Solo travel is daring, liberating, rejuvenating. It feels a little bit naughty, like getting away with something. You go when you want to go, where you want to go. You eat when you want to eat, what you want to eat. You can sleep when you want, and get up when you want, and you get the whole bed. You can stay at a luxury hotel or a campground; it’s your choice. You get to indulge your own interests, no matter how nerdy, or boring, or eclectic someone else might think them. If you want to plan your trip around seeing a historic museum, a national park, and a baseball game, you can. You don’t have to convince anyone why they matter, and you don’t have to compromise. You can’t live this way all time, and it wouldn’t be good for you anyway. It’s better to have people in your life, people you want to put first. But every once in a while, it’s good to get away from others, so you can restore yourself. It’s rare, and that’s what makes it special.
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Road trips are adventurous, raw, and so intriguing they’ve inspired movies from It Happened One Night to Thelma & Louise. You have flexibility. You stop when there’s something interesting to see or do, or when you just want a break. You stay in one place as long as you want, and you move on to the next one whenever you want. You don’t have a plane to catch, and you don’t have to be molested to get on board. Your car is your cocoon; you can load it with whatever you’re going to want. But the trip isn’t about the car; it’s about you and the road and where the road takes you and where you choose to follow it, eyes wide and mind open and heart full of excitement.
And when you put solo travel and road trip together, it’s magic. It’s a rare and nurturing oasis of freedom in our over-regulated, over-scheduled, over-intrusive, over-judgmental modern world. It’s life on your terms.
Cross-Country Road-Trip Essentials
1) A Loose Plan
Freedom and flexibility are the glory of the solo road trip. You don’t want to over-plan. But you have to have some idea of where you want to go and what you want to do.
Make a short list of your top things to do.
Mine included: Southfork Ranch in Texas and a Salem Red Sox game in Virginia, as well as the Everything Food Conference in Utah. I also wanted to go to all five of the contiguous states I hadn’t already visited (North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Idaho, and Oregon).
Rough draft your route.
You can do this online or on a paper map or both. Plot your to-see points, and trace a route that covers them. Use it to gauge how long it should take to drive from point to point and to plan stops on the way. But remember: it’s just a rough plan; adjust it continually as you go along.
At the end of every driving day, after I checked in to my hotel room and cleaned out the car, I got online to figure out where to stop next and what I’d like to see on the way–a small museum, a historic site, a local park. I made reservations if it looked like rooms were filling up, but the best driving days were the ones when I knew I could go until I wanted to stop.
Decide how much you want to drive daily and weekly.
I settled on roughly six hours per day, five days per week. I thought this would be a fairly light schedule, especially after years of driving from northern Virginia to my parents’ home outside Boston. I’ve seen some travel bloggers write about driving 12 hours in a day, and great for them if that’s what they like. But for me, the point of the journey was the journey, and I wanted to spend more time exploring out of the car than in it. I also knew that I’d have daily and weekly blogging responsibilities, that I like wearing frequently washed clothes, and that God gave us a weekly day of rest for a reason. As it turned out, even this light and flexible schedule became pretty tiring after five weeks, and I started slowing down by the time I made it back to the southeast.
Write up a nightly to-do list.
When you’re road tired, and possibly hungry, you don’t want to keep asking yourself, “What do I need to remember to do next?” Make a fool-proof list. Mine included:
- Unload and tidy up car.
- Charge electronics.
- Research next stop; make reservations.
- Jot down notes for upcoming blog posts.
- Edit photographs.
- Check in on social media: Instagram, facebook, twitter, Pinterest
- Respond to email.
Outline a basic daily schedule.
You can make day to day changes when they’re called for, but having a schedule will help you stay on track. Mine looked like this:
A Day in the Life of a Travel Blogger on the Road
- 5:15am: Alarm goes off. Hit snooze. Visualize day ahead.
- 5:24: Alarm goes off again. Get up. Make coffee. Do crunches.
- 5:30ish: Over coffee, go online and make sure nothing catastrophic happened overnight, e.g. the blog didn’t get hacked, Trump didn’t tweet the nuclear codes, etc.
- 5:55: Don exercise clothes and go outside or to hotel gym to work out.
- 7ish: Shower and dress for the day. Comfy casual clothes for driving. No make-up, just eye cream with sunscreen, tinted moisturizer with sunscreen, lip balm with sunscreen, curled lashes, and body lotion with sunscreen. Keep concealer, powder foundation, red lipstick, and 3-in-1 blush, highlighter, and lip tint at the ready just in case.
- 7:45ish: Protein breakfast, no simple carbs. Grab an apple for lunch.
- 8:15ish: Pack, load car, swap out CDs. Check out of hotel. (Even though most hotels email a receipt, I always ask for a print-out at the desk and look it over before I leave, just in case.)
- 8:45ish: Hit the road. Stop along the way at an interesting site or two. Eat the apple for lunch.
- 4-5pm: Check in at next hotel. Complete task list.
- 6ish: Dinner. Usually a low-carb charcuterie plate in the room, occasionally a juicy burger from room service, out to a local Mexican place if in the southwest.
- 7ish: Play at casino, read, watch TV.
- 9: Skin care: oil-based cleanser, creamy cleanser, toner, serum, eye cream, neck cream, moisturizer, body lotion. Bed.
Prepare for departure.
An organized approach to a few simple tasks will help make your departure much smoother.
Set up a packing station a few days ahead of time.
The earlier you can gather up the things you’ll be taking, the less stressed you’ll be as departure day nears. I used my small den for this, so that the growing piles wouldn’t drive me crazy.
Pay your bills.
Set up automatic payments. Don’t forget:
- housing–mortgage, rent, condo fees
- insurance–health, home, auto
- credit cards
- utilities (Suspend your cable unless you’ll want to access it from the road.)
You don’t want to return to an untidy home (and you don’t want any multi-legged squatters moving in while you’re away). I set aside a full day for this.
Plan for a short first day of driving.
Leaving can be the most stressful part of a trip. Give your self extra time to double-check that you’ve packed the prescriptions and turned off all the appliances (you can even snap pictures of them if you’ll want the reassurance). Make a one-night reservation at an inexpensive highway hotel; just make sure it’s far enough away that you won’t be tempted to turn home to get that one last thing you wish you’d packed.
Prepare to come home.
This is part of preparing to leave, so that it won’t haunt you near the end of the journey. I brought along a re-entry folder, for some paperwork regarding things I’d need to handle upon my return. Toward the end of the trip, I also planned for a short last day of driving, so that if there were any problems at home, I’d have time and energy to cope with them. I reserved what I hoped would be a luxury hotel room for my last few days on the road, so that I’d be coming home feeling rested and so that the last stretch of the trip wouldn’t seem like more of a downer than necessary.
You know that plan I had to see five new states? I only got to three of them before I decided that the last two would just be too much for this trip. On the other hand, I visited lots of places that I would never have planned ahead, just because they looked intriguing, from the Museum of Space History in New Mexico to the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. Go with the road and go with your gut.
2) A Priority on Safety
You matter. Your safety matters. Take it seriously.
Have your car checked out before you leave.
I did this a few weeks early so there’d be time for any necessary repairs.
- A navigation system. Make sure your maps are updated.
- A road atlas. Electronics fail. Books don’t. Have a back-up.
- Coolant, oil, and jumper cables.
- A road safety kit.
- A First-Aid kit.
- A Swiss Army knife.
- Membership in an auto club.
- A spare key.
- Any needed medications. I always travel with Extra-Strength Tylenol for headaches, Advil for muscle aches, and Claritin for allergies. (I’m happy to report that I didn’t need the Tylenol.)
- Your Passport and of course your driver’s license, registration, and proof of insurance.
Establish your safety rules.
It’s easy to make wrong decisions in the moment when you don’t have firm rules in place. Mine were:
- Never let the gas tank go below 1/2 west of the Mississippi or 1/4 east.
- No hiking alone in large parks. Marked trails in small parks were okay.
- No alcohol until the car is parked for the night. I also had a soft rule of only one glass of wine per night, which I bent twice for craft cocktails. But most nights, the only thing I drank was water.
- No stopping on the shoulder for photographs, no matter how beautiful the scenery. Stop only at designated overlooks and turn-outs. You might notice a few places in my narratives with metaphoric descriptions of landscapes and no pictures to match; that’s why.
3) Lodging that Suits Your Style
Lots of travellers are comfortable at hostels and campgrounds. If you’re one of them, you might want to skip this part. I prefer luxury hotels, but they’re not practical for one-night stops along the road. For road trips, I like a combination of casino, casual-convenient, and extended-stay hotels.
Casino hotels are a great option for women travelling alone, because: They’re safe. There are cameras and security personnel everywhere. In casino towns, you can even walk alone at night, because they’re all lit up, and there are lots of cops around. They’re inexpensive. They’re not in business to make money on the rooms, so you can usually stay for cheap or even for free. They usually have reasonably priced or even complementary valet parking. The big ones have rewards credit cards without annual fees, making them a better bet than most travel credit cards, and you also earn points redeemable as cash with their player’s cards. There’s always something to do. There are restaurants and bars, spas and pools, and of course table games and slot machines.
These casino brands have hotels in multiple locations:
Caesars has properties all over the country. Along with its namesake, its brands include Horseshoe, Harrah’s, Bally’s, and others. Its properties range from luxury to well-at-least-it’s-comped. Its rewards program is Caesars Rewards.
Boyd Gaming has 18 midscale properties in Nevada, the South, and the midwest. Most have unique names. Its rewards program is B Connected.
El Dorado has 26 midscale properties in the South, the West, and the midwest. Along with its namesake, its affiliated brands include Tropicana, Isle, Lady Luck, and others, with independent rewards programs. As of this writing, El Dorado has announced plans to acquire Caesars next year.
These properties tend to be easily accessible from the road. They’re often called limited-service hotels, because they lack upscale amenities like spas and bars, valet service, and shopping esplanades. But they do have what long-term road trippers want: big open parking lots, gyms, breakfast in the morning and cookies at night and coffee and tea all day, and usually microwaves and refrigerators in the rooms.
My go-to brand has long been Hampton by Hilton, because they’re ubiquitous and reliably clean and comfortable and reasonably priced. Hilton’s rewards program is HHonors.
I did have one nice stay at the Country Inn & Suites by Radisson in Northwood, Iowa. Two big plusses for this brand are cookies all day and a wonderful lending library system whereby road trippers can take a book at one property and return it at the next. Radisson’s frequent-travel program is Radisson Rewards.
For longer stops, I prefer extended-stay hotels. Like their casual-convenient counterparts, they offer complimentary breakfast in the morning and sometimes receptions in the evening. The rooms have fully equipped kitchens with real dishes and glassware, things you miss after weeks on the road.
My favorite brand is Residence Inn by Marriott. They’re reliably clean and reasonably priced. The gyms and laundry rooms are large and well equipped. The televisions are Netflix-ready for use with your own account. They have a complimentary same-day grocery-shopping service. And there’s microwave popcorn in the kitchen, which I never have at home, but can’t resist when I’m curling up with a Netflix flick after a long day of driving or writing or laundry or all three. Marriott’s rewards program is Bonvoy.
In my vision for the trip, I thought I’d be alternately dining at local haunts and having happy-hour bites with my single glass of wine at hotel bars. In reality, more often than not, I made myself a small charcuterie board in the hotel room, washed down with water, after I’d finished the tasks on my to-do list. Here’s my list of groceries to pack:
- bottled water
- cured meats
- plastic plates
- plastic cutlery
- paper napkins
- Ziploc bags (more than you think you’ll need)
- a small bottle of dish detergent
- cold packs
5) A Wardrobe for All Seasons
Be prepared for all kinds of weather. After five weeks ranging from hot sun to wet snow (including both in Salt Lake City), here’s what I wish I’d packed:
- comfortable pumps
- versatile, comfy sandals
- slip-on sneakers
- hiking boots
- running shoes
- 8 pr cushy gym socks
- 4 pr ankle socks
- 4 pr thick slouch socks
- 2 pr hose/tights
I love Talbots for inexpensive basics that are easy to notch up with the right accessories.
- 1 comfortable skirt
- 1 pr comfortable cotton pants
- 1 pr designer jeans
- 1 pr mom jeans
- 2 pr cropped pants or Capris
- 3 pr modest shorts
- 4 long-sleeved tops
- 8 short-sleeved tops
- 2 day-to-evening dresses
- 3 casual dresses, including at least one that can double as a swim cover-up
- 2 cardigans
- 1 blazer
- 1 windbreaker
- 1 pr winter gloves
- 3-4 wide-brimmed hats
- 2-3 baseball caps
- 1 warm knit hat
- 3 scarves
- 3 belts: wide, medium, thin
- 2 pr gym shorts
- 1 pr sweats
- 1 modest bathing suit
- 1 bikini
- 1 comfy cotton nightgown
- 1 pr cozy pajamas
- 1 modest silk robe
I hate worrying about losing my jewelry when I travel, so I bring only a few good pieces that I can wear together:
- 1 pr comfortable earrings
- 1 simple necklace
- 3 rings
- 3 bracelets
- 1 brooch
6) Bags and Baggage
- 1 sm. crossbody
- 1 med. crossbody
- 1 lg tote
- 1 duffel bag, for 2-3 days worth of clothes
- 1 lg suitcase, for clothes not needed at the moment
- 1 picnic basket
- 1 sm. soft-sided cooler that fits inside the picnic basket
- 1 laptop bag
- 1 camera bag
- packing cubes: Not only do they keep your suitcase organized, but they also help you keep tidy in hotel rooms that inexplicably don’t have dressers with drawers.
- a collapsible wagon: If you take one piece of advice from this whole long post, take this one. I bought my little blue wagon to carry wine-and-cheese picnics to outdoor concerts and the beach. I use it more to lug groceries up to my 11th-storey condo. But it was a lifesaver not only for loading and unloading the car but also for carting the wash to and from hotel laundry rooms.
7) A Fitness Plan
You have to be intentional about fitness or it will be too easy to blow off. I resolved before I left to spend an hour exercising every morning before I hit the road, unless I knew I’d be doing significant movement during the day. Most days I either used a treadmill in the hotel gym or went for a long walk in the fresh air. I also did ten crunches every morning while the coffee was brewing and lifted weights once or twice each week. I brought along my favorite work-out DVDs, yoga mat, hand weights, ankle weights, and resistance bands–and didn’t take them out of the car once.
The good news: I hit my 10,000-step goal every day, and usually far exceeded it, according to my fitbit, and I lost eight pounds. The bad news: It wasn’t enough; I lost muscle tone because I didn’t do enough strength training.
If I’d known then what I know now, here’s what I’d do:
- every morning: 10 crunches and five burpees
- 5-6 times/week: 3-4 miles jogging or brisk walking
- 3-4 times/week: strength training
- when possible: climb stairs
Rewards Credit Cards
There are a lot of rewards credit cards out there, and it’s worth selecting a few that will help maximize what you can reap back from your travels (and put toward your next journey!). Here’s the balance that worked for me:
- 2 cards that pay an unlimited blanket rate of at least 1.5 percent (a go-to card and a back-up), such as Capital One’s Quicksilver card.
- 1-2 casino branded cards. Caesars offers a Visa with benefits that include Caesars Rewards Platinum status (the lowest elite tier) for $5,000 in annual spending. It has no annual fee, and even low rollers can get nice rooms comped with it. If your credit is good enough, you may qualify for a Visa Signature, with its additional travel perks, like room upgrades and late check-out.
- 2-3 cards that pay at least 4 percent cash back for some of your major road-trip expenses. The Discover it Card offers a blanket 1 percent cash back on most items, and 5 percent on quarterly categories, like restaurants and gas stations, on up to $1,500 in purchases. It has no annual fee and will double all the cash back you earn during your first year.
Some people don’t feel comfortable with a lot of cash; some people only feel comfortable with a lot of cash. Bring the amount you feel comfortable with. Just make sure to carry enough $5s and $1s for tips. And bring quarters for laundry; most hotels can sell you a roll, but I wouldn’t count on it. Don’t forget your ATM card(s).
9) Electronics and Entertainment
Your list will depend somewhat on your personal preferences, but here are my road-trip must-haves:
- phone and chargers: I like my iPhone SE because it’s small but has a good camera.
- earbuds: I save the ones they give out on planes and use them to catch up with the morning news while I exercise.
- earplugs: I don’t go anywhere without these, ever since the time I had vertigo for a week after a rock concert.
- laptop and charger: The only laptop I want to take on the road is my MacBook Air, because it’s thin and light.
- cameras, chargers, cables, tripod: My big camera is a Nikon D3100 DSLR, which I often use with this tripod. I use my Sony DSC-W70 when lugging a DSLR is impractical; it’s lightweight and takes good videos.
- a variety of things to listen to: I brought around 100 CDs, from classical to Christian (which was great for singing along in praise of God’s creation), and swapped them out in the mornings before I hit the road, and I still got bored with them. I would add educational CDs from the Teaching Company and some Rosetta Stone to polish up one of my rusty languages. There are also podcasts and audio books, if you enjoy them.
- reading material: I like to bring a lot of magazines when I travel, because I can leave them for someone else to enjoy and lighten my load as I go. On the other hand, I usually limit myself to one book, because they’re heavy.
- journal(s)/notebook(s): It’s easy to forget things on the road, whether it’s how your heart soared seeing a family of deer scamper through the Black Hills or the tour hours at Southfork Ranch. Write them down. I love these notebooks.
10) The Right Mind-Set
A solo road trip is a wonderful opportunity, but it can be physically and emotionally grueling. Driving hours a day for weeks is tiring, and there’s no one to take the wheel when you want a break. Things will go wrong. You may get lost. I took an hour-long detour through the Mojave Desert in California because I overshot my turn to Laughlin, Nevada. You may get scared. I’ve developed a weird phobia of overpasses when they’re so high that I can’t see the ground. You may get lonely. I missed my late mother, with whom I took my previous cross-country road trips, and I cried from Arizona to New Mexico.
You have to set your mind to accept these kinds of things before you go. You have to allow yourself to feel emotional swings without being overwhelmed by them. You have to believe that the rewards are worth the risks. (And if you can’t, that’s okay, and it’s better to realize it; long-term solo road tripping is not for everybody, and there are lots of other ways to travel.)
I never questioned. No matter how sad or scared I became, I loved being on the road, and being on my own. And I slept better than I have in years.