How to plan a smooth road trip: 9 essential tips for traveling by car

Embarking on a road trip is an exciting adventure that promises freedom, flexibility, and unforgettable experiences. Whether you're setting out on a weekend getaway or a longer expedition, careful planning is essential to ensure a journey filled with fond memories rather than unexpected setbacks.

9 essential tips to help you plan and execute a smooth trip by car.

This article shares nine essential tips to help you plan and execute a smooth trip by car. From route planning to efficient packing, these tips will set you on the path to an enjoyable and stress-free car travel experience.

1. Prepare your car for the trip

Before you embark on a road trip, ensure your vehicle is up to the task. A well-maintained car will be a more reliable travel companion, so schedule a thorough inspection of it, checking the oil, brakes, tires, and all fluid levels. Look for any signs of fluid leaks or other damage that could deteriorate during your journey. Test all exterior lights and replace any burnt-out bulbs.

Check tire pressure and ensure it matches the recommended levels for your car make and model. Ensure that your spare tire is in good condition and you have the necessary tools for roadside emergencies.

Remember – proper car maintenance before the trip can save you serious trouble, e.g., looking for a service station in a foreign country.

2. Pack efficiently and bring essentials

Smart packing is a critical factor in any travel – and road trips are no exception. It may seem that when traveling by car you can pack more than when flying, but it’s not always the case. If you’re traveling with friends or family, divide the luggage space smartly and inform everyone of the suitcase size that will fit in the car.

In addition, it’s essential to be strategic when packing the bags in the car. For example, place clothes and accessories you won’t need anytime soon in the deepest end of the trunk. Consider using packing cubes to organize your belongings, making it easier to find items without creating a mess in the car.

Remember to bring important documents and other essentials, for example:

  • Your driver's license, insurance, and registration,
  • Passports, travel permits, or visas (if needed); if traveling with kids or pets, don’t forget to bring their documentation as well,
  • Sufficient cash for tolls, parking fees, and emergencies,
  • Emergency kit, fire extinguisher, reflective triangles, and safety vests (some countries require one vest for each passenger),
  • Jumper cables,
  • Tire repair kit and portable air compressor,
  • Cell phone charger or portable power bank,
  • Flashlight, duct tape, zip ties, and Swiss army knife,
  • Sunglasses.

Pro tip: When traveling to very cold or mountainous destinations in winter, be sure to pack snow chains for your tires.

3. Use the right navigation app

Road tripping in the 21st century has become more pleasant and simple thanks to navigation apps and GPS devices that provide real-time updates on traffic, road closures, and alternative routes. They also let you estimate the time it will take you to arrive at your destination or the next stop.

Depending on the country you drive in, Waze or Google Maps may be the most widely used navigation app. As these apps’ accuracy comes from a high volume of nearby users, it’s wise to know the national preferences to choose the app with the most updated traffic and road condition data.

For example, most drivers in the Baltics use Waze, while Google Maps is the preferred app in Poland. Germany, France, and Austria have officially banned Waze because of its speed camera warning feature. However, the app still works in these countries, though sometimes without the disputed feature.

Pro tip: Don’t rely solely on GPS applications; follow the road signs around you. That way, you’ll be able to see what’s happening on the road in real time and potentially find some points of interest that aren’t listed in the apps.

4. Choose roads wisely

When organizing your trip, begin by determining the major stops you'll make, like accommodation, showers, or longer visits to places of interest. When you know these main trip milestones, you can leave room for spontaneity to explore smaller stops along the way.

The choice of roads depends on the type of your travel. If you prefer to reach your destination as soon as possible, then paid highways are your best choice. However, if you’re OK with driving longer, consider taking alternative roads, which are often less boring, more scenic, and usually free of charge.

Pro tip: Be careful on toll roads – there are often several gates, but some are only for toll road pass owners. Make sure you choose the correct lane with a toll booth or payment machine to be able to pay for the service and avoid fines.

5. Ensure comfortable seating and sleeping conditions

When spending a lot of time in the car, don’t underestimate the importance of comfort.

Since you'll be spending a lot of time in the car, don’t underestimate the importance of comfort. Even the most comfortable seats may hurt your back after a longer journey. It’s good if you already know which (if any) parts of your body start hurting after longer drives, and you can get suitable ergonomic support elements, like cushions for the neck, lower back, or tailbone.

Bring a travel pillow and blanket for a cozier feeling if you’ll be napping or sleeping in the car.

Consider packing a pair of lighter shoes for the car so you don’t have to spend hours in heavy, sweaty winter boots. If you’re traveling in summer, pack a sweater and a pair of socks in case you get chilly in an air-conditioned car.

Take into account hygiene needs and the potential for spills during road trips. Ensure that essentials like tissues, hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, and plastic bags for trash and storing wet or soiled items are easily accessible. To be safe, include a spare change of clothes in your packing list – especially if you’re traveling with children.

Pro tip: If you plan to camp, in addition to packing a tent, sleeping bags, and camping gear, grab one or two camping chairs, which don’t take up a lot of space but always prove useful and add that much-needed extra comfort.

6. Plan regular breaks

Prevent fatigue and monotony by scheduling regular breaks during your road trip. Unless you’re short of time, it’s better to plan too many stops than too few. Frequent breaks enhance your physical well-being and allow you to appreciate the beauty of the journey.

Plan stops at rest areas, parks, or scenic viewpoints to stretch your legs, breathe in fresh air, and rejuvenate. If traveling with other drivers, consider switching places every two hours to ensure the driver is always well-rested and alert. If you’re driving alone, be sure to give yourself enough time to rest and recharge.

Pro tip: If traveling with an electric car, plan stops with suitable charging stations to make the most of your time. Read more about planning electric car trips in this article.

7. Bring water and healthy snacks

Long hours on the road can lead to dehydration and hunger. Packaging a cooler with water, fruits, and healthy snacks is a good idea to keep you energized throughout the journey. Avoid excessive consumption of caffeinated beverages, as they can lead to dehydration.

If you want to keep your car tidy after eating, pack food and snacks that aren’t only healthy but also convenient to consume during road trips, for example:

  • Small sandwiches or wraps with your favorite fillings,
  • Easy-to-eat and hydrating fruits like apples, bananas, grapes, or berries;
  • Trail mix of nuts, seeds, dried fruits, and a touch of chocolate,
  • String cheese or cheese cubes,
  • Drinkable yogurt,
  • Granola bars.

8. Prepare entertainment for the road

Long car trips are fun until they aren’t. Even if you enjoy road trips, at some point, all countries will start looking the same with their concrete highways, building blocks, and gas stations.

If you’re traveling with kids, entertainment becomes even more crucial. Nobody wants to listen to children complaining or asking, “Are we there yet?” every five minutes.

Don’t worry – with some preparation, you can transform long and tedious journeys into fun and memorable ones. First, create a road trip playlist, download audiobooks or podcasts, and prepare some games that can be played in the car. Suitable games range from “Name all animals that start with the letter M” to more advanced riddles, quizzes, and other games that are suitable for playing in the car.

Pro tip: Some smartphones now offer the feature to choose a different Bluetooth source for each app. This way, you can keep your Spotify playlist going on the car speakers while enjoying funny reels on your headphones.

9. Be prepared, but stay flexible

While planning is essential, try to be flexible when plans change due to unexpected circumstances. Be open to spontaneity – some of the best road trip memories are made when deviating from the planned route to explore hidden gems or local attractions.

At the same time, it’s wise to be prepared in case of undesired surprises like road accidents, technical problems, theft, etc. As with all types of travel, international road trips require solid travel insurance. Medical coverage is a must – and it’s included in standard If travel insurance. Other types of coverage may depend on your specific trip, e.g., a ski trip requires protection for high-risk activities.

Don’t forget to insure your trusted travel companion – your car. If Casco includes glass and vehicle parts insurance, loss of keys, as well as 24/7 roadside assistance across Europe.

Make the most of traveling by car

A car journey can be an adventure, whether you're camping under the stars or simply enjoying the freedom to explore at your own pace.

A car journey can be an adventure, whether you're camping under the stars or simply enjoying the freedom to explore at your own pace. Alternatively, it may merely serve as a means of transportation to reach your destination.

Regardless of the purpose, making your car journey fun, comfortable, and memorable is in your hands. With proper preparation and entertainment options, you can create a positive atmosphere, pass the time more quickly, and forge lasting memories together.