Road tripping is the best way to explore the United States, hands down. As a student, I once dreamt about the day that I’d be able to pack up all of my clothes in a car and head out on the open roads to explore all of the corners of the US that I’d always wanted to see. When I graduated, I got the money together and actually did it. A friend of mine and I planned out a route on Google Maps and over the course of 2 months, we made our way around the country exploring everything we possibly could.
Obviously, not all road trips are as long as the one we embarked on, but the basic principles still apply. I’ve done my best to compile everything I learned about planning and going on a road trip that I could so that other people can hopefully enjoy the “amazingness” that is the open road. (Amazingness is totally a word).
So, here’s the most difficult step in the entire process. Actually going out onto the road is easy, but making sure you have everything in place to make the journey successful is the tough part. This section is broken down into miniature sections where I go more in-depth about what you need to have in place.
Obviously, without a car your road trip is nothing. There is no perfect car for road tripping, but there are some qualities that you should look out for that are going to make your journey a little bit easier.
Having a car that gets good gas mileage is a huge plus. Mine does about 25 miles to the gallon on the highway, which isn’t great, but it’s better than say, a Hummer. Newer cars generally get around 30 miles per gallon, which is a huge financial plus when you’re trekking thousands of miles.
This may sound contradictory considering I headed onto the road with a 1998 Toyota, but the newer the car, the better. I was foolish when I decided to take my old clanker of a car onto the open road. Don’t make the same mistake I did. Even if your car runs fine while you’re going to and from work every day, it doesn’t mean that the car is cut out for long road trips. Things can go wrong with your car that you never even thought possible and getting stuck in the middle of the Arizona desert is not exactly pleasant. If possible, drive a newer car.
About 2 weeks before you plan on heading out, take your car in for a full inspection at your local dealership or mechanic. Get your belts replaced if they need to be, new tires, oil, the whole nine yards basically. Having a structurally sound car will cause you much fewer headaches while you’re driving than if you were to simply start your trip with a car that’s about to fall apart.
Last but not least, make sure to clean your car before you leave! Take every last crumb, wrapper, and piece of trash out of your car before you leave. You’ll thank yourself later on. Having a dirty car that you’re sitting in for 40 minutes each day is one thing. Having a dirty car that’s your new best friend for a few weeks is another. When new trash starts piling up in the car while you’re on the road, expect things to get a little too messy for you to handle if you don’t clean before you leave and periodically while on the road.
OK, so now that you have your car in order, let’s talk about what you need to bring with you for your long trek around the country.
If this one wasn’t obvious, hopefully it is now. Bring enough clothes to last you for a week at a time. You’ll be stopping frequently, so the chances of you being any more than 20 minutes from a Laundromat at any one time are slim to none. I packed 5 pairs of jeans, 10 pairs of underwear, 10 pairs of socks, 5 t-shirts, 2 dress shirts, and flip flops in addition to my own shoes when I headed out onto the road. I overpacked a little bit just in case something happened to some of the clothes I had brought with me. All of my stuff fit into a duffle bag, as did my friend’s clothes.
Bring 2 sticks of deodorant, a toothbrush, toothpaste, mouthwash, a comb, and anything else you need to get ready in the morning. You’ll probably be using motel showers along your route and many of them don’t offer free shampoo or soap. Bring a few bars of cheap soap and shampoo from home so that if you’re stuck without something to clean yourself with, you can always whip out the stuff you brought yourself to get clean with.
I always thought this would be pretty obvious, but apparently plenty of people forget that they need to fill their bodies with food and water in order to stay alive. You can pick up a cooler at places like Goodwill or Salvation Army for a couple of dollars, and they’re a damn good investment. I filled mine with plenty of bottled water, juice, soda, and a few premade sandwiches for the first few days of the journey. A bag of ice costs a dollar at a gas station, so every morning before we hit the road we filled the cooler back up with ice so our food would stay fresh.
Just like the cooler thing, bring some snacks with you for the trip. I recommend buying a few jars of peanut butter, some crackers, and fruit like bananas and apples (they last longer than other fruits), so you can have something to snack on while you’re on the road. I don’t recommend piling up on junk food, as it’s not only unhealthy, the crumbs tend to get everywhere in the car and they’re a pain to clean out while you’re travelling. As a side note, I also recommend bringing a few old grocery store plastic bags with you so that you can have somewhere to throw away your banana peels and plastic wrappers as the day goes on. You can trash everything when you stop in the evening. Don’t throw anything out the window!
I’ve heard lots of different opinions on how best to go about getting music while on the road. I’ve known people to fill up their iPod with some music before going out so that they always have plenty to listen to while they’re on the road. While this is a fine idea, if you are anything like me and my 1998 Toyota, you probably didn’t have the connectivity in your car to hook up an iPod to listen to digital music. Instead, my friend and I invested in a satellite radio subscription and bought a cigarette lighter powered speaker setup so that we could listen to music that way. It was a great investment, and being able to listen to music in the mountains or wherever else regular radio cuts out was fantastic. If you play your cards right you can get a month or two free as a trial of the system and then cancel it. A month or two of XM radio is typically enough time for any road trip.
This is the 21st century. You need to bring a laptop with you. Even if you want to cut yourself off from the world from a few weeks, being able to email home or lookup directions at a coffee shop when your GPS battery dies or fails is a lifesaver. I didn’t end up using my computer all that much while I was away, but it came I handy in the evenings to watch something on Netflix in a motel room to keep myself entertained and sane.
For the love of all things holy, don’t forget your cell phone and cell phone charger. Bring a car charger for your phone as well. If you have a smartphone, there’s a good chance you’ll be using it for directions and for guidance along the way. This chews up a lot of battery time and having a dead phone in the middle of the afternoon is never fun. There are plenty of discount phone shops in towns that will sell used or off brand phone chargers for a couple of dollars.
Don’t forget em! If you have a nice pair that you already own, do yourself the favor of bringing them for the ride. If you forget to bring some eye protection, you’ll spend the whole way from Ohio to Illinois wishing you’d brought some with you. You can always stop at a gas station and pick up a cheap pair, but they rarely ever fit right and the protection in them is pretty poor considering how much they cost.
I hope you don’t get any tickets while you’re on the road, but there’s a good possibility you’ll get pulled over or stopped for something or other by the friendly local law enforcement.
Have Your Documents
Have everything you need with you in the car in an easy to find location, i.e. the glove box. Take your driver’s license, insurance card, and vehicle registration and put it in a convenient little envelope that you put in your glove box for easy access should you ever get pulled over. It’s stressful enough to get pulled over by the police, but if you have everything you need already together, it will help take some of the panic away.
Although there are still a few states that don’t have seatbelt laws, it’s not only safer to have your seatbelt on at all times, it’ll help you avoid unnecessary tickets. It takes 2 seconds to put your seatbelt on, so why not do it? There’s nothing more annoying than getting pulled over for something you could have easily avoided.
Obey the Law
“No duh!” Even though it’s common sense, so many people fail to follow the speed limits and indicate as they’re changing lanes. You’re in no hurry to get anywhere, so stick to the speed limit and enjoy the scenery. Getting a ticket in a state you’re not a native in is no fun. And if it’s a serious enough offence, having to drive back to a state for a court date is miserable as well. Just stick to the rules of the road and you’ll be OK.
When to Get Gas
If you have a smartphone, there are awesome apps that will help you find the cheapest gas in a radius to your current location. If you’re on the road, set it to find the cheapest gas in a 50-mile radius to where you are at the moment. I did this when I had about a quarter of a tank left of gas (or about 100 miles), so that gave me plenty of time to find the best gas prices in the area as well as some buffer room if there weren’t any gas stations nearby.
Don’t wait until the last minute to get gas either. It makes very little financial sense to wait until you’re almost empty to fill up your tank. Fill up often and don’t get like me (stranded on the side of the highway in Oregon).
This tip I learned after my incident with running out gas. Bring a few empty gas canisters with you if you can and keep them in the trunk of your car. If you run out of fuel on the side of the road, even if you have to walk to the gas station a few miles away, at least you have a canister to carry the fuel back with.
The whole point of a road trip in many cases is to simply get out onto the open road and just drive as far and as long as you’d like to. Without limits on your plans, you can better explore different crevices of the country. However, if you’re a bit of a worry wart and don’t know that you can just “wing it” for a few thousand miles, here are some suggested road trip routes that have been taken plenty of times before and offer plenty of exciting things to see, smell, and taste along the way.
The eastern coast of the United States is probably the most popular road trip route for first timers. Because there are so many eastern seaboard states, there’s a lot of ground to cover by travelling from somewhere like Florida all the way up to New York City or Maine. One reason this route is so popular is because for beachgoers like myself, it’s always relatively easy to break off from the highway that runs along the east coast of the country and head to the beach for an afternoon. It also feels very “comfortable” in that there won’t ever be too many places you’ll come across where you’ll be the only souls for miles and miles around you. That’s what the Midwest is for….
Popularized by a TV show bearing the same name, Route 66 is probably the most famous road in America. It was one of the first highways ever built that spanned multiple states and was typically used as the way to get out west. The road stretches all the way from Chicago, Illinois to Los Angeles, California. It covers a whopping 2,500 miles. One of the main reasons it has maintained popularity over the years is because it is typically thought of as “mainstreet” America. The road runs through all sorts of cities, towns, and fields along its journey and has helped cement the stereotypical American culture picture that’s often painted. Route 66 is a great road trip because not only will it take a while to complete, it covers all sorts of states and terrain that drivers will rarely become bored.
Saving Money on the Road
Road tripping isn’t exactly cheap, which is why everywhere you can save a few dollars you should take full advantage of it. Some of these tips are mostly common sense, but you may find a few that are new to you that you can use to save some green while on the open highways.
Stop Buying Junk Food
I mean it. Stop pulling over into the McDonalds and Burger Kings off of the highway. First of all, they’re generally priced a bit higher than other restaurants within the chain because they’re conveniently located right off of the highway. When you pull off to eat, do your best to stop into local places, even if they’re an extra mile down the road. These local places typically have much cheaper and better food for a lot less money. And if you time your breakfasts and dinners right, you’ll probably be able to hit the “early-bird special” rushes and get even more food for a cheaper price.
Don’t Pay for a Hotel
Backpackers know this trick pretty well, but in case you weren’t aware, you’re free to stay in national parks for free. Simply pull into a national park and park under the stars for a free place to stay at night. There are national parks everywhere in the country, so if you can plan your route to cover as many of them as possible, you could end up saving a huge chunk of change on accommodation every night. For this tip, be sure to bring your own blankets and pillows so you can lay down in the car without much discomfort.
I give into temptation just like everyone else and have to reach for a bag of potato chips from time to time while on the road. However, if you give into the cheesy goodness that is a bag of Cheetos, you need to remember that they’re not cheap. If you have enough space, buy your potato chips and junk foods from grocery stores (or Costco and Sams Club if you have a membership) instead of convenience stores because there’s definitely a huge price difference. Convenience stores are just that; Convenient. You’ll pay a premium if you buy your snack foods there. To save even more cash, buy the off brand potato chips that the grocery stores make.
You’ll probably waste more gas than you realize while on the road. Over the course of a trip, you could flush $100 down the drain by not being conscious of these few easy to implement tips.
• Don’t turn the air conditioning on while you’re barreling down the highway. Open the windows! Air conditioning is a huge waster of fuel. Why not open the windows and enjoy nature’s free air conditioning? There’s a myth going around that the drag created by the wind on the car forces the car to work harder and ultimately leads to you breaking even on cost when comparing driving with no AC and the windows down to driving with AC with the windows up. It’s false. Drive with your windows down and you’ll save money. Period.
• Speeding is also a big no-no in my book. When I’m driving to work I’ll pump up the speedometer a few miles an hour over the speed limit, but when I’m road tripping I try to keep things right at the speed limit. Over about 60 miles per hour, your car becomes a lot more inefficient and will burn more gas than you need to. Chug along at 65 or 70 (where applicable!) and you’ll save big.
• Finally, make sure that your tires are inflated all the way. After all of the driving you’re going to be doing it’s a guarantee that your tires are going to deflate a bit while on the road. Ensure that they’re topped up to the brim with air so that you get the best fuel economy possible out of your car.
Abandon Your Car in the City
When you make it into New York City, park your car immediately. Wherever you’re staying, find a parking spot and leave your car there until you’re ready to leave again. Driving a car in a big city is a no-no in my book because it wastes too much gas and there are much better ways of exploring unfamiliar territory than in your smelly car that you’ve driven for 2,000 miles. Find out what type of public transportation is available and take it to all of the places you’d like to see. An all day pass for the metro in NYC is around $10, which is probably much less than you’d pay for gas and parking all day throughout the city.
While some of the things you may want to see in a place you’re going to cost money, try not to let your limited budget get in the way of a good time. You can easily get online and search for “free attractions in (insert city name here).” There are so many museums and cultural landmarks that are free to look at and enjoy in almost every major city in the country. If there’s something you’re dying to see that has an admission price, go ahead and spend the $5. However, if your goal is to simply explore the country, why not stop at places like the Ben and Jerry’s ice cream flavor graveyard in Vermont? It’s free and cool!
I can’t reiterate this fact enough. Having a partner in crime to join you on the road is probably the best way to stay sane throughout your journey. Having someone to talk to not only keeps things entertaining, it helps you better pass the time between your destination cities.
But while company is great, you need to make sure that the person you’re bringing along is someone that you can tolerate for hours at a time. There’s no point bringing someone that you’re barely friends with to try and keep you company for the thousands of miles ahead.
Having a worthwhile friend on board also makes the journey easier in terms of taking turns driving. I liked to have driving sessions on a three hour interval. So, we would each take turns driving for three hours and we could easily put in a few hundred miles in a day without even thinking about it. Three hour sessions aren’t that bad and stopping to stretch and swap positions in the car on a regular basis feels good.
Sitting in a car isn’t exactly healthy. There’s no sure fire way to ensure that you don’t get cramps or problems with your digestion from sitting in the same position for hours on end. The only solution I ever came up with is to stop fairly often to stretch and to just take a break from sitting down for long periods of time. I recommend taking a 15 or 20 minute break every few hours just to get the blood flowing to your limbs again.
Don’t Forget a Map
I mentioned earlier that having a GPS or a phone that has the capability of being a GPS is handy. However, I can’t stress how important it is to have a backup plan. If the storm clouds get thick where you are, you could lose your GPS signal and end up in Topeka, Kansas by accident and no one wants that. Having a paper map from a company like Rand McNally is an awesome backup plan. A road atlas for the entire country costs $20 or so at your local Books a Million or Barnes and Noble and is a worthwhile addition to the backseat of your car. Knock on wood, I’ve never had to use mine, but I always feel safe knowing that it’s in the back of my car should my GPS fail while on the road.
Safety is paramount on the roads. There are plenty of lunatics that drive on them every day, but the most dangerous person behind the wheel is you.
Driving while tired is not only extremely dangerous to yourself, it’s also dangerous to everyone around you as well. If you find that you’re getting tired, pull off the road and find a place to stay for the night. Driving while tired is like driving drunk and can severely impact your ability to properly drive the car.
It’s a pretty rough rule of thumb, but if your eyes can’t immediately focus on the road signs as you come to them, it’s time to call it quits for the night. As much as you want to make it to the next town so you have a few less miles to drive the next day, don’t try to be a hero. If you’re tired, sleep. It’s that simple.
Although road trips are all about exploring the country at your own leisure, real life still unfortunately exists outside of your car doors. Before you set out on any sort of road trip, make sure everyone knows when they need to be back to work, school, or other commitments. There’s nothing worse than being 1,000 miles from home and realizing you need to get back to work on Monday morning. Plan ahead and ensure that you have enough time off from work to make a worthwhile road trip and that everyone in the car has shared their deadlines with the group. When you need to head home, you need to head home.
As one final tips for road trip groups, I’d like to mention that I never think it’s OK to talk about politics. If you think that family dinners are bad when politics are brought up, imagine being stuck in the same car with those people for another 2 weeks. Hot topics like politics and religion never do well in groups, so avoid them at all costs. I have a rule where I yell, “New topic!” as loud as possible whenever someone tries to point out their political views to the group. Don’t ruin a perfectly good trip with a petty argument about who everyone should for in the next election.
That’s everything! I hope you’ve enjoyed this guide and all that it has to offer. Safe travels and I hope you like what you find out on the open road.
Road Trip on Twitter
[twitter-feed mode=”search” term=”road trip” divid=”twitter-feed” ulclass=”twitter-updates” liclass=”tweet” imgclass=”tweet”]