Road trip planning: Staying sane, well-fed, and entertained on the road
AS A DOGGED COPILOT who tries never to take the wheel, I’m often in charge of much of the road trip planning when out on the long road. I’ll happily put together snacks, map out road eats, suggest sidetrips, play word games with kids and other willing participants, dj, and provide long, fascinating stories at times when I can tell the driver is flagging.
Whether you’re the driver or the copilot, or any of a cast of characters rotating through the various seats of the car (but hopefully not the mid-backseat hump), here are some catchall ideas for keeping your roadtripmobile and its inhabitants in good repair.
Map or GPS?
For in-the-city navigating and finding particular hard-to-find landmarks and supermarkets, a GPS can be terribly useful — or just terrible. Learn how to use it before you’re on a long trip.
For ease of on-the-go road trip planning, and seeing the (literal) big picture, my money is on a (paper) road atlas. I love tracing my finger across the giant pages, giggling as I hit unexpected town names like Podunk.
Using a map (especially with someone to read it for you) is also faster than GPSing in the case of having to find an alternate route, though some GPS units will warn you of traffic congestion / construction and how to avoid it. Local radio is also a good bet for this information if you’re tech-averse.
Choosing your Route
Serendipity is beautiful. Staring at the backends of 18-wheelers for hours is not. Keep in mind that the best route between two points is often not the most direct one, especially if you’d like to leaf peep in the fall or catch some snowmelt waterfalls in the spring.
A few different road atlases list points of interest just off the highway. Or use a site like Roadsideamerica to find quirky attractions not far from where you are. Like the Dr. Seuss Memorial Garden in Springfield, MA, or an exhibit about the history and popularity of the sock monkey in Rockford, IL, at the Midway Village & Museum Center.
But not everywhere along your road trip route is going to be filled with interesting statuary and diminutive primates made of socks. Much of road tripping is driving, driving, driving. And while the silence of the long road is a great place to have long talks, at some point you’re going to want a little external stimulation.
Here you’ll have to rely on local radio (often interesting, but on some stretches, nearly absent), and your own mp3 road trip playlists for music.
Try to be fair — for instance, on a 4X4 trip through the southwest of Bolivia, we let our driver listen endlessly to Charly Garcia (almost) without complaint because the driving was terrible and it seemed to keep him content.
For anyone other than the driver, and especially kids, handheld video games and DVD players can do the trick, but it’s also fun to go old school and play a few road trip games. My favorites are the license plate game (building words out of letters on license plates), and collecting license plate sightings from as many states as possible. Children will (unfortunately) not tire of I-spy, either.
A cooler is ideal — stop at the occasional grocery store to stock up on easy car-eats. I’ve ridden with people who insisted they liked fast food, but for most, a supersized meal or two is plenty. When you’re ready for some local specialties, follow signage or use a site like Roadfood.com, with more than 1,500 eateries listed for the United States.
The site will tell you (among other things) how many recommended barbecue joints, po’boy sandwich shops, and waffle houses there are within 70 miles of Biloxi, MS (26, if you were wondering). The site also has forums where you can trade culinary notes with other road-foodies.
At some point, you’re going to have to spend the night (or morning, or whenever you see fit to sleep somewhere).
The cheapest independent option is tent camping, with National Forests offering spots throughout the country, for “dispersed ” (wild) camping. Check out their website to locate a National Forest near you. The U.S. government-run Recreation.gov also links to available pay and free campsites.
Another possibility is Couchsurfing, and outside the big cities you shouldn’t need too much advance notice, though at least a few days is always advisable. Couchsurfing is free, and in many places acts as a giant meetup community in addition to providing a free place to sleep. Couchsurfers may offer themselves as local tour guides even if you choose to stay somewhere else.
Hostels are another easy, reasonably cheap option, with many hostels offering family or private rooms. Check out Hostelbookers.com for availability, prices, and reviews of places on your route. Roadside hotels and motels tend to be quickstop affairs, but sometimes come with a decent breakfast that can help to justify the price.
If you’re sharing expenses, it’s easiest to just have everyone put a set amount of money in an envelope for shared snacks, gas and tolls. This minimizes resentment among the crew, and ensures equal payment.
On the off chance that there’s money left in the envelope by the time you get where you’re going, you can use it for a much-deserved beer.
A great way to ruin your road trip is to spend a bunch of it standing on the side of the road waiting for a tow truck. Make sure your vehicle is in a good state of repair, fluids topped up, and a jack, spare, tools, flare, emergency blanket, water, and food all easily available.
It wouldn’t hurt to actually know how to put the spare on, either, and keep in mind what kind of weather you’re likely to encounter and try to plan accordingly, with ice scrapers for the morning if you’ll be at altitude or traveling during the colder months.
Perhaps the most inconvenient of all road trip truths is the fact that no matter how good time you’re making, at some point one of the members of your team is gonna have to hit the can. There are gas stations, fast food restaurants, rest stops, and myriad other possibilities on the road, occasionally none of which are available when “I kind of need to go” turns into a “NOW.”
Men will tend to find this operation easier than women, though I counted no fewer than five “female urination devices” for sale that allow women to expose minimal skin and remain standing while relieving themselves. In an area with little or no cover, in the cold, or where it’s hard to get away from crowds, this might be a good alternative.
Check out Matador’s Road Trip Focus Page for more advice.