Road Trip, Should You Plan It Or Wing It?

Who doesn’t love a road trip?  Whether it’s a quick day drip to the city or a month long excursion, we have all gotten in our car and left home at some point.  But should we plan it or wing it?

We’ve done both.  We’ve done day trips that are planned months in advance, and we’ve done 10 day long voyages that have brought us through 10 different states on a wing and a prayer!  But…  What’s the right way to do it?  Is there a right way to do it? 

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Truth:  There is no right way. 

There are plenty of things to consider, but no real RIGHT way to road trip.  That’s the best part!  It’s YOUR trip.  Not your neighbors’, or co-workers, or even your grand-dads’. 

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Are you a planner?  Do you like to schedule your day out? Or maybe you live life at the edge of your seat and find spontaneity to be the only way.  I like to think I am somewhere in the middle of those.  I like to have my calendar readily available to schedule a night out with friends, or to know when we have a wedding coming up, but I also need that calendar to show me that I have 10 whole days wide open and vacation days to burn – so let’s get on the road!

There are definitely pro’s and con’s to both sides.  I’ve found that for our family, it depends on what we are looking to get out of the road trip.  Is it the destination, or is it the actual time on the road? 

Day Trips

If you wake up one morning and decide that you want pizza for dinner, the best pizza you can find – grab your kids, friends, spouse, or go it alone – get in the car and drive to NYC.  Be a little spontaneous!  You don’t need any more information than directions, and now a day’s you can pop that up on your cell phone as you’re buckling your seatbelt.  A trip like this requires no planning.  It’s a destination based day trip.  Drive to NYC, stop and eat pizza.  Maybe you walk around the city for a bit.  Maybe you park on the wrong island, and have to walk over the Brooklyn Bridge to get to the pizza place the guy on the dock suggested.  It doesn’t matter, you take the day, and made silly goofy family memories that 6 years later, our son still talks about, and we still laugh about.  Totally spontaneous and totally random.

Brooklyn Bridge - Plan It Or Wing It
Walking Across the Brooklyn Bridge

If you sleep late one day and wake up deciding to hop in the car and drive to Niagara Falls, you are in the same situation as going for pizza.  The water fall is always open.  It doesn’t shut down at night.  All you need are those pesky directions!  Or so we thought…  A little more planning should have taken place before hopping in the car and taking off.  For example, did you know that the lights that illuminate that water fall that never closes DO shut down at night?  We did not… and unfortunately, we learned the hard way.  We drove 8 hours stopping for gas and coffee only to arrive at the Falls 5 minutes before those light shut off.  We were left standing in the grass of the American side with nothing to look at except the city lights of Canada.  Back in the car for an 8 hour drive home.  A definite road trip fail, and only one example of the many we’ve made.  Thankfully, in this case, our time in the car was absolutely epic, and the lights shutting off just became the icing on the cake for the stories we got to tell.  As for our lovely destination based road trip, not planning created disappointment.

Niagara Falls
Niagara Falls at night. This is a view of the American side from another trip a few years later.

Week Long (or longer) Trips

Now if you have vacation days to burn, and you want to spend them all with your family or friends traveling the countryside, that may require at least a little planning.  Winter break of 2014 we took our very 1st long road trip.  We took 12 days and touched 20 states and spent over 500 miles a day on our butts.  I wish everyone would wander the way we did on that trip!  But as much as we wandered, we had a plan.  We had never done this before!  There were parts of the country we had never been too before!  It was Christmas time, would places even be open!?! 

We each sat down, and picked some places we wanted to visit.  Vegas.  The Four Corners.  Crater of Diamonds State Park.  The Grand Canyon.  The Cadillac Ranch.  Then, Doug and I decided that even if everything else in the entire country was closed for Christmas day, at least Las Vegas would be open…  And we planned around that.  Make it to Vegas by Christmas.  We decided that we would make very few stops on our way out, and fill up the return trip with more of our destinations.  Done planning?  Not so much.  For this trip, we did a little pre-mapping.  We determined which stops would be done in which order to maximize how much we saw with minimizing our wasted time driving in circles on the road.  If hotel stays are important to you, I would also suggest looking into those as well.  We didn’t.  We just planned on tent camping if the weather permitted, or staying in a Motel6 along the way.  Definitely a successful trip and the pre-planning proved to be a good idea. 

Las Vegas Sign
Our family in front of the Las Vegas sign in 2014 on our first major road trip.

What if I just want to get in the car and get lost for 2 weeks?  You can do that too!  Doug and I have decided that once our son graduates from High School that is just what we’re doing.  We don’t want a plan!  We want to go wherever the wind takes us, and just take it from there.  You’ll have to watch for updates on how that experience went.

Overall, our suggestion is to have a plan that you’ve written in pencil.  Don’t be upset when things don’t go as planned.  And don’t worry that you drove right past 6 stops that you probably would have loved had you done the research and planning and known they were there.  Maybe one day you can re-road trip your previous journey and get to see all of those things that you flew past last time.  Road trips are an adventure! Start Yours!

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