Some of the most memorable vacations happen in the form of a road trip. Just make sure yours is memorable for the right reasons.
Whether you’re hitting the road for a few hours or embarking on a legendary cross-country drive, these tips will help stave off boredom, reduce arguments and keep you safe.
1. Devise a plan with your passengers.
“Perhaps the major pitfall on a road trip is not so much about the route or sights, but the other people,” said Paul Johnson, founder of NorthOutdoors. Even BFFs can become mortal enemies by the end of a long, painful trip, so getting on the same page before you depart is crucial. “Get some agreement upfront on what you are trying to do. Are you trying to get somewhere as fast as you can? Or is this an exploring, meandering trip where the goal is to get lost and see new places?” Johnson said.
2. Agree on a budget.
If you’re traveling with other adults, you’ll need to decide on a budget for the trip together. For instance, will you be sticking to homemade sandwiches for lunch or hitting the local hot spots on Yelp? Will you be car camping or sleeping in hotels? “It is good to know upfront what the expectations are so you can avoid those tense times during the trip,” Johnson said.
3. Put together the perfect playlist ahead of time.
Fumbling with your phone while driving is not only unsafe, but it can really kill the vibe of a relaxing drive set to the perfect soundtrack. Plus, you’re bound to hit a few areas without radio coverage or cell service. “There are many areas where internet, GPS or even satellite signal for XM radio isn’t available,” said Angella Jensen of Angie’s Awesome Adventures. In this case, having a few playlists downloaded ahead of time will save you from any awkward silence. “Include as many upbeat, fun songs as you can,” she said. “This will keep the energy level high and in a good place if you find yourself in a situation where nothing else is available.”
4. Pick out a few podcasts, too.
Even your favorite songs can get old after a while. To break up the monotony, try listening to a podcast. Whether you want to learn a new skill or get lost in a true crime thriller, there’s something for everyone. Some popular options to consider include Why Won’t You Date Me, Safe for Work, The Mortified Podcast and In the Dark.
5. Decide on your must-sees.
If you want to do some sightseeing along the way, it’s a good idea to figure out your key stops before hitting the road. “Research and plan these things out so you know exactly where and why you’re stopping, rather than traveling for countless hours in one stint,” said Juma Brown of FlyerDiaries. “This will reduce the amount of time spent being bored and get yourself many extra opportunities to make memories.” These anchor stops will also dictate how much driving you need to do each day to stay on schedule.
6. But also plan for extra time.
Though it’s important to stick to a schedule, don’t be so married to your timeline that you miss out on other once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. “It’s the roadside attractions like giant lobster statues, stuffed gopher museums and interpretive view points that really make a road trip special,” said Jenn Stolfa, a writer for Take Them Outside. “Not only will you enjoy to get out and explore some local culture, your body will appreciate a chance to stretch and move. And if you happen to be traveling with kids, these stops will break the drive, helping them manage the long sitting times in between.”
7. Ask locals about the best spots to stop.
Need food or looking for a bit of entertainment? Travel websites like TripAdvisor are great for reviews, but they might not be the best way to uncover hidden gems. “The advice of locals can be invaluable for things like attractions and places to eat,” said Chris Wain of Africa Travel. “Don’t be afraid to ask people in local stores and cafes about where the best place to get an evening meal is, where is the best place to stay or which route will get you to the local attraction fastest. Locals know the area better than any review site, so their knowledge should never be dismissed.”
8. Carry some cash.
Big city folk may be used to swiping a card to pay for travel expenses, but that’s not always possible in small towns. Independent gas stations, national parks and other stops may require you to pay cash, so always keep some on hand.
9. Get serious about snacks.
Snacks can make or break a road trip. Just don’t go overboard on the junk ― your body will thank you. “We see people often throw their healthy eating habits out the window just because they are road tripping,” Johnson said. But if you load up on Big Gulps and Doritos, it can lead to fatigue and some, er, emergency pit stops. Try to snack on fruit, protein bars and veggies, and don’t forget to drink plenty of water. “A secret weapon is to stop at a grocery store ― even tiny towns have them ― to get your lunch, rather than the roadside burger joint,” Johnson said.
10. Opt for truck stops over rest areas.
Truck stops aren’t just for truckers anymore. With plenty of lighting, facilities and foot traffic, they can feel safer and be more accommodating than remote bare-bones rest stops. Be cautious wherever you pull off the road, but if you have the choice, plan your breaks for truck stops.
11. Get on the road early and stick to daylight hours.
If you want to beat the traffic, get going as early as possible, even if this means starting your day around 4-5 a.m. “Setting off at this time means that the sun will start to rise an hour or so into your journey, which can make for sensational views of the sunrise in different places every day,” Wain said. “Plus, it is still before the roads become busy with commuters trying to get to work. This makes your journey far less hectic and, as a result, safer.”
Speaking of safety, it’s also a good idea to end your day’s drive once it starts getting dark, as nighttime is by far the most dangerous time to drive thanks to more drunk and drowsy drivers. Not to mention, critters love to come out at dusk and often end up in the road ― and that is not where you want to unexpectedly come across wildlife.
12. Get gas every time you stop.
Making a pit stop? Get some gas. Driving past a small town? Fill ’er up. Even if you have a healthy half tank left, it never hurts to stock up on fuel for those long stretches where there’s no gas station for miles.
13. Dole out games and goodies along the way.
If you’re traveling with kids, don’t hand out all the activities and treats right at the beginning of the drive. Instead, Stolfa recommends saving some games, books and snacks for later when distractions are desperately needed. You can also dole out a convenience store allowance for the kids to buy their own snacks as the trip progresses.
14. Schedule exercise breaks.
Another tip if you have kiddos in tow: Make sure there’s time each day for them to get physical. “Take them to a park or simply have them walk with you on a treadmill in the hotel gym,” said Mike Miller, founder of Wilderness Times. “The last thing you want are your kids to be filled with energy, bouncing off the walls, asking you, ‘Are we there yet?!’ 53 times an hour.”
15. Learn how to change a tire.
Knowing how to change a tire is an important skill, especially if you’re driving through areas where roadside assistance doesn’t arrive reasonably quickly or at all. “Not only should you know how to change the tire, you should actually have done this with the particular road trip vehicle you’ll be using,” Stolfa said. Run through the whole operation prior to the trip, so you know where the spare is located, that its air pressure is good, and that you can handle all the steps to get those wheels rolling again.
16. Bring a cellphone charging bank.
On road trips, you can usually rely on your vehicle’s power to charge your phone. But emergencies happen, and you don’t want to be stuck with a dead car and a dead cellphone battery. “Phoning for assistance will be much easier with the backup charging bank,” Stolfa said.
17. Be prepared for extreme weather.
Between rain storms, heavy snow and hurricanes, our vast country is home to many types of weather hazards. If you’re planning a long trip, be sure you’re ready to handle whatever Mother Nature throws your way. That means wearing proper shoes, packing the right type of clothes and bringing along equipment like tire chains if they might be needed. “If you are traveling in winter, it is an entirely different ballgame. The mountains and the North Country require you to adapt to the conditions, not vice versa,” Johnson said.
18. Let your bank know where you’re going.
You don’t want to get stuck at a gas station or roadside diner with a credit card that’s been frozen by your bank due to possible fraud. “Alert your bank and credit card company of your trip with the cities you plan to visit,” said personal finance expert Andrea Woroch. “This will help the company monitor [for] fraud, but also ensure you have access to funds when you need them.”
19. Have backup directions on hand.
These days, most of us are so reliant on GPS to get around that we probably couldn’t find our way out of a wet paper bag without it. But that GPS signal doesn’t always work on the road. “You should always have some backup directions ― either a road atlas or printed directions,” said Jake McKenzie of Auto Accessories Garage. “Without the ability to check your GPS or call anyone for assistance, you can end up getting very lost very quickly. Having a few maps in your glove box and even a compass can save you a lot of time should you get lost without a cell signal.”
20. Show respect.
Spending long days on the road can put your nerves on edge, especially if you’re traveling with little ones. But that’s no excuse to be a jerk. Be polite to the locals you encounter, don’t litter and allow other cars to merge into your lane. A little respect goes a long way on the open road.