How to Plan the Perfect Road Trip With Friends

Traveling with a group? Keep everyone happy instead of hangry with this road trip planner.

Friends gather around a map in a cafe, image
A great road trip starts with organized planning. / Shutterstock

The open road offers the freedom and flexibility that flights and cruises can’t, but how you prepare—or don’t—can make or break your trip. Avoid planning potholes that derail adventures. Sort out the big picture (where you’re going, who’s driving, and what is a priority) and important details (car insurance and a daily budget) before you buckle up. Whether you're cruising Highway 1, conquering Route 66, or forging your own path, these tips will ensure an epic journey.

1. Account for everyone’s must-sees and must-dos.

Avoid unnecessary tension by managing expectations. Arrange a pre-trip meetup where everyone has a chance to weigh in on their travel needs and desires. Jot down each activity, and then prioritize what makes the cut.

“Ask the group to chime in on what appeals to them most by asking 'What are you most excited about on this trip?' and 'How do you want to feel after this trip?'” says Kelly Lewis, travel planning expert and CEO of Damesly, a company that operates tours around the world. “Those two questions really help craft a vacation that everyone will enjoy.”

After the group aligns on priorities, look at how much time you will realistically have. “It's so easy to overbook a day and fill it with sightseeing, but what you don't account for are things like traffic, walking all day, and bathroom breaks,” Lewis says. “Try to keep it simple and plan for a morning activity and an afternoon activity.” In other words, leave room in your schedule to explore, so you can veer down that side road to get a closer look at scenery or make an unexpected stop for that ice cream you’ve all been craving.

2. Plan around personal needs.

A group dynamic means not only differing wants, but also varying personal needs. Night owls and early birds, vegetarians and carnivores, introverts and extroverts—your group may represent a mix of these and more. Plan an itinerary that accommodates these differences. For example, consider tour schedules, restaurant choices, and shared or separate rooms.

Even with the most intentional planning, bumps are bound to come up during the trip. “If tension is brewing, it's better to [address] it early on than to let it build,” Lewis says. “Remember to come from a place of compassion to see what's really going on. It's usually that someone doesn't feel heard or that they feel their needs aren't being met.”

3. Set a daily budget.

Agree on a budget in advance, based on everyone’s resources and the number of days you’ll be on the road. Will you be traveling on a shoestring or splurging? This will help determine whether, say, you should share a vacation rental and cook your own meals, or book rooms at a fancy hotel and make restaurant reservations.

Next, establish a system for how to pay the bills. Vote on whether the group wants to rotate picking up the tab, split the bills as you go using an app like Venmo, or track expenses and settle up at the end with an app like Splitwise or Splid. Consider giving each person in your group a specific role, including a navigator and a money manager. “The most common financial faux pas with group travelers is lack of communication. It's the assumptions that tend to make for a bumpy travel experience,” says etiquette and lifestyle expert Elaine Swann.

Smart Tip: This handy gas cost calculator and travel discounts from AAA will help you keep costs down.


4. Figure out who’s driving.

Decide as a group whether it's better to drive someone's personal vehicle or to rent a car. If you're hitting the mountains and may be driving on difficult terrain or in rain or snow, an all-wheel drive SUV is a good choice. If you're cruising along the California coast, a compact vehicle that can smoothly handle curves is ideal. Remember to factor in estimated gas consumption with an eye toward your budget—a smaller, more fuel efficient car may be worth the loss of extra legroom or luggage space.

If you are taking someone's personal vehicle, are you planning to switch off drivers? If so, Bradley Oltmans, vice president of AAA Arizona Member Experience, advises checking with the vehicle owner’s insurance company. “Understand what coverage is granted to 'Occasional/Permissible Users.' If coverage is not provided, then the uninsured drivers should research 'Non-Owners' coverage,” says Oltmans. This type of coverage gives you bodily injury and property damage liability coverage when driving a vehicle you don’t own. And if you're renting a vehicle, purchase coverage and add all potential drivers to the rental contract.

Oltmans also suggests that you check the insurance policy's broadening clause: If you drive into a state with a higher minimum liability or uninsured motorist limit than the state where your vehicle is insured, a broadening clause will automatically cover the higher limit without changing how much you pay in case of an accident or claim.

Plan to cross the U.S. border? Most domestic insurance policies cover driving in Canada but not Mexico.“In general, we always recommend a [policy from a Mexican insurance company] when traveling to Mexico, as they are set up to handle legal and claims issues locally,” Oltmans says. Minimum coverage limits are $50,000 for any combination of bodily injury and property damage liability claims in Mexico, but Oltmans recommends $300,000, which typically costs an additional $20-25 per the extended coverage.

5. Get the car ready to roll.

The itinerary is set, and the trip is rapidly approaching. Remember one of the most essential pre-trip measures: car safety. If you're taking a personal car, make sure it's road trip–ready. “A general inspection before any trip is advised,” says Mitchell Rosowitz, an automotive repair supervisor at AAA. Check your battery, tires, and fluid levels, and address any warning lights.

Even with careful planning and preparation, flat tires, dead batteries, and fender benders happen. Be sure to have emergency essentials in your trunk such as jumper cables, water, and hazard triangles. Check that you have roadside assistance—through your car manufacturer, credit card, or AAA—so you can cruise with peace of mind and keep the trip moving smoothly even if you run into an unexpected roadblock along the way.