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updated 7/24/2006 11:12:54 AM ET 2006-07-24T15:12:54

For some people, “road trip” means a vintage convertible zooming past the towering mesas of Monument Valley. For others, it’s a comfy little rental car meandering amid the autumnal vistas of New Hampshire’s White Mountains. For some, the only genuine road trip is made on a motorcycle. In truth, the only defining factor of a road trip is the road. Vehicle, route, tempo and purpose are all up to each traveler, which means the real adventure begins in the mind.

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So, what image pops up when you hear "road trip"? While the possibilities are as endless as the twists and turns of the road, the following five questions will help you determine your own road trip style.

1. Are you looking for a fun-filled escape, maybe for a way to turn that duty trip to your nephew’s wedding into a vacation? (The Jaunt)

2. Are you seeking spiritual enlightenment, answers to philosophical questions or the meaning of life, the universe and everything? (The Quest)

3. Is a trip worthwhile only if you acquire a teaspoon from every state, photograph yourself on the spot where James Dean died or manage to place a different body part in Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona — all at the same time? (The Challenge)

4. Do you need itineraries and motel reservations when you travel, or is a tank of gas enough? (The Risk Factor)

5. MINI Cooper or Big Honkin’ Truck? Is the journey only as much fun as your ride? (The Vehicle Is King)

The Jaunt
The main appeal of a jaunt is the fun; its purpose is to escape the daily grind of rules, supervision and other mundane restrictions. Most jaunts have time-related limits like the end of vacation or the completion of an event like a wedding or a NASCAR race. Jaunts have no higher calling than fun and relaxation, and there’s no reason they can’t be short. With the right attitude, a two-hour road trip can offer as much of a break from routine as a weeklong odyssey.

The Quest
The Quest, on the other hand, is often open-ended. Time is seldom of the essence when the goal is spiritual enlightenment, discovering your roots or writing the great American travelogue. Think about those youngest sons in fairy tales who set out with their belongings tied up in a bandana to “seek their fortune.” That’s the feel of a quest.

If your attitude is, “I’ll let the universe be my guide,” your road trip profile leans more to Siddhartha than to Chevy Chase, and your planning will differ accordingly. Curiously, quests sometimes look like jaunts. This is because not everyone has the luxury of stepping “off the grid” for extended periods of time. Questers with day jobs often think of the Quest as their “real work”; time spent at the day job is “time off,” even if that leaves only weekends for road tripping.

The Challenge
Key chains, refrigerator magnets, soil samples -- don’t you just love them? If your answer is “You betcha!”, you may find yourself embarking on road trips that give you a challenge. These kinds of trips appeal to people who like to collect things or set records for “bagging” destinations or attractions.

If you enjoy car rallies, television shows like “The Amazing Race” or just plain bragging, consider working a challenge into your next road trip. Whether you decide to visit every county seat in Texas (all 254 of them!) or fill up your National Park passport with as many stamps as possible, the challenge will give shape and meaning to your road trip. Inspiration is only a click away, too, because challenge road trippers love to share.

The Risk Factor
Consider for a moment the idea of hitting the road with no itinerary and no motel reservations for the first night -– or the second or the third.

How does your stomach feel? Does the lack of plan and pillow make you start to sweat, or does it give you a delicious feeling of freedom? The question is really just a form of risk assessment. The challenge here is finding a comfortable place between serendipity and a forced march, and that sweet spot is different for each of us. In fact, whether to obtain reservations is one of the biggest debates among road trippers.

The Vehicle is King
Do you drive to be noticed or do you seek anonymity when you travel? Would you ever be caught driving an Excursion-sized SUV jacked up with a 12-inch lift kit? How about a 42-foot-long RV or a Harley-Davidson motorcycle? Do you love that classic Edsel so much that you won’t mind when it breaks down outside Kingman and the mercury’s well into triple digits? If you answer “Yes” to any of these questions, your road tip is as much about your vehicle as your destination.

Cars don’t always define road trips, but they are the single most important piece of equipment you will choose. It pays to consider each one’s strengths and drawbacks and to make sure the ride you choose fits the purpose of the trip –- as well as your personality and priorities.

Once you recognize the kind of road trip that suits you best, your only limitation is your imagination -- unless you’re traveling with friends, of course, because they’ll have their own ideas of what a road trip should be. If you are sharing your road trip with others, take my Road Trip Compatibility Quiz before you pile into the car or, believe me, the road will get bumpy.

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Mark Sedenquist is the publisher of RoadTrip America, a Web site providing expert planning, advice and suggested itineraries for road trips. He's spent 30 years and a half-million miles on the road in North America. E-mail Mark or visit his Web site.

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