How to Plan a Terrific Road Trip: Part 1 – Planning & Getting There

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While using miles and points for award flights is a great way to get Big Travel with Small Money, there are sights and experiences that can only be had when you’re on a road trip.

It’s the time of year when folks start planning their summer travels, so I’m sharing some tips and tricks to help you save money, time, and earn miles and points when you pack up the car and hit the road!

How To Plan A Terrific Road Trip Part 1 Planning Getting There

Hitting the Road This Summer? I’ll Show You Ways to Save Money, Time, and Earn the Most Miles and Points!

You can make your road trip a success by using the right tools, credit cards, and award programs.  I’ll show you how!

How to Plan a Terrific Road Trip Index

Road Trip 101

1.   Planning

Did you know there are lots of free online tools and mobile apps you can use to plan a road trip?

…and lots more!

I like Roadtrippers because you can enter a destination and see attractions, hotels, food, and points of interest on a map.  And you can sync your route with your mobile device to quickly access information on the road.

How To Plan A Terrific Road Trip Part 1 Planning Getting There

Do You Think Emily Will Agree to a 24-Hour Drive to Las Vegas With Me? :)

They’ve also got dozens of pre-planned trips which you can modify.  It’s a great site if you’re looking for road trip ideas!

2.   Getting There

Gasoline

One of the biggest expenses on a road trip is gas.  So be sure to use the right credit card to earn the most miles, points, or cash back when you fill up the tank!

Here’s a list of my favorite cards that currently earn a bonus at gas stations.

How To Plan A Terrific Road Trip Part 1 Planning Getting There

Pay With the Right Card When You Pump to Earn Extra Miles, Points, or Cash Back

Note:  You can earn purchase gas station gift cards, too.  But then you’re committed to filling up with that brand of gas!

Or buy a Visa or MasterCard gift card at the office supply store to earn 5X points.  Then either use it on its own, or load it to Bluebird then pay for gas.

But be sure to pre-pay for your gas before you pump (inside the gas station), otherwise they might pre-authorize your card for a larger amount (and your money could be on hold for days).

Rental Car

Some folks prefer to rent a car instead of putting lots of miles on their own.  Or maybe they want a larger vehicle, like a mini-van, which can accommodate the family and luggage on a long trip.

I wrote a series on cheap car rentals that can help you find the best price!

How To Plan A Terrific Road Trip Part 1 Planning Getting There

Renting a Bigger Vehicle to Accommodate the Family? You Can Save Money on Car Rentals

And you can use Autoslash to monitor your rental reservations.  They’ll inform you if the price drops before your trip, and re-book you at the lower rate.

Don’t forget to use a credit card that offers Primary Car Rental Insurance.  If you don’t have your own personal car insurance, you might be better off paying for the insurance offered by the car rental company.

Airfare

To minimize long hours on the road, some folks choose to fly closer to their destination, then rent a car and drive.

Emily and I use our Southwest Companion Pass to fly 2-for-1 domestically on paid and award tickets.  And because you get 2 free checked bags with Southwest, you can pack LOTS of granola bars for your trip!

Or you could consider using British Airways Avios points for short-haul domestic flights (only 7,500 points each way for flights under 1,150 miles!).

How To Plan A Terrific Road Trip Part 1 Planning Getting There

Not Enthused by a LOOOONG Road Trip? Fly 1st, Then Drive!

If you’re able to find cheap paid tickets, remember to use a credit card that earns bonus miles and points on airlines.  Most airline credit cards get you extra points when you book on that airline.

If you’re booking through an online travel agency like Orbitz or Priceline, be sure to use a card that earns a bonus on travel, like the Chase Sapphire Preferred or Barclaycard Arrival Plus card.

Bus

If you’re flexible in your plans, you could travel for very small money by taking the bus!

Some bus lines, like Greyhound and MegaBus, offer a no-frills experience, with limited amenities and a small baggage allowance.  Other lines, like RedCoachUSA and LuxBus have options for upgraded seating and onboard entertainment.

How To Plan A Terrific Road Trip Part 1 Planning Getting There

Consider the Bus for Very Cheap Travel If You Don’t Want to Drive

And there are sites like GotoBus where you can search fares on many different bus lines at once.  There are some very good prices!  For example, you can get from New York to Washington, DC, for $21.

How To Plan A Terrific Road Trip Part 1 Planning Getting There

Fares Between New York and Washington, DC, Are Very Inexpensive

Remember to use a credit card that includes buses as a travel category to earn extra points or cash back, like the Barclaycard Arrival Plus or Citi ThankYou Premier.

Keep in mind, some bus lines have been cited for serious safety concerns.  So do your research before you book.

Don’t Get Lost!

Most folks with smartphones and tablets can access GPS apps straight from their mobile device.  It makes navigation easy!

Another neat tool is the WAZE app, which provides real-time traffic, road conditions, and gas price updates.  It’s community-driven so it’s constantly updated by commuters.  There are versions available for Android, iPhone, and Windows phones.

But you can also print out maps and directions from sites like Google Maps, Mapquest, or AAA TripTik Travel Planner.  That way you don’t have to worry about the battery running out on your phone (bring a charger!).

How To Plan A Terrific Road Trip Part 1 Planning Getting There

Kickin’ It Old School With a Paper Map Means You Don’t Have to Worry About Your Phone Dying Mid-Trip!

I prefer using the GPS on my smartphone because map data is updated frequently.  And you can sometimes access information like traffic and weather conditions using your phone, too.

3.   Entertain the Kids

“Are we there yet?”

“Are we there yet?”

“Are we there yet?”

Traveling with children can be a challenge, especially on a long road trip.  Emily and I don’t have much personal experience with this yet, but here are some suggestions from our friends who are parents that can make your journey a little more bearable:

  • Pack lots of kid-friendly snacks and drinks
  • Load up their tablets or devices with games, books, movies, and TV shows (this works for us big kids, too!)
  • Consider renting a vehicle with a DVD player or satellite radio
  • Bring games, decks of cards, puzzles, coloring books
  • Be prepared to make lots of pit-stops (and plan these ahead if possible – there’s nothing worse than being on a 50 mile stretch of remote highway with a child that has to go potty right now :)) – or consider bringing a portable potty for small kids, like the Potette, although you might not want to explain an accident with it to the rental car company!
  • Keep the kids comfortable with blankets, pillows, or maybe a favorite stuffed toy
  • Have a change of clothes, disposable wipes, and plastic bags within easy reach – especially if your child is prone to carsickness
How To Plan A Terrific Road Trip Part 1 Planning Getting There

Keeping the Kids Entertained on Long Drives Is Key to a Successful Trip

And if your kids are old enough, consider giving them a camera or smartphone to take pictures of your travels.  It will be a great memory for them (and keep them busy!).

Bottom Line

If you’re road tripping this summer, there are lots of ways to save money and earn extra miles, points, and cash back!  And online tools can save time when you’re making plans.

By using the right credit cards and award programs, you can make your trip a success (and get miles and points to use on your next trip).

What are your favorite road trip tricks?

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3 responses to “How to Plan a Terrific Road Trip: Part 1 – Planning & Getting There

  1. Thanks for this article. I’m planning a long circle driving trip from Texas through the Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico within the next two years. Trying to accumulate hotel program points for the stays. Any tips for saving on National Park lodging?

  2. bob, i’ve taken two roadtrips totaling 20,000 miles over the past 3 years. pennsylvania to BC, canada and back via various routes.

    camp, if possible, at the parks. barring that, book FAR ahead for the best options and deals. and lots of small towns in the west offer very reasonably priced rooms; alamogordo, new mexico, for example is quite close to white sands (don’t forget the missile range; highly recommended, along with carlsbad caverns, santa fe and the VLA–very large array; look it up). i stayed at a little motel there for about $50/night. 20 minute drive and you’re at white sands. new mexico is fantastic.

    rewards programs are nice, but don’t skip the independents; those are where the deals often lie. and at least consider a hostel. they’re spread out across the west, so may not even be feasible, but they do exist.

    last bit of advice–do not overestimate your ability to ‘do stuff’. i could easily rattle off 2-week road trip through each of the states you listed. assume you will return and don’t be so rushed you blow right by world-class sights.

  3. last thing–i would often roll into a small town in the afternoon, pull over and look up hotel rates on my phone. i’d choose–not book–then drive over. walk in and ask for their best rate. often times they’d lowball the online sites because they could skip the commissions. a couple times i saved $20 or more. adds up. and if they’re higher, go back out to the car, book the room and go back in. it’s a big game and they know it. easy.