A road trip means freedom. A road trip alone gives you more freedom than ever.
A solo road trip requires you to do all the driving. It can be physically taxing but there are compensating factors. You can take any detour you want, listen to any radio station or talking book that interests you, or change your schedule on a whim. The list of advantages goes on.
I've taken dozens of road trips in Canada, the US, and western and eastern Europe. These are long trips on which I've learned a few things about how to plan, pack, navigate, stay safe, and have fun.
Once you read below about preparing for a solo road trip, check out How to Plan a Road Trip: Route Planning, Scheduling & Budgeting and these posts on specific road trips.
- Solo Travel Destination: North Coast 500 Road Trip, Scotland
- Planning a Road Trip Around the Adriatic: Slovenia, Croatia & Italy
- Border to Border in Alberta: A Western Canada Road Trip
- A Road Trip Through the American Southwest
- Solo Travel Destination: Australia Road Trip
- Taking the Scenic Route: Road Trip through Medieval Germany
- Solo Travel Destination: New Mexico Road Trip
- My First Solo Road Trip: Nova Scotia
Top 10 Tips for a Road Trip Alone
Whether you're planning to drive across country alone or across a province or state, if long-distance driving is something you enjoy, and the idea of going your own sweet way is appealing, here’s the rest of what you need to know for a great trip.
- Know your limits. I can drive up to 12 hours in a day, but not two days in a row. Other people have a limit of four or five hours. This can be due to physical problems from sitting for that long or from pure boredom. You need to know your limits. You should also know your limits in terms of driving in the dark.
- Set your schedule. Getting the pace right is a big part of a trip's success. I've found that, generally, I need three days per destination. If I have four destinations, I need twelve days. I might be able to get away with ten but it's important not to squeeze too much into too few days. If you do, you'll miss lots and find that all you do is drive. I also don't plan to drive too far on any one day. I try to aim for five hours a day and even though I'm not typically an early riser, I like to leave early in the morning. I'm up at 6:00 am and away by 6:30 am to beat the traffic and arrive at my destination by noon.
- Use multiple tools to map your trip. On my trip to the American southwest I found myself using two maps. One was a map of the Four Corners by National Geographic called Trail of the Ancients. It had great information on places of interest. There are a variety of National Geographic travel maps to choose from. The other was a standard road map. In addition, I used Google Maps. I also like road atlases for planning and for recording my trip, which makes the atlas a souvenir in the end. I record multiple trips in one book. Here's an atlas for North America and another for Europe.
- Know the highlights you want to see. You might want to choose a theme for your trip. In France, it was history for me. I wanted to see the Bayeux Tapestry and also Juno Beach where the Canadians landed on D-Day. In Arizona it was landscapes. The Grand Canyon, the Painted Desert, Monument Valley – could those landscapes from old western movies truly be real? Going around Lake Ontario I was visiting wineries. Every road trip I take has some sort of focus. Know what yours is and identify the places you just have to get to. Use this information as you plan your route.
- Book your accommodation. Now that you've mapped out your trip, book your accommodation. I recommend Booking.com, though if you have a loyalty card with a specific hotel chain you may be better off booking directly with them rather than through any booking site.
- Make sure you're covered.
Travel Insurance. I never travel without it – no matter what. Depending on the coverage you buy, it can reimburse the cost of doctor fees, medical examinations, medication costs, and even hotel accommodations. Possibly more importantly, it may cover the cost of getting someone you love to your bedside after a medical emergency or return you to your home if that’s necessary. For details, read Going Alone? Travel Insurance is a Must.
Roadside Assistance. Whether you run your battery down (as I did in Maine), lock your key in the car, get a flat tire, or worse, it's great to have roadside assistance on your side. If you have AAA or CAA, you’ll be fine in North America. If you don’t, you can buy short or long-term roadside assistance from Allstate.
Rental Car Insurance. If you’re renting a car for your road trip alone (read How to Save on Car Rentals), check with your insurance company and credit cards first to find out what kind of coverage you have through them. Read: When to Buy (and not buy) Trip Insurance. If you've determined that your current coverage is not adequate for your rental car, here are the questions you need to ask the rental agency:
- How much does the coverage cost?
- What type of collision coverage is offered and what is included in this coverage?
- Who is insured under the coverage?
- Is there a deductible associated with the coverage?
- Is liability insurance part of the coverage?
- Is there anything that could possibly void the insurance coverage for the rental car?
- Is roadside assistance available as part of the coverage?
- What steps need to be taken if you get into an accident?
- Packing for a car trip. Pack light. I know I say this all the time but whether you're staying at hostels, B&B's, or hotels, you are going to be hauling your luggage in and out whenever you move on to a new destination. Having just one bag to carry makes life much easier. Here's a link to my Bare Minimum Packing post for a bit of guidance on how to pack light.
For your car, it's a good idea to bring along a roll of duct tape, a multi-head screwdriver, a couple of flares, a pair of pliers, vise grips, and maybe a coat hanger or two to hold up the muffler should it fall off. Or, you can buy a road trip kit from AAA. You'll want a good first-aid kit and a car blanket too. I always travel with almonds and water in the car, though you may want to take that further and have a cooler of food so you can picnic along the way.
- Use multiple navigation tools to keep you on track. Navigation when you're on the road alone can be a bit of a challenge. I use Google Maps, however, it chews through a lot of data. Depending on where you are, it could be expensive. In addition to a GPS, I like to have a compass as it confirms my direction if I'm unsure. A compass is a cheap little accessory. And naturally, I carry the map or atlas with which I planned my trip. It's also helpful to know that in the U.S.:
- Two-digit Interstates often go directly through cities while three-digit Interstates go around them.
- Odd-numbered highways run north to south and even-numbered ones run east to west.
- Prepare your vehicle. Have your car tuned up and inspected at least a week before you leave. This will give you time for any repairs that are required. Car Talk recommends the following items be checked. You can click on any of them to go to the Car Talk site for details.
- Stay in touch. Let someone at home know your route, when you leave, and when you arrive at your destinations. A quick text message will do. If you have Wi-Fi, (McDonald's and coffee shops are always good bets for free Wi-Fi) use skype or send a quick email. That's all it takes.
Make Your Solo Road Trip Fun
- Take the stress out of your day of driving.
- Start your drive early in the morning. You'll be less tired and more alert. The roads will have less traffic making the drive more enjoyable. You'll arrive in daylight with time to find your accommodation if you haven't already booked it.
- When you're driving, make sure your doors are locked and (need I say this?) you're wearing your seat belt.
- Be mindful of where you park your car. Try to park near an entrance to a mall or hotel. The lot may be busy when you arrive but if it's empty when you leave you won't enjoy a long walk across a vacant parking lot.
- If your trip takes you along roads with little traffic, consider getting a full size spare tire rather than a donut tire that can only go a short distance. You can get an affordable, decent quality spare tire at a used tire store.
- As per Tip 4, always have bottled water with you.
- Create a playlist/listen to a book. There are definitely times to listen to local radio but chances are you'll get bored of it and, possibly, be out of range of a station. Whether your playlist includes audio books, music (you may want to get Spotify), lectures, or all three, be prepared with what will keep you happy, interested, and alert as you explore on your road trip alone. Check out our 50 Road Trip Songs Playlist.
- Slow down, go local. Slow down, save on gas, and enjoy the scenery and the scene. On my trip through the southwest I listened to KGHR 91.3 Native Radio. Listening to this station, I learned what was going on in Tuba City, what the native people care about, the values they hold, and much more. It's a wonderful aspect of travel that is most easily enjoyed on a road trip. Hungry for lunch? Look for the diner in a small town and you're sure to get some local flavor from the people as well as the food. Sometimes a local museum is the one that you'll find yourself telling people about years later. Don't overlook what may appear to be small experiences as they may be the most memorable.