“how-to” plan a roadtrip

Many of you have asked me how I find so much “good stuff” on these roadtrips.  The truth is, 95% of what I “find” is pre-planned.  If you travel old highways parallel to the interstates, you may find some interesting old things. But they are few and far between. What you are witnessing in your own town and in your own state, is happening everywhere in America. Old commercial strips are being replaced with a monotonous mix of chain stores.  “Dated” mid-century buildings are being demolished for contemporary boxes.  Neon signs are being dumpstered for  plastic box signs.  Treasures are being lost on a daily basis.  The time to travel and see them is now!

If you want to maximize the SPH (sights per hour) on your trips, it pays to do some research and planning.   Here then is my “road warrior” methodology.  I keep lists, organized by state and city, of things that I want to check out someday.  I’ve been doing this since around 1999 so the lists for each state are huge.  These lists are done in a Microsoft Word table.  I can then sort alphabetically by city if I want to.  I color code the rows:  bright blue for “must sees”, bright yellow for “wanta see”, white for “could live without” and light yellow for “done”.  You don’t see this on the black and white printouts that I take on trips which are shown below but it helps with putting a trip together.

I find out about all these places through magazines, books, websites, as well as Google and Flickr key word searches.  I added to these lists — daily.  Then, just before a big trip, I’ll spend days, even weeks, doing more internet searches for things that might not be on my list yet.  Nevertheless, there are always the inevitable disappointments of coming home and finding out about things that I missed that were just blocks away from where I was.

When it’s time to put together a trip, it’s pretty much a matter of plotting out things on my list with the most efficient path between them all.  I’ll give you both methods that have worked for me.

My Old Low-Tech Method

In the past, I used a lot of paper.  I printed individual maps for each place or for clumps of things in the same city.  I organized the best route using the “sticky system”.  I tore small post-it notes into little strips, wrote the name of each destination or city, and then stuck them to an atlas page:


From this, I would organize a list from my state lists so that I could just bang down through things in order while I was on the road.  During the actual trips, these stickies tended to fall off.  I gave in to just circling destination cities right on the atlas page in pen.  I then drew “as the crow flies” lines right on the page which helped me to pick out the most efficient path of roads.


I did pretty much the same thing for printed city maps using just pen instead of the stickies.  Here’s a particularly dense map full of destinations.  A GPS system could never give me this kind of at-a-glance information.


This kind of map was used as an overview.  I paper-clipped more detailed maps behind it when there were places bunched together or street names were not shown.  I put an “X” next to the place on my list and then crossed out the places on the map as I did them.  This helped me to make sure I didn’t miss something and gave me a tiny sense of accomplishment.

Some towns had just a stop or two.  The maps for those destinations just needed to be detailed enough to give the highway and street info to get me there.


Working with the my list and these maps, I then ordered all the stops into a trip list.  The maps were put in the same order as this list.  Therefore, during the trip, I could just focus on driving and taking photos.


As you can see, I scribble notes on these lists during the trip.  These notes are entered on the master list when I get home (places or things that are gone, a new place that I found that wasn’t on the list, a change in business name, etc.).

For a big trip, the lists and maps are binder-clipped by state.   These stacks can be pretty intimidating at the start of a multi-week trip:


My New Higher Tech Method

These days, instead of printing the maps and using stickies on atlas pages, I use Google Maps and my iPhone.  I am still organizing and printing my lists with the places, addresses, descriptions as described above.   But the first step is entering all the addresses for the places on my list for that area or state that I’m heading in Google Maps “My Places” on my computer.  From all the little pushpins, I can then figure out the most efficient path between them and organize the list for my trip:


Once I hit the road, I use this “My Maps” app on my iPhone:

It shows all those same pushpins that I entered on my regular computer.  If you click on any of those pushpins, it will show the address which corresponds to those on my list.  It’s nice to be able to zoom in and micro-manage my route if I change things up a bit.  And it saves a lot more trees.


I hope this helps you develop your own strategies for getting the most out of your roadtrips.  Enjoy!

34 thoughts on ““how-to” plan a roadtrip

  1. i’m ashamed to tell you how we did our last road trip…we got in the car, had a destination and a rough idea of which roads we were going to take and…that’s it 🙂

  2. Oh — that’s okay, too. Different strokes for different folks. I’m a little bit manic about maximizing destinations — esp. when I’m traveling a long distance to places that I probably won’t be back to for years. Most people like to take it easy on vacations and are satisfied with seeing a few things, laying on the beach, going to a few restaurants, getting together with friends or family, and heading back home. None of that is for me though.

  3. I have been a fan of your flickr page for a long time and am now a fan of your blog. Long time listener, first time caller? I’ve done a few similar roadtrips of my own yet find this how-to quite helpful! I’m currently planning and fundraising for a big trip in late fall and your website, blog and flickr have helped me immensely in my planning phases.

    Cheers! Thanks! and keep on truckin’!

  4. Planning our trip through Virginia down to Charlotte NC next week and admire your system! I’ve found a few places we’re going to try and hit, anything from your list on the “not miss” category traveling 81/Route 11/ 77 from PA to NC?

    • Don’t forget, you can use the search box at the home page and at the main page of every section. So, you can search by city or “, VA” will give you everything in VA. It’s kind of a messy result list but better than nothing. I used to keep a geographic list of everything but that got WAY too time consuming. I think my time is better spent adding new stuff, updating stuff, etc.

  5. Debra Jane, you are intense! You certainly do maximize your miles and time to get the shots! I have been on the road for over 30 years (although not so much in the last few) and when I was on the hunt, it was catch as catch can, no internet and usually the surprise around the corner discovery.

    • Yes, times have really changed. The “open road” is not nearly as fun-filled as it once was. My guess is that half of the “interesting” SBSs (signs, buildings & statues) have disappeared or been altered beyond photoworthiness. I’d rather research & plan my trips and see ten times as much stuff rather than just counting on “surprises” here and there.

  6. Hey Girl! I was checking out your new photos, and though to myself…”How does she organize her trips?” Thank you so much for providing your methodology when planning and traveling. I got some good tips, and some I seem to already do myself! Thanks, and happy travels!

    • Hey – a message from The Pose! Glad to be of help. I need to update that “how to organize a road trip” page. I’ve given up on the stickies. They come off too easily with a van full of idiots jumping around. So once I’ve planned the route, I remove stickies and then just draw pen circles around those cities so they’re easy to find when I’m actually on the road. But I do find a huge amount of compulsive planning really helps so you can just enjoy & not waste time when you’re driving & braindead.

  7. I often wondered on how you find some of the stuff. As much as you have found/shot, I often wondered if you picked a city and started going through google street view to see if you could find more to shoot. I’ve thought about doing that myself (not for a long trip, but for just a day trip). I know it would be tedious and street view doesn’t have the greatest resolution/viewability, but who knows… know that I live in a new area, I might try it just to see how it may help.

    • Google Street View is too cumbersome for that. For these trips with thousands of cities in five weeks, it wouldn’t be practical. It will probably become much better in a few years and might be a good tool for such a thing. Then, on a big screen TV you could comb a city just like you were there and save a lot of time and gas money. But mostly, all my destinations are from over a decade of taking very good notes of things I read about (books, mags, discussion lists, etc.) or find thru key word searches (zillions of them and of zillions of combos) at Flickr and Google. Still, there are always things I find out about just weeks after I return home that I missed. Add to the list for next time….

  8. Great site! I use it often as a resource along with roadsideamerica.com when I travel somewhere new! Isn’t that the worst when you get home and realized you missed something that was “right there?”

  9. Found your site utterly amazing and full in insight. I absolutely love a good road trip and just finished one of my own last month. My husband with one of our three dogs were gone just under three weeks traveling through 4 states and one overnight in Vancouver, BC. This trip was based on shooting old signs, urban/street/graffiti art, abandoned places, nature and other fun quirky finds. We had a blast. Now I can’t wait to peruse your Flickr photos for inspiration on my next trip. And yes I agree it sucks missing out on something that was right under your nose.

  10. FYI: google maps on the iPhone now works like on a regular computer IF you access it via the chrome iphone browser. You can pull up ‘my maps’. change icon shapes, etc. Does not work from the google maps app.

    • I have an Android phone and I use the MyMaps app. I don’t need anything fancy (different icon shapes or notes). I do all the work (adding addresses etc.) on the regular computer and then just use the smartphone for reference as I drive in conjunction with my detailed printed route list. It’s a great method for me.

  11. I am so glad I found your site! I look forward to putting it to good use and I look forward to reading 2016 blog entries.

  12. I’m planning a 2 month road trip from Vermont to Chicago, all of Route 66 than the PCH and back to Vermont via northern parts of US. Any suggestions of things I shouldn’t miss? I have gone state by state searching out the lesser known roads and roadside attractions and sites. May end up taking longer than 2 months with the list I have of things to see!!

  13. Hi, and thanks for sharing your photos, knowledge, and experience! Nice to see some familiar places, as well as many others. I’m wondering how you support yourself and your travels. I would like to travel more often, but income is currently an obstacle to doing so. Any info you care to share is appreciated. Thanks again for sharing your photos and insights!

    • Thanks — glad you are enjoying my blog. My website is my main focus (with more than 2400 pages and over 60,000 photos): http://www.roadarch.com.

      As for money: I used to make a lot more money and get a lot more time off. Now, I’m limited to the month of June off and I spend the rest of the year paying for the gas/repairs/food/motels. My full-time job has nothing at all to do with my architecture & signs passion. Hopefully, in about 8 years, I can retire and be on the road full-time (without the overhead of rent) for a couple of years.

      • Thanks for your quick reply! Do you mind sharing what kind of job you have? I’m exploring jobs that will allow me to work remotely, or give me time to travel. Thanks again!

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