Some people love road trips whilst some people do not. I’ll admit that I’m one of those people who loves being out on the open road. After going on a number of “epic road trips” around different parts of the US and Canada in the last few years, I can easily say that there is definitely something amazing about the freedom of being able to see so much of a country that you might not have been able to see otherwise.
That said, road trips are hard work and can be tiring. But with a little knowledge that I have picked up over the years (and I’ve learnt a lot) and a little forward planning, they have been some of the most rewarding trips I’ve ever done.
So here are my top tips that I’ve learnt over the years on how to “survive” that road trip:
Pick the Right Car for You and the Trip
This tip is probably more important than anything else. Picking the right car for the type of road trip you are doing and the number of people with you is essential and could actually make or break your trip. Also rent a car from a reputable company for added peace of mind. Bigger companies have more depots around the country which makes it easier to swap a car during your trip if anything goes wrong with it.
Do not rent a compact car for your big trip as having to be squashed into a small car for a long journey will be far from fun. I was in disbelief in the Canadian Rockies when I saw five people and all their luggage get out of the the tiniest rental car imaginable. Spending a little more money to get a bigger car and a little more space than you need is always a good idea.
Even though a convertible seems like an amazing idea at first (and I rented two when I first started doing road trips), it is probably one of the worst cars you can have on a long road trip. Not only is there no space in the boot (trunk) of the car for your bags, it is also a huge waste of money as I found that you will rarely put the roof down except for a few photo stops. You will also stand out like a sore thumb as a tourist.
If any part of our journey has involved anything “mountainous”, we have always rented an SUV as it just made perfect sense but if our journey has mainly been on flat roads with easy drives between stops, we have always rented a full size saloon car as there is plenty of room to stretch out and relax as well. By getting bigger cars, you also get better features which make driving a lot easier.
Plan Your Journey
Before our trip we always sit down and with the help of Google Maps, plan our journey as much as we can including finding out if the roads we want to drive are due to be open at that time. This is made easier by knowing how many hours you can personally drive safely in a day and what you want to see and do and where you want to stop on the route. Our rule of thumb is that we do not drive more than six to seven hours between us in a single day. This also helps us plan which hotels we are going to stay in each night and we then book them in advance so we know we have a comfortable bed and hot shower at the end of each day. We have found that it is always worth spending a little extra on nicer accommodation to be able to get a good night’s sleep.
It is also a good idea to plan rest days as driving every day is not fun and does get very tiring. We always have our rest days in places where there is a lot we want to see and do. After a few nights of rest and relaxation in the same place, you can then start the driving again feeling fresh and renewed.
We always try to start driving as early as possible in the morning to enjoy the roads when they are much quieter and you are wide awake. Setting off later means the possibility of the last part of your journey being in rush hour afternoon traffic or driving when it’s dark and when you’re tired which is not fun.
Also download the Google Maps and Waze apps onto your phone as these are invaluable during road trips. We always use Google Maps for directions when we are driving and make sure that whoever is driving can see the phone screen with the map (this is much easier than having another person try to explain to the driver where to go and saves a lot of arguments). One of our packing essentials is a phone holder that clips onto the air vents in the car as well as a power cable to keep the phone charged. We also have a data plan on our phones so we can look up stops or change route if we have to.
Once you’ve done a road trip with a large suitcase, you’ll never want to pack that heavy again. Believe me, I’ve been there and done that. Having to lift a large and heavy bag in and out of the car and to and from your hotel room nearly every day gets old very quickly!
You will quickly learn how little you actually need to pack on a road trip – the key is to wash and wear. We pick hotels with laundry facilities (and pack a small amount of laundry detergent and dryer sheets) and make use of the swimming pool or hot tub whilst our clothes are washing or drying in the machines.
Stop Whenever You Need To
Stopping frequently during long drives is key on road trips. Every time you stop, swap drivers (we try to swap every hour and a half or so) and get out of the car and go for a quick walk around, use the bathroom or grab a drink. If you drive for too long in one day, you will be exhausted and your body will ache making the rest of the day and possibly days after hard work. Also if you notice that the driver is starting to get tired, then swap as soon as possible.
We often plan stops into our long journey days. As I love roadside attractions, I often use Roadside America, Atlas Obscura and Roadtrippers to find unusual and quirky things to see during the day. This actually helps to break up the journey and makes a long day much easier and enjoyable. You can also use this time to get some food and drink as well as gas for the car so it also does not feel like you’re stopping needlessly. If travelling as a group, decide before you start your journey how you are going to pay for fuel, food and drinks to save any arguments along the way. One good suggestion for fuel is for everyone in the car to put some money into a “kitty” and then only that money is used for that. Also make sure you have some smaller notes for any tolls that you have to drive through.
If you need to stop at any other times, good stopping points are Welcome Centers (especially to get photos of state signs), rest areas, travel centers and gas stations. Even a quick stop at Starbucks, Target or Walmart will help if you need a quick break from the driving!
There’s nothing worse than sitting in a quiet car for long periods of time so music is essential. Create a variety of playlists before you go and make sure that your music is tolerable by everyone in the car. Singing along to music will also help to keep you awake and make the journey much more quicker. Podcasts are also great to listen to on long drives.
In Car Comfort
There are definitely things you can have with you to make life in your car as comfortable as possible – here are my list of essentials to bring:
Neck Pillow – We already carry these with us for long haul flights and they are useful on long car journeys too. If you are not driving, try and have a nap as this will help you ready for your next turn at the wheel.
Glasses – If you wear contact lenses, make sure you bring your glasses as well as there’s nothing worse than being tired and having contacts in especially if they are starting to irritate your eyes. Don’t forget your sunglasses either.
Car Charger – Don’t forget to bring a USB car charger so you can keep all your electronic devices charged on the journey.
Water Bottle – Instead of buying a pack of small bottles of water, we fill our reusable bottles every morning so we have water in the car. We also buy a large container of water from the supermarket and keep it in the boot (trunk) in case of emergencies.
Travel Mug – We also bring our reusable Starbucks coffee mugs with us on every trip as we can make a drink at the hotel in the morning and it will keep it hot for a few hours. We then can also use them whenever we stop for a tea or coffee on the drive. This as well as not buying small bottles of water helps to cut down on the amount of rubbish in the car.
Cool Bag – Years ago I bought a small cool bag and it is now one of our road trip essentials. When we leave a hotel in the morning, we empty any food or drink we’ve put in the fridge into the bag and it keeps it cold for the rest of the day.
Snacks – A “Snack Bag” is definitely needed! As soon as we have collected our car, we head to the supermarket to stock up on snacks for the drive. In the US we buy Goldfish Crackers, M&M’s even chips and hummus! We have found the key is to not buy too much and just to re-stock as and when we need to.
Paper Towels – When buying snacks, we also buy a paper towel roll to clean up any mess inside the car as well as to help clean the outside of the windows when we stop for fuel – essential when you are taking photos on the road.
Rubbish Bag – To try and keep the car as tidy and clean as possible, use a plastic bag to put any rubbish in which can then easily be thrown away at your next stop.
Remember whilst on a road trip to keep an open mind. Things will go wrong that you have no control over such as bad weather, road works and traffic jams. You also might have to stop more than you wanted to and your day could end up being much longer than originally planned.
Places you want to visit could be closed when you get there no matter how much planning you have done – we were on a road trip to the Grand Canyon when the 2013 US government shutdown happened which closed all National Parks!
You will miss exits you need to take – it happens.
You will also be tired but remember that everyone else in the car will also be tired too. If you’re driving and you start to feel tired, say something and get off the road as soon as possible.
Being in a small area with others for long periods of time can be hard if you are not used to it.
The best mindset you can have on any road trip is to just to relax, accept that these things happen, laugh it off but above all, enjoy every minute!
What are your top tips when you’re on a road trip? Let me know the comments below!
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