Some trips take months of planning. You want to go somewhere exotic, like Europe, the Caribbean or Japan, so you call a travel agent or search travel Web sites to find the right hotel, reasonable airfare and car rentals. Then, you compile a list of attractions and restaurants to visit while you're there.
But sometimes, wanderlust hits you on the spur of the moment. Maybe you've been having a rough few weeks at work, or perhaps the weather at home has been consistently lousy, and you need to get away now. You've got a car and some money in the bank, so you think: Why not head out of town for a few days?
Spur-of-the-moment road trips can be a lot of fun. There's a sense of adventure in not knowing until the very last minute where you're going. You don't want to go totally unprepared, though, and wind up in the middle of nowhere with a flat tire and no hotels for miles.
Before you hit the road for that last-minute trip, here are 10 tips to help you get ready.
Do Your Research
There's a lot to be said for traveling on the spur of the moment. One of the biggest benefits to last-minute trips is the cost. Even during busy travel seasons, hotels can be underbooked. As they scramble to get rid of unsold inventory, you can snag a phenomenal deal.
To find unsold accommodations and attraction tickets along your route, check out some last-minute travel Web sites, like the appropriately named Last Minute Travel, as well as Hotwire and Orbitz. Other sites, like Priceline.com, will let you name your own price on last-minute hotels. The only catch is that you won't know where you're staying until after you turn over your credit card number. But if you're flexible and not too picky, you can save yourself a big chunk of change.
Last-minute travel sites are designed for trips planned within a couple of weeks before your departure date. Depending on the deals you find and the flexibility of your schedule, you might want to structure your entire trip around the biggest bargains you find.
Plan Your Route
No matter how spontaneous you may be, a little planning always makes good sense when you're headed out on vacation. You want to have some idea of where you're going and how long you'll be there.
First, you need to choose a destination. There may be an area that you've been thinking about visiting for some time, or you may have no clue where you want to drive.
A lot of Web sites -- including Road Trip America and Rand McNally -- offer free road trip routes to help you plan your drive. You just click on the region you want to visit, and these sites will give you several different driving options, including trip times, maps and attractions along the way. Use these sites, as well as other general travel Web sites and books, to map out your trip. By plotting out your trip ahead of time, you'll know exactly how long it will take you to get there, see the sights and then get back. This is especially important if you only have a set number of days to travel.
Figure out how far you're going to drive each day and which places you absolutely have to see. Add to your list a few back-up destinations, in case you have some extra time on your hands, and know which places you'd be willing to cut from your list if you get stuck in traffic or run behind schedule.
You may be the free spirited, "wing-it" type, but you're not going to feel so free-spirited when you've just been sent out of your fourth overcrowded hotel without a room at 3 a.m. Unless you don't mind setting up camp somewhere along the side of the road or driving through the night with drooping eyelids, make hotel reservations before you leave.
The same last-minute travel Web sites that can point you to airfare and rental car deals will help you book last-minute hotel rooms, often at a dramatic discount. As long as you have a general idea of which town you'll be stopping in each night, you can feel secure in the knowledge that you'll have a place to rest your travel-weary head.
You might also want to make restaurant reservations, especially if you plan to visit a touristy restaurant (which includes any restaurant that's been featured on a reality TV show) or you're visiting at peak season. Many attractions, like the Statue of Liberty ferry, also require reservations. You could actually be turned away if the place is full and you haven't booked your ticket in advance.
You've got a general route planned, but that's not enough. You also need specific, turn-by-turn directions to every hotel, restaurant and attraction along the way. There's nothing worse than getting lost and losing precious minutes or even hours from your vacation.
If you're lucky enough to have an in-car navigation system or portable GPS, program your destinations before you go so you don't have to type in the addresses while you're trying to drive. Some navigation systems will point out restaurants, hotels and attractions along the way -- an added bonus if you didn't plan ahead and you're not sure where you're going to be staying or eating.
Anyone who doesn't have an in-car navigation system can print out maps and driving directions from Web sites like MapQuest and Google Maps. And if you don't have a computer, get directions the old-fashioned way, by calling hotels and restaurants ahead of time and asking.
Know Your Budget
Don't travel like a millionaire when you've got the bank account of a pauper. Know how much you can spend on your road trip and budget accordingly.
For example, if you've got a budget of $1,000 for a five-day trip, you know you can safely spend $200 a day. Remember that you'll have to divide that money between lodging, food, attractions and any other incidentals you might need.
Here are a few ways to make a limited budget stretch further on the road:
- Cook your own meals. Find a hotel with in-room kitchens and prepare your own food, which you can buy at a local supermarket. If you do go out to eat at a restaurant, make lunch your biggest meal. The prices are lower at lunch than at dinner.
- Stay at budget hotels. Figure that you won't be spending much time in your room if you're sightseeing. Just make sure the hotel is clean and comfortable by reading reviews online.
- Go off-season. Traveling when everyone else is at home means you'll find great deals on hotel rooms and lower costs on attractions.
- Avoid touristy spots. Look for out-of-the-way spots, like local parks or museums, which are more likely to be inexpensive. Some attractions, including museums, offer free admission on certain days of the week.
- Use cheap gas if you can. Visit GasBuddy.com to find the least expensive gas stations along your route.
A few days before you leave, pull together everything you'll need for your trip. Pack only the essentials. Even though you're driving and not flying, you don't need to take your entire house along for the ride.
Here are a few tips on what to bring:
- Pack light. Leave the big, bulky suitcases at home. Pack your clothes in smaller, soft bags. Only take pieces you absolutely know you're going to wear. Bring a few basics -- black pants, white shirts, sundresses -- that you can combine to create a much larger wardrobe. Don't bring clothes that wrinkle easily or need to be dry cleaned. Plan to do a load or two of laundry along the way.
- Downsize. Don't bring your full bottles of shampoo and body wash. Buy the travel sizes to save space. The same goes for toothpaste, makeup and hair styling products. You can always buy more on the road if you run out.
- Bring along some entertainment. To avoid boredom, pack music and reading materials. If you've got kids in the car, travel games, movies and handheld video games can be real sanity savers on those long stretches of road.
- Pack a few munchies. So you don't have to stop at restaurants every few hours, fill a cooler with water, juice boxes and healthy snacks (such as grapes, baby carrots and crackers) to keep you from getting hungry.
- Carry your own clean-up supplies. Bring along a roll of paper towels and wet wipes to clean up spills before they ruin your car's upholstery, as well as a trash bag to hold your garbage and a laundry bag for your dirty clothes.
Prep Your Car
Nothing will ruin a road trip faster than car trouble. You've probably seen at least one road trip disaster -- the couple sweating by the side of the road while steam pours from the hood of the car. Don't become them. Go through this car-care checklist before you pull out of your driveway.
- Check your tires. Get a tire pressure gauge, and visit your local gas station's air pump to make sure your tires are at the right pressure (if you're not sure what the correct pressure is, consult your car manual). Also, inspect the tires for cracks or tears. Badly worn tires should be replaced before your trip.
- Check your fluids. Make sure your oil, coolant and brake fluids are all at the proper levels. Fill up whatever fluids are low. If you're not a do-it-yourself type, have a mechanic or gas station attendant do it for you.
- Check your battery. Having a fully charged battery is especially important during the cold winter months.
- Check your brakes. While you're at the service station, ask the mechanic to check your brake pads. If they're worn, have them replaced.
- Gas up. Start out with a full tank of gas, preferably from the cheapest gas station you can find.
If you don't want to put any extra wear-and-tear or mileage on your car, consider renting a car for your trip. Just make sure to get a rental plan with unlimited mileage so you don't have to pay for any overages.
Pick the Right Travel Music Mix
Driving in silence is a lot like watching paint dry. You can only watch trees pass by for so long before you start to nod off.
Make the ride more fun by bringing along a mix of your favorite songs. You have a few options for playing music in your car, including:
- Recording a CD-R/RW on your computer or home stereo system
- Hooking up your iPod or MP3 player directly to your car's stereo
- Connecting another kind of portable music player through a Bluetooth connection or adaptor
- Putting the songs on a thumb drive or SD card and playing them on your car stereo
- Storing the songs directly on your car stereo's hard drive (if it has one)
If you don't have the time or inclination to create your own music mix, invest in a satellite radio service like Sirius XM, which offers specialized channels for just about every kind of musical taste, from the 1980s to heavy metal. Satellite radio also has channels offering news, sports and comedy.
Choose the Right Travel Partner
Do you have a friend or family member who drives you nuts? Maybe she chews with her mouth open, or sings out-of-tune to every song that comes on the radio. You can't stand being around her for even a few minutes -- why would you want to bring her along on a long car trip?
Even people you really like -- if not love -- can get annoying when you're stuck in a small car together for hours on end. That's why it's so important to choose your travel companion wisely.
Ask yourself these questions before you choose your travel buddy:
- Have you spent time alone with this person, and did you enjoy it?
- What annoying habits does this person have, and will those habits drive you crazy if you are in close proximity for too long?
- How are this person's hygiene habits? Is she the shower-a-day type, or the "I'll-shower-when-I'm-dirty-enough" type?
- Do the two of you share the same budget goals? Is she eating at four-star restaurants when you can only afford fast food?
- If you were stuck on a deserted island with this person, would you have a great time, grin and bear it -- or try swimming for shore through shark-infested waters?
Although it may sound strange, doing a trial run can save you from having a really awful vacation. Offer to take your prospective travel companion to a restaurant that's an hour away, and see how well the two of you do together in the car. If you're anxiously watching the clock the whole time, pick another travel partner.
Bring Something to Record Your Trip
You're sipping a cappuccino in a New York café when the entire cast of "Glee" walks by. Who will ever believe it happened if you don't snap a picture? As the saying goes, "Pics or it didn't happen."
Traveling gives you one opportunity after another to record something incredible -- a gorgeous sunset over the ocean, a bear out for a walk with her cub, the sun glinting off the Statue of Liberty. Memories are wonderful, but you can't take them out and show them to your friends. You need to bring along some equipment to document your trip.
- Take pictures. Bring a digital camera, or use your cell phone if it takes good pictures. The great thing about digital pictures is that as soon as you take them, you can upload them to a photo sharing or social media site (such as Facebook or Snapfish), immediately making your friends at home jealous.
- Record some video footage. Still photos capture only a moment in time. With a video camera, you can record whole sections of your experiences on the road. Just like with your still camera, you can upload digital video as soon as you've recorded it and share it on a site like YouTube or Vimeo.
- Write it down. You might not have kept a journal since elementary school, but now is the time to start again. Twenty years from now, you can refer back to your journal and relive your entire trip. If you're not into the old-fashioned journaling by hand, create an online diary. You can keep it private, or share it with your friends on Facebook or Twitter.
For more information on road trips, head over to the links on the next page.
How does Swindon's Magic Roundabout traffic circle work? Learn more in this HowStuffWorks Now article.
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- Barth, Liza. "Road trip prep--Tips for getting the car ready." Consumer Reports. July 15, 2009. (Accessed June 29, 2011) http://news.consumerreports.org/cars/2009/07/road-trip-preptips-for-getting-the-car-ready-.html.
- DesertMama. "Family Road Trip Packing Tips." Fodor's Travel. June 23, 2009. (Accessed June 29, 2011) http://www.fodors.com/news/story_3447.html.
- Fodor's Travel. "What to Pack on Your Next Road Trip." May 6, 2008. (Accessed June 29, 2011). http://www.fodors.com/news/story_3001.html.
- MoneyNing. "50 Budget Travel Tips and Save Money on Vacations." January 15, 2009. (Accessed June 29, 2011) http://moneyning.com/money-tips/50-ways-to-budget-travel-and-save-money-on-vacations/.
- Rothschild, Lori. "Money-Saving Travel Tips." (Accessed June 29, 2011) http://www.travelchannel.com/Places_Trips/Travel_Ideas/Budget_And_Student_Travel/Budget_Travel/Money_Saving_Travel_Tips.