Road Trip Tips For The Best Experience

Road Trip Tips.jpg

Some Road Trip Tips For The Best Travel Experience

In the last few years we learned some road trip tips as we travelled by car for our vacations.  We drove around Eastern Canada for 4 weeks.  And then spent 3 months on a road trip from Toronto to Vancouver and back with a long fall stay in BC.  On our visit to Portugal, we had a car for 3 weeks and learned some unique lessons.  Many shorter trips by car tested the lessons we learned.

We learned many things on our road trips …

  • book key things in advance … and when possible book refundable reservations
  • plan for shorter travel days to provide flexibility for changes and unplanned stops
  • book longer stops to use as a base for local travel and day trips
  • when you plan day trips, be careful and don’t spend all day driving
  • for many reasons, travel times are always longer than planned
  • get off the highway and discover local treats
  • stay connected when travelling in a safe, private and economical way
  • road trip travelling costs were highly variable
  • accommodation choices impacted food costs
  • save money on some things to splurge on others

Keep reading to learn more about our road trip tips.  And how this might help with road trip planning.

Book Key Things In Advance … And When Possible As Refundable

We are often tempted to just hit the road with no advance reservations.  But we learned that last minute reservations would have caused us to miss many things.  

With no advance reservations in Vancouver in British Columbia (BC) in the busy summer weeks, we ended up booked far out of town.  We enjoyed some time as we explored the Fraser Valley.  But it was not great for enjoying the city.  

We left booking our accommodations too late for our road trip to the National Parks in Utah.  And we missed the chance to stay inside the parks for the early sunrise and night sunset experiences.  

When we did our road trip to Atlantic Canada, we never expected the ferries to be all booked up.  We even re-arranged our schedule to accommodate available ferries to and from Newfoundland.  On our travels around British Columbia in the Fall, we re-planned our route off of Vancouver Island when we could not get on a ferry on the day we needed to depart the island. 

Road Trip - Newfoundland Ferry Dock.jpg

For most of our trips we plan out and book all of our accommodations.  We often book with some cancellation flexibility unless we are sure of our travel plans.

We generally book any major transportation needed in advance.  Airfare is booked with some cancellation flexibility if we book well in advance.  But rarely pay for fully cancellable airfare since the premium is substantial.  We learned several times that we should book critical ferry routes in advance.  In the last year, we have increasingly found high car rental prices and limited availability.  So we also book car rentals well in advance since they are almost always 100% cancellable. 

Booking travel in advance has been a hard learned road trip tip.

Plan Some Longer Stops  … And Shorter Travel Days

On our month long road trip to Eastern Canada, we booked 3 one night stops and a few two night stops.  The one night short stops were tiring – especially when we did them back-to-back after driving all day.  The two night stops gave us one day to explore the local area.  We were happy we booked longer stops when we explored Winnipeg in Manitoba, Regina in Saskatchewan and found the waterfalls around Revelstoke in BC.

When we were younger, we planned long travel days.  We were often not left with any flexibility for local stops.  And we missed many sights along the way.

These days we planned for 8 hour travel days.  That allowed us to generally leave after the sun was up and we stopped before sundown.  We preferred daytime driving.  

Our 8 hour travel day included planned breaks for meals and sights identified in advance.  But with a planned 8 hour travel day, we had the flexibility to add new unplanned stops into our day if we were prepared for a bit longer travel day.  We sure enjoyed the waterfalls in Northern Ontario on such stops.  

Don’t rush your road trip.  Enjoy the sights along the way.  One of the road trip tips we learned over the years. 

Travel Times Are Always Longer Than Planned

We learned to use GPS travel route estimates (like Google or Apple Maps) with caution when we planned a travel day.  The actual driving time was impacted by so many factors.  

The most obvious factor was traffic.  This varied by time of day.  We usually scheduled our departure, arrival and transit times for bigger cities to avoid rush hour if possible.  But we learned that cities like Montreal sometimes felt like rush hour was all day!  

Actual road conditions and construction often created unanticipated delays.  While these may be factored into “driving time” on our GPS, it was hard to plan for those delays in advance.  And major weather or road closures even changed the route we took!  

Road Trip - Construction.jpg

When we travelled home from Vancouver to Toronto, the main highway through western British Columbia was closed on some days.  And we had to drive a totally different route.  That was not factored into our original plan for the day.  We saw a part of BC and Alberta we had not planned for.  But we sadly missed a longer stop in Banff.

Sometimes the physical state of a road caused delays.  Many of the smaller roads we travelled in Nova Scotia were rough.  We learned to really slow down when we saw a “Bump” sign.  Since we often took the road less travelled, we sometimes found ourselves on dirt roads.  We were happy we had the right kind of car to drive on such rough conditions.  And when we travelled in BC as winter neared we may have needed snow tires or chains.

Road Trip - Winter Tires.jpeg

Assume your travel time will always be greater than planned.  One of the road trip tips that lets us build a reasonable travel day plan.

Get Off The Highways

We loved to get off the highways when we could and travelled the small local and coastal roads.  We found so much to see along the routes.  But there were things to consider when we left the highway routes.

We always looked ahead for essential stops like gas, bathrooms and picnic stops.  On most highways, there were gas stations and rest stops on the highways.  And interchanges with gas stations were clearly marked.  In contrast, we often found it difficult to find gas stations on the smaller roads.  The stops were far apart and many did not have extended hours.

Road Trip - Gas Station.jpg

Travelling on the highway, the rest stops provided regular bathroom stops.  When we travelled on the smaller roads, we typically looked for gas stations or restaurants for bathroom breaks.  Sometimes we got lucky and found parks with public bathrooms.  Although when we travelled off-season, many of those were locked.

Road Trip - Public Bathroom.jpg

The one great thing about the local spots was the opportunity to find spots for picnic stops.  And we were delighted when we found a covered picnic spot for a stop in the rain on our way to Halifax in Nova Scotia. 

Road Trip - Picnic.jpg

When we travelled on the smaller roads, we were on the watch for animals.  On the highways, animal fences were often installed in areas of expected wildlife.  On the smaller roads, animals roamed at will.  As dusk approached, we slowed right down when we saw the deer crossing signs.

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One of our strong road trip tips is to get off the highways and enjoy the route along the smaller roads.

Be Careful With Day Trip Planning

When doing long road trips, we were careful when we planned day trips from our stops.  When we stopped for a few days, we wanted a break from driving.  We loved a central hotel with lots to explore on foot.  In Halifax, we wandered the waterfront sights for days.  

But we often used our stops as a base for day trips as well.  We tried to plan shorter day trips or day trips with longer stops and less driving.  On our stay in Geneva in upstate New York, we planned a number of day trips for waterfalls in the Finger Lakes Region.  

Sometimes we planned day trips and outdoor adventures that needed no driving.  We loved the day we rented a boat and explored the Amalfi Coast by water.  And in Sedona in Arizona we explored the Sedona Valley by helicopter.

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There were even times when we booked a tour and left all the driving to someone else.  We enjoyed a day exploring the coastal areas around Cape Town with a driver for the day.  And we really benefited from his local knowledge.

Road Trip - Cape Town Drive.jpg

There was always so much to see on a road trip.  Some sights were stops on major travel days.  And some were day trips from our stops.  But one of our key road trip tips suggests that care be taken with day trip planning.  At some point, we really needed to stop and enjoy a spot with no driving.

Staying Connected On The Road

While we loved the idea of totally disconnecting on our travels, we rarely did it.  Luckily WiFi was pretty prevalent where we travelled, so it was always possible to connect once we were stopped en-route or at our accommodations.

While we were on the road, we wanted to be connected.  Sometimes it was simply to be in touch.  And sometimes we needed to research something needed during a trip.  When we travelled at home in Canada, our home cell phones had roaming as part of our plans.  But for trips out of Canada, we needed a better cellular option.

Many years ago we discovered the KnowRoaming international SIM.  Instead of buying a new SIM in every country we visited, we bought one SIM and connected it through KnowRoaming when we landed in a new spot.  There were phone and data plans available for different prices, durations and capacities.  As cell phones evolved, KnowRoaming provided virtual “eSIMs” that did not require a physical SIM.  We activated a KnowRoaming plan for every trip we did out of the country.  

Connecting to the internet while travelling always incurred some additional security risk.  So very early in our travels we invested in a VPN service.  The VPN service provided a secure internet channel that kept our internet traffic safe and private.

We found reliable, cheap and secure services to stay connected on our travels.  These road trip tips could help you too.

Road Trip Costs Were Highly Variable

One of the highest costs on a road trip was gasoline.  In the past years, gasoline prices have increased and became hugely variable.  It was hard to really estimate our gas costs when we planned a trip.  We found gas prices varied greatly as we moved around.  So we were alway on the lookout for cheaper gas.  And on our road trip in Atlantic Canada, we found some great hotel package deals that included gas cards.

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While gas was an easily tracked road trip cost, the wear and tear on our car was not.  There are standard costs that estimate the cost per mile or km you travelled.   But on several road trips we had unexpected car problems that created unanticipated delays and costs. We had so many car issues on our road trip to Atlantic Canada that we decided it was the last trip for that 10 plus year old car.  And we got a new car before we headed to Western Canada.  

When we planned a road trip, we often looked at different routes.  And on road trips in Eastern and Western Canada, we needed to factor ferries into our road trip plans.  Sometimes the ferry cut our driving time and the cost of the ferry paid in saved cost.  But when we visited Newfoundland, the ferry was the only option.  Unless we wanted to fly.  

The cost of tolls was another thing we factored into our road trip cost.  When we set a GPS route, it let us avoid toll roads if we wanted.  So when we chose the local roads, we generally avoided toll roads.  But after our stay on Prince Edward Island, we either had to pay for a ferry or the toll over the Confederation Bridge. 

Road Trip - Tolls.jpg

The cost on the road was highly variable.  Budgeting in advance was sometimes a challenge.  And there were often choices we made while we travelled that changed the cost. 

Bags For Every Purpose

We don’t ever claim to be smart packers and we have virtually never travelled with just a carry-on.  And a road trip let us indulge our “just in case” packing mania.  

Within the space of a packed car, there was lots of room for stuff.  We packed bags for different things.  There were bags with hiking gear, beach bags, extra warm clothes and a large first aid kit.  

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We created a “3 night bag” that covered our needs for several days on the road before we had to re-pack it.  We even packed a small overnight bag for the night we took the ferry from Newfoundland.

By having things in separate bags, we often left bags in the car and only took a bag out when needed.  The rest were securely stored in our car trunk when we left the car.

This tactic meant that less bags went in and out of our accommodations.  We felt less like we moved our whole house on every stay.  The car was only fully unpacked when we finally settled in for a long stay in BC.

Packing our bags strategically helped to keep our things organized and easily available for use.  One of the road trip tips we got better at with each trip.

Accommodation Choices Also Impacted Food Costs

A discussion about accommodation choices is the topic for a fun blog post.  We often book our accommodations into major chain hotels.  This ensured a consistent level of quality and helped us keep our hotel elite status.  But even within the major chains, the price of hotels varied greatly.  

If our stays were short one night stays, we picked our hotels based on location and price.  For longer stays, we wanted a little more luxury.  If we stayed near family, we often wanted an Airbnb to provide more room.  But the Airbnb rarely was a cheaper choice.

We carried basics with us on our road trip travels.  It was easy to travel with our favourite toiletries.  And we brought our preferred non-scented laundry detergent.  As a bit of coffee snobs, we even travelled with our own espresso machine and milk frother.

Our small cooler was filled with basics we wanted at all stops.  We tried not to buy bottled water if the local water was good.  Our own water bottles were filled from larger bottle water.  And we loved when hotels had water dispensers.  

Road Trip - Water.jpg

We packed snacks and some foods for picnics.  When we checked into a new spot, we ensured there was a kettle and a small empty refrigerator. And a microwave was an extra treat.  For longer stays we even booked a suite with a full kitchen and cooked more meals.  

Our accommodation costs varied greatly from stop to stop.  Luckily we got free breakfast with our elite status or we booked a hotel or rate that included breakfast.  Carrying food with us let us picnic when we could.  And a kitchen saved us even more money on restaurant meals.  So sometimes the accommodation cost was offset by food cost savings.  

Our accommodation choices drove a good part of our road trip budgets.  But we always looked at our food cost budget when we made our decisions.  

Save Money On Some Things To Splurge On Others

We would start by saying we are generally frugal in our day-to-day spending.  We looked for bargains and stopped to consider any major purchase for options and timing.  All our life we saved for a time when we travelled more.

Sometimes we were thrifty on the wrong things when we travelled.  It was never a smart idea when we had lots of bags or needed multiple transits to travel by public transit to save money .  But there were lots of choices we made that saved on our travel costs.  

Short stops were in more budget hotels, every day we had a picnic for at least one meal, off-season travel saved money and off-peak-time attractions were cheaper or even free.  Our elite status with hotels often provided us with a lovely upgrade.  And free breakfast too.

Road Trip - Breakfast.jpg

But when we saved money on travel, we also found great ways to spoil ourselves.  When we booked a pampering stay at the Ritz-Carlton Penha Longa Resort outside of Sintra in Portugal, we did not pay for a car rental for our 6 day stay.  It was great to enjoy the resort facilities.  And Uber or a tuktuk trip were cheap when we wanted a day trip to the palaces in Sintra.  

Road Trip - TukTuk.jpg

We loved when we saved money and got more from our travel budget.  But we also loved when the savings allowed us to splurge a little.  One of the road trip tips that helped keep us balanced.

Many Road Trip Tips For The Best Travel Experience

Over the years, we discovered many road trip tips.  We tested the travel tips and expanded them with new lessons learned on different destinations and types of road trips.  But we know there are many other lessons to learn.

Guess it is time to hit the road again soon!

Do the road trip tips resonate with you?  Is there another tip you think we missed?

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70 Comments

  1. Very helpful. We used to be more casual about reservations but so many more people are traveling these days, so it’s kind of sad that some of the spontaneity has gone out of even road trips. Your advice to be flexible and consider alternatives when plans don’t work out is very helpful. We have occasionally resorted to that tactic and often been pleasantly surprised.

    • We tend to be planners so book as much as possible in advance. But do try to consider some contingency options. We have been caught for tours and special accommodations (like inside National Parks) when we did not book early enough. We will do very local trip with a little more spontaneity when we have the flexibility. But for longer trips we tend to have at least an overall plan. We did so many road trips we had a few hard learnings!

  2. AWESOME post guys….love the combination of location tips and road trip tips. I would add one thing to your packing list, a handheld UV water purifier.

    And I also wanted to say thanks for raising awareness of hotel refilling, more hotels need to do that and offer that in their lobbys, rather than offering free water in the rooms. right?

    • We have started to see hotels and cruise lines actually give you re-fillable bottles and have water stations around everywhere. That is ideal for use. We have a good collection of great bottles.

  3. Although I’m not driving, it doesn’t mean that I’m not going on road trips. I take buses and trains and meander across the world. And interestingly, most of your tips are also valid if you’re not the designated driver: Taking it slowly, planning or just rolling with the punches and much more. I love how your love for travel and particularly for road trips is reflected in this post – it’s written with some kind of special passion 😀

  4. A 3-night bag is a really good idea. You’re right about the trip times taking longer, sometimes we don’t want to trust our GPS anymore! I agree about getting off the highway too, you never know what you will discover!

    • We have shortened the amount of time we plan for any day. We now know we get diverted to see cool things and you can’t plan using “ideal” travel times. Luckily we have the time to travel slower.

  5. Some really great tips here! I’d love to do a big road trip someday, but have zero idea what I’m doing 😅 Your post is super helpful.

  6. Great post!

    I have to admit, it’s not often that I nod my way through a post about road trips, but i agree with all of these. I strongly agree with the idea of different bags for different things (we do that too with bags for hiking, bags for camping and a small bag when we stay at hotels..) I also really love it when we take extra time to have 2 nights along the way when on a road trip. It makes it feel less like you’re just passing through everywhere. Plus gives more time to find a fun hike!!

    • Glad to know that this post resonated with you. It is great when we can stopped for a few days and really see some of the places we pass through. Great idea to get out and hike. Need to move after all that sitting.

      • We just love a good road trip! There is something about picking a side road and finding hidden gems that you would have missed on the main road. Our last road trip was in Western Australia, but we had some good ones in the USA and Asia as well. It’s fun to figure out what to plan ahead and where to leave some room for spontaneous activities.

  7. Useful tips – I always tend to forget to allow travel time between destinations when planning road trips and you are right, the travelling always seems to take longer than its supposed to, lol.

  8. Very sensible tips for longer road trips. Personally I do not like driving that much, but I sometimes enjoy the freedom a car gives you for exploring an area or a country. We also try to do longer stays and shorter driving days. But there is always the temptation to add detours, just because I can…

  9. That’s a very helpful blog post with really valuable tips! I learned most of those things the hard way, like relying too much on Google Maps. One of the best things to do is to get off the highway as often as possible, that’s almost an adventure guarantee!

  10. I agree with so many of these tips! I think one of the most important ones is to book refundable accommodations ahead of time. On so many occasions, I’ve extended my stay in one place or another and loved having the flexibility to do so. Many beginner road trippers often make the mistake of having long driving days without leaving much time for exploring. And, as you’ve mentioned, sometimes the drive is longer than expected. That’s another great piece of information. But really, all of these are excellent tips that reflect your expertise and experiences on the road!

    • I am glad the road trip tips resonated with you. We are happy to share our experience as we do love to head out on the road. We are booking refundable accommodations a lot these days. It gives us the freedom to change and to handle unexpected things without worrying.

  11. Great tips! I’ve learned some of these things the hard way over the years, like waiting for days for a ferry between Nova Scotia and Newfoundland for *days* because we didn’t book in advance. Get off the highway might be my favourite tip; if your goal is to see and get to know a place, local roads are the way to do it. If I was going to add one thing, I’d say to avoid GPS and use paper maps instead. It’s the best way to learn the roads and directions and to make changes en route.

    • I must admit we never carry paper maps with us anymore. But we also make sure to research a route in advance and not rely blindly on our GPS guiding us. I have an offline map app that is great for manually navigating and finding spots that we might want to detour to. When we did our Atlantic Canada trip we were so glad we checked ferry schedules at the planning stage. Because we had to totally re-plan our route to make sure we got the ferries we wanted. A lesson learned for sure!

  12. I agree, booking things early is definitely much better and refundable is kinda necessary these days. Travel times get longer, more so when traveling with a kid. I never rely on the time suggested by these apps. Getting off the highway and exploring the little towns on the way is definitely the essence of road trip in my PoV. We are just-carry-on people and on a road trip, I still go with only a couple extra bags.

    • I agree that travelling with kids adds another element to planning for road trips. We wanted shorter travel days so our kids were not cooped up in a car for too long.

  13. Great blog post on road trip tips Linda! We always stay longer in a central place and try to explore more in all directions. Also, straying off the highway and using smaller roads through beautiful villages and towns is what we love to do. And you may come across a pleasant surprise like a hidden gem in the process! Repacking for the 3-4 days in one place is a great way to avoid digging into the main suitcase. Thanks for all the tips! 🙂

  14. These are great tips for a road trip! I especially like how you talk about packing different bags instead of just one big suitcase. That’s really smart so you can just grab what you need!

  15. These are great and practical tips! I agree with you how important it is to book things in advance. Indeed, travel times are always longer than planned and this is why we try to give more allowances whenever we plan our itinerary. Interestingly, despite the allowance, many times we still can’t follow our schedule. LOL

  16. Great tips for a road trip and like the idea of a bag packed for 3 days before you need to swop over. Hauling out all the bags every time you stop can be rather tiring so this is worth remembering.

    • Creating a 3 day bag helped for sure. It meant we only pulled the big bags out a few times since we did not do laundry until we stopped for a longer time. A great strategy if we plan a short trip when we stay put for a longer time too.

  17. I second the idea about booking refundable adventures. My husband and I have booked non-refundable events too many times only to find that we want to change our itinerary later but are now locked into an activity.

    • We also learned the hard way about not booking our trips as refundable. Even when we thought we were sure, we have been unpleasantly surprised. May cost a little more at the front but better than losing the whole cost.

  18. Those are some amazing tips regarding a road trip. I can agree booking in advance can save both time and money because you can ask for refund if needed. I can also agree that driving can take a whole lot of time, so planning the road trip can in advance can safe time. I have a 14 days planned road trip around California, Nevada and Arizona. It was an amazing trip, and we had so much fun.

  19. Some great tips, thanks do sharing! I’ve had issues with third party car rental companies in the past and renting a car can still stress me out. Your tips make things a lot easier!

    • We too have had issues with car rentals. So we now typically pick larger companies with some kind of ability to escalate issues. Comes with a price but helps when there are issues.

  20. I love these tips. I use to get so frustrated when it took longer to get there that what my plan originally said. Now, I plan on taking a little longer, then I’m not disappointed! 🙂

    • Glad that the tips made sense. We too are now more realistic on our travel days and enjoy so much more having the time to just divert from our planned route because we have time.

  21. These are some perfect road trip tips you have shared. And all of them are extremely helpful. And I totally agree when you say get off the highway to enjoy the local sights. And definitely it’s more reasonable to plan shorter travel days with longer stops and explore maximum in daytime. Carrying bags of different sizes is a good idea on a road trip and of course plan packages which are refundable.

  22. Great post! First of all, the road trips that you have been on sound incredible – so much fun! Secondly, these are great tips! Yes to a first aid kit and multiple bags for multiple things. This post makes me want to hit the road!

  23. This is such great information, and not only for road trips. We have found we really need down days when traveling, and long travel days or back to back long days are much more exhausting in our retired years than when we were younger. So we plan for all of that. Also since Covid we now always book refundable when at all possible…who knows any more what might happen!

    • We are indeed booking even more refundable travel since Covid. And yesterday we are travelling a little slower as we age. Some of that is the flexibility to be able to do that. And some is just wanting to enjoy our stops more.

  24. Great tips on how to successfully complete a road trip! I like that you mentioned that travel times may be longer so it’s important to take that into consideration as well as accommodation choices factoring into food costs.

  25. I love a road trip & there are some fantastic tips that you share. I agree that it’s important to split up long journeys with a couple of night stops so you can get out of the car & see somewhere you may not always have as top of your list. And always expect a journey to take longer than Google says! The fun of a road trip to me is just taking your time & enjoying the journey, & your tips are perfect for that.

  26. I always love planning road trips! I enjoy getting off of the highways and driving through the smaller towns – sometimes you find some great hidden gems.

  27. These are great tips for people planning a road trip. I agree that it is worth planning longer stops along the route and shorter travel days to provide flexibility for changes and unplanned stops. A busy schedule doesn’t help, so it’s worth allowing yourself some flexibility, especially when the weather breaks down.

    • We have forced ourselves to slow down on our road trips and give ourselves the time to wander along the way. Even when the road trip is purely to get us between spots. And in Canada, weather is often a factor we can’t always predict well when planning is done well in advance. So better to leave some time for the unplannable.

  28. These are really valuable trips and you clearly are seasoned experts! I like a good road trip and you’re right about the travel times take longer. We also like to get off the highway and explore the smaller towns in between. Staying connected is also important as we need it for using the GPS! We also always make sure to bring a portable battery, cables and plenty of snacks and water in the car. Road trips are fun but they can be expensive too.

    • Road trips always take a bit more preparation than you might think. While it is easy to just hop in the car and go, we have always regretted not being ready to really enjoy the trip. And sometimes they are indeed far more expensive than planned.

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