In a time of travel restrictions and social distancing, 2020 is likely to be the year of the road trip. A vehicular vacation allows for fun, flexibility, and the added safety of minimizing in-person interactions with those outside of your close travel circle. But how do you go about preparing for a journey on wheels?
I grew up piling into the back seat of my mom’s Jeep Wagoneer sharing snacks with my sister on long drives to visit my grandparents in Arkansas or see sandcastle competitions on the Texas coast. Now, although zipping around Europe by train is one of my favorite ways to travel, if given the extra time I love picking up a car in Seville to ramble across the Costa del Sol or circumnavigating Sicily in a little Fiat 500.
Amongst my best stateside memories: I’ve cruised in an RV from Seattle to San Francisco, taking in Crater Lake and the Redwoods, and to date, the largest moon I’ve ever seen was out the back window of a station wagon while tagging along on my friend’s family vacation to the Grand Canyon in the late ’90s. There’s just a freedom and nostalgia surrounding road trips that’s impossible to duplicate by other means of transport.
Clocking those miles has taught me a thing or two about road trip preparedness, and I’m passing along all my tips and tricks! Below is my ultimate list for planning your itinerary, reservation information, entertainment musts, and more.
Time to get out that map and dream up your big adventure! Start by finding the main destinations you’re hoping to visit on a map, then linking them together to decide on the most rational route. Use an app like Google Maps to find driving times, and zoom in to find cities along the way worth a stop or an overnight (especially to break up long drives).
It’s important to be realistic about how much you and/or your travel partners can safely drive in a day. Sure, it’s possible to drive from Denver to Los Angeles in 16 hours, but do you want to? And, more importantly, should you? For my upcoming trip from Seattle to Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks, my girlfriend and I are opting to drive the nine hours straight to Glacier, then take our time getting home with drives under five hours per day.
Keeping your drive times lower also allows for spontaneity—that way, you can visit things like the world’s largest ball of twine in Kansas or the world’s smallest church in New York. Traveling in the south? Consider cross-referencing the US Civil Rights Trail interactive map to explore historic memorials along the way.
And don’t forget to pack a paper map of your route. Cell service is sometimes sparse and you’ll be grateful for a backup when your map app won’t load.
While some of the beauty of driving is letting the road lead you, there are still some benefits to reserving accommodations ahead. If you’re planning to camp, many prime campsites book up in the summer months—especially now that more people are traveling closer to home. Apps like Hipcamp can help you find places to pitch your tent, and many state and national parks maintain reservation systems on their websites.
Speaking of parks, if you’re hoping to visit a national park like Yosemite and stay in one of their historic lodges, you’ll want to make reservations as soon as possible. For my upcoming trip, I had to reference the availability at the Yellowstone lodges to determine my entire itinerary as rooms are in high demand.
Elsewhere on the road, you’ll likely be able to find hotel vacancies as needed, but booking even a few days ahead can help provide peace of mind and a cozy bed to look forward to.
3. Prep Your Vehicle
Before you head off, it’s important to know that your chariot is up for the journey. Take your car in for a service appointment to check that the oil, fluids, tires, and air filters are in top shape. You’ll also want to check that all the lights and blinkers are functioning properly and that your spare tire and jack are in good condition. Make sure you have up-to-date copies of your registration documents and insurance cards.
A safety kit is also important and should include things like jumper cables, a flashlight, reflective triangles, and water. If you have roadside service like AAA, keep your membership information and important phone numbers where you can access them easily.
Sync your phone to the car’s Bluetooth or bring along an AUX cable for music and GPS directions, and don’t forget a spare car charger. It’s also smart to give your travel partner a spare car key in case yours gets lost (speaking from experience).
Are you renting your ride? Make sure to check your rental agreement for allocated mileage and emergency contact information. You might also consider a one-way rental so you can drop the car at your final destination and hop a flight home. If you’re renting abroad, be sure to check the country’s driving regulations to see if you’ll need an international driver’s license.
Road trips are also a great time to explore local cuisine, even of the fast-food variety. Finding restaurants outside of the major chains helps contribute to the local economy and support a small business—plus, there’s nothing like a handmade milkshake and fries from a classic diner on the road. (My favorite roadside snack discovery was a burrata factory in rural Italy.)
For all the time in between, pack a cooler of healthy snacks like veggies and hummus, fruits, and sandwich supplies—plus some sweet treats that won’t melt if left in a hot car. Having snacks on hand will help cut down on costs and time spent on stops. A multitool with a knife and a small cutting board are also valuable add-ons for dining while driving, and a refillable water bottle is a must.
5. Plan En Route Entertainment
While looking out the window longingly for hours upon hours is one way to pass the time, you’re likely going to want a bit of entertainment for the road. Diving into a podcast or listening to an audiobook is the road trip equivalent of an airplane movie. A few years ago, I used podcasts to learn all about bitcoin while driving from Portland to Vancouver, and another time queued up some Italian audio lessons while driving from Rome to Venice. (I’m going to save Park Predators until I get home from this next trip, though.) Poll your friends for their favorites.
This is also a great chance to explore the music of wherever you’re traveling to, whether that’s tuning in to a local radio station or creating a state-by-state (or even town-by-town) playlist of artists in the area. Whatever you choose, make sure to download enough options offline so you can listen when cell service isn’t available.
It’s also a great time to relive the road trip car games of your youth (there was, in fact, a time before iPads). Try to find a license plate from every state. Spot something starting with each letter of the alphabet. Choose a category, like “animals” or “European cities,” then take turns naming something within that category—the first person to repeat an answer or not respond loses. Or make up your own silly game that can become its own road trip tradition.
6. Take Care of Yourself…
While it’s always important to be cautious of your health and safety while traveling, our current times call for a little extra precaution. Wear a mask when in public, wash and sanitize your hands often, try to minimize interactions with other people, and do your best to stay at a six-foot distance from others. Bring disinfecting wipes to clean everything from gas pump handles to hotel TV remotes. And be sure to pack a stocked first-aid kit and any medications you might need.
7. …And the Environment
Some of the steps above—like having your car serviced, eating locally, and bringing your own snacks and reusable water bottles—are already helpful in traveling with the environment in mind, but there are a few other things you can do to look out for the earth.
When it comes to your car, fuel efficiency is key. If there are several of you going on the trip, consider taking whoever’s vehicle gets the best MPG. If you’re renting, choose a car with efficiency in mind. Other things like packing light and not using roof storage (it affects the car’s aerodynamics and decreases fuel efficiency) can also help. Myclimate.org also has a calculator to estimate your trip’s carbon footprint, plus ways to invest in carbon offsets.
On the road, try to structure your journey to minimize excess driving and any backtracking—both by choosing a continuous route and also designating the most vigilant travel companion to be the navigator. And obviously, don’t throw anything out of the car as litter(or take it a step further and pick up any trash you find at stops along the way).
Wherever you chose to drive, a road trip is the definition of the journey being just as valuable as the destination. Take in the sights, enjoy the snacks, and stay safe! It’s time to hit the road.