Roller Coaster Road Trip Planning 101

To some people, half the fun of going on a roller coaster road trip is the anticipation, planning, and preparation that goes into it. To others, it can be a confusing, head-ache inducing nightmare to plan a trip. After traveling to numerous amusement parks around the United States, we’ve collectively learned a thing or two about taking and preparing for road trips, especially on short notice. We wanted to share our process and some of our best travel tips with you!

Here are the tools and resources we use before, during, and after a roller coaster road trip.

how to plan a trip to ride roller coasters and theme parks

Where To Go

The first step of taking any trip is deciding where you want to go, of course. If it’s a roller coaster centric trip we usually try to plan it around visiting more than one amusement park. is a great site to visually show you where parks are and how many operating roller coasters are in the area. I always use this when going on a business trip for my day job to see if there are any “coaster credits” I can pick up along the way.

roller coaster road trip planning

I also like the “Parks Nearby” feature on to help me find the kiddie coasters at the FECs down the street from the major amusement parks.

roller coaster road trip planning

And yet another way to figure out what amusement parks you should prioritize going to is to use our Roller Coaster Ranker spreadsheet. The one caveat is at this point it will take some user input as the database only has a few hundred coasters in it currently. But once you’ve input the coasters you have ridden and use the sliders to tell it what you like best about coasters – speed, airtime, g forces, etc., the sheet will automatically show you which parks you should go to based on your coaster preferences.

Another good way to figure out where to go is just to see where the cheap flights are flying to. Google Flights is what we use to research flights. If you’re undecided on where to go, use the “Explore Destinations” tool to find deals on flights flying out of your home airport. Skyscanner is another good resource to find cheap flights too.


When To Go

Once you figure out where, the next step is to determine when you’re going to go. Ideally, you want to try to set yourself up for success regarding the two biggest factors beyond your control: weather and crowds. Besides the obvious (go on a weekday during the school year) one way to get an idea of generally how busy a theme park might be is to look at the scheduled hours. If the park is open later, they are expecting it to be busier on that day. It’s a bit counterintuitive but while a park may be open less hours on a certain day, you could end up getting to do more rides because lighter attendance means shorter lines. Saturday is nearly always the busiest day of the week, followed by Sundays.

Use Queue-Times to see historical waiting times and crowd data from some of the biggest theme parks in the world.

See if the park has any special events going on. One of the best times to visit any amusement park is if there is any kind of roller coaster enthusiast gathering with ERT (Exclusive Ride Time) going on. You may be required to join an official coaster club to participate, but trust us, it will be worth it. For example, we had the best time at CoasterStock at Kings Island.

If you’re planning on going on a trip with a group of friends or family, it can be a hassle trying to figure out when everyone is available with texts or emails constantly flowing back and forth. Or you can use a tool. We have used Doodle in the past to help easily see which days work for everyone involved. I’ve also made an Excel spreadsheet version of Doodle you can download for free here.

Check to see if a park has a rainy day policy, like Holiday World’s Worry-free Weather Guarantee.  If going to a wet climate like Florida, I’ll buy cheap ponchos from Amazon or Walmart that can be worn once and thrown away.

Preparing For The Trip

Once you’ve figured out where and when you’re going, it’s time to get into the details of the trip itself: where you’re going to stay, how you’re going to get there, what your basic schedule is, where to purchase the cheapest tickets, etc. I’m a lists person, so I like to use the Samsung Notes app on my phone to keep lists of tasks to do before a trip, like scheduling USPS to hold our mail, find someone to watch our dog, etc., what to pack for the trip, and what I need to remember to do when we return from a trip.

Personally, I like booking hotels directly on the hotel’s website, but others like to use travel aggregators and meta search engines like Expedia. Either way, I highly recommend finding a hotel brand that suites your needs that also has a strong rewards program. The hotel brand I use most often is Choice Hotels . Yeah, the quality of their hotels is all over the place, from great to down right disgusting (maybe this will change when their purchase of Radisson is complete), but their reward program is very easy to earn free stays. They almost always have a “stay two separate nights, get a night free” promotion going on. If I’m going on a four night trip, perhaps the first and last night I’ll stay at a cheap or free reward night hotel, then I’ll spend the money saved to splurge a little on the other two nights and stay at a nicer resort.

Speaking of rewards, I also recommend finding a credit card with a good cash back or points system. I prefer cards with no annual fee, then purchase everything on the trip with this card (and pay it all off so as not to carry a balance) so I can apply those points or cash back on future trips.

Find the best deal for rental cars by using AutoSlash.

YouTube is good for insider tips and more detailed information on travel destinations. In The Loop is one of my favorite channels to discover places to go and see.

For the latest news, potential savings, special events, promotions, etc. subscribe to your destination attraction’s newsletters or social media accounts. In advance of your travel, you should subscribe to each attraction’s website, Facebook page, social media, or email lists for special offers, promotions, giveaways, or contests. Download their mobile app if they have one and become familiar with it. This way you’ll know well ahead of time if something comes up and you can adjust your schedule accordingly. 

If you have questions about a specific park or coaster, I’ve found one of the best ways to get fast answers is by joining any Facebook Fan pages. For example, the LEGOLAND New York Fans is full of great tips and a discount ticket guide. Groupon is another good way to find discounted tickets.

Finally, be sure to download all the latest episodes of the Coaster101 podcast to listen to in the car or on the plane. It’s time to travel!

During Your Trip

Once you arrive at your destination, if you haven’t bought tickets yet then it’s time to do so. Most hotels and attractions have stands of coupon books where you can save a couple of dollars off a good number of places. Also be sure to ask about AAA, military, veterans, seniors, or other discounts. It’s often cheaper to buy tickets online in advance than at the attraction’s ticket booth the day of, it should save you both money and time.

Speaking of saving time, if you’re going to a Disney or Universal park, you might want to invest in Touring Plans,  a one-stop-shop for all of your Disney vacation planning needs. You can get a Touring Plan created to help navigate your way around the parks, use their crowd calculator to determine the least busy days to visit the parks, or even find the perfect hotel room for you.

When it comes to getting around, I like to use Google Maps but others rave about Waze. The real-time traffic feature on Google Maps saved Kyle and I so much time on our trip from Ohio to Georgia and back. Gas is getting to be crazy expensive this summer so use GasBuddy to find the cheapest gas station near you. If you have an electric vehicle, use PlugShare to find a charging station (I’ve not used this one myself so let me know if you have).

When it’s time to find somewhere to eat, Yelp and TripAdvisor are the sites I use to find the best places to eat.

While at an amusement park, I like to keep track of what rides I’ve been on again using my Samsung Notes app again. Of course, you can also use ride specific apps, like LogRide.

If you’re traveling with someone with special needs, consider going to Guest Services to see if they have any options to fit your specific needs. Read about our experience using Unverisal’s Attraction Assistance Pass (AAP).

After Your Roller Coaster Road Trip

When you return from your roller coaster road trip, remember to update your coaster count, whether you’re using Coasters101’s Coaster Counter spreadsheet or some other method to track your coasters ridden.

Remember to go through all your pictures and videos and back them up on a PC or a cloud storage service.

Double check to make sure any reward points from hotel stays or credit cards have been applied to your account to use on your next trip.

Finally, start planning your next trip!

While it’s great to leave room for spontaneity and new discoveries, these important tasks will help you stay comfortable on your trip and make the most of every minute. Hopefully our roller coaster road trip tips will help make your trip even better, either by maximizing your time or dollars – usually the two biggest limiting factors from turning a good vacation into an epic one.

Do you use any tools, apps, or websites that we didn’t list? Let us know in the comments below!