Road trip habits of happy travelers include enjoying the journey, knowing when to make and break rules, and finding great travel deals.

8 Great Road Trip Habits of Happy Travelers

Many road trips are just a means to arrive at a destination. Those type of road trips are not meant to be fun. Just long days of driving on the fastest route possible, stopping only for essential breaks and perhaps taking quick photos at state border signs.

This article focuses on the other type of road trip, where you are not driving as many miles as humanly possible, but instead are immersed in your current scenic surroundings and enjoying where you are.

8 Great Road Trip Habits of Happy Travelers

Here are my thoughts about the Road Trip Habits which Happy Travelers possess.

Agree? Disagree? Please let me know in the Comment section below. Thank you.

Set rules

You should know me well enough by now. I am a rule breaker, not a rule maker. I do not make rules that are not fun. Rules I establish for road trips result in happy travel. Some of my happy road trip rules include:

avoid interstate highways. For me, smaller, side roads are almost always more fun, scenic, and memorable than the interstate highways. A corollary rule is I try to find roads where I cannot use cruise control. Curvy, hilly, and/or unpaved roads are my favorites.

>>> Please also read: Take Roads Trips on Smaller Roads Rather Than Highways

— fun > driving. A basic rule I have is to allow for one hour fun time for every four hours of driving. On my road trips, I tend to get distracted and stop often. So, I rarely drive for four hours in a row. I will, however, make sure that I spend an entire hour doing something fun, like a hike, sitting on a beach, going for a bike ride.

— no chains. On road trips, I will not eat at a place that I could visit at home; even if I do not visit such places at home. I have no desire (anymore) to eat mass produced food that tastes the same whether in Barstow or Boston or Boynton. That eliminates the large fast food chains, which, honestly, is better for my health. If I crave a sandwich, I will find a local deli or grocery store. Same with burger, chicken, ice cream, BBQ, and so on. For lodging, I find that independent motels offer better value, more space, and friendlier staff than large chains.

>>> Please also read: 8 Great Alternatives to Fast Food Chain Restaurants


Road trip habits of happy travelers include enjoying the journey, knowing when to make and break rules, and finding great travel deals.

Make Your Own Road Trip Habits (and Rules)


Break rules

What? I just convinced you to set some rules and now I am telling you to break them. Have I lost my mind?

Happy travelers set their own rules but also will break those rules if necessary. Here are a couple of examples:

— I will drive on interstate highways if the weather is nasty or I am just not feeling it where I am. Life, and my road trip, is too short.

— Another rule I will break is eating at chains. If they are regional and places I rarely see, I will go. Chains like Pollo Tropical in South Florida and El Pollo Loco and In N Out in the US west are favorites. You gotta do what you gotta do!

Eat local

Well, I am just sort of restating one of my above rules here. Eh, get used to it.

Eating fresh food is one of the true joys of road trips. Sampling authentic food items and cuisine of another area is exciting, enlightening, and enchanting.

It is also, arguably, better for you.

Sure, that food may have more sugar, butter, salt, whatever, than you are used to. It also will not have preservatives, chemicals, be wrapped in plastic for months (hopefully), and shipped from another state or country.

While on road trips, I make a special effort to visit bakeries, farmers markets, co-ops, roadside produce stands, festivals, food events, homemade ice cream stands, popup BBQ places (especially with hand-lettered cardboard signs), food trucks, and lemonade stands.

Well, that last one is because I am a sucker for children with an entrepreneurial spirit. Support local economy, right?

Road trip habits of happy travelers include enjoying the journey, knowing when to make and break rules, and finding great travel deals.

Road Trip Habits: Can you hear my brakes squealing?


Road trip habits of happy travelers include enjoying the journey, knowing when to make and break rules, and finding great travel deals.

Nom! Nom! Best $1 tacos I remember having.


Stay local

As I mentioned earlier, I prefer to stay in non-chain lodging because I find it has better value, more space, and friendlier staff.

First, better value. If an independent motel has the same configuration and size room as a chain property, which will cost more? The chain property has more overhead costs, with the marketing budget for the national (or international) brand. I find that the rates at independent properties (locally owned and operated) are typically 20% less than at nearby brand name properties. Agree?

Second, more space. Bad news, most independent properties are older buildings. Good news, the room configurations were bigger back then. Today’s big brand cookie-cutter hotel rooms are teeny, tiny. Sure, you can pay more for a suite. Or you can just stay at the nearby hotel and pay much less.

Third, friendlier staff. As if the above two items were not totally subjective, this one really is. In my vast road trip experience, I have encountered countless independent hotel/motel/inn operators who are well-established business owners and longtime residents. At a brand name hotel, the staff are usually locals, but with little work experience. They might be students or people with second jobs, while managers are likely relocated from somewhere else. Friendlier, then, is subjective.

However, I find a huge difference in the quality of information I receive. While hotel staff follows company protocol and suggests touristy places to eat and visit, the independent person will provide useful (to me) and fun information resulting in more enjoyable and memorable road trips.

Road trip habits of happy travelers include enjoying the journey, knowing when to make and break rules, and finding great travel deals.

Road Trip Habits: kitschy Mayberry themed motel in North Carolina


What makes me happiest on road trips, I have learned after hundreds of road trips, is discovering new things. It may be a scenic view, unpaved road, shortcut not shown on my map or app, recently opened bakery not listed in Yelp, or whatever.

The act of exploring makes road trips very special and memorable for me.

I suppose you might be different. Maybe your idea of fun on a road trip is seeing how fast you can drive or how far you can go. I have done both.

Perhaps instead of saying Explore, I should say, do whatever makes your soul happy.

Is that better?


Road trip habits of happy travelers include enjoying the journey, knowing when to make and break rules, and finding great travel deals.

Road Trip Habits: views like this are why I take road trips!

Be serendipitous

Think of your favorite travel memories. Take a couple of moments.

Hopefully you thought of some happy travel memories.

My theory may bomb here but I am willing to take the risk.

I believe that most travel memories arise from unplanned situations. No matter how much planning we do, our most vivid memories happen from something unexpected.

That is serendipity.

Am I right? Are your favorite travel memories from serendipitous occurrences? Or as a result of meticulous planning?

>>> Please leave a comment below and let me know if I am right or wrong about this serendipity thing.

True story, I actually planned an entire five day road trip—mapped the route, picked places to eat and stay—and chucked it all after being on the road for less than 30 minutes. I found some street that looked interesting, which took me on a detour, and the plan was blown to smithereens.

I practice serendipity on road trips. That is like saying I practice spontaneity; you can, but you really cannot. What I do, I suppose, is start each day of a road trip with a clean slate. I may have a guideline of the direction I should travel, some highlights along the way, but I leave plenty of opportunity for spontaneous exploration.


Road trip habits of happy travelers include enjoying the journey, knowing when to make and break rules, and finding great travel deals.

Road Trip Habits: using no maps led me to this amazing spot

Buy a Pass

Buying a National Parks pass makes sense (and saves dollars) if you will visit several parks. The pass is valid for over one year so it is a nice item for a long term US road trip.

Benefits of the National Park pass include skipping the long general admission lines at some parks, saving money (depending on how much you use the pass), receiving discounts at campgrounds and stores, and supporting the National Parks system.

This is just one example of a pass you can buy. During your summer road trips, keep your eyes open for other types of passes or memberships.

Vehicle Deals

Happy travelers know how to save money, time, and stress. Sometimes it might mean using your own vehicle for a road trip and knowing where to find the cheapest fuel. Other times it might mean planning a road trip around a great rental car deal.

One of my favorite travel deals year after year is rental cars leaving Florida for under $10 a day. During the Spring (any year) look for me on a road trip between South Florida and Washington, DC, serendipitously exploring the backroads and sampling local food.


Road trip habits of happy travelers include enjoying the journey, knowing when to make and break rules, and finding great travel deals.

Road Trip Habits: do you play the License Plate game?


What do you think about this list of Road Trip Habits?


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8 Great Road Trip Habits of Happy Travelers was first published on May 27, 2016

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60 Responses to “8 Great Road Trip Habits of Happy Travelers”

  1. Tom Bartel February 19, 2018 at 3:07 pm #

    The two best tips: keep it local, and keep off the Interstates. Those are ones we live by, too. That, and don’t be in such a damn rush that you never stop to see something that looks interesting. It’s not about getting there. It’s about the journey.

  2. Rose Palmer February 18, 2018 at 10:38 pm #

    Some good reminders for me here. I am a planner and like to have a trip organized before I leave. Need to work on being more spontaneous and serendipiteous (is that a word?)

    • McCoolTravel (@CharlesMcCool) February 20, 2018 at 10:54 am #

      So close. Serendipitous. It is one of my favorite words. My belief is that serendipitous travels result in the best memories. Give it a try.

  3. Rachel Heller February 17, 2018 at 9:06 am #

    We follow exactly the same rules when we go on road trips! We usually have a general idea of where we’re going, but if something else looks interesting along the way, that’s where we go! One of our favorite memories was a trip we took about 20 years ago, driving for 2 and a half months from San Francisco, CA to Connecticut via the deep south and all the way down to Key West. It was the best! The only place we drove on an interstate was in western Texas, which was just so big and flat and empty that we didn’t see much point to avoiding the highway. We didn’t use hotels, but rather brought a little pop-up tent with us, and generally camped in state parks, which are generally uncrowded and the facilities are just as good as at the national parks. It was the best road trip ever!

  4. Kristin Henning February 16, 2018 at 12:52 pm #

    Yes! Maps are good..up to a point. You’ve captured the essence of what makes a road trip so appealing.

  5. traveluv@berkeleyandbeyond February 13, 2018 at 10:03 pm #

    I love those back roads! Have been on two just recently, one off of Highway 5 and another off of Highway 101. Unfortunately, they aren’t much fun when you are in a hurry, as I was with the second one. Also, I always avoid chains for food, with the exception of In-N-Out–LOVE that place!

    • McCoolTravel (@CharlesMcCool) February 13, 2018 at 11:00 pm #

      Smaller roads are definitely more fun when there is not a time crunch. In N Out is always acceptable and recommended!

  6. Noel Morata February 13, 2018 at 4:05 pm #

    These are my favorite thoughts also in exploring a new place or doing a road trip, great tips.

  7. Carolina Colborn February 13, 2018 at 2:23 pm #

    Fun habits have taken root! The only thing we don’t do is stay local and vehicle deals. After being totally disappointed with a local lodge, I figured to be sure of quality, I should go back to a hotel chain. Maybe that is why we own four months of timeshare now. But it is right, I am 70 now! Also need comfort of our own car, especially since it is brand new. We bought it after selling our RV and the dinghy!

    • McCoolTravel (@CharlesMcCool) February 13, 2018 at 11:07 pm #

      Love it. Every once in awhile I can sleep in my car but do not expect anyone else to do the same. Hopefully people will travel more often, longer, better, and cheaper. However they want!

  8. Doreen Pendgracs February 12, 2018 at 7:39 pm #

    Right one, Charles! Travel should be filled with fun and frolic. Chuck the rules and let the fun flow. that’s always been my motto, too. 🙂

  9. ourboomerblog February 12, 2018 at 12:59 pm #

    Love this road trip rule list. It gives great definition, while still allowing some room for flexibility. Auto travel is our preferred method, as it lets us explore in greater detail. Thanks for sharing.

    • McCoolTravel (@CharlesMcCool) February 13, 2018 at 11:04 pm #

      You summarized well. Some basic guidelines for funness but I definitely want people to mold the trips to their own preferences. Travel Happy!

  10. Lisa Chavis February 12, 2018 at 10:47 am #

    These are FUN road trip tips! And thanks to you, we’ve decided to do a road trip of our own in March to Cape Cod from Florida. We were going to fly, but eating local and popping in on a few National Parks along the way make for a MUCH more fun and interesting trip! Thanks for the inspiration!!

    • McCoolTravel (@CharlesMcCool) February 13, 2018 at 11:03 pm #

      Oh, so nice. Perhaps we will be able to meet you along the way. I love my road trips between Florida and DC, spending at least 90% of the time NOT on interstates. So many cool towns and people to discover.

  11. Andaman Bliss January 17, 2018 at 3:16 pm #

    Good tips. We follow most of them. Most of my road trips have been in Europe and most of the time we plan only the starting and finishing point. Everything in between is subjective. We end up talking to other travelers, mom and pop hotel owners or locals and get a good tip on going somewhere to see something interesting that wouldn’t normally be in a guide book.

    • McCoolTravel (@CharlesMcCool) January 18, 2018 at 4:32 pm #

      Interesting dynamic. Thank you for the note. I feel there is no one right solution for all. Whatever works. Subjective, indeed!

  12. Phil Garnier September 5, 2016 at 9:39 am #

    Good tips. We follow most of them. Most of my road trips have been in Europe and most of the time we plan only the starting and finishing point. Everything in between is subjective. We end up talking to other travelers, mom and pop hotel owners or locals and get a good tip on going somewhere to see something interesting that wouldn’t normally be in a guide book.

    • McCool Travel September 5, 2016 at 6:57 pm #

      Love it. Thank you, Phil. Perhaps one day we will explore European countryside together.

  13. Tequesta September 4, 2016 at 4:35 pm #

    Great list, Charles. I’m usually on a tight time schedule for my road trips and travel the interstates. I do have rule that I stop for regional/local tourist food – nut roll in Georgia, boiled peanuts in Pensacola, kolaches and venison jerky on the way to Austin, the taffy and jell faux fruit slices in the Florida grove area, plus fresh fruit from stands. I wanted to expose my children to the foolishness of my childhood, at least once.

    • McCool Travel September 5, 2016 at 6:58 pm #

      Excellent, Tequesta. Love those items, would make a great travel appetizer party.

  14. Ratheesh R Nath June 16, 2016 at 7:53 am #

    This is a great list and a very intelligent post…Travel is highly rewarding on so many levels, but it is hard work that challenges us in so many ways. And that reinforces and teaches us new and useful skills that are important in life and the workplace. I truly agree and thank you for this important reminder!

    • McCool Travel June 16, 2016 at 8:55 am #

      Thank you so much for your comment. Travel Happy!

  15. Grey World Nomads June 5, 2016 at 9:35 am #

    I totally agree with the ‘no chain’ rule. Sometimes we break the rule, when we get tired of not knowing of what we can expect on our plate. But in general, it is the only way to explore and ‘taste’ foreign countries.

    • McCool Travel June 11, 2016 at 12:31 pm #

      Appreciate the support. It IS a rule but I also break the rule when necessary.

  16. Sue Reddel June 2, 2016 at 6:34 pm #

    Love your road trip tips! We’re always stopping at little diners and bakeries along our routes. Two problems with this, we’re always late and we need expando pants. xox

    • McCool Travel June 11, 2016 at 12:41 pm #

      Thank you, Sue. Diners and bakeries are usually on my docket!

  17. Patti Morrow June 1, 2016 at 12:44 pm #

    I love road trips, too! Loved reading your tips, and I had to laugh when I saw myself in some of them, e.g. I eat local, and I’ve also done a TON of break screeching, especially when I see a great photo op!

  18. Noel Morata (@emorata) May 31, 2016 at 10:14 pm #

    I love road trips and I totally agree that it is important to have a good experience by eating locally, trying new things and really exploring outside of what is typical for you to explore in a road trip.

  19. Lyn aka TheTravellingLindfields May 30, 2016 at 10:13 pm #

    David and I have been road tripping together for more than 30 years. They are such a great way to see the world. I definitely agree with Rule No. 1 – no intestates! Not sure about the rest. We probably break most of those most of the time. Right now I am writing this from our room in a chain motel having just had a great dinner at a chain restaurant – oh well!

  20. Donna Janke May 30, 2016 at 10:02 pm #

    I like your road trip habits, especially that you are willing to break the rules in some circumstances and you’re open to serendipity. My husband and I did a long road trip this spring – the first time we’ve been on the road for a long time to sight see as opposed to just getting from point a to b. You have to know what style fits for you and be flexible.

  21. The GypsyNesters May 30, 2016 at 7:36 pm #

    Wow, agree 100% with all of this. We have never written our rules (or broken ones) but this is very much how we like to travel. We call it staying low to the ground.

  22. mags May 30, 2016 at 3:38 pm #

    Great tips to remember as I embark on a mini road trip in a few days from Orlando to Savannah and then down to Miami!

    • McCool Travel May 30, 2016 at 9:36 pm #

      Orlando up to Savannah then down to Miami? Love it. I intend to stop in Savannah on my road trip from Miami to DC in June.

  23. Denis Gagnon May 30, 2016 at 1:41 pm #

    Your posting about great road trip habits forced me to think about what my own habits are. I do agree with the eat local but would have to take exception to the stay local one in some situations. I prefer to be flexible rather than serendipitous, but that’s me. Thanks for a great posting!

    • McCool Travel May 30, 2016 at 9:35 pm #

      Breaking rules is OK. I sometimes stay in hotels, resorts, heck, even fancy ones on occasion.

  24. Johanna May 30, 2016 at 7:43 am #

    Although I’m not good with rules, I do like your rules Charles. Things like don’t eat at chains, and avoid interstate highways and just accept serendipity and embrace it – yep, totally agree!

    • McCool Travel May 30, 2016 at 9:35 pm #

      Sweet. Thank you, Johanna. Fun rules, I like to think of them.

  25. Vicki Garside May 30, 2016 at 5:26 am #

    Great tips! Eat local and buy a NP Pass are my favorites! I’d love to be based in the States to take advantage of all the beautiful parks – i’ve done the Grand Canyon, Zion, Monument Valley and a couple of State parks – but there are so many more to see!

    • McCool Travel May 30, 2016 at 9:34 pm #

      US is so vast and we are so fortunate to have so many amazing places to visit.

  26. MarieAnne May 29, 2016 at 4:54 pm #

    Useful list, Great advice! They are all very valid points! One of my favorites habits is staying local, glad you mentioned it tooA

    • McCool Travel May 30, 2016 at 9:34 pm #

      Thank you. Always nice to hear that someone agrees.

  27. adonisabril May 29, 2016 at 3:40 am #

    I’ve owned national parks pass for several years. It’s definitely worth it! Well, I don’t do rules so it’s awesome that you included it in your “rules” book hahaha! Break the rules and do what makes you happy, go it!

    • McCool Travel May 29, 2016 at 9:41 am #

      Thank you, Adonis. The right way is different for everyone!

  28. Sara Broers (@TravelWithSara) May 28, 2016 at 10:21 pm #

    National park passes are great and I so agree- get off the Interstate. There’s so much to see and it’s a simple way to boost the local economy along the way.

    • McCool Travel May 29, 2016 at 9:42 am #

      Absolutely. I love finding those independent places.

  29. Wyld Family Travel May 28, 2016 at 7:37 pm #

    I love it your rules are excellent and something that everyone should follow. For a start your rules would make your trip more authentic and help out local business with a boost to their pockets and not multi nationals who hardly need it. local food and lodging are an excellent idea


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