White camper van with solar panels drive through green forest

10 Tricks for Smarter Road Trips

How to plan a savvier, more efficient road trip, with advice on traveling to outdoor adventures by car—both at home and overseas.

Nothing inspires a sense of freedom like loading up a car for a long journey. Having your own vehicle liberates you from bus tables and train schedules and lets you go wherever you want, whenever you want. On a road trip, the world is at your fingertips—that is, if you’re able to handle the bumps along the way. 

From flat tires to police stops to long stretches without gas or cell service, road trips can really put the “adventure” in adventure travel. While these itinerary-stoppers are usually rare, it’s best to be prepared for the worst eventualities—and all the little hiccups and lulls in between. Here’s how. 

1) Buffer your itinerary.

The No. 1 rule of itinerary planning is flexibility. While it’s tempting to try and see a bunch of places in a short period of time, be careful not to bite off more than you can chew. Try to spend just two to four hours behind the wheel each day (possibly a few more if you have a second or third driver you can take turns with). And schedule some rest—plan to stay at least a full day in the places you’re most excited about visiting. 

Finally, always build a few hours of buffer into each stint of driving. Traffic, flats, missed turns, and other delays are realities of the road. Make sure encountering them won’t throw off your whole schedule. 

2) Book ahead of time.

The closer you get to the date of your trip, the more expensive car rentals, hotels, tour reservations, and BnBs tend to be. Campsites tend to book up fast, too, especially during the summer. Aim to create a loose itinerary at least two months before the start of your trip. Try to nail down your marquee stops, the nearby towns or campgrounds where you’ll be staying, and one or two must-do experiences to book along the way. Then, make those reservations before they’re gone. 

If you’re afraid plans will change, book only options with generous cancellation policies. That way you have the reservation, but you can always change it later. 

3) Get the right documents.

If you’re driving your own car, make sure your license and registration are up-to-date and that your vehicle is insured. If you’re driving abroad, check to see if you’ll need an international driver’s license (common in many non-English-speaking countries). An international license is easy to obtain; simply go to your local AAA office with two passport photos, a driver’s license, and a credit card. It usually takes about 20 to 30 minutes and costs about $20. 

4) Learn how to drive stick shift.

Outside the lower 48, manual-transmission vehicles are far more common than automatics. This is especially true in mountainous regions like Alaska, the French Alps, or Northern Italy. The other bonus of knowing how to drive stick is that you can save hundreds of dollars by renting one. In Europe, for example, many rental agencies offer both types of transmission but charge a premium for automatic cars. 

If you don’t already know how to drive stick, the savings might not be worth the stress of learning to drive on your vacation. But if you’ve learned in the past, consider borrowing a friend’s car and brushing up on your skills before your trip. 

5) Research the terrain (and outfit your car for the job). 

If your route involves dirt roads, steep passes, or potential for snow or ice, make sure you have a capable four-wheel-drive vehicle that can handle those conditions. Also check that your car contains everything you need. Is there a spare tire and jack? If you’re driving in the winter, do you need chains or freeze-proof wiper fluid? What about smaller items—do you have a compatible charger or aux cable for your phone or GPS unit

If you’re venturing outside the U.S., your terrain research should also include some rules of the road. Are right turns on red acceptable? Will you be driving on the right or on the left? Is there any unspoken local etiquette you should know about? Flipping through a guidebook or doing a little online research should reveal what you need to know.

People camping on a beach with their van

6) Make a communication plan.

Just because you’re in a car doesn’t mean you’re insulated from backcountry-style mishaps. Do you have a way to call for aid if your car breaks down and leaves you stranded? 

If you’re traveling in a foreign country, contact your carrier before you leave to make sure your phone is set up to provide international service. If your phone isn’t locked to your carrier, you can also buy a SIM card at the airport. (These typically cost around $25 for a month of service.) No matter which option you choose, make sure it comes with plenty of data; some international phone plans run out after just 5 GB—rarely enough to make calls, stream music, and navigate over the entire course of a trip. 

If you’re venturing off the beaten path, you’ll need a backup communication plan. On remote backcountry trips, both in the U.S. and abroad, a satellite phone or personal locator beacon (like a SPOT or Garmin InReach) should be an essential piece of your emergency kit. Make sure it has global service and that your subscription is current.

7) Plan your gas stops.

Don’t wait to fill up. As soon as you hit the quarter-tank mark, stop at the nearest gas station. If you’re traveling through remote areas, like the western U.S., it’s worth planning out your gas stops ahead of time. Take note of any empty stretches of road, and make sure you top off (or grab an extra can of emergency gas) before you hit them. 

8) Download maps in advance. 

It doesn’t matter if you’re driving through Eastern Europe or road-tripping around your home state: cell-service dead zones can appear anywhere. And there’s nothing worse than reaching an unexpected fork in the road and discovering you have no way to double-check your directions. Always download road and terrain information via the Google Maps app or a backcountry navigation app like Gaia GPS before you leave service. It’s also smart to carry a paper map, compass, and/or guidebook if you’re new to an area.

9) Make an entertainment plan.

Even the liveliest of travel buddies fall into lulls. When the doldrums hit, make sure you have a plan to keep everyone entertained. Have each member of the trip create a playlist, and download them before you leave wifi. Bringing a deck of conversation cards or trivia questions can also be a great way to pass the time. And when all else fails? Classic games like GHOST, Contact, and the Cow Game are always there for you when you need them.  

10) Carry cash.

Some of the best—and worst—discoveries you make on your road trip will be cash-only. We’ll start with the worst: Toll roads exist pretty much everywhere. While some accept credit-card payments, it’s always smart to carry cash just in case. Credit cards won’t work, however, for “unofficial” tolls: In some regions of the world, like parts of Central and South America, police have been known to stop tourists with the expectation of a bribe. Often, there’s room to negotiate, but it’s tough to get out of these kinds of situations without paying at least something. 

As for the best discoveries? Beautiful little campgrounds, hole-in-the-wall restaurants, Christmas markets, and roadside produce stands can all appear out of nowhere. Often, the best local experiences deal in the local currency. So, for better or for worse, you should always have some on hand. 

Pro tip

Order foreign currency from your local bank a couple weeks before your trip. Some banks offer this service for free or for a nominal fee, which is much, much cheaper than the exorbitant prices you’ll be charged at airport currency exchanges or at ATMs abroad. 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.