Road trips are like childbirth. Done right, they can be the adventure of a lifetime. Done wrong, and you’re screaming for someone’s head on a platter and demanding to know WHOSE BRILLIANT IDEA WAS THIS?!?!
I am a cheap traveler with a quest to see the world while hanging on to as much of my cash as possible. Needless to say, I’ve taken my share of vacations by car in an attempt to save money. And after getting a great deal on a Mitsubishi in Tampa, I’m eager to share a few road trip planning tips I’ve picked up along the way.
18 Road Trip Planning Survival Tips
1. Get the oil changed and your fluids checked before you leave.
I’ve owned a few beater cars in my life. I’ve taken more than one road trip in a lemon. And I’ve been stuck on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere more times than I care to admit. Be ye not so stupid.
Make sure your vehicle is road trip ready before you leave. Have the oil changed, fill up on windshield wiper fluid and make sure you have your license, registration and insurance up to date – and actually in the car with you.
(Because apparently “Officer, I SWEAR I have an insurance card that is not expired sitting on my kitchen counter right now” is not a viable defense in some states.)
2. Go with someone you love. Or like. A lot.
Good companionship can make all the difference on a road trip. The longer the trip, the more compatible you better be with the person you plan to be confined in a car with for hours on end.
Of course, a long road trip in the car can be a great opportunity to get to know someone better. But if you’re thinking of tagging along with people who normally irritate the crap out of you just to save a little dough – think about flying instead.
3. Take turns driving.
As a woman, I’ve never understood those couples where the man is the only who does the driving. This is especially true when driving long distances. If you can manage to get yourself around town by yourself, you can handle a turn at the wheel for a road trip.
It’s nice to get a break from the driving. It’s also nice to get a break from just sitting and watching out the window and trying really, really hard not to say anything when the other driver gets really, really close to the car in front of him. I mean, you know, for example. Don’t be afraid to do some of the driving.
4. Bring your own music.
Do you remember in the 80s when you had mixed tapes for everything? First Date Mix. Prom Night Mix. Ode To My Love For You Mix. A road trip is the perfect excuse to revive the mix (although it will probably take the form of a burned CD or a playlist on your iPod).
Prepare yourself for inevitable stereo static with ample back up music. Bring twice as much as you think you’ll listen to. My playlists (because I am an iSnob) are crammed with cheesy songs I know the words to, musical soundtracks and nostalgic favorites.
Don’t be afraid to turn it up and sing along at the top of your lungs. The chances of you ever seeing that driver who’s giving you funny looks from the car beside you again are slim to none. Unless you happen to stop at the same rest stop.
5. Bring sunglasses and sunscreen.
Maybe I’m the only person to ever get sunburned through a car window – but I doubt it. And I know for a fact that I’m not the only person in my marriage who has had to stop at a convenient store to buy sunglasses because they didn’t think about having to stare into the sun for hours on end.
Sunglasses will prevent squinting and eye strain. Sunscreen will prevent an embarrassing sunburn on one half of your body. And cancer.
6. Avoid stupid traffic tickets.
You know what’s not fun when you’re on vacation? Getting arrested. You know what’s also not fun and probably a more likely scenario? Having to spend hundreds of dollars from your travel budget on a speeding or seat belt ticket.
Wear your seat belt. Use your turn signal. Don’t speed (or if you do, at least go with the flow of traffic). You’re going to get stuck in the exact same traffic jam due to construction as everyone else a few miles down the road anyway. (And the fines are double there.)
7. Bring your own food and drinks.
I don’t get why some people don’t pack a cooler and snacks when they take a road trip. Are you surprised to learn that your body requires food and water? Or are you just hoping to find something deliciously nutritious at a gas station?
Yeah. I don’t think so. Convenient store food is fine up to a point, but if you’re going to be spending hours (or days) in a vehicle, plan ahead and bring food that doesn’t suck. I load up on water bottles, cans of pop, juice boxes, crackers, pre-made sandwiches, fruit and other travel friendly snacks.
When I’m traveling with kids, I try to bring as many individually packed snacks as possible to avoid the need for sharing. I’ll teach them manners when I’m not stuck in a car with them.
8. Bring garbage bags.
If you’re going to be in the car for hours, chances are you’re going to be eating in the car. And drinking in the car. And chewing gum that comes in itty bitty gum wrappers in the car.
Stay on top of the mess as you make it with a small garbage bag. This might sound like a silly detail, but riding in your own filth is.. well.. gross. And an ever rising mound of wrappers and empty bottles rising on your floorboards will make your car feel infinitely smaller than it actually is. A well organized, decluttered road trip is a happy road trip.
9. Get gas before you’re on E.
My husband and I drove 1400 miles once in 24 hours. We had this brilliant idea to keep driving until we were just about out of gas in order to save time and get more driving done between pit stops. We came >this< close to being stranded on the side of a back road in Illinois in the middle of the night, miles from a gas station or signs of civilization.
Learn from our foolishness.
If you get out your pencil and paper and do the math, you’ll see that you aren’t saving any gas, money or time by driving until you’re on fumes. When you’re driving in unfamiliar territory, you never know when the next gas station will come up – or whether or not it will be open. Start looking for your next pit stop when you hit the 3/4 tank mark to avoid any long walks by the side of the road with the little red gas can.
10. Use the bathroom every time you stop.
I would think this would be a no brainer. But I’ve traveled with children, so I know not everyone understands the wisdom of “just try, you don’t know when you’ll be able to go again”.
Whether you’re stopping for food (I told you so!) or to fill up with gas, spend the extra few minutes to hit the restroom. If you don’t, you’re pretty much guaranteed to find yourself having to pee about 15 minutes after you’re back on the road. At least, you will if you’re me.
Seriously. Just try! You don’t know when you’ll be able to go again!
11. For Pete’s sake, just pull over and let the woman pee.
Now, if someone happens to announce that they have to use the restroom not long after you’ve made your most recent pit stop, for the love of all things holy just stop and let her – er, them - go.
A good road trip isn’t a race. Tacking on 10 minutes at the next exit is not going to ruin your vacation or cause you to lose some Awesome Travel Time Trophy. And it will make your traveling companion much more pleasant to ride with. Believe me.
12. Plan time for unexpected stops.
Speaking of extra time… there really is no trophy that I have ever heard of for making good time. The best road trips are just as much about the journey as the destination.
Allow yourself extra time for unexpected detours when you’re planning your trip. Pull over and check out that massive ball of twine. Stop and take pictures in front of those really cool bluffs. Some of the coolest places I’ve been have been on the way to where I was going. So says Confucius.
When it’s not your turn to drive, don’t be afraid to get some sleep. This is especially important if you’re driving through the night or plan to spend more than 8 hours on the road.
Of course, sleeping in the car isn’t exactly comfortable. I highly recommend bringing pillows (and a blanket, if there’s room!) or a good travel pillow. It’s not a night at The Ritz, but it will help. A well rested driver is a safer driver. And a well rested passenger is a less irritable and more enjoyable passenger.
14. Avoid rush hour traffic.
It’s one thing to tack on time on your road trip for an interesting roadside attraction. It’s another thing entirely to loose hours sitting in rush hour traffic because you ended up in Chicago at 5pm.
If at all possible, plan your route so that you hit major cities outside of peak driving times. If that’s not possible, look for bypasses and alternate routes. The miles you loose driving around the city will be worth the time and gas you save by not idling in bumper to bumper commuter traffic. Remember that you might be on vacation, but the rest of the world still has to work during the week – and they have to drive to get there.
15. Bring a map. A real, actual, paper map that does not talk to you.
I love GPS. In fact, love is probably not a strong enough word for the affection I have for a dashboard device that tells me where to go and when to turn. But even the best navigation system in the world makes mistakes.
Bring a map and double check your computer generated route. It’s also nice to have a map on hand if you find yourself having to detour around a city, or looking for the best route to that big ball of twine you’re stopping to see.
16. Pack games for the kids.
One of the main reasons I end up vacationing road trip style is because I have kids. Airplane tickets for a family of four are surprisingly more expensive than an airplane ticket for one. Go figure.
A backseat full of bored kids can ruin the shortest card ride. It can make a long road trip unbearable for everyone. Plan ahead. Bring a variety of road trip friendly activities to keep the young travelers occupied. Some of our family favorites include coloring books, crossword puzzles, puzzle books, and travel versions of board games. And of course, you can always fall back on a rousing game of I Spy.
17. Wear flip flops.
I loathe flip flops as a fashion option. I’m kind of a snob like that. But for road trips, a slip on/slip off footwear choice is a must.
Every single person in my family takes off their shoes if they’re in the car for too long. That means every single person in my family has to put their shoes back on every single time we stop. For food. For bathroom breaks. For staring at that dang ball of twine. It can take 15 minutes to find shoes, find socks, put back on socks and shoes, lace up shoes and finally get out of the dang car. If you’re taking a road trip as a family, flip flops are your friend.
18. Have fun!
No, really. Ultimately, the success of your road trip is dependent on your state of mind. You can do everything on the list and still have a horrible experience if you’re focused on how long you’re driving and when you’ll get there and how much you hate being stuck in the car.
Or, you can forget every single tip I’ve given you and find yourself laughing uproariously in the middle of rush hour traffic, having the time of your life.
Planning ahead can make things easier and help avoid some common pitfalls, but ultimately something will go awry and it will be up to you to keep a positive attitude and make the most of your road trip experience. Relax. Smile. And enjoy the ride.