Buckle up, Buttercup! A road trip for one might be travel freedom at its finest. YOU set the itinerary, YOU drive when you want, YOU stay at each destination as long as YOU like. Sounds lovely? It is!
Jamie Felder, in an essay for AFAR, writes about her love for solo road trips: “In fact, it’s one of my preferred ways to travel, ideally with the music cranked up…and several hours of daylight until my next destination. I am, in that moment, completely in control, cruising through remote and sometimes forbidding landscapes, marveling at the natural world and knowing that I—and I alone—get to have this moment.”
I’ve driven from Seattle to Chicago and Chicago to Miami. Many trips to Upper Michigan, about an 8-hour drive each way. Shorter trips to St. Louis, Milwaukee, sections of Route 66, and into neighboring states. I’m just getting started. With international travel on hold, it’s time to explore domestically.
Start by asking yourself a few questions
Depending on your own experience with road trips–with your parents, during a relationship, perhaps as a family if you were married–you may already know the routine. If this is your first–or first solo road trip–consider these:
- What’s your travel style? Do you like to just decide on an end point, with flexibility as you go? Do you like to make quick stops along the way to see the main attractions or try local food? Maybe you prefer a deep-dive, staying in one spot for several days to really get the feel of a place. Or perhaps day trips. Or an overnight, then back home.
- How much time do you have? With a few breaks for food and fuel, you can cover about 500 miles a day. Less if you stop more often, either for planned sites or if something catches your eye. It’s important to be realistic about getting from Maine to Yosemite–and back.
- Where do you want to go? Seems obvious, but you need a destination in order to plan and budget. Maybe it’s not so much a final point as a theme: Frank Lloyd Wright structures, New England lighthouses, or kitschy highway attractions.
- What’s your driving limit? The maximum recommended daily limit is 8-9 hours. But know your own capacity; if 4-5 hours is what you can comfortably do, fine. Don’t push it–a road trip for one shouldn’t be an exercise in endurance.
Planning your road trip for one
Like all solo adventures, a little extra planning on the front end of a road trip makes for a better, safer, happier journey.
- Use more than one resource. As a solo traveler, I am all about the belt-and-suspenders approach. Do not rely on Google Maps alone. If you’re an AAA member, you can order maps and guidebooks online, or request a personalized TripTik Travel Planner. One of my favorite sites is Roadtrippers, where I can get offline maps, design an itinerary that displays on my device, and check live traffic all along the way. A sturdy road atlas is always a good investment.
- Be sure you have a reliable roadside service plan. I’ve been an AAA member for decades. They have come to my rescue many times: flat tires, jump starts, keys locked in the car…even towing after an unfortunate fender-bender. Check your auto insurance policy to see if it’s included. Credit cards also cover emergency auto services. So do many auto extended warranties. Whatever you go with, find out everything it covers: How far will it tow? Does it include a rental car?
- Make sure your car is road trip-ready. A smart solo traveler leaves nothing to chance. Or at least as little as possible. Your car needs attention before you set out: Oil, fluids, brakes, lights, windshield, and wipers. (Here’s an article from Popular Mechanics with a full preparation list.) Ask your mechanic to give your auto a check-up. Don’t skip this step.
- Create your itinerary. Now comes the exciting part! What highlights are on your must-see list? Put them on the map. What attractions seem interesting? Are there any festivals or fairs during your trip? Anything worth diverting for? Scenic views, restaurants, museums? Depending how long you’ll be away, consider adding rest days, one every 5-7 days. Use it to sleep in, do laundry, stock up on supplies, read…but mostly spend time not driving.
- Check out your discounts. Solo After Sixty travelers proudly take advantage of our age. As you plan your trip, note which places offer reduced admission, hotel discounts, or restaurant specials. If you haven’t joined AARP, now’s the time. If you can work any of these savings into your plans, go for it. (I did it on my solo road trip to Starved Rock State Park and Lodge.)
- Book your accommodations. You know your travel style, you have an itinerary. Unless you’re sleeping in your car, it’s time to find places to spend the night. Some times of the year are naturally busy (summer, holidays, etc.) or there can be events, such as conventions or tournaments, that hoover up all the available rooms. Covid-19 caused hotels and campgrounds to operate at lower capacity. Don’t leave this to chance, even if you’re a wild and free spirit.
- Make a playlist and gather audio books. One of my favorite things about a solo road trip is that I can choose what to listen to…and at what volume. Feel like singing? Crank up the tunes from your high school years. Are you a mystery fan? Maybe it’s time to find out what all the fuss about Outlander is about. (Here’s how to make the perfect playlist.)
A road trip for one requires budgeting
No matter how carefully we plan, unexpected costs will crop up. Maybe we forgot about paying tolls on the turnpike. You pull up to a museum and find there’s a parking fee. Or the hotel offers us a giant corner room with a view of the mountains for only $30 more.
A road trip is often less expensive than flying, but it’s not free. And it’s not always cheap. Some ways to calculate how much you’ll spend:
- Fuel costs: Figure out how many miles you’ll be driving, adding 10-20% for those exciting detours. Divide by your car’s miles-per-gallon. How much fuel will cost along the way depends on factors like time of year and politics. Get the GasBuddy app to help you locate nearby stations and find the least expensive price.
- Hotels: Time of year and destination really affect prices. Many people like to book on comparison sites like Hotels.com or TripAdvisor. Hotels.com also lists B&Bs, condos, and other types of properties. Airbnb can be less expensive, but check each place for a minimum stay and cancellation policy. If you’re loyal to a hotel brand, you may score a discount–and you’ll earn points for free future stays. Always, always find out if there’s a “surprise,” like a mandatory resort fee.
- Food: I’m partial to choosing restaurants for lunch and using grocery stores or markets for snacks and a light dinner. (Read my post on why I don’t eat at expensive places.) All costs considered, food is the one thing you can generally control. Adjust the expense up or down, depending on the situation. One sure-fire budget tip: BYOC (Bring Your Own Coffee). You’re driving, so there’s room for a French Press!
- Freebies: Check the city/town calendar for your planned stops. If there’s a Visitor Center, stop there first. You may be surprised at the number of Concerts (or Shakespeare) in the Park, annual festivals, bookstore readings, sporting events, outdoor art, or other community gatherings. Many cities offer free guided tours and have historic buildings open to the public.
- Unexpected: Experts advise adding an extra 10-25% to your budget, or bringing an additional credit card to be used only for emergencies or unplanned costs. An extra ATM card is wise, too, in case yours gets damaged or “captured” by a rogue cash machine.
Read Part 2! Your Road Trip for One: Ready, Set, Drive!