As a kid, road trips felt like long, dark bumpy rides sprawled loosely onto a backseat with everyone in pajamas feeling both excited and slightly motion sick. We would fall asleep to talk radio and wake up too early, in some unbeknownst driveway of a favorite relative many miles from home.

But all that has changed. Road trips have now become a cherished way to slow down, leave a set schedule behind and enjoy some surprisingly refreshing spontaneity.

The most joyous experiences of road tripping, whether in the States or abroad has come from resisting the urge to over plan the journey. Creating some space for that long overdue freedom to go as leisurely or fast as desired is a welcome change to our tightly prescribed lifestyles.

One of the best pieces of advice I received before heading out on my first road trip in Europe was to avoid the big highways. It was hard for me to curb the temptation of driving at record breaking speeds in a fast, foreign car but the pleasure that comes from taking the smaller alternative routes is worth it. Meandering down easy country roads gives you a better feel for the place you are moving through and allows for quick stops for a great photo, a visit to a roadside fruit stand or the ability to make an unplanned detour. Those unexpected moments make any road trip so much more interesting, memorable and fun.

Once you have determined the actual number of days your road trip will be, you can decide how far you want to travel in the amount of time you have. I like to stop and eat everywhere, sampling regional cuisine, which slows down the trip considerably but makes for more intimate contact with the locals. Some days can also be designated as primarily driving days to balance low mileage days spent wandering in parks, shopping on main streets or just sitting drinking coffee in a local bakery.

If you tend to be a big planner, like me, I suggest constructing a generally agreed upon route with the knowledge that there may be some variation in the plan as it unfolds. I always start with a few must-see places along the way, a few might-be-nice-to-see places and several if-we end-up-anywhere-close places to visit. However, my adventurous side is always delighted when I actually visit somewhere totally unanticipated, unplanned and unexpected – that feels like a real win!

Researching your lodging options in advance makes for a much more relaxed trip. I choose and reserve some nights in a few places I am certain I do not want to miss but also keep a decent list of viable choices along the way. If you are traveling during a high season, having a confirmed place to stay each night may be your only option. During lesser traveled times of the year, I have always had plenty of places in my price range within a reasonable drive. By giving yourself some room in your itinerary to just wing it, you are able to extend your stay somewhere you absolutely fall in love with or keep moving right through an area that doesn’t look as good in daylight as it did in that old travel magazine.

On one of my USA cross country trips, I loved the bed & breakfast spots in New Orleans and Santa Fe so much we stayed several days past our booked dates at both locations. The owners happily let us stay and even gave us better pricing for the longer visit.

San Francisco Mountains near Flagstaff, Arizona

Before heading out on the road, I always do a few preparations to make the trip more pleasurable and easier to navigate. When friends asks me how to get ready for a trip, this is the list I send them:

  1. If you are a coffee snob, bring your own. Include the filters for a pour over brew, or your favorite beans and grinder. Hot water is easy to find, a strong espresso not always, depending on where your journey in the USA takes you. 
  2. Figure out the climate highs and lows across your whole trip and throw in the appropriate clothes to cover the temperature range and any specific activities you may partake in along the way. That’s the beauty of a car trip- plenty of room for an extra sweater or your favorite jean jacket.
  3. Never leave home without a swimsuit.
  4. Bring picnic supplies; mine include a corkscrew, a knife to cut fruit or cheeses, a blanket, and some plastic glasses. I like to also have a roll of garbage bags and some paper towels.
  5. Be open and friendly to the local people. They will offer some of the best ideas and suggestions and will lead you to the most unexpected experiences.
  6. If food is your thing, take the time to find a few good recommendations for the best places to eat every place you plan to visit. Try out the regional fare and ask around for the best places in town, they may not be advertised. Keep your eyes and ears open for local festivals and celebrations that may be happening while you are in town.
  7. I love a good travel guide. There is a vast array of road trip route options available for almost any destination. I like to pick and choose some of these routes and points of interest and mix them into my own configuration. While there are endless online resources, I really enjoy picking one or two great guides to use and have on hand in the car, especially when your travels take you out of internet range.
  8. Ask everyone you know what their favorite memory was about the place you are going. It’s a perfect way to find the best breakfast in town or the most exquisite sunset view.
  9. Don’t worry about getting lost. Unless you are in the middle of the desert, it’s really hard to stay lost for long. I have landed in some of the most interesting little towns trying to find another one.
  10. Relax and enjoy the ride. That means stopping often and discovering little surprises each day.
  11. Practice patience. Every detail will not go as planned. Be prepared to shift your timing, your route or even your whole travel plan based on what happens as you go.

I love to tell the story of a road trip that began on a clear sunny day but after 2 straight days of nonstop rain, we pulled off the road, found a cozy place with a fireplace in the bedroom, parked the car and stayed in bed watching old re-runs and ordering local take-out until the storm passed. Turns out, it is one of the fondest memories of that trip.

Unless your travel is confined to an urban setting, no matter where you choose to travel, a road trip will allow you to go to places and see sights that you just cannot visit otherwise. It gives you the freedom to drive by a beautiful vista or be in the perfect spot for the sunrise. Without a car, I would have never been able to meet up with the Alaska fisherman hauling in their fresh catch at a tiny pier or catch an outdoor opera performance in the middle of nowhere in Upstate New York. I would have missed my favorite pottery shop at the top of a hillside in Umbria and Brittany’s best farmer’s market cheese. The list is endless and makes me anxious to hit the road one day soon.

So if you are looking for an excuse to be surprised, to strengthen your spontaneity muscles and stretch your free-spirited self, then a road trip is for you. Just buckle up and go!

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  • Dr Sharon Ufberg

    Dr. Sharon Ufberg is a freelance writer, entrepreneurial coach, founder of Borrowed Wisdom and hosts Force of Nature on NPR’s 51% radio.

    Dr. Ufberg is a radio host and freelance journalist who writes and talks about human spirit, people and places that make a difference, women, musicians and philanthropic initiatives.She creates and teaches online personal growth courses and privately coaches individuals as the senior consultant for Borrowed Wisdom and Good Advice Works, companies she created to assist people to turn their dreams into reality.