask about AAA, military or AARP discounts; sign up for rewards membership programs at car rental companies to earn points; and select round-trip reservations whenever possible.” And always use your AARP discounts: Members can save up to 30 percent off base rates, adding an additional driver at no cost. 

19. Get an upgrade

Few travel perks surprise and delight like a free upgrade, and you can set yourself up for this kind of excitement with this simple advice from writer and photographer Peter Stringer, cofounder of the travel blog Amazing America. “If you don’t have particular vehicle needs, always reserve the cheapest available option,” he says. “Oftentimes, you’ll get a size upgrade at the desk. And don’t be bashful to ask for an upgrade. A friendly demeanor and a little small talk with the rental agent can go a long way.”

20. Go the van route

“Our most popular customer is the baby boomer,” says Matt Felser of Colorado-based rental company Dave & Matt Vans. “[They like] how easy it is to drive a van versus a large RV or even a large pickup truck,” he says, adding that vans are easier to park and have room in them to sleep if you need it.

21. Use your own car insurance

Don’t get pressured into pricey insurance at the car rental counter. Instead, understand your own automobile insurance, or if specifics 

aren’t clear, call your insurance agent to inquire about your plan’s rental car coverage. “I have never gotten the insurance offered by rental car companies because my own insurance coverage is quite good,” notes Dunham.

22. Take advantage of credit card offers

Some credit cards offer primary or secondary coverage for qualifying rental cars that you pay for with that credit card. Primary means you don’t have to use your personal insurance, while secondary, or supplemental, coverage kicks in after you’ve used the coverage you already have in place. The Chase Sapphire Reserve and Chase Sapphire Preferred cards come with primary rental car coverage, as does the United Explorer Card and the Ink Business Unlimited card, among a few others.

23. Know your ride

Rossi says drive times can be slower with a larger vehicle, so plan accordingly. “It might take you between 20 and 25 percent longer [in a larger vehicle or van] to travel the same distance as you would in a car,” she says.

24. Make national park reservations

If national parks are on your list of stops, check out the park’s website or call the headquarters early in your planning to see if reservations are required and to check on entry fees. The National Park Service waives entrance fees a handful of days each year. 

25. Find roadside campsites

If you plan to go the van or camping route, Felser has a few site-finding resources to keep handy. “iOverlander and Free Campsites give you access to free and paid [camp]sites, and you can see reviews from people who have stayed there that tell you everything from if there’s self-service to how noisy it is, if there’s a great view or access to hiking trails,” he says, noting it’s not just about finding free, last-minute overnight spots. “You also get to see the paid [camp]sites, whether it’s a national park or state park. Those are the ones you generally need to call ahead [for], just to make sure there’s availability for you.” Other apps include FreeRoam and Campendium (a Roadpass app).


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26. Share your plan

Share your itinerary with trusted friends or family members, including where you will stay along the way, and check in regularly to let them know you are safe.

27. Cover your windows

Especially if you are going the van route, Felser recommends using car window curtains to keep you and your valuables safe. “It blocks out the ability to see inside the vehicle, whether you’re going to dinner or camping overnight in a national park,” he says, noting that without the curtains, “you’re just driving around with a bull’s-eye on your back. It [helps] keep everything safe and sound.”

28. Get roadside assistance

Another must-have for safety on any road trip? “Make sure you have a roadside assistance plan, whether it’s a AAA membership or through your vehicle insurance,” Boman says. “You’ll want to double-check that your plan covers your specific vehicle (RVs and motorcycles may need additional coverage for towing), that it’s available nationwide and that agents are on call 24/7. Of course, if you have vehicle issues while near a town or city, calling a local mechanic can often be the quickest way to get back on the road.”

29. Mount your phone

If your car doesn’t have a built-in screen with Apple CarPlay or Android Auto to sync with your smartphone, install a phone mount that you can easily see and that doesn’t block other dashboard features. For safety purposes, as well as to comply with many state laws, you will want to have easy, hands-free phone access for calls and to check directions. 

30. Consider a dashcam

Unfortunately, accidents happen, and a dashcam can come in handy to record the incident for liability and insurance purposes. Hopefully you won’t need the footage for this and can review it just to remember the amazing sights and scenery you passed.

31. Other safety must-haves

Dunham suggests additional safety items to keep in the car or trunk for every road trip: “Pack a first aid kit, jumper cables, spare tire and/or tire-repair kit, emergency flares, potable water, cash in small bills, cellphone charger and any necessary documentation [such as] a driver’s license or proof of insurance.”


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32. Find clean rest stops

One stop at a dirty restroom is enough to learn your lesson, but Dunham has a piece of advice to avoid that situation: “I have great luck at places like Love’s and Flying J’s,” she says. “These are national chains of rest and refueling stops with the same amenities at every location: gas pumps, clean bathrooms, convenience stores, showers and even dog parks. They are well-lit and are usually open 24 hours.” Another option? Clean-bathroom apps. Mobile applications such as The Stanker, Charmin’s Sit or Squat and Flush can help you scout bathroom stops when Dunham’s suggestions are out of reach.

33. Save on gas

Boman offers these tips for keeping your pocketbook happy: “I would recommend using a fuel price app like GasBuddy to shop around for the best deals,” she says. “Also, don’t pack more than you need for your trip since the added weight will increase fuel usage. This is also a good time to slow down and enjoy the drive. Steady acceleration, consistent speed and cruise control can all help make you a more fuel-efficient driver.” Waze and Google Maps can search for lower-priced gas stations. You might think that higher octane in premium gas will keep your car running more smoothly, but in tests done by AAA, cars designed to run on regular gas showed no improvements in power, fuel economy or emissions when filled with premium. 

34. And mind your gas meter

It’s easy to get so swept away by the scenery you forget to check your gas tank levels — but this oversight can leave you in dire straits, as Stringer found out after nearly getting stranded in a blizzard in Yellowstone National Park. “Especially when road tripping the Southwest or national parks, always be cognizant of your gas tank and the weather,” he says. “In places like Death Valley or the mountains, you may have to drive 100 miles or more without access to a gas station.”

35. Brake less, coast more

Every time you brake, you waste the gas you just used to get to that speed. The more you can coast or avoid the surging and slowing of crowded traffic, the higher your gas mileage will be. Get in the habit of accelerating gently, coasting toward red lights and stop signs and trying to use the brake a little less. 

36. Don’t speed

Even one moving violation can increase auto insurance premiums for years, so keep an eye on your odometer as those wide, open roads can lead to tickets. Try to avoid a rate hike by asking your insurer for forgiveness; taking a driving class, such as AARP’s Smart Driver course; or plea bargaining to a lesser offense.

37. Find spontaneous stops

Yes, you have your road trip planned out, but don’t forget time for spontaneity — and that’s where roadside oddity apps such as Atlas Obscura or Roadtrippers (a Roadpass app) can help. “Open the [Roadtrippers] app, zoom in on the area you’ll be traveling through and take your pick of quirky roadside attractions, fun museums, scenic hikes and more,” Boman says. Another option to keep handy? AllTrails. This app helps you find nearby hikes and filter by time or mileage — the perfect way to stretch your legs mid-drive.

38. Keep tidy

All of those snacks and general time spent in the car can lead to a mess. Pack a small garbage container or keep a

few trash bags handy to stow wrappers, hand wipes, tissues, receipts, etc. You might consider packing a small, rechargeable car vacuum. 

39. Play some games

Depending on your group dynamic, it can be fun to pass travel time with car-friendly games. Have a bag handy with trivia cards, Mad Libs sheets or travel-themed bingo cards to pass around. If you have younger kids in the car, there are travel game books and activity packs available, or you can stick to some tried-and-true road trip activities such as keeping track of the state license plates along the way, “I Spy” and word association games.

40. Be realistic about drive times

One of the most common mistakes people make when planning their road trip route? Overdoing it on drive time. “While it’s certainly possible to drive 500 miles or more in a day, that might not give you enough time to see and do much along the way,” Boman says. “I personally find that 200 to 300 miles per day is ideal if you’re traveling in an area with activities along the way, but it can vary based on things like road conditions and weather.”

41. Take great photos

Keep your road trip memories alive and well after that rental car return with some of Stringer’s hard-earned photography advice. “Have a little patience. Photography is all about light, and especially in national parks, the horizon can change on a moment’s notice,” he says. “Sometimes you can get drastically different photos from the same location within a matter of minutes. Avoid harsh midday sun and shadows. The middle of the day is the best time for driving, while early morning and magic hour through sunset are great times to break out the camera.”

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42. Dine like a local

Build in time for stopping at restaurants. Dunham says local guidebooks offer some of the best tips on restaurants. Or you can always ask a hotel concierge or visitor center representative. Don’t miss the chance to experience a signature staple. “I like to stop at any regional chains along my route that have a cult following, like Buc-ee’s [in the South] or Wawa [on the East Coast],” Rossi says. Love’s is also a good, regional choice.

43. Factor in Fido

Road trips can be even more fun with Fido in tow but bringing a dog does require a bit more planning. “Make sure you build in extra pit stops and research activities that are pet-friendly,” Rossi says. “Not all national parks are as pet-friendly as you might think, but plenty of state parks are.” When booking your stay, you’ll need to check with hotels, motels, Vrbo and other lodging options regarding their pet policies. Most of the time, if they do allow pets, it’s an additional charge, so read the fine print. 

44. Last but not least, get your zzz’s

It may sound obvious, but getting proper sleep is paramount to a safe trip. According to research by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, drivers who get less than the recommended seven hours of sleep in a 24-hour period nearly double their risk for an accident. AAA suggests that drivers schedule a break every two hours or every 100 miles, travel with an alert passenger and take turns driving. When feeling drowsy, if possible, pull into a rest stop for a quick nap — at least 20 minutes but no more than 30 minutes — to recharge before getting back behind the wheel.



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