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Top 10 tips for a safe, fun and affordable summer roadtrip

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Published: May 27, 2010 at 6:32 AM

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.)

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.

On the road, in the 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.

5. Don't eat in the car

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.

Readers' Opinions

From Eric Malone on May 27, 2010 at 6:43 AM
Don't drive when you're tired.

Best tip of all. ;)

I have to admit that the first tip was most amusing. We're heading up to South Carolina in about three weeks, and we're taking a 'battleship'.

Then again, we have eight people going, so.. Prius ain't gonna cut it, unless we're clowns.

From Brandon Mendoza on May 27, 2010 at 7:13 AM
These are all awesome tips! I never thought about how it's better to never eat in the car... makes sense! I just have to make sure I'm with people that aren't always in a rush!

But I am a total advocate of eating locally/ at places that aren't available in your hometown... I get a little irritated when my friends want to eat at Mickey D's, or Islands, or California Pizza Kitchen, and we're 200 miles away from home. It's not often that we can travel to a new place, so why not try something new? Even if you don't end up liking it, at least you can recommend others not to eat there.

There are a few exceptions... I did eat in McDonald's once in Hawaii only to say that I was eating Spam, Eggs, & Rice at a McDonald's... with Pineapple on the side.

So I would totally urge everyone to skip the chain restaurants when traveling. It'll make things more memorable, one way or another!

From Tim W on May 27, 2010 at 7:29 AM
I definately agree with point 6! The best restaurants are always the local restaurants. While there are some chains that you can't find at home, local food usually tastes much better and is unique!
From Meagan Evanoff on May 27, 2010 at 7:43 AM
Great list! And while I agree about maintaining a clean car, there is something essentially "roadtrip" about eating the car. Maybe that's because we always did it when I was a kid; I have crumb nostalgia.

And I also agree about "don't drive when you're tired"! I guess this might be antithetical to "longer driving days", depending how you do it, but sometimes getting a hotel on the way and splitting up the trip is a pleasant surprise - you might even get a complimentary breakfast, and you can start fresh on your day!

From Robert Niles on May 27, 2010 at 7:48 AM
For me, sleepiness hits when the sun goes down. That's how we're wired, I guess. So an early-morning start helps me put down a lot of miles in a day, without getting too tired. Stretch breaks help, too.

Small-car roadtripping is a different model than battleship roadtripping. (Though it is not an option if you've got five or more people on the trip.) Small-car trips rely on light packing, keeping the car clean and stopping along the way (though not always for gas!)

From Elizabeth Gray on May 27, 2010 at 8:09 AM
Us ex-park Service employees are the experts at road trips. I agree with most of your list. If you cannot fit your stuff into one suitcase and one backpack then you don't need it (camping gear aside of course). This includes air travel.

I feel homework and an itinerary is a must. I overload mine so I can change it if I have too. Always know your options when visiting an area in case something is closed that you wanted to see.

Also ask the locals where they take their families to eat and visit. They hardley ever go to the big attactions but often know about cool obscure ones that you may never heard of. I have seen a great many things because I asked this simple question.

However you and I disagree slighty on a couple of things:

1. Eating in the car. While with kids you may be right about the mess, there is a simple solution to this problem. My hubby and I always have cheese, hummus, chips and red wine. We often drive around an area a little and look for a cool view and then pull over to have a little snack. Car air can get stale and this helps revitalize you.

2. I COMPLETELY agree with creating "travel only" days in the Itinerary. However we often drive a bulk of it at night. Less cars, baby is asleep, and you can wake up the next morning in a hotel and head straight out to your destination. However my husband is an excellent night driver and if you are not, I would advise against this.

3. Finally don't forget to visit yout National & State Parks along with theme parks. They are low cost, have accomidations for families and you'll have fun while learing at the same time. Kids love National Parks if you do it with them. It makes for a bonding experience they will never forget and they will bring their own kids to the parks in the future.

From Thomas Caselli on May 27, 2010 at 9:21 AM
Each to his own but I can't imagine ever going on a long trip in a compact car. We don't have a huge vehicle but we do have a Chrysler mini van that we use for all our trips and I wouldn't have it any other way.
From Moon Max on May 27, 2010 at 2:56 PM
Your right a GPS is the way to go.
From Dan Barnes on May 27, 2010 at 2:57 PM
I would add "know your limits". An early start is only good if you are naturally a morning person. Some of us are wired differently; as a nocturnal person, I plan my trips around my natural sleep schedule and call hotels ahead of time to make sure checking in at 4am is okay.
From Will Chilcote on May 27, 2010 at 6:42 PM
Thanks for tip 5 about not eating in the car. That's something I usually don't think about but, you correct.

I also like 6. I could definitely see the advantages of that. I found a really good local diner near Disneyland that I would never had enter if I hadn't been so tired after leaving the park. I only went there because it was close to my hotel.

From 24.90.249.214 on May 27, 2010 at 7:39 PM
I agree with the no eating been in some cars mid trip and expecialy in summer they STINK after a while. Also leave pets with friends instead of boarding. You may not think they are happey without you but they are happey being at home (IE dogs cats some dogs do not travel well)
From Doug Kelley on May 27, 2010 at 8:28 PM
Best tip of all for a roadtrip? Fly! No sense wasting your time and energy on the road for hours and hours on end when you can be at your destination enjoying yourself.

But, if you have to drive, get some good podcasts to listen to as a group. Stuff You Should Know is a good one and there are several Disney podcasts that are fun.

From 76.243.38.183 on May 28, 2010 at 7:16 AM
11. Make room for the occupants, who, since you won't let them eat, are going to need some extra room. There are lots of inexpensive roof-top carriers you can put the usual seat-and-footwell-cluttering detritus in and give the passengers all the leg room they deserve.

Personally, I agree with Megan -- you gotta eat in the car or it ain't a roadtrip!

From 98.154.27.147 on May 29, 2010 at 12:26 AM
We would order an Entertainment book for the city or region we are visiting. Discounts sight seeings and activities are planned around what's offered. Buy one get one free at locals in those areas are grea way to try out eateries!

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