Many of you reading this already know I’m a die-hard fan of road trips. I love to travel in general, but I especially love driving to get to my destination. Often, the journey is at least as much fun as the destination, and I feel like I’ve earned my time away. I get a chance to see the tiny corners of the vast and wildly varied country I live in. I get to spend hours and hours contemplating the most neglected areas of my .mp3 collection. I see sunrises, sunsets, storms, and wide skies. Also, airports suck.
I face another 1,170 mile trip (one direction) in December, and I’m already anxious to leave. A friend on Twitter, who will be making a similar journey for the first time, asked for advice on such trips, so here it is!
WHY ROAD TRIP?
It Saves Gas: Believe it or not, driving a passenger car is one of the most fuel-efficient ways to travel long distances, even if you’re the only person in the car. It generates far fewer emissions than flying. Grist.org calculates that, over a 300 mile trip, a typical medium-sized car generates 104kg CO2, while a plane generates 184kg of CO2 per passenger. If you carpool, the per-passenger CO2 cost of the car improves even beyond that. (Trains and busses, naturally, are even more energy-friendly than driving or flying, but in the United States, the routes for such transport are limited, particularly for cross-country jaunts.)
It Saves Money: By driving alone from Minneapolis, MN to Austin, TX and back, I usually spend at least $100 less than a cost of a plane ticket for the same trip. If I carpool and split the gas costs, the margin gets even better.
More Freedom: Do you suddenly decide you want to run an errand and leave an hour later than planned? Cool. Did you somehow manage to get out of work early that day, and want to start your trip RIGHT NOW? No problem! Do you want to bring your giant foam full-body Pac-Man costume and 12 gallons of homemade root beer along with your regular luggage and your computer? Does it fit in the car? Great!
Better for the Soul: I get better stories out of car trips. I get to discover obscure barbecue joints and weird wayside rests. I see wild junk art on lawns in tiny towns. I stumble into museums in placed I’d never heard of before. I once got passed by a semi truck that was decked out with a monster face on the grill, like something out of Maximum Overdrive. I can listen to my own music for hours at irresponsible volumes. While I’ve had a couple of fun airplane trips, they’re rarely as memorable as even the blandest road trip.
SO YOU’VE DECIDED TO DRIVE. LET’S TALK ABOUT YOUR CAR.
AAA: Get a membership. If you can’t afford a membership, ask members of your family if they have one, and ask to be added to their membership. If you’re too lazy even for that, get the AAA phone number, write it on a card, and put it in your wallet. If you wind up in an emergency, you can sign up for a membership and then immediately request service, and I can guarantee you that a one-year membership to AAA is cheaper than a tow or a locksmith call. AAA also knows all the service providers in the area, so you’re not stuck south of Amarillo going, “I just locked myself out of the car… Who in hell do I call?!”
Car Emergency Kit: Have one. Hell, you should have one whether or not you go on long car trips or not. Tire pressure gauge, jumper cables, basic service tools. There are a number of inexpensive pre-packaged car emergency kits on the market; you can just buy one and throw it in your trunk. In addition to this, make sure your car’s manual is safely ensconced in the glovebox. If you have a smartphone, you might also be able to find a full service manual for your car online, but unless you can download the entire content to your phone, don’t rely on it being there. (If you are stranded in a rural area without phone service, an online car manual isn’t going to help.)
Tires: If your tires are going bald, replace them before going on a car trip. Also, make sure they are properly inflated. Tires that are under-inflated eat into your gas mileage.
Maintenance: Check the oil and the fluids in your car before departure. If you are closing in on being due for an oil change, definitely take care of that before leaving.
Efficiency: Little stuff will eat into your fuel efficiency. If you’re driving at highway speeds, keep the windows rolled up, or the air drag will crush your mileage. If you can, keep the air conditioning off. Time your travel so you don’t get stuck in rush hour in a large city (if you do happen to hit rush hour, it’s better for your mileage and your sanity to relax in a pancake house or a local museum until the traffic eases up). Finally, stick to the speed limit; speeding eats up a lot of fuel, and causes a lot of wear-and-tear if you do it for long periods of time.
Maps: I love that this modern world has given us extraordinary mapping tools in the form of GPS-enabled digital devices. They are invaluable. I adore them. But consider: you won’t always have a phone signal, and you won’t always have power. Every five years or so, spend a few bucks on a good old-fashioned road atlas and stow it in your car. Also, if you can, score a recently-updated GPS device (like a Garmin or a Tom Tom) and use that for your long road trips. Why use one of these instead of the map app on your smartphone? Well, the dedicated devices usually have the maps onboard the device. They only need a GPS signal to guide you somewhere. GPS signals are available pretty much everywhere; digital cell signals are not. If you’re in the middle of nowhere in South Dakota, your iPhone won’t be able to pull a map off the Internet for you.
Keep Phone Charged: Don’t rely on your phone to get you out of every problem, but a phone is pretty important to have. Make sure you have a car charger for your phone, and keep the phone charged. (If you’re on the road and realize that you don’t have a charger, most truck stops now have a full array of phone chargers for sale.)
Don’t Speed: I said above that speeding is bad for mileage and bad for your car. It’s also bad for your safety and your pocketbook. Accidents happen, and are usually aggravated by excessive speed. Highway patrol also happens, and they’re usually aggravated by speeders from out-of-state.
Snow and Rain: It’s a no-brainer to say slow down and be careful in inclement weather. You know that. What you might not realize is how exhausting it is to drive in snow, rain, or fog, especially at night and especially for many hours at a time. Be extra aware of fatigue. If your eyes are starting to go buggy from staring out of a rainy windshield, pull over and rest for a while.
Avoid Cruise Control Except Under the Best Conditions: Cruise control was made for long car trips, and it can certainly help people with a case of leadfoot avoid speeding tickets. However, don’t use it except on clear days on open highway. Don’t use it in rain or snow (too easy to lose control of the car) and don’t use it at night (it will slow your reaction if a deer bounces out in front of you).
Sunglasses: I don’t particularly like sunglasses, but I make myself wear them on long road trips. My eyes fatigue a lot faster during the day if I’m not wearing sunglasses.
No Texting While Driving: Seriously. Don’t. It’s worse than drunk driving. If you need to connect with your texts or social media, pull over. (Or, if you have a passenger in the car, have them type and relay messages on your behalf. But only if you trust them to not send your “sexy Sailor Moon” cosplay photos to your boss.)
STAYING AWAKE AND ALERT
Meals: Don’t eat fast food. The high fat content will make you feel bloated and logey in under an hour, and, really, that stuff is bad for you. In general, don’t eat large meals, either. Even if you find a glorious greasy spoon in the middle of Alabama, don’t eat a five-course meal before hopping back in the car for another few hours. You’ll get the Thanksgiving feast sleepytime syndrome. Stick to substantial snacks and lighter fare, making sure you’re actually feeding your body well instead of subsisting off candy and Cheetoes. Driving for 10 hours on a diet of Slurpees and M&Ms will make you feel like you were beaten with a brick by the time you arrive at your destination. Also, consider stopping at real restaurants instead of only eating from gas stations; eating outside the car is a nice way to get some rest.
Entertainment: Bring a lot of entertainment for yourself. If you can do satellite radio, do it. If you can plug an .mp3 player into your car, load up the iPod and bring it. Podcasts, music, books on tape, a Pandora account — bring what you can. Bring a variety. Here’s why: when you start getting a little fatigued, a good way to get a little boost is to switch up your entertainment. Change from music to a talk show. Swap the podcast out for some speed metal. Just using your brain to make a switch-up helps.
Avoid Using Cruise Control: Yes, I already said this above, but here’s another reason to avoid the cruise control. Controlling your own speed engages your brain and makes you concentrate on your driving. Cruise control helps you tune out, which is something you don’t want when you’re trying to stay alert.
Napping: If you start getting tired, get off the road. While there are some little tricks you can use to pep up a bit (see below), they can only take you so far. Driving on genuine fatigue is a great way to damage your car, yourself, and/or others. Take the time and get off the road. Find a wayside rest or a gas station and park the car. Sometimes, you will just need a short nap to revive, because your eyes just need to stop looking at the road for a while. Sometimes, your whole body will need to shut down for a while. Whichever it is, sleep for 20 minutes or less OR sleep in some multiple of 90 minutes. The human body has a sleep cycle that is roughly 90 minutes long. If you try to sleep for 40 minutes, you’ll wake up feeling horrible, because your body is right in the middle of a sleep cycle. So, keep it short, or go for a full cycle or two.
Quick Tricks: If you’re not tired but are feeling a little hypnotized by the road, here are a few quick things to boost your energy.
Get Out of the Car: Get the blood moving to your legs. Buy gas, take a bathroom break, or find the nearest record-breaking ball of twine.
Cold Air: Turn on the air conditioning to the point where the car is uncomfortably chilly. Warm air makes you sleepy.
Cold Water: A nice cold drink will wake you up nicely.
Gum: Eating food in general will boost your energy (because your body likes to pay attention to food), but gum is my favorite for staying alert. Gum lasts longer than a snack-sized bag of chips and it contains a lot fewer calories. I usually pick up a couple of flavors and rotate through the packs.
Change Your Socks and Brush Your Teeth: Something about the morning ritual of changing your socks and brushing your teeth wakes you right up. Also, this will stave off some of the horrible Road Funk ™.
Entertainment: As I mentioned above, bring a ton of it. Wantonly revel in nostalgia when your iPod randomly dredges up music from your teen years. Sing along. Loudly.
Get off the Highway: The best thing about road-tripping is seeing all the stuff you wouldn’t see otherwise. Research your route. If there’s a scenic byway that will take longer to travel but will still get you to your destination, take it. If the world’s largest garden gnome is within two miles of your route, plan to see it. Look for parks, historical markers, and favored local hangouts. For the strangest stuff, I recommend checking out RoadsideAmerica.com and/or their excellent smartphone app.
Take Photos: Getting out of the car to document your journey is always worthwhile. Even if you don’t think of yourself as a good photographer, you’ll enjoy the story of those photos later in life. If you are with other people, make especially sure you take photos of them. I’ve found that, after many years, a photo of a friend is worth a dozen photos of a landscape.
Avoid Chains: A McDonald’s in Minneapolis is the same as a McDonald’s in rural Utah. Same goes for Applebees, TGI Friday’s, and any other national chain. If you’re spending all this time and energy to see new horizons, why spend your money at places you already know? Find the local diners and bars and barbecue joints so you have something to remember when you get home, because even if it’s a bad experience, you’ll still have a story about it. If you must go to a chain store or restaurant, try to hit a chain that isn’t in your hometown. (I confess a love of Waffle House for this reason.)
Talk to the Locals: They know more than you about their town.
And that’s what I have. How about you? What tips do you have? Put them in the comments!