Is there anything more satisfying than hitting the open highway for road trips? At some points of my life, my job required me to live on the road. I wasn’t a truck driver, but I put in the same mileage. The 1,000-mile commutes were the best part of that job, really.
There is just something so serene about passing through all the weather and elevation changes — seeing wet grasslands wave alongside you in the morning light, or the sun setting during an evening mountain snow. There is something so comforting about gas-station coffee always tasting the same no matter where you are. And how lucky it feels to meet folks living in places you’d otherwise never have the chance to see.
Suffice it to say, I love road trips. And as someone who still drives an average of 3,000 to 6,000 miles every few months, I know a thing or two about how to make the most of your time on the road.
With the arrival of fall, the holidays are just around the corner. Whether you are planning a trip a few months from now to visit family a few states over or contemplating grabbing a some friends and working your way across the continent, the excitement — and anxiety — that you might feel are understandable. How are you going to afford it? When should you leave? What can you do along the way? How can you stay safe if you’re traveling alone? The good news is, with the right planning, there is no reason you can’t have an easy trip and a wonderful time.
The most common concern when traveling is always a matter of budget. How can a trip be made most affordably? How can I save up for my trip when my budget is already limited? What can I do now to keep future costs down as much as possible? None of us are made of money and the road can be pricey if you’re not prepared. But don’t let it stress you out. One afternoon spent writing out a realistic budget will leave you feeling much more confident.
Be realistic with your budget: how many meals do you plan to eat from restaurants? Just breakfast? Maybe just a handful of meals from restaurants you researched beforehand? Or maybe you’d prefer to bring a cooler along and make sandwiches. Either way, calculate an average daily budget for food, accommodations and sight-seeing and start saving. Not sure what some of those costs might be yet? We’ll get to that!
There are several budgeting apps that I’ve found helpful. My favorite is Qapital, which works by helping you to set up automated saving rules that set money aside every time you make a purchase, in such small increments that it’s less likely to be missed. Of course, you can set up more aggressive savings rules if you have the cash to spare, but even with the most lax settings — such as rounding up to the nearest dollar or so per purchase you make — you can easily have a good chunk of gas or discretionary money ready in a few months. Mint is another good app — it uses your bank information to show you your current spending habits, help you set budgeting goals and alert you when you’re approaching their limits.
If you have little room to spare in your budget, UShip might also be worth checking out. UShip is an open market of people looking to have vehicles, furniture, animals, artwork and more moved from one place to another. You can place a bid on any interesting job for the payment amount that would be acceptable for the length of the trip. If you need a vehicle, for example, it’s a good place to look before considering a rental.
Knowing exactly where you’re going and where you’ll stop along the way is your budget’s best friend. Where is your final destination? When do you have to be there? Will you stay in hotels or will you camp? Is there a place you’ve been dying to see that isn’t quite on the route but is perhaps in a state you will be passing through? A few extra hours out of the way are always worth it to get the most out of your trip and they won’t set things off schedule or budget too much if you plan carefully.
Pull up a window to the map site of your choice and look at your beginning and ending points. Survey the different route options that the map provides. In a second window, open RoadTrippers.com. RoadTrippers is great because it can show you thousands of points of interest along your route and you can filter them according to what interests you. For example, you can ask the map to show you stops with cool abandoned things, or only natural wonders.
Using these two maps, you can choose what is worth taking the time for and where to make that time up. Googling speed limits is a helpful trick, too. If you have the option of going through one of the handful of states where the speed limit is 80 miles per hour, you’ll make up any time spent on detours faster than if you’re stuck at 65 for three days straight.
Now that you have your route and your stops, pull up Hotels.com. I always recommend making an account here, because any nights you book through Hotels.com will count toward a free night after you rack up 10. That sounds like a lot of nights, but ask your family members to use your account, too. Mom’s trip to visit Aunt Whoever can count towards that free night, as well as Grandma’s trip to visit the grandkids. With hotels often ranging from $60 to 200 a night, a free night can be super helpful, especially if you find yourself stopping somewhere that considers itself fancy.
With the app still open, get a reading for what the hotel situation will be like in the places you plan to stop. Now check the hotels in the surrounding towns and cities. Sometimes a difference of ten miles will save you $50 or more! There is no rhyme or reason to it. You just have to play around with the locations until you’re happy with what you find.
Once you’ve finalized your stops and know where you want to end each leg of your journey, pull up TripAdvisor or Yelp and scan the food situation. Getting a reading of the dining options in a given area is always smart, so that you can be prepared if the choices look too expensive or unappetizing. Likewise, if it all looks incredible, it might be worth shifting another part of the overall budget to accommodate more leisure time somewhere that you’re really feeling the vibe.
3. Who To Bring.
So now that you have your budget, you’re saving money and you know the deets, it’s time to start asking yourself if you want to make your trip alone or if you’ll be traveling with companions. (Take it from me that a double love triangle is not the best way to fill up a sedan. But that’s too obvious.) What about your sister or best friend?
Something to keep in mind is that the road can be isolating. That’s just a reality of travel. As beautiful and magical as it can be, you are separated from your immediate world, sometimes for days at a time, and the person in the passenger’s seat can start to feel like your only friend, only family, only company through often unfamiliar or even stressful terrain. I’ve been stranded in floods, blizzards, tornadoes and highway shutdowns with my passengers. Who could you stand to be stuck in an elevator with for more than ten hours? Anyone who annoys you at home, even a little bit, will have their annoying traits amplified to unbearable levels once they become the only person you are regularly interacting with for days at a time.
And what about pets? Traveling with pets can be tricky, as most hotels will charge an extra fee, many places will not allow you to tether your animals outside while you shop and weather can be too extreme for pets to stay in the car. If you plan to bring your pet, check the weather to make sure it’s amenable to your buddy being in the car if it becomes necessary for any reason. Calling hotels and other establishments in advance to find out the particulars of their pet policies will be very helpful. The Red Roof Inn has been a good option when I’ve traveled with animal co-pilots. Pets are always welcome and stay free.
4. What to Bring
The idea of being stranded in blizzards and floods may scare you, but there is no need to worry. Weather does whatever it wants and extreme situations can, do and will happen — it is just something to make peace with and be prepared for.
But it doesn’t have to catch you off guard. Download a weather app such as NOAARadarUS and, during the winter especially, check out the Department of Transportation webcams for the areas you’ll be passing through. Has it been snowing overnight? Pull up the DOT page and read where areas of black ice and drifting snow have been reported. Change your route or your travel times accordingly. Check extended forecasts a good week before you set out and pack whatever might come in handy. For chances of snow, for example, you may benefit from an ice scraper, gloves and waterproof shoes. Is it going to be incredibly hot? Pack that SPF!
A general checklist of good things to bring will look differently depending on your needs and preferences, but mine looks something like this:
- An insulated mug for coffee/tea/hot water.
- Easy to eat food that keeps my blood sugar level and my body feeling good.
- Bottled water, at least one bottle per passenger.
- One hat, one jacket, one pair of gloves and one pair of boots.
- Tire chains, if it’s winter.
- Fix A Flat, no matter what.
- A printed atlas — it might seem redundant, but wild detours do happen and cell phone service isn’t a guarantee.
- A flashlight, extra phone charger, can opener and screw driver.
- Pillows, blankets and anything that would make sleeping in the car tolerable in the event of an emergency.
5. Where To Stay.
We’ve touched on finding the best deals for hotels, but there is a bit more to consider to save yourself headaches later on. If you can afford to book hotels in advance, it will save you a lot of time and possible hassle as well. However, this is not always doable for many people, myself included. Sometimes that’s for the best, though, as a weather delay or prolonged detour might put you somewhere other than where you had planned to spend the night. Either way, before you book, read, read, read reviews! I cannot stress this enough.
I recommend using a combination of Yelp and TripAdvisor to make absolutely certain that a hotel is worth your patronage. Search specifically when reading reviews for “bed bugs.” Any hotel that pops up under that search should be obviously be off the list. It’s not foolproof, though. I have encountered bed bugs in two separate hotels that did not have any negative reviews whatsoever; often people don’t know what bed bugs look like and call them other names, so also search for “roaches” and “fleas.” Again, any hotel that pops up should be dismissed as an option. You’re better off sleeping in your car.
And hey, sometimes that’s just what you have to do. Last year, a perfect storm of Taylor Swift, a gun show and a football game sold out every single room in a 400-mile radius while crossing the rural Midwest. I had been on the road for many, many hours, the last six of which were spent in search of open accommodations.
Another time, myself and a friend drove to backwoods Missouri to explore a ghost town. That night, every single hotel was sold out for 100 miles — how in the world was that even possible? It turned out that it was the weekend of a popular county fair. We ended up going home with some nice dudes from a 7-11 parking lot that night and sleeping in their basement. It’s a fun story, but not what I’d recommend. Do what we had to do on the night of T-Swift: cut your losses and sleep in the car.
KOAs allow car camping. On the budget-friendly side, most Walmart parking lots do, too. Many grocery stores, truck stops, hotels and shopping centers will have small groupings of motorhomes, cars and trucks in one particular part of the parking lot where people are clearly parked for the night. Look for these little groupings and enter as quietly as you can. In some cases, this is where folks are living, so be as respectful as possible. Turn off your lights as you approach and don’t stare into anyone’s windows.
Get a good reading of the vibe for anywhere you plan to park and sleep overnight — if it doesn’t feel comfortable, don’t sleep there. If you’re traveling alone and feel vulnerable, find a well-lit spot near the front of a gas station. If you are quiet and don’t make it too obvious that you are sleeping, it is unlikely that you will be bothered and you’ll be safer by being somewhere with 24-hour staff nearby. If you’re not alone and you can’t find anywhere that feels right, take shifts staying up and making sure everything is copacetic. Someone can always sleep during the first few hundred miles the next day.
Of course, there is always traditional camping, too. Most BLM land is free if it is considered “dispersed camping” or does not otherwise have a posted rule. Most national forests are free, too. Google “free camping” with the name of the location you have in mind and you’ll usually be able to find a few good options. Packing a tent and a tarp will certainly save you a lot of money if you stick to the free spots, which might mean you can afford an extra detour or souvenir.
6. General Safety.
The greatest enemy of a stress-free trip is car trouble. Make sure that your car is capable of making the trip without any potential issues. Get it serviced and inspected no earlier than a week before you leave. I like Oil Can Henry’s because their techs don’t work on commission. It is also helpful to the budget traveler that they will top up your fluids and tires for free if you are a repeat customer within 5,000 miles or 90 days — and if you’re doing a long haul both ways, sometimes you will hit that 5k mark faster than you’d think.
Anything major that needs attention, take care of it now, in your home city, before you hit the road. I speak from experience that there are many unscrupulous mechanics that are eager to take advantage of travelers caught off guard by car trouble. They will charge exorbitant rates for what is often shoddy work. Don’t take any chances — if something has been a little off about your car lately, get to the bottom of it now. Don’t make me tell you about the time that a roadside mechanic accidentally severed my brake line and I didn’t find out until I couldn’t decelerate down a mountain in the middle of the night. The squeaking that made me visit the mechanic in the first place started a week before my trip. Live and learn!
If you absolutely must have work done on the road, the safest option is usually visiting a dealership service center for whatever make of car you’re driving. This is often more expensive and accompanied by some upselling, but the work will at least usually be under warranty and you will have some recourse with the parent company should things be done poorly.
In the event that you are pulled over for any reason, remain as calm as you can. If you are alone, text a friend so that they know where you are. If you are going to be traveling through an area where you have reason to believe that the police will be especially bold or discriminatory, download the MobileJustice app from the ACLU. This app will record the entire stop and simultaneously upload the encounter for you, should you need to use it for legal purposes later on.
From my own personal experiences, speed traps tend to be 3 to 5 miles on either end of an urban area, and highway patrol likes to take its paces 25 to 50 miles outside of the nearest town. I’m not advocating speeding or breaking the law, but if police are a huge source of anxiety for you (and they are for many people, myself included), being able to brace yourself when coming up on the areas that you’ll see them is very helpful.
You can even ask your passenger (if you have one) to help you keep an eye on your speed and check your lights for you every day before you begin driving. There’s no guarantee that police won’t bother you anyway (I’ve been pulled over because a cop saw someone wearing a costume get into my car three days before Halloween — that is the actual reason they gave me), but know that you have rights and protections. Familiarize yourself with them now, stay calm during the stop and, if necessary, take recourse once you are safely out of the situation. The goal of any traffic stop should be for it to end as quickly as possible.
The single most important key to a stress-free and safe roadtrip is to keep your wits about you. Stay aware of your surroundings. Follow your gut, and if something feels off, trust yourself and change the situation. Check the weather often. If another car looks like it’s driving erratically, get past it. If someone or somewhere is giving you a bad feeling, don’t stay, no matter what the plan was. If you are tired, stop and rest. If you are hungry, stop and eat.
There is no magic number of hours you have to travel or miles you need to go each day. Remember that if you’ve done your planning well and familiarized yourself with your surroundings, you will be prepared should something unpredictable happen. If you’ve chosen your passengers wisely and planned well, even unpredictable events can eventually turn into memories that you treasure. There is a lot of inspiration and magic out there waiting to be discovered. See you on the road!