Are you planning a road trip this summer? We have one somewhere just about every year. While I have nothing against air travel (it’s the best way to get to faraway road trip destinations), I LOVE road trips. My dream summer would be road tripping all over the US and Canada.
I’ve road tripped alone, with friends, with my sweetheart and with my kids from the time the youngest was only a few months old until the youngest was off to college. And sometimes they still come on our road trips.
I’ve made road trips in all four seasons, in good weather and bad. And while I thoroughly enjoy adventure and discovery, I prefer them all to be the fun kind. I’ve also learned that the difference between a memorably good adventure and a memorably bad one is being well prepared. So, based on my bazillion miles of road trip experience, here are my 9 tips for a memorable road trip.
1. Plan Your Trip
Even if you’re a let’s-go-where-the-wind-blows-us traveler, it’s a good idea to have at least a couple of destinations in mind for your road trip. While I love google maps, and I use it all the time even though I have a good sense of direction, I make sure I have paper maps (yes, those old-fashioned retro things you can pick up at welcome centers, AAA or some gas stations) when I am planning my trip. The advantage of paper maps is that you can get a perspective on your overall route and you can see whether your chosen roads are primary or secondary routes (interstate highways, US highways, state highways, county roads, etc.). Another advantage is that paper maps work no matter what. They don’t depend on data plans, cell service or power.
While you may not want to lock yourself into to daily destinations, it’s a good idea to have some of your lodging confirmed (unless you’re taking a motorhome or doing roadside camping), especially if you have any big cities on your itinerary. One of our less favorite stops on a trip was St. Louis. Two different trips, two different times of the year and both times we managed to arrive in St. Louis during huge conventions that seemingly sucked up every hotel room within 20 miles of the city, resulting in some scary lodging across the river on one of those trips.
Now if I haven’t already made reservations somewhere, usually through Expedia, I travel with the Expedia.com app on my phone so I can make last-minute reservations to ensure myself of a safe place to stay. It has proven a lifesaver more than once, like the time we were traveling from San Francisco on I-80 and realized we weren’t going to make it all the way to Salt Lake before we were too tired to drive. It’s how I found the best lodgings in Elko, Nevada, for a 2 a.m. arrival.
Once you’ve planned your trip, either leave a copy of your itinerary with someone at home, or arrange for regular check-ins so someone knows when they should miss you.
2. Prep Your Car
Nothing will kill a road trip faster than a mechanical breakdown or a flat tire. Before you set out on a road trip, visit the mechanic for a good once over. Check to make sure your tires—and your spare—are in good condition and ready for the road. On a recent trip with my daughter, we didn’t even make it out of town before losing a tire. And even then, after getting that one fixed, we had another flat (different tire) on the same trip. This is where I was thankful to have bought my tires from a national chain that provided free service just about everywhere. You’ll also want to check your heating and cooling systems and have your a/c serviced or recharged if needed (ever driven in a southwest summer with no a/c? I have. It’s not fun.).
Be sure to pack extra coolant and windshield washer fluid. You can probably pick it up on the road, assuming the need for it arises when you’re close to an auto parts store—and according to Murphy, that never happens. Put on a fresh set of windshield wipers, and give your car—at least the inside of it—a good cleaning before you go. It will be much more comfortable—and will give you room for all the
junk souvenirs you’ll accumulate along the way.
3. Check Your Insurance
After you’ve checked your car, check your car insurance. If it offers roadside assistance, review the terms and make sure you’ve got the appropriate numbers either in your phone or in your glove compartment. Check to be sure your registration is current, and take your proof of insurance coverage with you. While many insurers have it as a “convenient phone app” this is one document I always keep a paper copy of. If you get pulled over for any reason (or heaven forbid, have an accident) and can’t produce this document, in some jurisdictions they can impound your vehicle. Not fun.
If you’re planning to drive across an international border, make sure your insurance covers you in that country. Hint: Almost no insurer covers you in Mexico. Suck it up and buy the Mexican auto insurance before you cross the border.
4. Travel Light
Just because you’re driving and the suitcase doesn’t have a weight limit doesn’t mean you should take everything you own. If your trip is longer than a week, plan to do laundry. And there are stores everywhere for just-in-case items. Besides the requisite clothing and toiletries, my two travel essentials for a road trip are a pair of good walking shoes and a jacket. I once had to walk three miles to get help for a breakdown, and I’ve hit snow every month of the year. Besides, you want to leave room in the car for all the cool things you find along the way and just can’t live without.
5. Load Up Your Phone/tablet
Entertainment is essential. Download enough music and podcasts to keep you happy through the no-cell zones (yes, they do exist) and install your favorite music and podcast streaming apps for the rest of the time. Good tunes can make all the difference on the road.
Also install your essential travel apps. Mine are Expedia, GasBuddy and Google Maps. What can you not live without on the road?
6. Always Carry Cash
In addition to change for tolls, always have some cash with you. Besides carrying some in my wallet, I recommend stashing some well-hidden cash for emergencies. You never know when you’ll be in a place where a card won’t work. Or what if your card is stolen or hijacked? Cash is still a thing and accepted pretty much everywhere. Yes, toll roads are a thing, and not all are electronic. There was a time when I was not familiar with toll booths (on a road trip to Florida) and we found ourselves stuck at a self-serve tollbooth, scrounging for change in the middle of the night. You can imagine how annoyed the cars behind us were.
7. Plan Your Snacks & Meals
Good snacks are essential to happy road trips.Bring an insulated cooler to keep things from getting hot, melty or just gross on the road. I also recommend using a r refreezable icepack if you’ll access to a freezer. Otherwise, double bag that ice to prevent leaks. We also bring refillable water bottles and an insulated jug as water is our go-to. Let everyone pick a favorite snack. You don’t have to snack-plan the whole trip up front. One of our kids’ favorite treats was stopping in different towns to restock the snack cooler. Plan occasional treat stops. One of our favorites was finding local ice cream shops on hot afternoons.
When possible we try and stay in hotels or vacation rentals with kitchenettes or at least a mini fridge. That way, we can pick up breakfast things like fruit and yogurt instead of having to eat out every meal or have donuts or fast food breakfast. With a cooler, you can plan to picnic lunch or dinner, cutting down on the number of restaurant meals, especially fast food. We usually planned to eat out once a day and pick up the other two meals at local markets, saving money and calories.
8. Be Flexible
Part of the fun of road trips is being able to change your route on the fly. Don’t be so locked into hitting your destination at a specific time that you don’t take time to enjoy the scenery, the crazy museums, the roadside parks or the detours that can turn out to be the highlight of your trip. On a trip to Mt. Rushmore someone suggested we check out Custer State Park (and bring carrots). It turned out to be one of our favorite stops on the trip. And on the way home, we discovered we could detour by way of Devils Postpile and still make it home on time.
9. Remember to Have Fun
And finally, this is supposed to be fun. Relax, enjoy the adventure, enjoy the scenery, enjoy your traveling companions and focus on making it a happily memorable road trip. There is no such thing as a perfect vacation. Things will happen, there will be hiccups and glitches. The kids will argue, someone will get carsick, and someone is bound to complain, no matter how well you plan. You can still have fun, if you just remember that’s what a road trip is all about.
Are you a road tripper? Where was your best road trip? (I’m always on the lookout for my next adventure.) And what tips do you have for a memorable road trip? Share with me in the comments or on my Facebook page here.