The road trip is one of North America’s grand traditions — a chance to travel and see things from ground level and often at inexpensive cost. Here, some tips to beat the “are-we-there-yet?” blues.

The road trip is one of North America’s grand traditions — a chance to travel and see things from ground level and often at inexpensive cost.

But there’s the opposite tradition: the “are we there yet” blues that some of associate with family vacations in the past. Here are our top tips to make your road trip a fantastic experience.

1. Know your style

This may sound basic, but how many of us have wanted to take the time to meander and poke around while on the road with someone who had every bathroom break timed and every route planned to cover the most ground? Spend a bit of time considering your “road trip personality” — are you the kind of person who wants to see all the grand events, or someone who prefers to eke out the small surprises on the back roads? Do you want to splurge on some luxurious accommodation along with the time to enjoy it, or would you rather experience the family-owned strip motel? Do you prefer to look at scenery out the window, or park and hike into the park?

Once you have a handle on your own style be sure to see how it matches with your fellow travellers.

2. Pick a purpose; stay flexible

“Road trip” can be all too vague — and yet, often we just mark the time on our calendar and then set off. Is the road trip about reconnecting with family and friends along the way, following a historical route, reliving past trips, or visiting landmark areas? Some of the most successful road trips can involve following a passion — visiting every quilt store and textile museum in the area, or paying homage to marine history. Whatever it is, be sure it’s clear in mind before you go.

Of course there’s the flip side — don’t let your road trip get so focused that you lose the chance for spontaneity. The great thing about a ground level trip in your own car is that you can follow the moment — and if that means abandoning your plans to visit a fort in order to follow some local kids to the best swimming and ice cream in town, go for it.

3. Consult expert resources

Before you leave, take the time to check out websites and tourist guides for the areas you plan to visit. You can also use forums or communities on the Internet to ask people living in the area to point you to sites of interest, favourite restaurants, or small attractions you might otherwise miss. Calling the local board of trade or commerce can also give you some ideas — especially if you spend a bit of time asking the person who answers the phone what he or she would recommend.

Once in a location, don’t be shy — ask hotel and B&B owners, restaurant staff, or just interesting looking locals what they think you should see. Even if you don’t agree you’ll get more insight into the area than you otherwise would — and most people love to talk about what they like most about their home town.

4. Be prepared

Although vehicles are more reliable than ever and cell phones and GPS devices have made communication and navigation worlds easier than in the past, emergency kits are still vitally important to pack. But preparation is not just about basic safety — it’s also ensuring that you have what you need to really enjoy your explorations. Bring entertainment for rainy days, appropriate gear for any activities you might enjoy, and of course, in the grand tradition of road trips — something great to listen to in the car. Some people make mix CDs (or tapes) while others invest in audio books. Remember, having trunk space is one of the nicest things about the road trip — no cramming just the necessities into airline-restricted carry-on luggage. (Unless you have a Smart car, of course!)

5. Save memories — without missing the moment

Of course you’ll bring along your camera — but you can also use a simple envelope or bag to collect items for scrapbooking later. One traveller I know brings a large book and presses flowers from each stop. Keeping a journal is also a great way to ensure that the joyful details don’t get missed (and even the complaints, which can seem like part of the fun in retrospect). But of course don’t be so caught up in preserving the moment that you forget to experience it.

Sometimes it’s good to put the camera and pen down and just be where you are. And that’s what a truly great road trip is all about — finding something wonderful in the perfectly ordinary business of getting from one place to another.