If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll know that I drove from my home in western NY to visit my bestie and her future wife in Sarasota, Florida.
After my glorious week in the sunshine, I drove back to Michigan to spend another few weeks in the frozen, rural tundra with Dan. The entire trip took nine days and a little over 3,000 miles.
This is actually the second time I’ve driven to Florida solo. I’ve also taken trips to Savannah, Georgia, Michigan (obviously) and all over New York State. With all of the miles I’ve put on my car in the last couple years, I’ve learned some valuable lessons, not just about comfort but also about safety.
Maintain your vehicle.
This should go without saying, but get your oil changed before going on a long trip. Check your tire pressure. Make sure nothing is going to explode or leave you stranded hundreds of miles from home.
Plan your entire route and send it to someone.
I know we all have GPS devices in our pockets now, but you should still take some time to plan your route. Do you want to take main highways? Pay tolls? Take the scenic route? Think about things you might want to see on the way; reptile zoo in Pennsylvania? Confederate White House in Richmond? Fireworks warehouses? Fruit stands? Road trips offer all kinds of opportunities to see things you might not see otherwise, so take some time and check this stuff out. You should also try to avoid driving through main metropolitan areas during rush hour – I learned this the hard way.
Once you’ve got your route, send it to someone. Anyone. As long as one person in the world has an idea of where you’re going and approximately the time you’ll be there, in the event of an emergency the cops will have a starting point. Not to be paranoid, but anything is possible.
Drinks and snacks!
I don’t like taking the time to stop every time I want a drink or a snack, so I bring them with me. What I normally get is a few bottles of flavored sparkling water, a few bottles of iced green tea (caffeine!), a box of Nature Valley protein granola bars and some kind of breakfast cookie or other crunchy, sweet snack. Occasionally I’ll also grab some chocolate, but only if I’m going to a temperate climate and it won’t melt in the car.
Having these snacks with me is great for a lot of reasons, not least among them is that I don’t go wandering through Sheetz or Wawa when I’m already starving, and paying astronomical prices for gas station drinks and snacks. I might grab a Coke or something occasionally, but it’s rare. Another money saving tip from me to you.
Download your entertainment.
This might be the most important piece of advice I can offer you: don’t rely on streaming media. We all think our cell carriers and data plans will be there for us when we need them, but then one day as we’re driving through the mountains of Tennessee listening to a climactic scene in a crazy good audiobook, the sounds stops abruptly, and all we see on the screen is that loading circle that spins. And spins. AND SPINS. And because we’re on the road we can’t stop to mess with it so we sit in silence for an hour hating life.
Don’t be that person. Download whatever media you want to enjoy on your trip.
I find that I’ve been zoning out listening to music, which is a terrible thing when driving. Podcasts and audiobooks have been keeping me alert and engaged, so I’ve downloaded a ton of them in different genres. For variety, you know. But you know what you like, so go with that.
Plan where you’ll stay.
I didn’t do this on my first few trips. I had planned to make stops to see friends and family, but they were way too far apart, and I ended up having to find a cheap motel on the fly. It worked out ok (meaning I didn’t get bedbugs or foot fungus), but I don’t press my luck like this anymore. I know how long I can comfortably drive in a day (see below: know your limits) and I find motels ahead of time, with lovely discounts and Booking.com/Ebates rewards.
Try to time your bathroom breaks to your fuel stops.
This might seem like a no-brainer, but it’s something I still occasionally forget about. You wouldn’t believe how much time can be saved when you fill your gas tank, pee and get coffee all in the same place. I try to do this in medium-sized cities or populated suburbs because their bathrooms are usually cleaner and their coffee is better.
Avoid rest stops, especially after dark.
To be clear, when I say rest stops I mean the ones on smaller highways that are basically just a building with some brochures and bathrooms, not the rest stops on roads like I90 that have food and gas and excellent lighting and there’s always someone around to hear you scream.
Anyway, this is partly for safety and partly for convenience, as you can’t get gas and/or coffee at little rest stops. I like stopping at these once when I’m driving in a new state; the first one over the state line is typically referred to as the “Welcome Center”, and some of them are really awesome. The one just over the New York border into Pennsylvania on I390 is overlooking this gorgeous valley with a river and farmland, and on my most recent trip, I stopped at one in Maryland that looked like an Antebellum style home with a picturesque farm on the hill near it.
Beyond these welcome centers, I avoid rest stops whenever possible. I had a bad experience at one on my first trip to Florida a couple years ago when some rando tried to convince me to get in his truck with him, and I’d rather not repeat the experience. These stops aren’t always staffed or monitored, they’re not always busy, and anyone creeping on the place will know you’re traveling alone the minute you get out of your vehicle. The whole thing makes me super uncomfortable, and the recent appearance of anti-trafficking and “Be aware of your surroundings” posters in the bathrooms haven’t exactly put my mind at ease.
Instead, I pull off the highway and find busy, well-lit gas stations or fast food restaurants, even in broad daylight. On the rare occasion that I’m on the road at night, this is absolutely mandatory.
Know your limits.
This was a hard thing for me to learn because I always had that dad voice in the back of my mind going “Don’t stop! You’re making great time!” We all went on that road trip where our parents argued about stopping to pee. I feel like it’s uniquely American experience.
Now that I have a bunch of driving experience, I know that I need to stop every 3-4 hours in order to keep myself awake and sane. Even if I don’t have to stop for a reason like fuel or coffee I’ll stop, get out and stretch, call Dan for a few minutes, and then get back on the road. I’ve never come close to falling asleep at the wheel, but I do these things to make sure that never happens. I also know that I can’t drive more than 13 or so hours in a day without going batty, so I try to make sure I’ve planned to stop for the night well before that.
Plan to get lost.
It’s going to happen, even if you have the most accurate GPS or a navigator or an excellent sense of direction. Whether you get stuck in bumper to bumper traffic and miss your exit or get turned around looking for Starbucks, it happens to all of us at least once. Build in time for it. Don’t freak out when it happens. You could be several hours off course (like me coming home from Michigan), but nothing is so dire that you can’t pull over, get your bearings and find your way.
How do you feel about road trips? Any pieces of advice that I missed?