So, you’re out on your own, and there’s an event a few hours away that you want to go to. And hey, you’re an adult, so you totally can! No need for parent’s permission or an escort. You can hop in your car and go wherever you like. Or hop the bus. Or tube. Or various transportation of your choice.
The point is, as an adult, you suddenly have the freedom to go where you want, when you want. With no curfew and no rules, this can be a little daunting. So how do you manage this new-found freedom? No worries, my dears, that’s what I’m here for. A few years ago I drove from South Carolina to Washington state, so I’m going to share my roadtrip tips.
Lesson #1: Caring for your vehicle
If you own a car, there are a number of things you’re going to need to do on a semi-regular basis to make sure that 1) it doesn’t crap out on you, and 2) you don’t get arrested.
First things first: cover the basics. Have an idea of how many miles you can go on a tank of gas. It’s not enough to watch the gauge—reset the mileage to zero every time you fill up the tank, so that you have a better idea of how much further you can push yourself. A good rule of thumb is to never let your tank get below a quarter of a tank full, but life happens. If you watch your mileage, there’s less of a chance that you’re going to end up stranded.
You can actually go longer than 3000 miles between oil changes (that number was set by, guess who, the people who change your oil). Most oil bottles will tell on the back how long it’s supposed to last. However, if you’re going to be going on a trip, always check the oil level before you go. You want to do this first thing, while the car is cool, to prevent any false readings. This is a really great article with pictures to give you the basics. It also covers checking other types of fluids.
You also need to check the tire pressure before any trip. Here is an article for that. One of the items in your essential car package is a tire gauge. I recommend a digital one. Most air pumps at gas stations will have a manual one attached as well, but a digital one will be more accurate. Check the max PSI on the side of your tire, and aim for a couple of digits under the max.
Finally, I highly recommend that everyone gets an AAA membership. They have various packages, and since it’s a yearly fee, it’s not too bad on the wallet. Plus, if you ever need a tow, have a dead battery, or run out of gas, you have someone to call. You can also get discounts at different shops and hotels. If you’re planning a road trip, they’ll map it for free, and if you like to keep an old fashion map in your car (not a bad idea) you can get those cheap or free at AAA offices. They also offer deals on oil changes and general car stuff. It’s well worth the price.
You also want to make sure that your insurance and tags are kept up to date. Insurance is mandatory in most (if not all) states now, and the cost of being caught without it is steep. Plus, most of us just starting out don’t have the money to replace our vehicle at the drop of a hat.
Lesson #2: Smart traveling
If you’re taking a roadtrip, there are some preparations you can make to help with the trip. If possible, travel with a buddy. You can switch off on driving, and it makes the trip more fun.
A cooler is strongly recommended. You can save a lot of money by making some sandwiches and picking up some drinks from the grocery store than going through drive-thrus and gas stations for everything. Try to alternate your sodas with water, to stay adequately hydrated. Snacks like granola bars, nuts, trial mix, or chips are good ideas—basically, you want to look first for things that aren’t going to melt.
Wear sunscreen. You wouldn’t think this would be important on a roadtrip, but it is. The sun will get your arms, legs (if you’re wearing shorts), face, and chest in no time if you’re not careful. On a similar note, sunglasses are recommended. If you’re like me and wear glasses, look into either clip-ons or prescription sunglasses, if possible.
For entertainment purposes, I recommend a large music playlist, audio books, and podcasts. Upbeat music is best, especially if you’re driving alone. I like to pick songs I can sing to. Sometimes I put an entire Broadway musical soundtrack together, and just listen to it straight through—the story helps carry the music and distract the mind. If you’re traveling with a friend, and you have different tastes in music, trying to come up with songs that are tolerable to both of you.
Audio books are great for long trips, provided that they don’t put you to sleep or make you zone out. Check out your local library for CDs and audio books—though keep an eye on the due dates. Most libraries will let you mail back items if necessary. There’s also various digital platforms like OverDrive and Hoopla that will let you download audio books onto a tablet or cell phone.
Lesson #3: Know when to pull over
I have a serious problem with falling asleep in cars. Usually it’s just as a passenger, but occasionally, it gets really hard for me to stay awake at the wheel. I’ve slapped, scratched, and pinched myself to keep myself awake. But sometimes that’s not enough, and the fact is, if you’ve reached that point, you probably shouldn’t be driving.
If you’re traveling alone, find a rest stop or parking lot where you can pull over for a bit. If you need to close your eyes for a bit, set the alarm on your phone for 15 minutes, and do just that. Often, just resting is as good as sleep if you just need a break from the road. You can also get out of the car, do some jumping jacks, stretch, run around the car. A little physical activity will help perk you up too.
Still struggling? Call someone. It can be anyone—your mom, sister, cousin, grandpa, friend…the possibilities are only limited by your contact list. Carrying on a conversation can help the time on the road go by faster, as well as help keep you awake.
Lesson #4: Choosing accommodations
If you’re traveling overnight, it’s good to have an idea of your accommodation choices beforehand. If you can afford it, I highly recommend a hotel over a motel. What’s the difference? Well, a few things, but mainly that in a hotel, your doors are going to be inside of a larger building, whereas a motel, your door will be on the outside of a building. In general, a hotel is going to be a little more secure.
But if it’s a one-night crash, and you’re on any kind of a budget, motels are good too. Your best choices are going to be a brand-name chain—I would avoid privately owned joints unless they’ve been personally recommended by someone you trust. Keep in mind that this doesn’t include B&Bs—but most B&B’s aren’t going to be right off the highway for a reason. You usually have to go out of your way to get there.
I’ll do a more in-depth post about accommodations later, but here are some over-all things to look for. One, check your room over as soon as you get there. The key thing to look for is general cleanliness. Are you going to need more towels? Go ahead and ask for them, instead of waiting for when you need them. Motel towels tend to be thin and not very large, so take that into consideration. If you have room in your luggage, you might want to pack a towel of your own (as in one from home, not stealing one from the motel). Make a note of check-out times, and check that the alarm hasn’t been left on. There are few things worse than being woken up at 5:30 AM by an alarm that was set by the previous guest.
To prevent showing up and finding out that the hotel/motel is booked, plan ahead. This doesn’t have to be all at once—on a roadtrip, you never really know how far you’re going to get until you get there. When I was driving cross-country, we would generally plan to be in a motel by nightfall. This was mostly for security reasons—we were two young women, and it just seemed safer. So an hour or so before we planned to stop, I would check to see what motels were within an hour of us. I would then call to check their prices and their vacancy. This is another area where having a AAA membership can be of some use. Keep in mind though—most hotels/motels that accept AAA discounts will generally be more expensive, and the discount isn’t very much (usually 5-10%). Sometimes you’re better off going somewhere that doesn’t do a AAA discount, just because of cost.
Depending on your schedule, you may be planning your mileage and destinations ahead. If so, feel free to plan and book ahead. You may end up scoring a better deal, especially if you can take advantage of Groupons or other discounts.
Lesson #5: The Car Essentials Kit
There are a handful of things that should always be in your car. Some of these are optional, depending on area and time of year, but if you’re going to be traveling, it’s a good thing to keep in mind.
Most websites are going to recommend things that, in reality, none of us keep in our cars. And it would take about half of your trunk to carry it all. Here are the absolute basics that you should have with you.
Jumper cables (at least 10-15 feet)
Quart (or two) of oil
Rags (useful if you’re checking your oil constantly)
Phone charger for cell phone
First Aid Kit
Emergency Safety Tool
A window breaker and seat belt cutter (like these)
Battery Jump Starter
If you know that your car burns oil, or has a slow leak in one of your fluids, be sure to keep some of that with you as well. For example—on my roadtrip, I was driving a car that tended to burn oil. So I made sure to check the oil every morning before we started out, and kept some in my trunk.
Now, if you’re traveling in the winter, you will want to take extra precautions. Snow chains are necessary if there’s a chance you’re going to run into snow, and anti-freeze is a good thing to keep on hand. You’ll also want to make sure you have some blankets. Here is a great list for things to keep in mind for a winter kit.
Some optional supplies are road flares, duct tape, and basic tools (like a screwdriver). Here is a kit as suggested by the DMV. It is a bit more inclusive than what is probably necessary, but if you like to be thorough, it’s a good place to start.
Lesson #6: Allow time for fun
Odds are, if you’re roadtripping, you have some sort of destination in mind and will be on some sort of schedule–even if it’s only that you have to be home by a certain time. A timeline is probably going to be necessary. My advice here is don’t make it too tight. You never know when there might be car trouble, fatigue, bad weather–any number of things that might push you back.
But more than that, you don’t want to miss what you’re driving past. Allow time to do some sightseeing, take pictures, and generally just enjoy the experience. You never know when you might be driving past the World’s Largest Ball of Twine and want a photo op. One of my regrets from my roadtrip is that we didn’t stop more along the way.
So have fun, be safe, and marvel at the greatness that is your country of travel. You’ll almost certainly see something new, and it’ll be a great experience.