There's nothing more American than a good old-fashioned road trip. It's a pastime as quintessential in this country as baseball or going to the movies. At one point or another, we've all hit the open highway with our friends, families or even by ourselves. As much fun as it can be, there are always things you can do to make the experience more enjoyable, affordable, safe and fruitful. Follow these tips before and during your next great asphalt adventure.
1. Pick a good travel companion.
The person (or people) you hit the road with will either make or break your trip. Generally speaking, the longer the trip, the more compatible you need to be with those you plan to be in a car with for hours at a time. A person who only mildly irritates you will become an absolute nightmare when you're confined with him in a vehicle for a couple of days. Choose wisely.
2. Get your oil and fluids checked/changed before you leave.
Get your vehicle road-trip ready before taking off. That means oil, coolant, window washer fluid - you name it. And while you're at it, double-check that your license, registration and insurance are up to date (out-of-state police are generally not very forgiving when it comes to expiration dates.)
3. Bring a map.
We mean an actual paper map that does not talk to you. A navigation system can be your best friend, until it falters (meaning, when you lose satellite coverage in the middle of nowhere). A map is your failsafe in this situation. A map will also allow you to find a detour or a scenic route that GPS might have trouble searching out. For both of these reasons, Rand McNally is still king of the open road.
4. Pack games and activities for the kids.
A roadtrip sounds like the perfect family bonding experience. And it can be. But keep in mind that kids get bored and need to stay occupied. Bring coloring books, travel versions of board games, hand-held electronic games, favorite toys, and plenty of good music and movies. The more the entertained they are, the more sane you'll stay.
5. Consider a satellite radio subscription.
This is a good way to keep the family entertained with music, comedy and talk radio that you probably won't find on regional radio stations. The other big advantage to satellite is the weather and traffic updates available for different cities and regions. If you don't want to spring for the subscription, consider a good weather and traffic app for your smartphone.
6. Arm yourself with emergency roadside assistance.
Flat tire. Engine trouble. Transmission problems. Anything can go wrong on a long journey. You don't want to end up stranded 35 miles west of East Podunk. Having roadside assistance means you have access to towing services and approved mechanics almost anywhere in the country. Most major car insurance companies offer this as optional protection.
7. Supplement your cell phone with a phone card.
This is just a back-up plan in case you have to make a phone call, but have no cell coverage. This is especially important if you have to contact emergency roadside assistance.
8. Bring sunglasses.
Sunglasses will prevent squinting and eye strain that can lead to fatigue and even a headache.
9. Plan time for unexpected stops.
The best road trips are the ones not held to a stopwatch. Keep your schedule flexible and make it just as much about the journey as it is about the destination. When planning your trip, factor in extra time for unexpected stops and detours. In other words, if you see a field of flowers, pull over and go frolicking.
When it's not your turn to drive, don't be afraid to get some sleep. It's important that you recharge for when it's time to get back behind the wheel.
11. Avoid rush-hour traffic.
Sitting in traffic is a major buzz kill for everyone. Try to steer clear of major metropolitan areas during peak driving times (between 7am-9am and 4pm-7pm). Look for bypasses and alternate routes. But if you do get caught, it's better to just get off the road and get something to eat while you wait for rush hour to die down.
12. Stay away from "Blue Highways."
These are bi-ways that are essentially lined by strip malls for miles on end. They're not very scenic and are generally laden with traffic lights. If you're going to take back roads, try and hit those that are marked as "scenic routes" on your map. You'll get a more interesting ride, both visually and from a driving perspective.
13. Save on food.
Grab your beverages and snacks from the grocery store. This way you're not hitting as many convenience marts and fast food restaurants during your drive. Supermarkets are less expensive and offer economy-sized portions.
14. Be Mother Nature's houseguest.
Sure, staying in a fancy hotel has its perks, but for those either on a shoestring budget or just seeking adventure, camping is one of the least expensive ways to get some rest while also getting to enjoy the great outdoors. Whether you're by yourself, with a friend or with family in tow, there's nothing like getting a good night sleep under the stars.
There you have it - tips and tactics to make your next driving trip the best that it can be. Now go hit the road!