Road to Monument Valley

5 Big Mistakes to Avoid When You Plan a Road Trip Last Minute

Hoping to avoid road trip mistakes on your next trip?

Well, you’re in the right place because I’ve made them all and then some. But, I’ve listed 5 of the most important things to consider when planning a road trip so you don’t have to make the same road trip mistakes as I did!

After all, road trips are the ultimate form of freedom. You decide when to go and when to stop. You can even decide to scrap the whole plan and go somewhere completely unexpected.

When you plan a road trip, think adventurous, spontaneous, and unforgettable.

Take these 3 adjectives and multiply them by 10 and you’ve got one of our most memorable road trips. Forgoing any kind of road trip planner, we just decided to hit the road!

5 Big Mistakes to Avoid When You Plan a Road Trip Last Minute
You can pin me to your Pinterest board!

5 Road Trip Mistakes to Avoid on Your Next Trip

Here’s what happened. With less than 12 hours (and at least half of those spent sleeping) to prepare for an almost cross-country U.S. road trip, I only had time to plan a very loose itinerary, reconfirm our pet sitters, and repack my bag.

I needed to swap out what I’d packed for a planned trip to Cuba that fell through and replace everything with shoes and clothes meant for trekking in National Parks, not to mention the somewhat cooler temperatures.

When we left New York City in our (literally) just rented black Chevy Impala, the poor little car had no idea what we had in store for it. (Thank you Kayak for making it so easy to search last-minute rental car costs and compare multiple sites at once!)

We had no hotels booked and only our sights set on Utah, with Arches National Park as our first stop. That’s it.

It was only along the way we realized, oh right, forgot that or didn’t bring that! 

Luckily, it all worked out fantastically, but now back at home, my more practical side is demanding a proper recounting of the lessons learned.

How to plan 1 awesome day at arches national park
We made it to Arches National Park!

What follows is part plan a road trip tip list and part daily life scenes and ramblings of what happens when you plan a road trip last minute! You can also find my complete, travel-tested road trip packing list to ensure your trip is successful from the start! 

Road Trip Mistake #1

Leaving from New York City in the early morning hours, it’s still dark and quiet. Everyone’s tucked away inside their apartments. We loop around the block to get coffee. 

Should we stop at the market to get some snacks..maybe even egg sandwiches? Well…we packed a few bananas, 2 Kind Bars, and some pretzels. We both agree. 

That’s fine. Let’s just go before there’s traffic and try to drive as far as we can.

Have you ever made a decision you wish you could take back? Fast forward 15 hours. We’re in Des Moines, Iowa checked into a Sheraton I booked from the road. I’m near passing out from hunger, desperately searching for the room service menu.

What arrives 20 minutes later is a barrage of food like none the late-night kitchen at the Sheraton in Des Moines has ever seen before. We leave in our wake scattered empty dishes on trays that look as if they were mauled by piranha feeding in the Amazon. The not empty pizza box leaves with us in the morning.

Road Trip mistake no breakfast plate with scrambled eggs, toasts, juice and coffee
Breakfast would have helped. Packing food for the car would have been even smarter!

Lesson Learned:

Pack car-friendly food and drinks. If you’re really savvy, pack a cooler!

When you plan a road trip last minute, somehow food and water seem insignificant because you think, “Oh, we can get that on the way.” 

But that doesn’t actually mean much when you’re trying to drive as far as possible without making any significant stops and you’re starving after 15 hours in the car from only haven eaten a few snacks from gas stations.

Remember, when driving across the U.S. especially, there can be long stretches with no stops for gas or food. If you’re picky like me, you’ll have even fewer options.

Road Trip Mistake #2

Returning from the bathrooms at a rest stop somewhere in Ohio, my husband asks, “Is the car key in the console? 

I’m immediately alarmed. He has a habit of being a tad forgetful. I look and thankfully it’s there.

He chuckles. I thought I left it there, but that would have been bad.

My eyes widen. Yeah! You think?!?

Do we even have a spare key, I think to myself. We’re in the middle of the U.S. with no Alamo Car Rental locations anywhere nearby. From then on, I don’t let the car key out of my sight.

Road Trip Mistakes Rental Car Key
Losing the keys would have been an interesting turn of events…

Lesson Learned:

Bring a spare key if you’re driving your own car!

If you rent a car, ask the rental office if there’s a spare key in the vehicle and where it is. If there isn’t, ask if they have one before leaving the rental location. If your rental company gives you a spare key but it’s attached to the same key ring, separate them so you don’t lose both.

Not all rental car companies will offer a spare key. If yours doesn’t, roadside assistance could become your best friend if you lose a key or lock it inside the vehicle. Be sure you know how to reach them before leaving the rental car company office.

Road Trip Mistake #3

Honey, I’m getting a Verizon message about having used 90% of my data with more than a week left in the cycle.

At first, it doesn’t make sense. I spend an endless amount of time on my phone for blog work and hardly ever get this. I’ve even taken the last few days to decompress and disconnect and have connected less than normal.

I grab hubby’s phone and absent-mindedly start another podcast.

We’re binge listening to Radiolab as we breeze along Nebraska’s I-80 West. It’s an episode called Darkcode about a woman whose computer is hacked and her files stolen. She has to pay a ransom in bitcoins to get her files back. We’re shocked.

It’s about halfway through when I’m smacked with a realization.

Did you download all these podcast episodes from our Wifi at home?

His eyes look at me before he turns his head. Apparently not.

Road Trip Packing List Essentials Cellphone with Music
Wifi is your friend. Make the most of it!

Lesson Learned:

Podcasts, audio guides, music playlists, and audiobooks are perfect for road trips! Just remember to download them and save them to your phone from a Wifi zone or else you’ll stream your data right out the window and into a cloud of dust behind you.

And when you’re driving through rural or remote areas, even radio signals can be fuzzy at best.

Road Trip Mistake #4

“The road is ending. Which way do I turn at the end of the road?

A seemingly innocuous question asked by my husband who was behind the wheel. Funny because my screenshot of the Google Maps directions showed no turn.

I stare at the list of directions harder hoping for something to appear. Were we on the right road? Where were we anyway?

Umm…What route is this? What route should it be?

Don’t you just love it when your husband answers your question with a question! Let’s try a different approach..direct and honest. 

“Love, it says you need to go straight.

I was hoping he wouldn’t realize the obvious problem with this. That being, the large orange sandstone slab of rock staring us in the face. No such luck.

Do you see where we are? Well, not exactly. 

I pretended to try to find a cell signal, even though it clearly read No Service in the top corner of my iPhone. Catching a cell signal in the Utah desert, while driving in a remote corner of Arizona, or even in places along the Oregon Coast can be harder than spotting tumbleweed in Manhattan.

Remember how we loved getting lost in Tuscany? Silence. He’s clearly not as wistful as I am at this moment.

He decides to turn right. But, we’re in luck! A gas station appears in the distance like an oasis shimmering in the sun’s rays. I hope it’s not a movie set. It looks that fake.

I also can’t help but think of a student years ago who asked me why we needed maps when we had Google Maps…! How I wish she was here with me at this moment.

Road Trip Mistakes Girl looking at a paper map
Do you remember what a paper map looks like?

Lesson Learned:

Bring a paper map. If you don’t have one, buy one. It’ll help you when technology isn’t an option. It’ll also ensure you don’t end up at a movie set gas station taking photos of a faded map on the wall.

You could also download Google Maps for offline use if you’re sure of your route and destination. If you make a spontaneous change, you’ll be happy for an actual, physical map.

Road Trip Mistake #5

While driving through the Colorado Rockies, night falls fast.

I don’t even see the darkness swallowing the car until I realize I haven’t blinked in 20 minutes. Needless to say, this is also not the best time to see a “Check Engine” light or any other panic-inducing indicator light on the dashboard come to life.

Without warning, perhaps the most unwelcome words are released into the darkness. 

Looks like the back left tire needs air.

I’m not sure what hits faster, my stunned speechlessness or the stinger in my neck at having whipped my head toward my husband.

He’s just slightly concerned, but one of my worst fears (breaking down on the side of the road) seems about to come true. I take a deep breath and state the obvious.

We have to find a gas station.

Of course, we find one but it’s almost as dark as the night surrounding us.

Let’s see if the air machine works.

I feed it with coins. Nothing happens. I don’t even get the last of our coins back. The podcast we were listening to about wolves stealing a family dog from its yard never to be seen again takes on new relevance.

Road Trip Mistake Flat Tire

Lesson Learned: 

Never go on a road trip without an Emergency Car Kit. Luckily, we made it to our hotel just fine, but those were some tense moments not knowing whether or not the tire would deflate or not and leave us on a dark roadside.

We would have only had our cell phone flashlights, whatever tools happened to be stuffed into the trunk of the rental, and our flat tire-changing inexperience.

I’d recommend putting together a Non-Emergency Car Kit, too. Things like hand sanitizer, wet wipes, toilet paper, paper towels, first aid supplies, and garbage bags are indispensable road trip items we found ourselves scrambling for during the trip.

You can also see my complete list of road trip essentials.

As I said from the beginning, the road trip turned out better than great, and, thankfully, none of the above mistakes ended up being a major detour. Clearly, the last-minute aspect didn’t help. Rest assured, we’ll be ready the next time a road trip opportunity presents itself!

What mistakes have you made on a road trip? Have you ever planned a road trip last minute?

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5 Big Mistakes to Avoid When You Plan a Road Trip Last Minute

46 thoughts on “5 Big Mistakes to Avoid When You Plan a Road Trip Last Minute”

  1. road trip or just life in general…NEVER go hangry! I also wonder what life (and travel) was like before so much technology! (And yes, I traveled before smartphones etc…but often wonder how!?) It’s nice that you can now do a last minute trip and still plan, book, etc from the comfort of your car with your phone

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      Technology is awesome like that, LeAnna! To be able to book from the car was key! The no food was a BIG mistake even I can’t believe I made! You are right! Never go hungry!

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      Thanks, Carmen. Glad it’s a useful post! Oh man, #3 was such a head-slapping moment! Lesson definitely learned with that one! 🙂

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      Thanks, Karla. In the excitement of the trip, you think it will be easy to get food later! But, oh how you’re wishing for food later, right?

  2. Ahhhh not bringing snacks is definitely a road trip bummer. I now always carry snacks with me..like always! Prevents me from having to binge out on unhealthy junk food or worse…get hungry while on the road!

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      Omg, such a bummer, Anna! Smart to always carry snacks! I usually do this, but it was so crazy to head out last minute that I completely wasn’t thinking! So bad to be hungry on the road! 🙁

  3. I am wondering what would have I done if any of these had happened to us. 🙂
    The most important is car keys. Oh lord, you gave me goosebumps for that.

    These are some fantastic tips.
    Thanks for sharing.

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      Thanks, Nisha. The car keys scared me, too! I remember thinking how many times I’ve rented a car and only now this thought popped into my head! Not fun to think about what would have happened!

  4. Some great tips on what to avoid. I had some mishaps while driving around North Coast in California where there is no service and wish I had a paper map. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      Thanks, Megan. Paper maps still have a purpose! It’s a great example for explaining it to my students who want to know why they need to know how to use a paper map when we have GPS!

  5. We just rented a car in LA this weekend and I was thinking how stupid it was that they put the spare key to the car on the same key ring with the original. If we’d lost the main key, we’d have also lost the spare. It’s wise to put the spare somewhere other than on the same key ring!

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      Why do they do that, Laura! It makes no sense. You just have to put that spare key in a safe place!

  6. A lot of mishaps! 🙂 I wouldn’t want to plan a road trip with such little time, although it makes it more spontaneous. I never like to go hungry when I’m on a road trip – sometimes there isn’t a service station or any food in sight for…forever!! 🙂

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      Spontaneous is fun, Lauren, but also so easy to lose sight of the important stuff…like food! 😉

  7. Oh great stuff!!! So important to remember all these items, especially the extra key and car stuff. #1 is my favorite because we like to take a cooler with us as well and being a girl scout mom for 13 years, I ALWAYS have snacks packed. In fact, I carry a few things in my purse or backpack in case young kids are miserable on flights so I can help if necessary. 😉

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      That is so nice of you, Melody! I’m sure it’s appreciated. The extra key is so important! Talk about a day, maybe even trip, wrecker!

  8. All good things to note!! Last minute road trips will always have some set backs. Or it may not. It all depends. But that’s what road trips are made of right? The adventure!

  9. Solid advice all the way around. There are so many places in the US where there is no cell signal, a paper atlas is probably the most important piece of travel equipment I carry.

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      Thanks, John. So true! We take cell service for granted and forget how important essentials are…like an actual map!

  10. Charles Swisher

    I once had 2 flat tires within 10 minutes on a gravel mimimally traveled road near Moab. I am not sure what I could have done to be ready for that.

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      Ugh, Charles! What did you do? First thing I can think of is AAA or a credit card with roadside assistance and a flatbed truck…

  11. Garry Orvold

    Great tips……I’ve made some of the same mistakes myself, specifically #1. I really enjoyed the “shout out” to paper maps! Last summer we did a 3,000 mile road trip using only paper maps (just to see if we could still do it!)……was actually a lot of fun and surprisingly incident free! Of course, we come from a generation that actually knows how to read a map! LOL!

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      Thanks for reading, Garry. I love that you did a road trip with only paper maps “just to see if we could still do it!” If you want to travel, you need skills and that involves reading a map for sure. Happy travels! 🙂

  12. We’ve always had a paper map with us, but until fairly recently our travel was mainly within the state of CA. About 5 years ago, we planned a road trip mostly through the southwest US. We had our phones, a loaned GPS unit (we were later gifted a GPS unit) and paper maps from AAA. It was a great trip! 2 years later, we did another road trip, more northern, MT, SD, CO, UT with only phones and the GPS unit. No mishaps, but I found it difficult to be unable to visualize upcoming roads, towns etc. on the GPS unit when there wasn’t reliable signal on the phones. We are once again planning a road trip for this summer which will be similar to 2 years ago, but a little further east – WITH paper maps. We will never do these trips without them again. #3 happened to us 5 years ago and we have since signed up for unlimited data (free as we bundled with our TV and internet). #1 also is no longer an issue as we do our road trips in an RV so we have food, drink bathroom and bed wherever we stop. Happy Trails!

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      Thanks for reading, Michelle. It totally can be hard to visualize the roads with just an app on your phone. Paper maps are totally necessary for any road trip out of your familiar home area!

  13. Jennifer Lovett

    #1-we always seem to forget something simple. We look for Dollar General-which is also good for a few quick snaks. Or a quick stop at WM. go in the door-produce and deli area is right there-grab fresh produce and premade sandwiches, or hummus and dippers and head out.
    Paper map-I want to take a trip off the interstates. Only way that is going to happen-if it is all together possible, is with that paper map.
    Ive done many last minute trips-and still forget something. Im getting better.

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      Thanks for reading, Jennifer. It’s a process, right? Each time you get better, that’s how I feel too. Paper maps are a must! Learned that one that hard way. Great tips on the dollar store and Walmart. Thanks for sharing. Happy travels. 🙂

  14. Locked the keys in the car at the Devil’s Tower campsite around 10pm – so, after all the staff had left for the day, but before we’d checked in (so tent not set up). I called AAA from the payphone (hey, it was the mid-90s), but they had no idea where Devil’s Tower was. “Is it near X?”, they would ask. “I don’t know. Aren’t you the ones with the maps?”

    We were dressed in shorts and t-shirts and the temperature was rapidly dropping. We’d left the engine running, so at least we could get some heat from sprawling across the hood – but that only heated one side at a time, so we had to keep flipping ourselves like half-frozen burgers.

    Luckily, a local cop stopped to check on us when he was doing his nightly check that nobody was messing around up at the Tower. He called the local bar (which is where the local mechanic was that night) and persuaded him to come out and unlock the car for us. Saved! The mechanic got a very good tip…and we got a story that we still laugh about (along with many other stories from that and other trips).

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      Omg, Alasdair! That is such a crazy story. Good thing that cop came along! Thanks for sharing and reading. Glad it worked out for you!

  15. Brian Hastings

    Awesome post! Thanks for sharing the knowledge and keep up the good work. [LINK EDITED OUT]

  16. we still bring old fashion gps and not rely on our celphones with unreliable signal. Now, we take a cheap flight to far state and then start a road trip (not orginating from home), since we mostly saw all the states near home. We find it cheaper and saves us 2 days of hotel, gas and food. Our first stop is supermarket. i buy a less than $5 foam cooler. stock up on cold water and drinks.
    Buy cooked hot meal like rotiseerie chicken, wings, sandwiches for picnic along the roaad, fruits and snack. At the end of the road trip before we board our bare fare plane, We make sure to leave the emmpty cheap cooler by the gas station before returning our rental car.

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      Thanks for reading, Paula. You are a total pro! So smart to grab a cooler in your destination and stock up on food. Thanks for sharing your tips and happy road tripping! 🙂

  17. There is an app called maps.me. You can download maps onto your smart phone that will be on your phone and not require cell service to view. Paper maps are nice, but also good to have this app on your phone so you have easy access in a compact form with a lot of info

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      Thanks for reading, Heather. Yes, I’ve used Maps.me recently. Handy app for sure!

  18. I agree that you should have an emergency car kit with you on your road trip so that any problems you run into aren’t debilitating. Then you can just fix whatever issue you’ve run into and continue on your way. I’m not sure where to find a car kit but I’ll start looking so that I can go on a stress-free road trip. [LINK EDITED OUT]

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      Thanks for reading, Randy. I’ve linked to a roadside emergency kit in the post. Check it out! 🙂

  19. Restaurant stops will slow you down and increase your expenses but there are always good spots within an hour of where you are. Who would decent Indian food to be a thing all along I40 between California and Arizona?

    Check your phone plan – some providers have big dead spots in their coverage area. For example, I learned Cricket has virtually no coverage in N Arizona N of I40.

    Always keep your car in good condition. A 2000 mile road trip actually causes a lot less wear and tear on your car than half that much daily commuting. If your car’s ready for trouble free commuting then it’s ready for a road trip.

  20. Hahaha I totally thought you were going to say to make sure you download the areas to be travelled on Google maps!!! And then scrolled to see a paper map! I do love a paper map though. 2020 Road Atlas!!

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      Thanks for reading, Beth. I do love downloading Google Maps for specific cities but I don’t rely on it for long road trips. I find the areas are too wide and don’t account for any spontaneity.

  21. I will definitely make sure everything mentioned is ready for our trip. I would like to add that every emergency road side kit is different. Make sure you have a road side kit that will be useful for your car. I would recommend that you get the car battery charger for your car. Also, make sure you have a flashlight that you won’t roll when you set it down.

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      Thanks for reading, Gabriela. Great tip on the non-rolling flashlight! Thanks for sharing. 🙂

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