Saturday, September 14, 2013

Road Trip! Tips to Successfully Prepare

Rainy landscape on US 40, outside of Vernal, Utah
The road trip is one of America's favorite pastimes.  Those of you who know me well know that I'm the master of the road trip, being a veteran of many cross-country journeys, and even a couple in other countries, since the age of 5.  Despite the time involved, road trips remain popular because there are just too many places in the world that can't be reached by plane, unless you own one yourself, and many people just don't want to deal with the hassles of flying today.  I can testify that road-tripping can be a ton of fun, but a little bit of advance planning can help make your journey all the more enjoyable.  After the jump, I'll share my tips for making your next cross-state or cross-country jaunt a successful one.

1.  Make Sure Your Companions Are On Board (Literally and Figuratively)

If you're traveling by yourself, then no problem, but if you're planning on taking some companions, make sure they actually want to go on a road trip before planning one.  Some people get carsick, and others just don't enjoy the thought of being in a car for more than an hour or two at a time.  Talk to your traveling companions first and see what their opinions are.  Now, if someone in your group says they don't like road trips, but has never been on one (or it's been a long time), this could be an opportunity to introduce them to a new way of traveling.  However, if that's the case, a 3-week, 21 state, 8,200 mile trek (yes, I have done this) probably isn't a good way to start for a road trip rookie.  Start with something small first, and see if they like it, then move on to something bigger.

2.  Understand the Full Cost - Budget Accordingly

Some might automatically assume that road tripping to a destination is going to be cheaper than flying, because you don't have to pay for plane tickets.  That part may be true, but it's important to think about the total costs involved with a multi-day road trip.  Not only will you have to pay for gas, but you'll also have to account for 3 meals a day and hotels en route - not to mention the temptation of laying down $100 for the family of 6 to see the World's Largest Ball of Yarn when you see the sign on the side of the road.  Plus, driving across the country is going to require substantially more vacation days than flying; if your vacation time is limited, you should strongly consider whether you want to eat up a significant chunk of it on one trip.  It's still very possible that a driving vacation will be cheaper than flying there, but it's important to do the math first - and even more importantly, set a budget before setting out.

A couple of things I've done to keep costs down - pack an ice chest and do a picnic lunch for one meal a day, stay at hotels that offer free breakfast, and use your airline frequent flyer number/hotel frequent guest number to score discounts or freebies at hotels.

3.  Know Your Driving Limits

This may sound silly, but those blue and red lines on Google Maps or a road atlas can look deceptively easy.  750 miles on the interstate might sound easy enough, but it can be tiring.  Before doing any serious planning, think about your preferred travel habits, and ask yourself some questions.  How fast do you prefer to drive?  How many hours of driving can you handle in a single day?  Do you prefer to start and end early, or start and end a little later?  How do you handle driving at night?  Are you taking kids and/or other travelers on the trip that require more frequent stops?  And most importantly, what do your companions prefer, and how much of the driving are they willing/able to share?  Think about all of that, and then come up with a realistic plan of how much ground you can cover each day. 

I can't emphasize this enough - if you realize en route that you've bitten off more than you can chew, and you become too physically tired to continue, it's CRITICAL to either hand the wheel to another driver, or if one isn't available, stop and rest until you are able to continue.  Risking your life isn't worth trying to squeeze another 100 miles out of the day.

4.  When Traveling With Kids/Family, Let Them Help With the Planning

This is an easy way to keep the peace on a long trip.  Invite the kids to help plan the route and pick things to do along the way.  When I was young, my mom and dad used to let me plan the routes and pick hotels to stay at, and they always made sure to ask all of us what we wanted to do on the trip, both at the destination and along the way.  That went a long way to keeping the troops engaged (and behaving) in the car.

Also, think about the "style" of traveling that you and your family/companions prefer.  Are you the anal type that likes to plan out each day in excruciating detail?  Or are you more the "go with the flow" type that prefers a loose schedule, but don't mind deviating if something more interesting comes along?  Think about that and plan (or don't plan) accordingly.  One additional thought on that subject - if you're the non-planning type, make sure you consider the popularity of where you're going first.  If you're headed to or driving through Destin during Spring Break, for example, it's probably not a good idea to just show up and expect to find a hotel room.  Unless you just like the idea of sleeping in your car, that is.

5.  Have a Backup Plan

Nothing ruins a vacation faster than getting stuck in a traffic backup for 3 hours on the interstate because of an accident or road construction.  Today, all states have Department of Transportation websites that detail current and planned road construction on major routes; check these before you leave, and have an alternate route planned in case delays present themselves.  Also, in today's world of smartphones and navigation systems, it's pretty easy to check traffic conditions along your planned route.  Have a passenger periodically check and warn you if the route goes from green to red ahead, or if you're traveling by yourself, check traffic when you stop for gas or food.  It's usually pretty easy to figure out an alternate route to get around the mess.

6.  Get Your Vehicle Inspected Before Setting Out

Being stuck for 3 hours in a construction traffic jam is bad.  Getting stranded in the Arizona desert, 50 miles from the nearest town, is even worse.  Yes, I've been on the receiving end of that, which led to 6 of us sleeping in a 1981 Cadillac Sedan de Ville until someone finally came along to tow us to the nearest dealer the next day.  Have your mechanic give your car a once-over before you skip town.  If you're concerned that your vehicle of choice won't make that 5,000 mile trip, all is not lost.  You can rent a car to take your trip.  Weekly rentals can often be had for only $200-300 a week, and there may be other advantages to taking a rented vehicle instead, such as if you don't have a car large enough to haul all of your fellow travelers and their stuff.

7.  Last But Not Least - Decide Who Controls the Radio!

I'll save the best for last, because the simple act of who controls the radio/iPod/DVD player has wrecked many a vacation.  Come up with a rule for who controls the entertainment system.  There are umpteen variations I've seen, from something as simple as "the person driving controls the radio" to schedules that provide a fixed amount of time for each person to listen to/watch what they want.  If your trip consists of a few adults that will be sharing the driving, then "driver picks" usually works just fine (the others can always bring their own iPod, after all).  If you're traveling with kids, though, you might seriously consider setting up some kind of schedule that allows each one to do what they want for a little while, assuming they don't have their own smartphones or tablets.  You probably don't want to have to listen to the entire 18-volume "Thomas the Train Engine" DVD set on the drive from Dallas to Orlando, but if you want to keep the peace, it would be in your best interest to allow the little ones to watch for a couple of hours.  Trust me on this one, as someone who's had to drive little nephews on long trips myself.

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