Top 10 tips for a safe, fun and affordable summer roadtrip
Written by Robert Niles
Tomorrow marks the start of the Memorial Day weekend, the traditional start of summer vacation season in the United States. (Though, as Universal Orlando has taught us, summer doesn't actually begin until June 21. And my kids don't get out of school until June 24, making them among the few students in the country whose summer vacation doesn't begin until... summer.)Tweet
Too-long parentheticals aside, how about some summer roadtrip tips? Here are my tips, intended to save you money while keeping you comfortable, safe and engaged on the road.
1. You don't need a big car
Hey, if you want to pay twice as much to gas up you car this summer, go ahead and sail that battleship across the country. But you don't need a huge hunk of metal to see the country. Last summer, my wife, two kids and I drove across the country and back, 7,000 miles in 33 days. And we did it in a Prius.
What are you doing in a car? Sitting. So long as everyone have room to sit, you're fine. Need to stretch? Stop the car and get out every couple hours or so. Empty space is wasted space. Plus, smaller cars are just more fun to drive. So forget about the big car and roadtrip in the smallest, most fuel-efficient vehicle that seats everyone in your family.
Which brings us to tip 2:
2. Pack lightly
If you want to hang around your stuff all summer, stay home. The point of a vacation is "to get away from it all." And that includes your stuff. Limit each family member to one soft-sided bag, such as a duffle or backpack. Soft bags will help you to stuff more in the trunk or hatch, so you can keep the back and front seats clear.
We also travel with a soft-sided insulated bag (many grocery stores now sell these as reusable shopping bags for cold items), as well as stainless steel, reusable water bottles. The soft-sided bag is great for keeping picnics cold until lunch time without taking up the space of a bulky cooler, and reusable water bottles reduce the amount of trash in the car.
If you need help packing lightly, I recommend picking up a copy of Rick Steves' Europe through the Back Door. Even if you never visit Europe, Steves' book provides the best collection of travel tips I've ever read in a single volume, with great packing advice. There's much there for a stateside traveller to learn.
3. Consolidate time on the road into fewer, longer driving days
I find scheduling a roadtrip a huge part of the fun. You can find an almost infinite number of ways to divvy up a trip, with decisions about the order in which to visit stops and alternate routes to get there. And every moment you're weighing those options, you're mentally on that vacation. What could be more fun?
When I'm planning my trip, I like to consolidate time in the car into as few days as possible, extending our time at each destination. I'd rather spend one day in the car for 12 hours, then take three days off from driving, than spend six hours in the car every other day. Or worse, spending three hours in the car every day. Obviously, you can get to more stops with more driving days. But my family copes better when days are either driving or visiting, instead of a mix of both. That's one of those trade-offs I need to weigh in the many, many hours I will spend daydreaming about the next family roadtrip. :-)
4. Start early, stop early
No matter how long we'll be in the car on any given day, I do believe in getting on the road early. You want to beat the morning rush-hour traffic, if you're leaving a big city on a weekday. And an early start keeps you from feeling rushed, or "behind schedule," the rest of the day. Early starts also help ensure that you're off the road by sundown. Daytime driving's significantly safer than night-time driving. Plus, you can't see any scenery at night.
You might be tempted to snack in the car to save time by limiting the number of stops. Don't. Nothing makes a car more disgusting to sit in within a day or so than crumbs, spills, and smelly, sticky stuff. Put nothing but water in those refillable bottles, and restrict your eating and snacking until you're out of the car.
Remember, you're sitting all day, and not burning that many calories as a result. You don't need as much food when you are on the road, so banning food in the car helps keep you from overeating. Not to mention making your car a much more pleasant place to be as the trip progresses.
6. Go local, avoid chains
When you do stop to eat, make it a treat by making it a fresh, unique experience. Skip the familiar chains and seek out locally-owned and operated restaurants around the country. The Food Network and websites such as Roadfood and Eat Well Guide highlight great local options around the country. You can eat at a McDonald's or Chili's anywhere. Make your vacation something special.
7. Use technology
I love buying those big, colorful road atlases and spreading them across the kitchen table while planning my trip. But in the car, I leave the atlas and home and rely on my iPhone. The current traffic data on Google Maps is essential when on the road, helping you adjust your itinerary to avoid jams and construction you won't find on any printed map. I also love using sites and applications such as Around Me to find gas stations, Yelp to find popular local restaurants and Foursquare to find tips and specials whenever I end up on my trip.
8. Get a charger
A dead cell phone, or DVD player or iPod means no communication, no traffic info, no entertainment - and some cranky, lost and confused roadtrippers. So invest in a plug-in dashboard charger that can handle all the small electronic gear you'll be taking on the road.
9. Don't skimp on maintenance
A dead cell phone battery is bad, but a dead car battery can be worse. So get your car checked and serviced before you leave. And if your trip's long enough that you hit a service milestone on the road, take an afternoon off and get your car cared for. Don't risk waiting until you get home. Even though we live in California, we had our car serviced last summer at a dealer in Orlando. Most dealerships, and many car maintenance chains, keep national service databases, so they can pull up your vehicle's record at any facility across the country.
Learn to inflate your tires, too. Properly inflates tires are safer, and save gas. Finally, I recommend a coat of RainX on your windshield and fresh wiper blades before any long trip. If you can't see the road, you can't react to it.
10. Everyone gets a treat
Vacations ought to be fun. So amplify the excitement by ensuring that everyone in the family gets some new treat at the beginning of the trip - a new movie to watch, a book to read or songs on the iPod. Treats don't have to be limited to in-car entertainment, either. Let each person in the family research and select a roadside attraction for a quick stop during the trip. Or have everyone play "Secret Santa" at a gift shop in mid-trip, buying small items for someone else in the family. Allowing everyone to have some responsibility for others' enjoyment keeps everyone engaged in the trip.
I'd love to hear your favorite tips for a safe, economical and enjoyable roadtrip - just click to comment, below.
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