Road trip tips
Tips and advice for surviving the Great American Road Trip
A family or buddy road trip can do wonders to deepen bonds and build stronger relationships—though there's an equally strong chance you and your best friends and closest family members will drive each other crazy.
When crammed together in a vehicle and hotels rooms, sharing every waking moment of the day, any companion's minor annoying traits can quickly grow into what seem like major character flaws.
The good news is that this sometimes gives you a chance to air grievances, learn more about each other, and find a new, healthier normal. Besides, overall the good usually far outweighs the bad, and fights will fade from memory while the happy times remain.
My parents and I still trade on stories from the cross-country camping trip we took when I was five, and when I get together with old Boy Scout friends, we'll start inevitably swapping anecdotes from the six weeks we spent in a van roving the American West back when I was 16.
One of those old Boy Scout cohorts is still my go-to guy with whom to take epic road trips, and together we've crossed the continent again, visited all five national parks of Utah in one week, explored Alaska, and spent a month driving around Europe—most of those trips as adult leaders of our old troop.
Best tips for safe summer driving
- Plan well. Don’t be overly ambitious with your itinerary or schedule. Try to make your trip a series of short hops, not an endless slog of long hauls, and build in plenty of time to rest.
For every three hours you expect a drive to take, add another hour to allow for traffic, delays, and to let your schedule slip. That way, you won’t get behind, you won’t feel rushed, and you’ll remain more relaxed.
- Avoid overly long days behind the wheel. Forget trying to cross several states at once and enduring 12-hour days of nonstop driving. You simply cannot keep focus for that long.
Try to keep it to fewer than eight driving hours on the longest days, but a max of four or five hours for most days. You’ll have more fun, too.
- Take plenty of breaks. Try to find a place to stop every 90 minutes. If it’s been two hours without a break, at least find a picnic area and get out to stretch your legs.
- Don’t hog the wheel. If you have more than one licensed driver in the vehicle, switch off every few hours.
- Stick to the speed limit. You get better gas mileage, and it will grant you a bit more response time when driving conditions start to get hairy and you are inevitably tired from a few days of long road miles.
Also, it’s the law.
How to survive long hours in the car together
- Pack for boredom. Bring games and activities—both participatory guessing games as well as cards, travel-sized board games, sketchpads and pens, etc. Load your iPods with good music.
Pack plenty of magazines and books for the passengers, as well as books on tape so the driver can “read,” too. Borrow them from the library, or rent them from Cracker Barrels along the way (you can rent from any Cracker Barrel and return to any other; nifty).
- Relax the rules about screen time. This is a good time to bend the rules you keep at home and let the kids play video games, surf the Web on their handheld devices, and watch DVDs (pack a laptop if you don’t have a newfangled car with a built-in entertainment system).
- Make music choice a democracy. Let everyone in the car DJ his or her own hour of tunes. If nothing else, it might expose you to new music and help you learn something about your car-mates. (The driver reserves the negotiate with the DJ over any music that drives the driver crazy.)
- Be sure to stop often and at interesting places. A road trip is as much about the journey as the destination, so be sure to have fun along the way. Explore small towns, visit roadside attractions, stop at state parks and historic sites. It will keep the drive interesting, and give everyone a break from the car.
- Avoid the chain eateries right at the exit. Use guidebooks, like Drive I-95, or the Yelp app to seek out local restaurants and diners. You never know when a mile’s drive off the road will lead to a highlight meal of the trip, whether it’s a crab shack in Maryland or barbecue in Texas, the catch of the day on the Oregon coast or sinfully delicious pies in North Carolina.
- Discover the lost art of conversation. Pick a topic and discuss it. Or let a random local talk radio station pick a subject for you. Take turns telling stories—they can be anecdotes or made up.
Make the trip into an exercise in getting to know your traveling companions a little better. You may be surprised by what you haven’t learned over decades together (and road trips have been known to get the most taciturn teen to start sharing again.)
How to stretch vacation dollars on the road
- Save by focusing. Given that gas now averages $3 to $4 a gallon in most of the U.S., a focused road trip in one state or region—rather than an epic cross-country trek—makes the most economic sense.
If you're looking to road-trip anywhere that's more than a day or two's drive from your home, a cheap airfare from the likes of Southwest or Virgin Atlantic, coupled with a rental car, can actually be cheaper than driving your own vehicle (once you factor in several tanks of gas plus lodging).
- Look beyond hotels. There are many alternative places to stay that are usually more interesting, and often cheaper, than typical hotels, from B&Bs and rental apartments to cabins at campgrounds and in parks, even hostels (many of which have private rooms).
- Consider an all-suite hotel. Restaurant meals are fine, but can add up quickly. You can slash your dining costs in half, easily, by staying in an all-suite, or townhouse, hotel—where every room comes with a kitchenette—and cooking at least some of your own meals.
- Enjoy picnics and street food. You don’t have to scrape the bottom of the fast food barrel to save on meals. Just hit the local grocery store to put together a picnic fit for a king, and patronize any local food stands, trucks, and carts at lunch.
- Make it about the experience, not the sightseeing. A stroll around town or hike in a state park will be far more memorable and rewarding than shelling out $12 to see a house-sized biggest ball of twine.
- Use the CVB. The local CVB/visitor information office, chamber of commerce, or civic website will be able to fill you in about all the free things to see and do around town.
They also have calendars of events, so your nights’ entertainment can be hearing a local band play for free, or paying just $10 for a musical at the local playhouse, or wandering around the booths of the annual cheese festival, rather than shelling out $40 for movie tickets and popcorn at the nearest Multiplex.
How to keep the home safe while you're on vacation
- Set up timers for your electronics. This is the bare minimum. Don’t just plug in a few lights. Plug in the TV so it goes on during the hours you would normally be plunked down on the couch.
- Have an alarm system. One that simply goes off might scare away burglars, but one wired to a central office that can alert you (and the authorities) will give you added peace of mind.
- Consider a house sitter. Get a friend, nearby family member, or trusted neighbor (college students are great) to play house in your home while you are gone.
You can considering hiring a professional, or use a network such as www.housecarers.com, www.mindmyhouse.com, www.caretaker.org, or www.luxuryhousesitting.com to find a willing sitter who will work for free.
Bonus: A sitter can water the plants, feed the pets, and bring in the mail, taking care of multiple travel worries all at once.