Now that the holidays are behind us, it's the time of year that many Americans start planning their spring and summer adventures – or at least start thinking about them. More and more recently, I've heard friends and family members talk about dreams of epic American road trips: eating their way through the South, driving up the West Coast, focusing on national parks in the Southwest, or being really ambitious and wanting to hit up all 48 states in the continental U.S.
Road trips are always a great idea if you ask me, especially in the U.S. where there's so much to see and do along America's highways. If you, too, are considering a road trip in 2014, here are ten helpful tips to get you started:
Before You Leave
There are a few things you'll want to do before even leaving home on a big road trip:
1. Get your car tuned up – Unless you’re renting a car, you need to ensure that your vehicle is safe to drive. Make sure you cover the basics: change your oil and filters, check your fluid levels, and make sure your tires are in good condition and at the right pressure. You may be able to do all of this yourself (and in fact you should learn how to at least check your tire pressure and know how to top off your fluids), but if not take it to a shop to get a once-over. Not only will this make you safer on your trip, but you'll also get better gas mileage if your car is in good shape.
2. Sign up for AAA – In the U.S., AAA (formerly the American Automobile Association) provides everything from travel planning advice to roadside assistance. Sign up for AAA if you live in the U.S., as it's great to have if you find yourself broken down or with a flat tire while away from home. If you're a member, you can call AAA for everything from a jump to a tow. Plus their maps are amongst the best on the market.
3. Learn how to change a tire – Related to the above advice, knowing how to change a tire on your car can save you time and stress. Yes, AAA can come and change a tire for you, but if you're in the middle of nowhere (or worse, somewhere with bad cell reception), it may be easier if you know how to fend for yourself.
4. Choose your companion(s) wisely – Whether you'll be road tripping for a week or all summer, choosing who will be sharing your car with you is perhaps even more important than planning an itinerary. You need to get along well enough to put up with each other in close quarters for the duration of your trip, and also need to be able to agree on things like where to stay and how much money you'll spend.
5. Make some music playlists – Lastly (and especially if you have some long driving ahead of you), put together some playlists ahead of time. Whether on CD, your iPod, or something else, having some pre-made playlists will help pass the time in the car. You can even make a game of this by challenging one another to come up with playlists for certain states or destinations along the way.
On The Road
Once you're ready to go, here are some things to keep in mind while on the road:
1. Bring a smartphone for GPS and apps – Being able to get directions via Google Maps has made road tripping a lot easier than it used to be. Having a smartphone is also great when it comes to useful road tripping apps. I suggest Gas Buddy (for finding the cheapest, closest gas stations), Urban Spoon (for finding nearby restaurants) and iExit (for finding out what sort of amenities are located at every exit on major U.S. highways).
2. Have paper maps, too, just in case – Just in case your phone dies or you lose reception, though, it never hurts to have a backup navigation option. Purchasing some honest-to-goodness maps is a great idea, just in case you need them. For U.S. travel, Rand McNally publishes great road atlases each year.
3. Have a stocked cooler with snacks and water – The good bit about driving around the U.S. is that you don't have to worry about luggage or weight restrictions; you can take as much or as little with you as you want. One thing I highly, highly recommend taking with you is a decent-sized cooler. Buy some snacks and plenty of bottled water, and always keep your cooler stocked. If you make sure to keep ice in it, you can even store bread and lunch meat in your car for quick lunches on-the-go. This will save money on your road trip, and will also guarantee that you'll stay hydrated (which is VERY important if you're driving through the Southwest in the summer!).
4. Bring a camera to document your adventures – With almost everyone owning a photo-capable smartphone these days, this item is probably a given. And I realize that most people take photos while on vacation anyway. But I'm still including this tip because you will have so many memorable, unexpected moments on a U.S. road trip that I promise you won't want to forget them. Make sure you have a charged camera with you at all times – because you never know when a bison will wander across the road in Arizona or when you'll pass a quirky roadside attraction that you just have to stop at.
5. Leave your itinerary flexible for those spontaneous stops – The biggest piece of advice I can offer you, however, is to just go with the flow. Don't make your itinerary so rigid that you have no room for impromptu stops or last-minute detours. These are the things that truly make U.S. road trips so unique, so be sure to build in enough flexibility to allow yourself to be spontaneous when the opportunity arises. Visit the caves that are advertised for 100 miles of highway in Missouri; stop at the “trading posts” dotted all across Oklahoma; detour at the Cadillac Ranch to spray-paint old cars in Texas. Allow yourself the time and freedom to stop anywhere you want! What does YOUR dream road trip look like?