Driving Cross-Country: On the Road Again

From the 100-mile jaunt with friends to the transcontinental marathon, the road trip has become an American tradition. We love our cars, and we love to go places in them. With a bit of planning and preparation, your road trip can be a safe and enjoyable experience — and the basis for valued lifelong memories.

I’ve visited nearly every state in the continental US by automobile, many more than once, and in this article I’m going to share some common sense lessons learned along the way.

General Considerations

Every road trip is different, but some things never change. If you’re planning to travel more than an hour or so from home, you owe it to yourself to answer a few questions for yourself first:

– Is your car roadworthy? It doesn’t have to be new, but it needs to be in good repair. Check the oil, transmission, brake and power steering fluid, and radiator coolant. Kick the tires (and make sure the spare is inflated and that you have a jack). Top everything off — and if you see any real problems, get them fixed BEFORE you leave, not after the car breaks down far from home.

– If your car has been in the shop, drive it around town for a couple of days before embarking on any long trips. If you need an oil change, get it the week before you leave, not the day before you leave. The worst time to find out that the oil filter was not properly seated or that the plug was left loose is when your engine knocks three times and melts down in the middle of nowhere.

– Are your papers in order? Make sure you have your insurance card, vehicle registration and the phone numbers for your insurance company and roadside assistance service in the glove compartment.

– Is your car equipped with an emergency kit? It should be, even between road trips (ten miles can be a long way if you’re walking). Some things to include: A can of “fix-a-flat;” a first aid kid and extras of any medication you use; flares or “glow sticks” to alert passersby if you have car problems at night; a couple of bottles of water and some energy bars; a blanket; and a “furnace.” The “furnace” is nothing more than a candle and a coffee can with holes punched in it. If you’re stranded in the cold, it can save your life. Light the candle and place the can upside down over it. The thing radiates considerable heat … just what the doctor ordered if it’s 20 degrees outside or if you just took an involuntary dunk in cold water. If you don’t smoke, don’t forget to pack a lighter, too. Fill your emergency kit out with anything you think you might need.

– What’s the weather like? What’s it going to be like where you’re going? In the Internet Age, it takes a few minutes to find out (hello, weather.com), and it can save you time, trouble and money. A few years ago (actually many years ago, BI — Before Internet), an unanticipated blizzard cost me an extra day, and an unexpected hotel stay, on what was supposed to have been a day trip. Lack of knowledge and preparation could have cost me more … even my life. Lesser inconveniences include having to buy new clothes at your destination because you expected it to be 90 degrees and sunny and it turned out to be 40 degrees and raining.

– Does someone know where you’re going, how to contact you and when to expect you back? Naturally, we all hope we’ll never end up in jail, unconscious (and unidentified) in a hospital or trapped in our car in a ravine somewhere. And you probably won’t run into any of those situations. But if you do, it’s better to have someone looking for you when you don’t return or check in by the appointed time.

None of these things are really optional. They’re basic safeguards to ensure that your road trip comes off without the worst possible hitches.

Route planning

Once again, the Internet has revolutionized American travel. In the old days, you laid out a road atlas and went after it with a pencil, guesstimating distances and times. Now, thanks to services like MapBlast.Com and MapQuest.Com, you can plan your trip in minutes instead of hours, and have instructions right down to mile markers and exit numbers. But there’s a little more than pointing and clicking involved in properly planning your route:

– Don’t throw that road atlas away. If you miss a turn or get lost, it will probably have more detail and information than your web map printout. This obtains even if you have some of the newer gadgets like onboard GPS — when your car, and your battery, die that road atlas may be your only guide to the area around you.

– Get creative with your route planning. Sure, you can work up directions from Point A to Point B in a few minutes … but once you have, why not flesh the trip out with some detour plans for leisure activities? There’s something to be said for spontanaeity … but you can be spontaneous in what you do after having been rigorous in planning for what you might do. Pick out points of interest along or near your route — historical sites, amusement parks, your long-lost aunt’s house, whatever interests you. Create additional route plans that will allow you to make those detours if you want without having to figure directions on the fly. Paper is cheaper than gas — and time is money.

– If you’re planning on overnight stays, plan your route around those stays. My formula is: The number of hours I want to spend on the road minus one, multiplied by my expected average speed. For example, if I want to spend eight hours on the road and expect to average 70 miles per hour, then I multiply seven times 70, and expect to cover 490 miles or so that day. Why subtract the hour? I may average 70 miles per hour when driving, but there will be restroom stops, fuel stops, traffic jams, etc. So, call it 500 miles or so. Now, get out your route map and look for a town at about the 500 mile mark. Then make your hotel or campground reservation so that you can spend your “off-road” time in the hotel pool or at the bar instead of driving around looking for “vacancy” signs.

– The shortest route is not always the fastest route. Most Internet map utilities let you choose whether you want to emphasize speed or distance.

– Neither the fastest nor the shortest route is necessarily the most enjoyable route. Plan — and make time for — detours that will enhance your experience. For example, if you’re driving through Missouri on Interstate 44, you may want to budget an extra half hour and plan a detour onto Route 66, the original cross-country two-lane highway that runs parallel to I-44 for some distance. Six lanes and the pedal to the floor may be part of the trip, but don’t let driving become a chore. Take those detours — but know what they entail first.

Safety, convenience and savings

Road trips can get expensive. Just a little advance planning — and a little firm knowledge of what not to do — can make them safer, cheaper and more enjoyable. Some of these things may seem obvious. If so, good. If not, take them to heart:

– Don’t pick up hitchhikers. Really. It’s a good way to get robbed, killed … or just distracted and annoyed. If you want company on the road, take a friend, or else arrange a shared ride before you leave. Your local college bulletin board will have “share a ride” notices on it from students who want to go home for a weekend and such. Several Internet forums — I prefer Craigslist.Org, which has boards for most major American cities — also have carpool/share-a-ride sections. Make sure you know who’s riding with you. Heck, if it’s someone you really trust, you can share the drive time and cover more ground each day (don’t forget to adjust your overnight stay plans!).

– Don’t leave your car unattended and running “just while I run in to pay the bill.” Ever.

– Your cooler is your friend. Stock it with soda, sandwich makings and snacks. Instead of 15 minutes and $5 at a fast food joint, your road meals can take five minutes and cost a buck. If others are traveling with you, you won’t even have to pull over at all — have your partner slap together a sandwich and open a soda for you. Save your trip meal budget for nicer meals when you’re off the road at a hotel or at your destination.

– If you don’t carry a cell phone (or even if you do), buy a prepaid phone card. You may not have quarters for a pay phone — or you may not want to waste time looking for quarters for a pay phone.

– On any reasonably long trip, consider gas costs in your route planning. If you’ll be passing through a metropolitan area, gas up before you get into the city or after you get out of it, not downtown. If you’re really serious about saving money, check out CheapGasLocator.Com. Sometimes just crossing a state line can add or subtract 10-20 cents per gallon from gas prices. Better to fill up with cheap gas even though you have half a tank than to have to fill up with more expensive gas because you’re running low.

– If you’ll be spending several nights on the road (or if you travel often at all), pick a hotel chain and join its incentive program — then book your stays at that chain’s hotels. Many hotels offer a “free” night for every five or so paid stays, as well as discounted rates for advance booking on the Internet. Make your reservations before you leave so that you’re assured of a room. Most chains allow cancellations up until the last minute. Take the printout of your confirmation, with the hotel’s toll-free number, with you on your trip in case you need to cancel.

– Or, if it’s something you like to do, camp! You can reserve campground spaces in advance, too … and these days, most tents don’t take up too much trunk space.

In conclusion

The Great American Road Trip is a different experience for every person, every time. No author or article can anticipate every conceivable situation — but the guidelines I’ve offered above are a good start. They’re just common sense, and the few minutes you spend on them will free up hours for enjoying, rather than just making it through, your journey. Plan carefully, travel safely … and above all have fun!

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