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My wife and I are planning a once-in-a-lifetime, 10,000-mile, coast-to-coast road trip.
The dream is an epic journey along roads less traveled, but the reality is careful planning to lower our stress, prevent mishaps and spend money where it matters and save where it doesn’t. In doing so, we’ve unearthed some great resources and made some hard decisions.
Having a plan doesn’t mean no surprises. Indeed, surprises are the point.
“Road trips are unpredictable by nature — things like inclement weather, traffic, road closures, vehicle issues ... can sneak up on you,” says Sanna Boman, editor in chief of travel planning site Roadtrippers. She recommends leaving just a little room for improvisation. A detour, she says, “often lends itself to more unexpected experiences and adventures.”
So if lockdowns or working from home has made you restless, here’s how to explore our amazing country by car.
Choosing your vehicle
This part suited me since I like buying cars and fantasizing about what to get. Here are the basic options for road trippers.
Buying or renting a van. This vehicle is often the go-to choice for retirees like us. Ultimately, I ruled it out for three reasons:
I don’t really want to go lumbering around the country in a vehicle that screams “traveler!”
After a day in a van, I doubt I'll want to sleep there too.
Poor fuel economy.
Pulling a trailer. There are lots of cute little trailers and pop-up campers available. But do I really want to drive through downtown Chicago dragging a trailer?
Renting a car. A rental car with unlimited miles would normally be a great way to keep miles off your daily driver. But with rental car prices going through the roof now, it was easy to rule out.
Taking the car in the driveway. In the end, I realized I already had the perfect road trip car: a 2014 Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen TDI. It’s got plenty of room, is inconspicuous and fun to drive and gets 40 mpg.
Preparing your car
“With a new car you probably won’t have any issues,” says David Rich, technical director for CarMD, which provides information and products to diagnose car troubles. But for older cars, a pre-trip inspection is recommended.
Before you head out:
Do any upcoming maintenance ahead of time, Rich says. This service might include replacing spark plugs, checking belts and hoses for cracks, performing oil and filter changes and a brake inspection. If the dashboard light is on, use a code reader to diagnose the issue; AutoZone and many other auto parts stores will let you borrow a scan tool for free.
Check your tread depth and tire pressure (and don’t forget the spare, if you have one). Consider bringing a can of tire sealant that can temporarily plug a leak until you get to a service station.
Look for a date on the top of your battery to determine its age. Batteries last only about three years, according to Rich. Or bring your car to an auto store for a free battery and charging system diagnosis.
Make sure you have the right tires, coolant and wiper fluid to withstand cold temperatures. If snow is expected, consider bringing tire chains.
Sign up for a roadside assistance plan by joining AAA (varies, but about $65 a year) or check if your insurance plan or credit card includes roadside assistance.
Leveraging apps and maps
Now it’s time for the fun stuff: where to go and what to see. I visited our local AAA office and came back with an armload of maps. But what hidden treasures lie along the way?
AAA’s storied TripTik service has moved online; it’s free and allows you to find and add meal, hotel and rest breaks to the route you choose, many with discounts for AAA members.
Roadtrippers, also free, plans your route in a similar way but offers greater customization, finding stops that match your interests and providing suggestions from other travelers for interesting detours.
Google Maps is a great way to quickly check traffic, find restaurants that suit your tastes and even check areas for COVID-19 information, says Google spokesperson Madison Gouveia.
As you lay out your trip, think about how far you feel comfortable driving in one day. “It’s definitely possible to drive 500 miles or more in a day — but that might not give you enough time to see and do much along the way,” Boman says. “I personally find that anywhere between 200 and 350 miles” still allows time for meals, gas, attractions and photos.
Putting it all together
You can save your travel plans in an app like Google Maps or Roadtrippers. But we put our information into a spreadsheet under these headings:
Arrival dates. This timeline is particularly important if you’re staying with friends who need a heads-up to change the sheets in the spare room.
Major destinations. These places are where we plan to sleep each night. We also listed the hotels as we booked them.
Attractions. Once you know where you're going, you can find cool things to see along the way.
Distance between destinations. I looked up the distances between our destinations on Google Maps, limiting our drives to about 400 miles a day, and then added them up. Total mileage: 10,076.
Despite what might seem like obsessive planning, we hope for the unexpected.
Boman says she's stumbled on things like “waterfalls, small town cafes full of friendly locals, ghost towns, scenic views, swimming holes and weird roadside art” on roads less traveled.
And isn’t that what drives us to wander in the first place?