Road trips are the most classically American way to travel, forever immortalized by the Beat Generation and writers like Jack Kerouac and his iconic On the Road masterpiece. Road trips have a magical way of mesmerizing people both young and old across the world, and it’s not hard to see why — there’s nothing like the feeling of cruising along an open road with windows down, music up, and destination undetermined. However, despite the free spirit that characterizes these journeys, the joy you experience on the road is directly proportional to the amount of consideration and preparation you put in beforehand. Unexpected twists and turns (literally and figuratively) are sure to come up along the way, so the better prepared you are, the better you’ll be able to cruise through them, sanity in tact.
Contrary to how it might seem, being fancy free on the road doesn’t come from haphazardly tossing things into your car and hitting the road. If you do that (and some of my earliest road trips operated on exactly that philosophy), you’ll most certainly spend a lot of your time worried, confused, and fretfully scrolling through Google Maps, frantically trying to figure out exactly where in the world you are and where the closest spot is that you can sleep that doesn’t include the back of your car in the middle of a deserted, and decidedly scary, dark road.
A little bit of pre-planning will give you good bearings on the road and will greatly reduce your stress and increase your enjoyment, guaranteed. You’ll want to do a little light research of the cities and landmarks you expect to encounter along the way in order to get a rough idea of what you might want to do and not do while you’re on the road. If you’re cruising through the southwest and hate crowds but love a good desert-filled outdoor experience, you’re much better off skipping the Grand Canyon and opting for Moab instead, for example. If you’re thinking of visiting a lot of national parks, consider how much you’ll be spending on entrance fees and get an annual pass if it makes sense. Figure out of there are any local festivals or events that might be fun to partake in, but that also might mean reserving accommodations well in advance rather than rolling into town looking for a hotel at the last minute.
This is where road trip finesse comes in. You want to have an idea of what you’re doing and thoughts about where you’re going, but if your plan is overly decided, you lose the necessary flexibility that is key to a good road trip. Inevitably you’ll run into a problem here or there or come across something so magical that it will make you want to change your plans altogether. If you have everything planned out and all accommodations and excursions booked and paid for, you’ll give yourself an existential crisis when you arrive at a tempting fork in the road. Like all things, planning a road trip is about balance — arm yourself with knowledge, but leave room for the unexpected that will certainly find it’s way to you (that’s what makes road trips so magical, after all).
As exciting as driving itself is when you set out, eventually the novelty will wear off and sometimes you’ll have big drive days between destinations. Keep boredom at bay and capitalize on the free time by bringing a few books you’ve been wanting to get through with you or, if you’re like me and can’t read in the car without instant car sickness, stock up on audiobooks and subscribe to some podcasts. Speaking of podcasts, if you’re new to Audible, most podcasts offer a code for a free book during their broadcasts, which is a great way to get started.
As close as you can to the date of your departure, get your car looked at by a professional and take care of any tune ups your car might need before you leave. Any small problem your wheels have will be exacerbated on the road, and when you have to pay for repairs in a rush, it’ll cost you both precious time and money. Pro tip: If you’re about due for an oil change, if you take your car in and mention that you’ll be driving a long distance and ask your mechanic to give it a quick look, you can usually avoid any fees associated with bringing it in just to be inspected.
Last but not least, like all travel, safety is key. Make sure you have a safety kit in your car that has everything you need for the various weather conditions you’ll be encountering. Also, store as much of your stuff as you can in your trunk and out of view — if your backseat is crammed full of fancy gear, your chances of a break in go up. Finally, as always, follow your gut. If something doesn’t seem right or doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t — it’s always better to be safe than sorry when you’re traveling.