How to Plan an Epic Road Trip

Driving Through the Amazing Scenery on New Zealand’s South Island

We’ve all thought about going on an epic road trip at some point. But where do you even start when planning one? I’ve had road trips through New Zealand for over three weeks and South-Western Norway for eight days. Most recently I travelled through Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia Herzegovina for two and a half weeks!

Here’s the 10 things I did when planning all of my road trips so far. I think they work pretty well!

1. Pick the Location

Firstly, you will need to decide where you want to go. There are a few things you need to consider here. Is there somewhere famed for it’s landscape you’ve always dreamed of visiting? Do you want to soak up the real essence of your chosen destination? Are you interested in exploring the countryside or more remote areas at your own pace? If the answer to any or all of these is yes, then you’re halfway there! All that’s left to do is settle on your destination.

Driving Across New Zealand’s Otago Region

2. Print a Map

This sounds like a pretty pointless thing to do, but hear me out. Find yourself a map online of the whole area you’re considering, ideally with some major landmarks or cities marked on it and print it off!

I find having the hard copy rather than a virtual one means that you can mark areas with a pen as you discover them. More on this later.

The Powerful Roadside Scenery in the Aurland Area of Norway

3. Research, Research, Research and More Research

You genuinely can’t have too much research done when planning your road trip. How you do it, is entirely up to you. I’m going to share my research tips with you in the hope that you’ll find them helpful!

Use TripAdvisor with Caution

Personally, I find TripAdvisor overwhelming in the early stages of researching. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an incredibly useful tool when you’re looking for specific things to do/places to stay etc. But… There is so much information on it that it’s hard to see the wood from the trees.

A Surprisingly Picturesque Road Bridge Near Arthur’s Pass, NZ
Get Your Hands on Some Books!

Maybe I’m a bit old school, but I find it much more useful to research using books. My favourites are the “Lonely Planet” and “Marco Polo” Guidebooks. Each of them has their own advantages.

The Marco Polo books are wonderful for giving you a good flavour of everything an area has to offer. They also give great tips on some more unique things to see or do in an area. I feel they excel when you’re looking at more off the beaten track areas. Their use of photos through the book also gives you a better chance to visualise the places being described. Each book also devotes a few pages at the start of each section with suggestions of ways to spend your time there and sights/activities to combine together on a given day.

The Lonely Planet books are a little more comprehensive than the Marco Polo ones. However, they can sometimes feel overwhelming at first. There is a wonderful section in them called “Top Picks”. It’s right at the front and it’ll give you a run down on the highlights from the area you’re reading about. I do find them great for finding places to eat or stay. The detail in the books in general is quite good and once you have an idea of where you want to go and what you might like to do, it proves VERY helpful.

A Section of the Road Near Arthur’s Pass, NZ Where There are Two Structures to Allow for Land Slips and a Flowing Stream!

4. Get Out Your Map

Here is where the printed map comes into play in a big way. Get yourself a pen and with the assistance of things like Google Maps, find the location of all the things that have caught your interest during your research. Mark all these places on your map. Obviously, if you’ve a few things very close together, like in different parts of a city, only mark the city itself.

Now take a look at all the points you’ve selected and see if there are logical routes between the destinations. Draw these with a pencil so that you can rub them out and change them around if needed.

Here’s the routes I took for my New Zealand and Croatia/Slovenia/Bosnia Herzegovina to show you what I mean.

My Rough Route Through Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia Herzegovina
The Route I Took On My New Zealand Road Trip

5. Work Out Your Journey Times

This stage also involves working out your internal transport options. There’s nothing to say that you have to only travel by car. Public transport can be an option too. For example, in Norway, I took the train (an exceptionally picturesque route), from Oslo to Bergen and then picked up the rental car there for the next part of my trip. There’s nothing to say you couldn’t fly, take a train or bus or even sail between different cities/areas if you felt it was cost effective or time efficient.

For the sections of your journey that you do intend to drive for, get out the map with your provisional route and work out how long it’d take you to drive between locations. This will allow you to work out if it would be possible to visit a few locations in the same day. You may find you could overnight in the same place as somewhere that you expect to be doing a lot. One example would be that I decided to stay near Plitvice National Park in Croatia the night before I visited. This was because it gets really busy later in the day and I wanted to visit in the morning when it was a little quieter.

Waiting at a Narrower Section of the Road in New Zealand’s Alpine Region

6. Work Out How Long You Have for Your Road Trip

This is something not everyone will need to worry about. If you have a job that has fixed holiday leave, such as a teacher or a student, or indeed one that only permits you to take a certain amount of holiday time in a single block, then obviously this will dictate when and how long you can spend on your road trip. If you are a bit freer then you have much more flexibility.

I would recommend, if you can, planning your road trip for the beginning or end of the area’s busy season. You could also plan to visit in the shoulder season. Doing this will allow for less expensive accommodation and the greater ability to add in extra places or activities if you wish, as they may be booked up in the high season.

A Baffling Bridge on South Island, NZ That Is Used For Two Way Road Traffic AND Trains! (There are traffic lights by the way)

7. Go Back to Your Research, Again!

This may sound daft, but go back to your earlier research again and refine it. Look to see what areas have a high concentration of sights/activities and try your best to plan how long you need to spend in those areas. Also have a look at areas that might have time or day specific things. These could be a tour that only operates on a Friday, or an attraction that only opens at the weekend. It’s these things that will dictate your route and the days you can start or end your trip.

Don’t look on these things as restrictions though, they’re more like anchor points. They will actually help your planning by giving you particular days that you will need to be in certain locations.

A Section of the Road in Norway’s Hardangerfjord Region that Actually Passes Through a Working Farm!

8. Fix Your Route

Using your second review of your research and any information you have about days you need to be in specific places and look at your provisional route again. Does it still work with the time frame you have for your trip in total? Does it allow you to be in certain locations on the previously noted specific days? Is there a semi-central location that you can stay in for a night or two that will allow you to visit several places on day trips or half-day trips? An example of this is I stayed in Rotorua on New Zealand’s North Island for two nights. From here I was able to visit Rotorua itself, the Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Park, Hobbiton, Tamaki Maori Village and the glow-worm caves in Waitomo.

Some Amazing Greenery Growing Near a Small Tunnel near Waitomo, NZ

9. Book!

Once your route is fixed and you’re happy with it, get booking!

If you need to spread out the cost of booking, focus first on locations that are busier or places you particularly want to stay first so you can be assured of what you want the most.

I always try to pre-pay for my accommodation and as many activities/tickets that I can. This is simply so that when I’m away, I know that any money I have can be used for food, souvenirs or last minute things I want to see or do. It also means I’m not watching my bank account to make sure I have enough left to cover hotels or tickets, etc. not to mention all the bills that adulthood traps us with.

A Section of one of the Beautiful Drives You Can Take Around Wanaka, NZ

10. Prepare Yourself for Possible Tweaking

Before you leave, you may need to tweak your trip, slightly alter your route, change your activities or add in new ones. This might be because somewhere you planned to visit or accommodation you hoped to stay in was booked out. Unfortunately, this is not something you can always plan for, but rest assured that your earlier research will serve you well and you will be able to make alternative arrangements if you wish.

This can also be the case when you’re there. If this is the case, it is normally due to weather conditions. One example is I had a kayak cancelled on New Zealand’s Coromandel peninsula due to a heavy sea swell. I was able to get around this a little by reviewing my earlier research and finding out that I could visit one of the locations by land, so I did! Another is when I was on the island of Vis, off Croatia, I had booked a boat tour that included the Green and Blue Caves. Again, this was cancelled due to adverse sea conditions. Sadly, I couldn’t get to either in any other way so I went back to my research and decided to visit other parts of island instead.

A Road Through the Woods near Queenstown, NZ that were used for Filming the Woods of Lothlorien in The Lord of the Rings Trilogy

My Road Trips

Stay tuned for full descriptions of my road trips to Date! You’ll be able to read all about a New Zealand, Southern Norway and Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia Herzegovina. I hope that once I get around to writing them that they will help you to plan your own epic adventures!

My Rental Car with Norway’s Hardangerfjord in the Background

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