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How to plan a tailpipe-kicking road trip

Route 66 in Illinois (photo by Sheila Scarborough)Epic Road Trips.

Yeah, I’ve done a few.

They are hard to avoid when you grow up in a Navy family, as I did, moving from state to state. When I joined the Navy myself, there were more cross-country treks between US East and West Coast duty stations (RIP my 1973 Gran Torino, the Road Trip CruiseMobile.)

Once kids arrived, long-haul car travel was severely curtailed until we passed the babies-can-scream-for-miles stage. Gee, they don’t like being strapped in car seats for hours, do they?  Especially facing backward.

Still, I would not be deterred from the call of the open road, so I planned and executed our family Great Road Trip of the American South (from Florida to northwest Arkansas and back) and a Mom-daughter Midwest Road Trip from Texas to Chicago and back when I spoke at BlogHer 2007.

Here’s how I do it:

1) Get the big picture with a map. I do use online services like MapQuest and Google Maps, but for big multi-state trips, a paper map is so much easier to spread out on a table and study with the family. I’ll run my proposed route through an online mapping site, get the computer’s idea for how many miles and how many days it will take, then look at a paper map. That’s usually when I’ll notice a state park or some other gotta-see near the route, and start adding detours.  I am all about the detours.

2) Lay out your proposed route as a rough itinerary. Depending upon the time available, decide how many miles you can comfortably drive each day, allowing for driver fatigue, bathroom breaks, serendipity stops and backseat temper tantrums that require a pull-off moment. Can you get on the road, breakfast eaten, by about 8 or 9 a.m., then drive till noon or one? After lunch, how much more can you keep trucking until it’s Hotel Time? Some days you’ll dawdle and won’t get too far because there are so many things to see, and other days will be “Get In, Strap In and Add Lots of Miles to the Odometer.”

3) Add waypoints to your rough itinerary; something like, “Day One – Hometown to X City – overnight in X hotel. Day Two – X City to Y National Park – overnight in park cabins (need reservations!) Day Three – Y National Park to Z Small Town With Awesome Drugstore Soda Fountain….” and so on.

4) Key To Road Trip Success – one sheet of paper for each day. This is what makes you a planning genius. Take one piece of unlined, blank paper for each day of the trip and write the day of the week and date at the top. Using your rough itinerary, lay out where you start and where you finish for each day, with approximate number of driving miles and driving hours. Based on where you’ll be that day, list the attractions that you’d like to see, scenic drives to take and unique local restaurants where you’d like to eat. THAT is when you discover that, say, Hellen Keller’s Alabama home at Ivy Green (or some other literary travel destination) doesn’t open on Sunday until 1 pm, and you’d planned to have your tour complete and be on the road from there by noon. Whoops.

5) Tweak and revise. When is that famous BBQ place closed? When does that excellent museum have late hours with reduced entrance prices? Are you going to be in X City on the same night as a family-friendly concert or maybe a home game at their local Triple-A ballpark?  I know all this might seem like a lot of trouble, but why take the chance that you’ll pull up to some place, all excited, and find that (D’oh!) it is closed on Tuesdays?  List everything you’d possibly like to do in each place on each day, so if there’s some crisis or you finish early somewhere, your list of possibilities is right there to choose from.

6) Set up a CD or iTunes playlist of music to match the journey.  OK, this is WAY over-the-top planning for many (sorry, can’t help myself!) but I love to put together a “mix tape” of music that matches the destinations. For example, I chose Tennessee Waltz, Rocky Top, Tennessee Flat Top Box and Arrested Development’s Tennessee to play as we drove through the Volunteer State.

For more ideas, see World Hum’s Flyover America American road trip songs (and here is their Part Two list,)  the Mom’s Minivan playlist , the Guardian‘s 50 songs for 50 states or for a more international flavor, National Geographic Traveler‘s Intelligent Travel Blog Sound Tracks category.

What are your favorite road trip planning tips? Please share in the comments below.