Every year, millions of people jump into the car and trade the monotony of their daily routine for the excitement of the open road. This experience has almost become a rite of passage in the United States, where writers like Jack Kerouac ("On the Road") and William Least Heat-Moon ("Blue Highways") have elevated the road trip from a simple drive down the highway to a soul-seeking journey. Unfortunately, the very unpredictability that makes such a vacation so fun can also make it go very, very wrong.
When it comes to road trips, a little planning can go a long way. By anticipating problems that you may encounter and taking steps to prepare for them, you can make the best of even a bad situation. So don't let car trouble, screaming children or bad weather ruin your trip. Click through our 10 stress-free road trip ideas to make your journey as smooth as a long stretch of desert blacktop.
Get Your Car Checked Out
Drive down any highway and you're sure to see someone broken down on the side of the road. This is an especially unfortunate situation if you're on a road trip because it can significantly alter your plans for a few hours to a few days, depending on the severity of the problem. While such bad luck isn't completely avoidable, there are some steps you can take to minimize the chance you'll be stuck waiting for a tow truck.
Preventive maintenance is the best way to ensure that your car is in good working condition. Take your car in for an oil change and see to it that the mechanic tops off your antifreeze, brake fluid and power steering fluid. Have him or her inspect your hoses, belts and brakes for signs of wear. If the weather is going to be warm during your trip, you'll also want the technician to check your car's air-conditioning system. To be sure that you can actually see the beautiful sights on your trip, fill your washer fluid reservoir and check that your wipers are in good condition. Finally, make sure your tire pressure falls within the manufacturer's recommended range to prevent flat tires and blowouts. Take a little time to do these things before you leave, and you may save yourself a lot of grief later.
Be Prepared for a Breakdown
In the unfortunate event that your car has mechanical problems during your road trip, be sure that you have the necessary tools and services at your disposal. Flat tires are a common and easy-to-address problem that drivers face while on the road. Before you leave for your trip, locate your jack and tire iron, and learn how to use them. Also make sure that your spare tire is fully inflated so you can drive on it safely. If car mechanics is not your cup of tea, you might consider subscribing to a roadside rescue service like AAA. Such companies will send someone to change your flat tire, provide a jump start, bring you gasoline if you run out, and open your car if you become locked out.
It's also a good idea to carry a basic toolkit to fix simple problems you may encounter. Some good items to include are a hammer, a rubber mallet, an adjustable wrench, screwdrivers, wire cutters, a pair of needle-nose pliers, some baling wire, a can of WD-40 and a rag.
Clean Out Your Car and Organize Your Luggage
Before packing anything in your vehicle, remove the clutter that has built up from your daily routine. A stack of mail on the backseat or a hamburger wrapper on the floorboard may be tolerable when driving to work and back, but not when traveling across the country. Your car will inevitably collect more trash as the trip proceeds, so it's best to start with a clean slate. When on the road, regularly dispose of your garbage so the accumulated junk doesn't become a source of stress.
Once your car is cleaned out and you're ready to pack, put some thought into organization. Pack lesser-used luggage, like suitcases, in the trunk or under more frequently accessed items, like snacks and children's toys. This will allow your passengers to retrieve much of what they need without asking you to stop the car. As you get farther down the road, try to stay organized so things don't get sloppier as you go.
Plan Your Route
While the romantic musings of travel writers may suggest that touring the countryside with little or no plan is a fun and stress-free time, in reality, it seldom works out that way. Hotels can be booked, campgrounds full, and traffic thick, making your happy-go-lucky jaunt a little more burdensome that you had hoped. Every decision you make doesn't have to be scripted, but it's a good idea to have a general plan about where you're going and where you'll be staying. If you make reservations, ask about the accommodation's cancellation policy, so you'll know when it's too late to change your plans. If you want a little more freedom, call the hotel or campground where you plan to stay a couple of days ahead of time and ask if they expect to be full on the night you arrive.
You should also consider your timing when driving through big cities or visiting popular places. Try to avoid morning and evening rush hours in heavily populated areas; not doing so could cost you hours of valuable travel time. If you plan to visit major attractions, like a national park, remember that Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day weekends are often the busiest times of the year. So, if crowds stress you out, you might think about planning around these dates.
Plan for Your Kids
Kids can get bored fast when cooped up in a car for hours at a time, so remember that the best way to keep them interested is to get them involved. When you're planning the trip, get feedback from your child about where they would like to go, perhaps somewhere they're learning about in school or the town where their favorite movie was filmed. If they like swimming, stop at a lake; if they like sports, catch a baseball game. You can also keep kids interested by giving them a daily travel allowance with which they can buy books or toys in gift shops along the way. Such strategies will help your kids remain more engaged and develop fond, lifelong memories about your travels.
When in the car, there are several things you can do to keep your children occupied. Before you leave, pack a "car kit" for them that includes crayons or markers, pads of paper, a travel pillow, familiar toys and a few treats. Kids may also enjoy travel games in which you try to find license plates from every state or common objects along the roadside. Try to use electronics like DVD players and video games sparingly; road trips provide an excellent opportunity for kids to learn about the areas through which they're traveling.
Plan for Your Pets
Some people may prefer to leave their pets at home during a road trip, but for those who want to bring their furry friends along for the ride, there are some special considerations. Pets should be kept in carriers when traveling. It's safer for the driver if there's not an animal crawling around the car, and it's safer for the pet in case of an accident. Before you leave on your trip, make sure that your dog or cat is comfortable. Help your pet get used to the carrier by taking it on a series of short drives, gradually increasing the length of time spent in the car. Hopefully, this preparation will prevent your companion from experiencing anxiety and carsickness, and reduce stress for both of you.
Once you're on the road, you must remember your pet's needs. Bring along a "pet kit" that includes food, a bowl, a leash, a waste scoop, plastic bags, grooming supplies, medication, treats, and a favorite toy or pillow. Stop every couple of hours to let it stretch its legs, use the bathroom and expend some pent-up energy. Be sure your pet has a microchip or identification tag with your contact information; that will be very important in the unfortunate event that your pet gets loose. And remember to never leave an animal in a parked car. Both heat and cold can be deadly.
Plan as a Couple
For every road trip remembered for its romance, there's one remembered for its conflict. A journey across the scenic countryside may sound like a fun idea for two people who are in love, but remember that spending hours in a car together can be a difficult task for anyone. For this reason, it's more important than ever that you work well together during a road trip.
Cooperation starts with the planning. Both people in a relationship should be involved in scheduling the itinerary so no one feels that their desires were left out. Try not to plan too many activities into each day because busy days are more likely to lead to stress and conflict than romance and relaxation. Once you're on the road, be especially kind and considerate to your partner. Be careful not to criticize him or her for making a mistake while driving or navigating. Such disputes can quickly lead to bickering, which can ruin the road trip for everyone. No matter what happens, you're stuck in close quarters with your partner until you get home, so stay calm, be pleasant, and make the best of every experience.
Crank Some Tunes
Ever since the car radio was invented, music has been a popular way to pass the time on a road trip. Before the 8-track tape was invented, all you had to listen to were the radio stations within range of your vehicle. Now, thanks to recent technology, you can listen to just about anything, just about anywhere.
There are several ways to listen to music in cars these days. Most vehicles still come equipped with CD players, but those seem to be dwindling in popularity thanks to mp3 players, which can store an entire library of music in a unit no bigger than a pack of cards. Satellite radio has also become more prevalent over the last few years. It differs from traditional radio in that you can listen to dozens of preset stations broadcast from a satellite, meaning they never fade out of range. This medium is also useful for travel because it offers weather and traffic reports for many cities across the country.
If you're looking for an alternative to music, audio books can be found in CD and mp3 format. Another popular form of audio entertainment is the podcast, a produced audio program often broadcast exclusively over the Internet. With all of these choices, you could drive around the world and never hear the same thing twice.
With the rising cost of gasoline, one of the most stressful parts of a road trip can be the price of fuel. Ideally, you should drive a small car or hybrid, but that's not always feasible when you have a large family with lots of luggage. Still, there are ways you can save fuel without having to give up the elbow room in your SUV.
The potential for fuel savings starts when you pack the car. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, for every 100 additional pounds you put in a car, you cut your gas mileage by 2 percent [source: EPA]. So pack light. Also, avoid putting anything on the roof because the drag from such luggage can decrease fuel economy up to 21 percent [source: Valdes-Dapena]. Before you depart, check to see that your tires are properly inflated and examine your owner's manual for fuel octane requirements. If your car only needs regular unleaded, then you're just wasting money by fueling up with premium.
Driving habits can also affect your car's fuel efficiency. One way to reduce your gas consumption is to use the cruise control. Allowing the car to decide when to apply acceleration at high speeds can increase fuel economy 10 to 15 percent over leaving the task up to your erratic lead foot [source: Valdes-Dapena]. You can also save fuel by slowing down. This is difficult when interstate speeds are often 70 to 75 mph (112 to 120 kph), but studies show that gas mileage decreases rapidly at speeds greater than 60 mph (96 kph) [source: EPA].
Driving is an inherently dangerous activity, but when on a road trip you may pass through areas where hazards also include bad weather and crime. Weather can be especially scary for, say, a Southerner surprised by a snowstorm or anyone unknowingly in the path of a severe thunderstorm, so it's important that you stay aware of the forecast. Bring along a weather radio and tune in for watches and warnings if bad weather is looming. Consider pulling over for a little while if conditions look especially perilous.
When it comes to crime, most areas of the country are very safe, but it only takes one burglary to put a damper on your road trip. While traveling, pretend like you know where you're going and what you're doing, even if you don't. Criminals sometimes target cars with travel materials like roadmaps in the front seat and tourists who look confused. At hotels and restaurants, try to park your car where you can keep an eye on it, especially if you have luggage in or on top of your vehicle. If you need to stop for a food or bathroom break, choose rest areas, gas stations, or restaurants that are busy and well lit.
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More Great Links
- Catchpole, Karen. "Gas-Saving Road Trip Tips." Travel and Leisure. May 2011. (May 15, 2011) http://www.travelandleisure.com/articles/gas-saving-road-trip-tips/1
- Environmental Protection Agency. "Driving Sensibly." May 4, 2011. (May 15, 2011) http://www.fueleconomy.gov/feg/drivehabits.shtml
- Edwards, Megan. "Romancing the Road." RoadTrip America. May 2, 2008. (May 15, 2011) http://www.roadtripamerica.com/travelplanning/Road-Trip-Tips-for-Couples.htm
- Hewitt, Ed. "Ten (and a half) Tips for Road Trips." The Independent Traveler. 2011. (May 15, 2011) http://www.independenttraveler.com/resources/article.cfm?AID=747&category=13
- Miranda, Jennifer. "7 Great Family Road Trip Tips." Travel and Leisure. March 8, 2011. (May 15, 2011) http://www.travelandleisure.com/travel-blog/carry-on/2011/3/8/7-great-family-road-trip-tips
- Sedenquist, Mark. "6 Tips for a Safe Road Trip." RoadTrip America. Oct. 22, 2006. (May 15, 2011) http://www.roadtripamerica.com/travelplanning/6-Tips-for-a-Safe-Road-Trip.htm
- Sedenquist, Mark. "Tips for a Great Family Road Trip." RoadTrip America. Aug. 12, 2007. (May 15, 2011) http://www.roadtripamerica.com/travelplanning/Tips-for-Family-Road-Trips.htm
- AOL Autos. "Summer Road Trip Tips." 2011. (May 15, 2011) http://autos.aol.com/gallery/summer-road-trip-tips/
- ASPCA. "Top 10 Tips for Safe Car Travel with Your Pet." 2011. (May 15, 2011) http://www.aspca.org/pet-care/pet-care-tips/car-travel-tips.aspx
- Valdes-Dapena, Peter. "Gas Saving Road Trip Tips." CNNMoney. April 22, 2008. (May 15, 2011) http://money.cnn.com/2008/04/22/autos/road_trip_tips/index.htm