So many people fly everywhere these days that you might think the classic American road trip is a thing of the past. This is not actually the case. While it does seem that the "On the Road" experience of getting a car and just going for the sake of going is in decline, the statistics (and the number of cars all around you) prove that more Americans than ever are taking to the roads for vacations and family visits, albeit apparently for more frequent but shorter trips. And frankly, with airline customer service unquestionably in decline, many Americans would rather drive than fly.
Stats aside, there is no denying that the lure of the road is undeniable and probably eternal; it almost seems embedded in our very makeup. There is a richness to traversing the land an inch at a time that is absent from the experience of climbing into a metal canister and climbing out at your destination. To get the most of your experience, don't miss these road trip tips.
1. Clean your car before and during your trip.
Go ahead, leave the napkins and gum wrappers under your seat. Leave the receipts from your last business-related drive in the glove box. Don't sweat the dog hair in the back bed ... but you'll be sorry. A few days into your trip, when the old gum wrappers are joined by new fast food wrappers, when the glove box starts overflowing with hotel receipts and local maps, when dog hair starts sticking to your luggage and your gear, you'll rue the day you failed to pull out the Shop-Vac.
As your trip proceeds, take time every couple of days to purge your car of undesirable flotsam and jetsam. Even if you can tolerate some chaos (as I can), the accumulated junk and minor filth will start to drive you mad in the close quarters that define a road trip.
2. Check your vehicle.
About a week before you leave for a long road trip, have your mechanic check your car's fluid levels, brakes, tires and anything else that could cause problems. Be sure your spare tire is fully inflated and that you have jumper cables and extra wiper fluid on hand.
3. Have a loose plan.
Delays are the one thing that you can count on when driving significant distances. Admittedly, the archetypal "BRIDGE OUT" sign is a rare sighting these days, but the flashing "Road Work Ahead, Merge to One Lane" message is not. You don't have to have seen a lot of Chevy Chase movies to know that things aren't always going to go your way. If you overschedule your road trip, you're almost guaranteed to find yourself slogging the last few miles long after you had intended to be asleep, trying to cancel one hotel reservation so you can pay for another well short of your originally planned destination.
On the other hand, having no plan at all is only recommended for the most hardy souls. On a trip through New England a few years ago, our plan was simply to pull over when we got tired to crash in a hotel; after taking three exits without success, we finally stopped at a place at which the front desk person asked, "Are you staying the whole night?" Ugh.
4. Get off the highways -- but beware the Blue Highways.
Unless you have a specific destination and a strict schedule, there is little point in hitting the roads to see the country if you don't spend some time on the back roads. However, some "blue highways" (as certain back roads were called in the popular book by William Least Heat-Moon) are not much more than endless strip malls.
Most U.S. road maps have some indicator of whether a "back road" is an interesting one; the map I use most has small red dots along those roads recommended as scenic routes. I have found these recommendations to be fairly reliable; most have at least a few miles of interesting local scenery, offer driving experiences ranging from a rambling bucolic feel to truly stunning views of America the Beautiful, and pay off handsomely for those with the time, patience and inclination to wander a bit. Roadtrippers.com, which is both a website and a mobile app, can also help you find such scenic drives.
However, that being said...
5. ...have an escape plan to get off country roads.
When I was a kid, my family took a trip down the East Coast by cutting inland to take the Skyline Drive. The Skyline Drive is certainly beautiful and occasionally visually stunning, but after a few official overlooks and an intensifying bout of car sickness on the winding roads, the kids in the car were ready to come down from the hills. It was also fantastically slow going; average speeds were about 35 m.p.h., which, starting in New Jersey, gets you to Florida in about four days of 10-hour drives. After about 600 sharp turns surrounded by a whole lot of trees and mist, I-95 never looked so good.
6. Anticipate trouble spots.
If you are grinding out long miles on a road trip, it's not hard to find yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time -- like trying to cross the Hudson River at rush hour, or driving the long bridges to Key West on the Friday afternoon of Memorial Day weekend. You'll want to plan ahead so you cross the Hudson at, say, 10:30 a.m., or blast down to Key West on a Thursday.
7. Preload your phone with entertainment options.
The days of regional radio offering a musical or informational palette that you can't find anywhere else are almost all but gone, so tapping into the local vibe via radio is far less satisfying than it used to be. That means you'll want to make sure your phone is set to keep you entertained over the long hours of driving, whether you're tapping into your own collection of music, streaming tunes via an app like Spotify or Pandora, or listening to your favorite podcasts.
If you're road tripping in your own car, you probably already have a phone charger that will plug into the console and keep you powered up. If you're renting a car for your road trip, be sure you have the right technology to plug into whatever power outlet is available in that vehicle (cigarette charger, USB port, etc.).
8. Tend to division of labor.
Some people are good at navigating; others couldn't read a map if they tried. Some people are good at planning meals, while others think a big bag of chips counts as a good dinner. Know who does what well, and what really matters to your traveling companions, and you will divvy up tasks in a way that gets things done efficiently and to the satisfaction of all.
9. Join a roadside rescue service.
If you take enough road trips, eventually you will end up stranded on the side of the road outside East Gibbip a few miles from Podunk, equidistant from the four corners of Nowhere. Having that 800-number that immediately ties you in to approved local tow services and mechanics is going to save you a lot of hassle, and also shield you from some of the dangers of the road that none of us wishes to encounter.
10. Have your documents and a clean record.
I don't know about you, but it sometimes seems like my new insurance card takes days or weeks to get into my glove box. If you are traveling without current documentation of license, registration or insurance, you could be in for a world of hurt if you are pulled over for any reason. Further, you may want to clear up any old traffic and parking tickets before you go; under the right (or perhaps wrong, in this case) circumstances, your car can be impounded for your scofflaw sins.
10 1/2. Know when to hold 'em, and when to fold 'em.
Sorry for the hokey country song phrase, but sometimes on the road you need to play the hand you are dealt. On an eight-week, 15,000-mile circle of the border states of the United States in 1991, we were driving up Route 1 near Big Sur with a mind to staying with friends in Santa Cruz. We pulled over to stretch our legs near a restaurant/hotel, fully intending to get back behind the wheel in short order to continue grinding northward. It took only two or three deep breaths for us to decide we were going no further that day. It ended up being one of the best long afternoons of the trip.
However, later on the same trip, we woke up in a state park in Wisconsin with about a week to go with a plan to linger in Chicago and Detroit, cut across Canada to Buffalo, come down through the Finger Lakes region, and generally finish off our trip at a leisurely pace. As we headed for a gas station to fill up for the day, we turned on the radio to listen to the news from the previous evening that the United States had invaded Iraq to repel its advances into Kuwait. When we arrived at the gas station, we found that gas prices had spiked about 25 percent, and the proprietor told us to expect more increases in the next few days. We quickly made the decision to make a stop in Chicago -- we couldn't blow off one of the country's greatest cities -- and then to bolt eastward to get ourselves home. It turned out that the sight of our front door and our own bed was more welcome than we had anticipated; we weren't home early, but rather right on time.
Here's wishing that your road tripping finds you on time and in the right place, even when you least expect it.