The Complete Guide to Properly Planning a Driving Route in America

By Emma

Road trip planning is not as simple as you think. While the option of being spontaneous and taking off at the last minute with zero plans is certainly still available to you, it may not be the most efficient or enjoyable…much less affordable! Planning can take a lot of work, especially if you are already unfamiliar with the area or just don’t know what to expect. The following points will give you a good place to start diving into your new adventure, and you’ll be on the road in no time!

Why Are You Doing This?

A simple enough question that you should already have the answer to, but critical for moving forward with your plans. What is your reason for taking the trip? Are you on vacation or are you just trying to get from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible? Or maybe you’re somewhere in between? It will be helpful to know exactly what to expect, and what information to seek out. For example, traveling on Interstates may be excellent for the former, but state highways can often be your best bet for them candid roadtrip photo moments (also just more interesting in general!). 

Getting Started

The first thing I do when plotting out a route is probably the first thing anyone does. Typing in my start and end destinations in Google Maps! I like to use google maps as my initial planning tool, because it gives me a rough estimate of the driving time along with what major Interstates and highways I’m going to be working with. Additionally, it lets you use your mouse to drag your highlighted route around if you need to adjust from what’s given to you.

Do some research. Check our adventures tag to see if you’ll be in any of these areas. Take your stopping points and time of year into account when planning your stops. Sure, you might be aware that planning a quick stop in New Orleans during March might require a little bit of pre-planning, but what about summer camping spaces in rural areas? Lonely back highways during flooding season? Know where you’re going, and know what you need to plan for. 

A Note on Tolls

Growing up in the (notably non-Illinois) part of the Midwest, tolls have always been something of a foreign concept to me. But if you’re driving on any major interstate going through Texas, Chicago, California, or pretty much anywhere along the east coast, this may already be a reality for you. Even if that is the case…Do! Your! Research! Use sites like Tollguru or apps like Tollsmart to calculate the total cost along your route. Check the companies that operate the toll booths, as not all are created equal. For example, the Illinois Tollway System, which operates all over the Great Lakes region has toll locations that automatically scan your plates when driving by. If you don’t go onto their website and pay your fees within seven days, they’ll send you a fine of up to twenty dollars in the mail (that’s PER toll!), which will only increase if you ignore or forget about it. 

Many other toll systems throughout the country operate in a similar manner, such as the E-ZPass in the Northeastern states and FasTrak in California. Note that every single one of these electronic toll systems have some form of pass you can buy online, if you REALLY want to plan ahead. Although rare, some local tolls only accept cash payments, so it’s always a good idea to keep a spare roll of quarters or a few dollar bills in your glove compartment. 

If you’re driving through big cities, you may find that traveling through tolls just isn’t worth it financially (without the pass, driving through Chicago and Detroit costs me nearly an extra thirty bucks. Yikes). Thankfully, Google Maps is here to the rescue. Check the “Avoid Tolls” section under Options. Again, this may or may not be the best option for you. When you choose to avoid tolls, you may also forfeit the right to use Interstates for a little while, instead relying on local highways and roads. If you’re looking for a more scenic option, this might be what you were planning on doing anyway. But if you just need to get where you need to be…maybe not so much. 

A Note on Technology

So you’re more than likely going to be using your phone as a GPS while driving. And of course you should be doing so! This is what they were created for, after all! However, we don’t need to tell you that keeping backup maps in the glove compartment is in your best interest. 

Because it really, really is. 

If you’re traveling through rural areas, there’s a decent chance that you won’t have cell phone coverage for a brief (or extended period of time). This may have been expected – you may have taken this into account when queuing your podcast playlist, and took the extra effort to download your episodes! This ALSO means that if you get turned around, miss your exit, et. Cetera, you may be confused for a little while. Paper maps will at least get you going in the right direction. 

And if you find that you never end up having to use them, that’s fine too. Personally, I find that the peace of mind is worth spending an extra $2.99 for a cheap paper one at the gas station. 

Pre-Trip Preparation

AAA or any other auto club is always on my recommendation list. If you underestimate the miles and run out of gas, it just might save your life. Also (although it may sound obvious) check that everything in your car is good to go. Make sure that you don’t need an oil change any time soon, and that everything is running smoothly. The last thing you want is to be stranded in the middle of Death Valley. 

On a similar note, even if you’re only passing through, it may also be a good idea to brush up on some of the local traffic laws in the states you’ll be driving in. For example, not all states let you turn right on red. Similar laws may exist regarding U-Turns. 

When it comes to food, I like to pack my own meals in a cooler before leaving. This keeps me from inevitably wasting money at Taco Bell, while also saving time if need be. This obviously depends on how long you’re going to be road tripping for, but it can be helpful to have a spare cooler just the same.

Download podcasts and music. LOTS of podcasts and music.


If you’re looking for a quick sight-seeing rest stop, Roadside America is one of the best resources out there for funky and strange roadside attractions. You can sort by states if you’re going through a general area, or by region map. Everything from “world’s largest” to strange cemeteries – everything is archived here! If you’re specifically looking for something spooky and strange, Atlas Obscura is another well-known site as well!

The GasBuddy App is another useful thing to have – it finds the cheapest gas within whatever mile radius you have set. On a similar note, iExit will help you decide which exit has the amenities you need. This is especially useful if you’re driving – just make sure your passenger is the one using it!

Reading On…

If you have any other questions or just wish to chat, shoot us an email at! For more news on our latest articles, follow on twitter and @nervousandwandering on instagram and pinterest

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