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The Guide to an Unforgettable Roadtrip

Updated on June 9, 2013
Any car with enough room for your things can serve as your road trip wheels.  This station wagon tramped us over 13,000 miles in three months!
Any car with enough room for your things can serve as your road trip wheels. This station wagon tramped us over 13,000 miles in three months! | Source

Road-tripping is an exciting way to travel. Whether large or small in scale, it enables a traveler to get an intimate look at a place and can be a treasure trove of memories. In 2011, I took a 90-day road trip with two of my best friends that took us to over half of the states in the union, a dozen major cities, and ten national parks. Since then, I've taken my car on an assortment of smaller trips, and now I'm ready to share with you all that I've learned about traveling by car so that you can avoid some of my pitfalls while having an amazing time!

Rule One: Be Prepared!

Few pieces of advice could be more appropriate to planning a good road trip than that old Boy Scouts maxim, "Be Prepared." Like most things in life, success in road tripping can be boiled down to preparation.

First, decide where you want to go. Destination is obviously a primary factor in the planning of any road trip. Don't simply go to a place because it seems like the traditional way. If you don't care about Route 66, don't drive it. If you don't want to see the Grand Canyon, don't see it (though I think you'd be making a mistake!). Find something that really revs your engine. If you like comic books, go to the Museum of Comic & Cartoon Art. If you like bridges, drive the Western Skies scenic byway and check out the famed Bridges of Madison County, Iowa. The only wrong destination is the one you didn't care much about in the first place.

Budgeting is key!
Budgeting is key! | Source

Second, decide on a budget. It may be upsetting to realize that your billfold is a serious impediment to your ideal trip, but budgeting your money ensures that the memories you create on the open road don't precede a flood of memories that include collection notices and other financial shortcomings when you get back home. Don't plan to use every cent of the allocated money, either. Inevitably, you'll pass a cool restaurant you hadn't accounted for, or a tire will go flat and suddenly you're scrounging to find the funds. It's no fun to stress out over whether you'll have enough to get home when you're supposed to be enjoying yourself. When budgeting, take into account fuel prices, your car's gas mileage, tolls, cost of food, the need for oil changes, cost of accommodations, and the cost of entertainment. Generally, the number of people in your party and the distance you plan to travel will have the greatest impact on the overall cost of your trip. The length of your trip and the stops along the way will determine whether or not your budget fits the trip you have in mind, as well. Which brings us to our next step...

Third, plan your route. Unless your endpoint is relatively close or you're planning a shorter getaway, it's unlikely you'll want to drive non-stop directly to your final destination, so try and find things to do on the way! It can be overwhelming for someone who has never planned a road trip to look at a blank map and figure everything out. Interstate highways or local roads? Big cities or small towns? How will I know what's worth checking out? Thankfully, the internet is chock full of programs that can help you find interesting waypoints. Once you plug in a destination, the programs will help you cross-reference possible stops by nearly every imaginable category. It can really make planning a heck of a lot easier!

Fourth, plan for weather. Something that a lot of people overlook is the impact that seasonal weather can have on different parts of the country. My most recent road trip from my home in Pennsylvania to the Arkansas-Oklahoma border exemplified this point. While summer weather outside of Philadelphia is just a bit muggy, summer weather down in the southern mid-west carries with it a significant risk of storms and tornadoes. Some places get overwhelmingly hot, others frigid. If you're going to someplace warmer and wetter than home, prepare for bugs, too!

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Fifth, prepare mentally! Because of the romanticism of road tripping, sometimes people forget how much time they're going to spend in the car. Day after day of long driving can take its toll on anyone, and it's worth taking a long hard look at the comfortability of the selected chariot and the lasting sociability of your chosen crowd. Despite the love you have for your friends or your kids, can you really stand being on top of them non-stop for a week or more?

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Texas HighwayTexas Road signsOpen road in ArizonaView from the front seat in the RockiesNew Mexico HighwayHuntington Beach, CADark tunnel in Zion National Park, UtahEspanola Way, MiamiSunset at Everglades National ParkWelcome to Missouri!
Texas Highway
Texas Highway
Texas Road signs
Texas Road signs
Open road in Arizona
Open road in Arizona
View from the front seat in the Rockies
View from the front seat in the Rockies
New Mexico Highway
New Mexico Highway
Huntington Beach, CA
Huntington Beach, CA
Dark tunnel in Zion National Park, Utah
Dark tunnel in Zion National Park, Utah
Espanola Way, Miami
Espanola Way, Miami
Sunset at Everglades National Park
Sunset at Everglades National Park
Welcome to Missouri!
Welcome to Missouri!

Rule Two: Be Prepared...again

Once you've done all the mental planning preparations, it's time to move into the more practical planning. Again, establishing concrete foundations for your trip (even if your plan is largely to "wing it") will prove hugely beneficial to you when it comes down to crunch time. So, check it out, there's more planning to do. These are things you should absolutely plan to acquire and have with you before you depart.

Are you beginning to realize how important your budget is?

AAA Card - AAA is a really sound investment generally, but it's enormously helpful for travelers. It provides 5-10% discounts at several hotel chains and can really help to conserve that budget you've put together. Need maps to help you navigate your route? (Yes!) Well, they've got them, and they're free for members. Need a tow? A locksmith? A tire change? A jump to your battery? They do all of that too, and a whole lot more. It's really not hard for an AAA membership to pay for itself, and if you are not a member already, I'd try to join immediately (it can be done online) and hopefully 2 weeks or so before you're scheduled to leave so you can get a hardcopy of your membership card and your maps prior to setting off. (It's worth joining even the night before you leave, just be sure to write down your membership number so you can cash in on the benefits!)

“Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.”
 -Jack Kerouac, On The Road

Ways to Enhance your Trip

  • Talk to locals (they know where all the good stuff is really at!
  • Try local cuisine. It's one of the best ways to really experience a place.
  • Hide your iPod. Radio is another way to act like the locals act. If you're in the South, for instance, suck it up and listen to some country (you may like it!).
  • Walk around! See what there is to be seen, hear what there is to hear. Plus, it's nice to get out of the car now and again.
  • Journal (or blog) your experience. Reviewing the experiences will burn it in and allow you to really reflect on what it is you're doing/seeing/feeling.
  • Put your phone away! Stop texting and leave home at home.
  • Take pictures!
  • ...and then put your camera away! Photos help memories, but they aren't memories!

Ice Chest - If you have room for it in the vehicle you've selected to travel in, than an ice chest is a must! Again, it serves to conserve all the pennies you've saved for your adventure. You could fit a 12-pack of soda or a case of water bottles in there for the price of two or three bottles of water at retail price. Don't waste your cash (or your time) stockpiling snacks and burgers at the gas station or fast food chains if you can store your cheaper food right in the car. Side note: I'd recommend bringing waterproof zipper bags for any dry items that need to be chilled and a few old wash rags for drying off the wet items that come out of the chest.

Navigation Materials and Emergency Items - I can't stress highly enough the benefit of bringing along a stack of maps, atlases, and guidebooks for your travels. They often have features that a GPS won't have, and they feel more authentic. Additionally, I suggest investing in some flares and a first aid kit. AAA will help you in most instances, but it's good to take some responsibility for yourself, should things not go entirely as planned. As far as emergencies are concerned, a credit card with some free space on it and a cell phone really ought to be apart of any trip that's not being attempted by very, very seasoned travelers. Another sidenote: I really dislike using the GPS when I travel, and use almost exclusively maps, HOWEVER, it's a good back up for novices and some GPS equipment has emergency-situation benefits such as emergency contact capabilities which make it worthwhile for most.

Are you concerned about your shoestring budget?

Well, don't be! There are plenty of ways to turn that money into an exciting and memorable adventure, no matter how much it is! Here are some ways to stretch the dollar bills...

Don't travel as far - I know you're trying to "get away," but I think you would be surprised at how close you can be and still feel totally gone, especially if you live in a city or densely populated area.

Find deals - Websites like Groupon and Living Social can provide you with discounted food, tours, and other adventures. Also, checking out Tourist Information Centers and Rest Stops can be another way to discover all the cheap entertainment.

Get into nature - State and National Parks are mostly cheap and easy places to spend a few nights, if you're trying to save on accommodation costs. Camping can be cheap if you're already equipped, but sleeping in the car in a permitted campground can result in the ultimate savings!

Take advantage of any hotel stays - If you're staying in hotels and trying to conserve your moolah, really take the place for all it's worth. Find a spot that serves free breakfast and eat hearty! Maybe even take some to go and save it for later (you can keep it in the ice chest that you can stock with free hotel ice!). Tooth paste, tissues, soaps--all those can come with you too.

Consider alternative accommodations - If you're a social creature, you can explore mega-cheap boarding options such as couchsurfing or renting a private room and making friends in your inexpensive sleeping places.

Get out there and do it!

Whether your car is big or small, or you're traveling in a group or alone, or you're driving far or near, there's no reason you can not turn the American tradition of the road trip into a tradition of your own. There's plenty of places to go and no shortage of excitement out there on the open highway, so sit down, do some planning, and then get out there and hit the road!

“Live, travel, adventure, bless, and don't be sorry.”
― Jack Kerouac

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