See the sights, avoid flea bag hotels, stay sane, and make the most of your road trip
There really is nothing like a road trip. The freedom, the adventure, the unknown. Just getting in your car and going. It’s a classic American adventure, and despite rising gas prices, it never gets old.
Part of the beauty of a road trip is spontaneity. Not having a plan gives you so much more freedom to do what you want, change your mind, stay longer here and skip that as you go. While I encourage you go keep a loose plan on your road trip, there are some things I’d recommend, based on our experiences:
1. Set a budget.
Running out of money sucks. You’ll want to get a good estimate of how much your road trip will cost, starting with the cost of gas. A couple great resources for this are the AAA Fuel Cost Calculator http://fuelgaugereport.aaa.com/fuelcostcalculator/ and Gas Buddy Fuel Calculator http://www.gasbuddy.com/Trip_Calculator.aspx. The Gas Buddy Calculator has a broader range of cities and I like that one a bit better. Calculate the cost of gas between all of your stops, add it up, and then add a couple hundred dollars on to that. After that, set a daily budget for lodging and meals, and souvenirs and entertainment. Research prices on hotels and campgrounds that you know you want to stay at, and admission fees to any specific things you want to do. Always over-estimate.
2. Get an atlas.
Call us old school, but we like to know and visualize our routes on a large scale. GPS and smart phones are a helpful resource, but don’t expect to have cell or internet service in the middle of nowhere. Atlases show all the highways and junctions, freeway exit numbers and often even topgraphical data and mountain range elevations. Plus, the maps are much bigger than your phone or tablet screen, and easy to pick up and read without searching and typing.
3. Be realistic about driving times.
Sure, you can drive 16 hours in one day, but trust me–you won’t want to. Google Maps is a great resource for mapping out how long it takes to drive from Point A to Point B. Remember to account for traffic through cities, possible highway construction, bathroom and meal breaks. Our limit is 6-8 hours of driving in one day, and we try not to do 8 hour long days more than twice in a trip. It’s a grueling experience, and towards the end your back and knees will be aching.
4. Be sure to plan enough days of not driving, or days with only short drives.
It’s tempting to want to see as much as you can and drive as far as you can, but spending the whole trip in the car is not going to be fun. I remember a family vacation when I was 14 where my parents decided to drive down around the Oregon Coast for the week, and we spent at least every other day on long car rides. We saw a lot, but the result was tired, cranky people snapping at each other the entire week. As much as you might want to see it all, you will have more fun if there are plenty of days where you get to wake up and leisurely enjoy where you are.
5. Do a little research.
Get a guidebook, check out your atlas, and figure out all the top cities, national parks, and other destinations you want to visit on your road trip. Once you have your priorities, research three hotels or campgrounds in the area that fit your budget and have good reviews. Tripadvisor is our favorite resource for finding hotels. If you are going in the summer or peak season for your location and are visiting a touristy destination, you might want to just make a reservation. If you have your heart set on a specific city or hotel, it’s better to go ahead and book than to be disappointed. If you’d rather be spontaneous, that’s fun too. Just have some ideas in mind that fit your budget and don’t have terrible reviews, so you don’t end up in hotel hell.
Also, check out what restaurants the town you’re stopping at has to offer and find out if the town has any local favorites that it is known for. Tripadvisor and Yelp are always good resources, as well as travel guidebooks. You don’t want to miss out on the best mom-and-pop local spot and end up somewhere touristy and disappointing.
6. Find out where the weird stuff is on your route.
Haven’t you always wanted to see the World’s Largest Ball of Twine? If you’re on a road trip around good old USA, there is lots of kitsch and Americana to behold. A great resource for finding what weird, funky sights are near you is RoadsideAmerica.com. There is also a line of books about weird stuff in different states put out by the Weird US website. We bought the one about Nevada for our Nevada Road Trip and it did not disappoint. There is a lot of weird shit in Nevada. We definitely found it.
7. Get your car checked out before you go.
Before you leave, be sure to get your battery checked, your fluids checked, get your oil changed, and make sure your tires have good tread. Also make sure you have a spare tire and all numbers to call in case of a roadside breakdown or other minor issue (locking your keys in the car). If you don’t have AAA, you might consider it. We have roadside assistance plans with our insurance company, but when my friend and I went on a three week road trip around the southwest states in 2004, we got AAA for extra protection. AAA also gets you discounts at hotels, usually 10% for the ones that participate.
Other things to remember: First aid kit, windshield sun visor, flashlight, warm clothes, emergency water, a cooler for food and cold beverages, car manual, insurance card, tire iron. If you’re going through mountain passes, show chains are always a good idea, especially October through April.
8. Make sure you have a full gas tank if you’re headed on a long stretch of highway with no towns.
The western half of the United States is much more spread out than the eastern half. Check your gas tank and fill up before heading on a sparsely populated stretch of desert highway. There might be a gas station–but there might not be, and you don’t want to get stranded. While driving through Death Valley, we encountered one gas station in the visitor’s center with gas priced at $6.00 a gallon. Fortunately, we filled up beforehand so we didn’t need it. The Extraterrestrial Highway 375 in Nevada has no gas stations at all, not even in the tiny town of Rachel. The owner of the diner there said people still get stranded and she keeps gas in a can for sale at a hefty price. If you see a sign warning you that there are no gas stations for miles, you’d best top off the tank just in case.
9. If you are visiting multiple national parks in the United States, consider getting an annual National Parks Pass.
When my friend Cass and I went on our three week road trip around the American Southwest back in 2004, we got the annual National Park Pass and it saved us a bit of money. Back then it was $50.00, now it goes for $80.00. The Grand Canyon regular fee alone was $25.00 per vehicle, and we went to five or 6 parks total. You can visit as many parks as you want as many times as you want for a whole year.
Added bonus: Some parks give you special treatment for buying a pass. The Grand Canyon was the busiest, with a line of cars for a ways down the road. There was an entrance lane and kiosk just for annual pass holders, and we zoomed right to the front.
10. Build some good driving playlists on your ipod or phone.
Music keeps you going. Upbeat music keeps you alert, old hits inspire sing-alongs, and a good playlist of your own will get you through those stretches of road with no radio reception (or only tear-in-your-beer country music).
Paddy’s favorite road trip albums:
Physical Graffiti by Led Zepplin
Highway to Hell by AC/DC
Exile on Main Street by The Rolling Stones
Songs for the Deaf by Queens of the Stone Age
Whitney’s favorite road trip albums:
Tom Petty’s Greatest Hits
Whitechocolatespaceegg by Liz Phair
Out of Time by REM
Odelay by Beck
Also in my favorite road trip album list are several movie soundtracks:
Almost Famous soundtrack
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas soundtrack
Natural Born Killers soundtrack
Road trips are awesome. Have fun and be safe. Be sure to get off the beaten path a little.