7 Tips for Planning the Great American Road Trip

The great American road trip has been glamorized on film and in music for decades. Each year tens of millions of Americans hit the roads headed to parts of the country that they previously haven't experienced.

If you’re in New England you might take a trip to Cape Cod to relax, and be near the ocean. If you’re in the Southeast, a weekend in South Beach to enjoy the great food and take in the nightlife might recharge your batteries. And if you’re in the San Francisco Bay Area, a weekend in Napa for a little wine tasting is always appealing.

But not all road trips are short. Some stretch for thousands of miles, and provide travelers with an experience they can’t even imagine. When you fly over the US, a lot of what you see are little towns, and a whole lot of farms. There’s no opportunity to stop and appreciate the different locales.

That’s why road trips are great. You’ll see parts of the US that you never knew existed, taste food like none before, and meet all kinds of amazing people.

Tip 1: Choose your destination

The great American road trip starts pretty unceremoniously (or at least it should). Just hopping in the car headed to destinations unknown isn’t a great idea. It’s best to sit down ahead of time, and talk about everyone’s expectations for the trip.

You might discover that one person wants to visit as many baseball stadiums as possible. Maybe another person doesn’t want to be on the road every day, and they prefer to stay in one place for a few days to soak up the local culture. A third might want to binge on amusement parks. Getting all of that on the table beforehand is a good thing.

Tip 2: Organize the logistics

Here are some of the questions you should tackle before you hit the road:

  • How long will you be gone?

  • What’s your budget?

  • Where do you want to go - big cities, small towns, the beach, camping or historical places?

  • Do you have some ideas of what you want to do when you get to your destinations or are you going to wing it?

  • Ideally how long would you like to spend in each destination? Do you want to spend a few days in each place or do you want to see what you can in a day, and keep moving?

  • How many hours per day will be spent driving?

  • Is your car ready to take on a long road trip?

  • What is the expectation for accommodations? Is the motel off the highway okay or is something upscale more appropriate?

  • Do you want to book hotel accommodations before you leave so you’ll be sure to have a room each night, or do you want to wing it? It’s fine to book ahead of time as it takes away the anxiety of trying to find a room during the height of tourist season. The downside is, it locks you into a schedule.

Knowing the answers to some (or all) of these questions will help set expectations before you head out.

Tip 3: Pack intelligently

A lot of people overpack for trips, even weekend getaways. The thought of being away from home for a few weeks is likely to send the “I absolutely have to take this” gene into overdrive. You should try to resist the urge to take everything you own and pack light.

Why? Well, there are a few reasons.

The more you pack, the heavier the car will be, and that means you’ll be buying more gas. You’re going to be packing and unpacking your suitcases every day when you hit the hotel. Do you really want to sift through your entire wardrobe every day?

If camping is on your agenda, you’re going to have camping gear. You’re going to need room in the trunk.

And road trip during the summer means it’s going to be hot no matter where you go. It’s safe to leave the warm, heavy clothes at home. Shorts and t-shirts, and maybe one nice outfit are probably all you’ll need.

Tip 4: Things for the car

Clothes aren’t the only thing you’ll need to pack. You’ll need stuff for inside of the car to keep you going in the right direction, keep you entertained, and keep you fed between meals.

Here are some things you should bring with you:

  • Printed directions or a map. Yeah, both are old school, but on the off chance that your GPS fails or you can’t get a signal, it’s good to have a backup.

  • Pack a cooler with some drinks and snacks

  • Coins for tolls

  • Music, videos, games, cameras

  • Paper towels

  • Roll of toilet paper

  • Hand sanitizer

  • Baby wipes (even if you don’t have a baby, they come in handy)

  • First aid kit

And if you forget something really really important, there will be stores in other cities. You can stop in and re-buy the item if you forgot.

Tip 4: Get your car in order

The most important thing you can do before heading out on your trip is to get your car in top shape. Here is a checklist of some things you’ll want to check:

  • Change the oil

  • Check the tires to make sure they’re properly inflated, there’s plenty of tread, and that they’re wearing evenly. If the tires aren’t wearing evenly your car could be out of alignment. You should make sure your wheels are in alignment before you head out.

  • Top off the fluids. Oil, battery, transmission, and windshield wiper fluids should all be kept in order. It’s a good idea to put a bottle of coolant and windshield wiper fluid in the trunk. An extra can of oil and a funnel wouldn’t hurt either.

  • Make sure your windshield wiper blades are cleaning the windshield well. If your windshield wipers tend to smudge, install a new set of blades.

  • Check the battery to make sure it’s strong and clean. Wipe away any corrosion on the battery cables with a little baking soda and water.

  • Put together a small tool kit that can be used for basic repairs should the need arise.

  • Check your heating and cooling system.

  • Make sure all your external lights work.

  • Check the belts to make sure they’re tight, and don’t show signs of wear.

  • Check your spare tire. If possible fill it with air. Make sure you have your jack and all the tools to operate it. Bring a piece of wood with you in case you need to jack the car up on soft or un-level ground.

  • If you have locking lug nuts, make sure you bring the key

  • Add jumper cables to your list of items to carry

Tip 5: Get your house in order

You’re going to leave your house unattended for a few weeks. That’s just enough time for some things to go wrong. Take precautions before you go and get your house in order:

  • Clean out the fridge. You don’t want to come home to rotting food.

  • Remove foods that might normally be left on the counter. You don’t want rodents moving in while you’re away.

  • Decide what you’re going to do with your mail - either have the post office hold it or have a neighbor grab it. Same with the paper (if you actually get the paper).

  • Leave a set of house keys with a neighbor. You never know when something might happen, and someone needs to get in.

  • Make arrangements for the dogs and cats.

  • It’s a good idea to call your credit or debit card companies to let them know you’ll be on the road so they don’t cut off your cards.

Tip 6: Helpful apps

There are a number of great apps and websites that are available to help guide you through your trip. Here are a few to get you started:

  • World Explorer - A travel guide that uses your GPS location to tell you what’s around you by foot, car, or bike. The app is global so if you’re on a road trip in Italy, it will work just as if you were in the US.

  • EMNet findER - This app will use your GPS location to provide you with a list of nearby emergency rooms. You can get directions directly from Maps, and you can call 9-1-1 straight from the application.

  • Laundromat near me - At some point you’ll need to clean your clothes. This app uses your GPS to point you to the nearest laundromat.

  • Hotel Tonight - This app helps you find a hotel room at the last minute.

  • GasBuddy - Find cheap gas based on your location.

  • iCamp - Find nearby campgrounds.

  • Yelp - Find places to eat and drink.

Tip 7: Helpful websites

You will probably have a lot of pit stops as you span the far and open roads. Here are some other useful websites that you can check out:

By following all of these tips, a great road trip is absolutely imminent. YourMechanic can help get you on your way. Ideally, you should have a service professional inspect the car before you leave. The technicians at YourMechanic can give your car a thorough inspection to ensure your tires, brakes, fluids, A/C, and other systems are in top shape before you take off.

The statements expressed above are only for informational purposes and should be independently verified. Please see our terms of service for more details

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