Friday, August 8, 2014

15 Road Trip Tips from an Almost Expert

I've heard that spending 10,000 hours at anything makes one an expert. After our recent five week road trip from coast to coast, with our four boys I think I almost qualify.
The thought occurred to me that others might benefit from my vast knowledge in this area (in other words, I really need to write everything down for future reference before I forget it). So, here are a few tips that made our trip easier, more pleasant and more cost efficient--and a few things we learned that we'll do better next time around.

  1. PLAN AHEAD: I arranged for someone to mow our lawn and take care of our plants and pets. I weeded our flower beds. We let our neighbors know we were leaving so they could keep their eyes open for us. We put a hold on your mail at the post office. I also cleaned out our fridge and made sure there were no dirty dishes or laundry to make our house stinky while we were gone. 
  2. GET YOUR VEHICLE READY: A week before we planned to leave I made an appointment to have my tires rotated, the car aligned, the oil changed and the fluids filled. I knew we'd be putting a lot of miles on the car and doing those things gave me peace of mind. A few days before leaving I detailed the car. I knew our car was bound to get messy. I thought starting off with it clean would keep the mess from becoming too overwhelming. We made sure we had our current insurance information in the glove compartment and stocked our car with change for toll roads, since we knew we would be traveling on them.
  3. MAP OUT YOUR ROUTE: We looked at where we wanted to stop and how many hours we were willing to drive each day and then booked our hotels accordingly. We camped at Acadia National Park when we were in Maine, but stayed in hotels the rest of the time. We used Travelocity ahead of time to help us get the best deals. You can sign up for deal alerts from travel sites and save that way. After the first leg of our trip, I got an email for 15% off our next booking, so keep your eyes open for deals before you book.
  4. RESEARCH HOTELS BEFORE BOOKING: This isn't as complicated as I'm making it sound. It boils down to two words: continental breakfast. We figured with our family of six (four boys--two of them teenagers) we could save quite a bit of money by making sure the hotels we stayed in offered free breakfast. Our other main requirement was free WiFi (our phones don't have data plans). Other considerations are: a pool--is it indoor or outdoor? do you care?, roll away beds--some places charge extra for these, but if you have a lot of people in your family it might be worth it, and laundry facilities--these are especially nice if you have kids or if you like packing light. We did laundry at a hotel once (and many more times at the homes we stayed at). We had to use quarters for the machines in the hotel laundry, but when we asked about laundry soap at the desk, they just gave us some. That is probably not the case in most places, but as we like to say in our family, "if you don't ask, the answer's 'no'."
  5. BUY PASSES: If you plan on stopping at museums or zoos or national or state parks you might want to look into buying a pass. Many museums and zoos offer reciprocal benefits (either free or reduced rates) in other states. Our zoo membership has reciprocity at over 150 zoos, aquariums, parks, botanical gardens and aviaries in the US and Canada. A lot of museums do the same thing. We also purchased a national parks pass for $80. It's good for a year and we have already gotten more than our money's worth, so for our family it was a good buy. 
    The national parks pass works at most national monuments as well,
    but you have to pay for parking at Mount Rushmore.
  6. STAY WITH FRIENDS OR FAMILY: No one wants to impose or cause inconvenience, but if you get offers from family or friends to stay with them instead of a hotel, take them up on it. Depending on how comfortable you are, you may even ask family members or friends if you can crash on their floor. Heck, they may even pull out the air mattress for you. We have stayed with friends lots of times. We stayed at my brother's house in Illinois on our drive home. Staying with people you know is fun and economical. If we had friends in town visiting we would love to have them stay with us. 
  7. USE APPS TO MAKE LIFE BETTER: Some of the apps I have used are  GasBuddy, TripIt and KAYAK. These can be great for planning your itinerary and saving money. Roadside America will ensure you don't miss out on seeing the world's largest ball of twine or the prehistoric rock garden. PepperPlate helped me plan my meals for the trip and 360 Panorama allowed us to take cool panoramic pictures of all the amazing things we saw along the way.
  8. INVEST IN AN ATLAS: Some areas don't have phone coverage. GPS may fail. Internet directions aren't always accurate (ask me how I know). Printed directions don't allow for changes of plans. We used our atlas every single day that we were driving. One person can drive and another can navigate. You can take turns if you want. Yeah! Besides, maps are interesting. Our boys enjoyed checking it out and we had fun quizzing each other on different information about the states we were driving through. But, then again we are all total nerds.
    Do you know South Dakota's state nickname? You can find it in your atlas!
  9. REST UP: It's amazing how exhausting sitting in a car all day can be. Make sure you get sufficient rest. Remember your vitamins too--I forgot mine and struggled with fatigue a lot during this trip. It is easy to get grumpy and even physically ill when travelling and then everyone is miserable. We didn't feel guilty about sleeping in a bit on several mornings, especially when we got to our hotel late the previous evening.
  10. STOCK UP ON EMERGENCY SUPPLIES: I always keep gallon zip top bags in my car. I have children who are prone to stomach upsets. A friend once advised me that plastic bags are way better than a bucket for sickness. No spilling or splashing or having to rinse out the bucket; just zip the top and throw it in the nearest trash can. These have saved me more times than I care to count. For other spills and messes I also relied on good old paper towels and occasionally wet wipes. A small flashlight, painkillers and bandages will all probably fit easily into your glove compartment. If anyone in your family suffers from motion sickness, you might want to pick up some Dramamine. They make it formulated for children as well.
  11. BUY GROCERIES: Before we went out of town I bought food for most of the lunches and dinners that we would eat on the road. I brought my electric skillet and one spatula and cooked dinner in the hotel room each night with those two tools. We brought our cooler full of groceries but also picked some things up fresh at local grocery stores. We ate more frugally and had more healthy meals than we would have otherwise. We also had some junk food and treats because what are road trips for? We mostly drank just water--less mess if it spills. Every member of the family has his/her own water bottle and we refilled as needed. Most gas stations don't have a problem with you using the water at their soda fountain to fill your bottle.
  12. GET COMFY: Pillows can squish small and not take up a lot of room and they make travelling so much more comfortable. We only brought one and we all had to take turns. In the future we might bring more. Also, I wished that we had brought a blanket or two. We have dual temperature control in our vehicle, but someone was almost always colder than everyone else. 
  13. BRING ENTERTAINMENT: As much as I would have just loved my kids to look out the windows and "ooh" and "ahh" at the beautiful country we live in for the whole trip, I knew it wasn't going to happen that way. We brought books on CD and portable DVD players for the times when everyone just wanted to zone out. This was good for morale since it kept kids from arguing and allowed the adults some quiet time. When we go on trips like this I usually try to bring some small surprises to open along the way, but keep in mind that less junk in the car allows everyone more room to spread out. We are also not above playing good old fashioned road trip games occasionally when the mood strikes ("The Alphabet Game", "The License Plate Game", our own modified version of "I Spy" and "20 Questions").
  14. BE FLEXIBLE: When I asked my kids what made our time in the car the most enjoyable, my seven year old said, "being able to go to the bathroom when we needed to." Amen. Schedules are great, but it worked better for us to go with windows of time instead of precise times. If you see one of those cheesy roadside attractions and you need a break, take a few minutes to stretch your legs while getting a dose of quirky Americana. Being flexible allowed us to meet up with our friends from Alabama at Mount Rushmore when we found out they were also travelling I-90 west from Ohio and were just a couple of hours behind us. We hadn't seen them since we both moved last summer, so that was worth it to us to be a little behind on our plan for the day. 
    Corn mural under construction, Mitchell, South Dakota. We made an impromptu stop at The Corn Palace on our trip. I'm thinking this place must be where the word "corny" originated. 
  15. PLAN AHEAD FOR YOUR RETURN: Plan to come home to a clean house. Unpacking is overwhelming enough. If you aren't as lucky as I am to have a friend offer to bring you dinner when you get back, you might want to make a couple of freezer meals before you leave for when you get home. You will probably be low on groceries and will be too tired to want to cook, but chances are fast food isn't going to sound all that appetizing either. Allow yourself a few days before any major commitments or appointments if you have the luxury to do so. 
BONUS TIP: Hide a spare key on your car somewhere (those little magnetic boxes are good for that) and save your money for something other than a locksmith.

So what do you think? Which tips have you found the most helpful in your travels? Have you been on a great road trip lately? Please share in the comments.
Look how happy we are. Travelling agreed with us. Well, most of us anyway. ;) 
P.S. If there is interest, I'd love to share some more details about what we ate and the logistics of cooking while traveling in a future post.


Tanya said...

Holy awesome batman! I thought I was a good traveler but these are so helpful and smart! ziploc bags instead of a bucket- helloooo!!!! :D Freezer meals to come home to- oh my goodness!!
THANK YOU for sharing this!!!
Also-glad you stopped by the Bean Museum and shared a pic so I knew it was open. Not even gonna tell you how weird it is that I found that out from you instead of anyone local.... :)

Rob Cassidy said...

It is nice when you can stay with family isn't it. I hope I can travel as well as you in the future. I always spend way too much money when I am on the road.

Heather Oxborrow said...

I am definitely interested in a food post. I'm pinning this for future reference, thanks!