For the last four days, I have been sitting on my ass. On a road trip across the U.S. There’s been rainstorms and monotonous landscape. Road rage and lessons on driving manual (success!) All the while, immobile and rapidly gaining weight despite all best intentions. We had finished with our one joyful objective of the trip— drive through Glacier National Park— and now had the duty of returning a car back to Boston ASAP. With nothing to stare at for days on end (especially through patches of the midwest and northern New York), our road trip was looking less “trippy” than shitty.
Alas, the great American road trip is not always as ideal. Maybe, like us, you are constrained by time and money. Or, you have oodles of freedom to transverse the country thanks to a move, an epiphany, or deserved unemployment. Whatever the case, there are ways to ease the pain that inevitably coincides with road trips. Or at least things you can do to make your mind and heart work, since your bum can’t.
1. Don’t bring a cooler.
It doesn’t matter where you are in this beautiful country, there’s plenty of good food out there. Not just good food. #Regional, #local, #authentic cuisine you probably aren’t even aware of (huckleberry!). Forget micromanaging a cooler full of snacks… use this opportunity, this road trip, to Google the shit out of where you are. Skirt the bigger major cities to avoid parking fees and unnecessary traffic. Smaller cities, especially cities surviving on the fumes of their big sisters, are a likely option.
Otherwise, keep your eyes out for U-pick stands. AND super local coffee shops. Even roadside attractions featuring a star food (Corn Palace, anyone?) You still will probably end up snacking on unhealthy gas station food no matter what (Because caffeine. And yum, what is this chocolate-covered THING?!) But those local finds and the conversations you’ll have at them— “I used to be porn star”— will obviously cancel out any gas station gluttony. If you do want to plan snacks, check out The Sliced Life for some ideas.
2. Always fill up the gas tank the night before.
Speaking of gas stations, this one is key. Fill her up to avoid the hassle in the morning. At dawn, the last thing you want to do is have to immediately stop at a gas station. You’ll want to get on the road and cram in some productive hours of driving before traffic even considers hitting the snooze button. Plus, many rural gas stations aren’t open 24/7 and you’ll be out of luck anyway.
3. Download a shit ton of podcasts.
Yes. You may have crafted the perfect driving playlist (I advise starting with “Running on Empty” by Jackson Browne). But unless you have prepared days worth of music, your shuffle may inevitably end up on a snoozer. And that’s when you run yourself off the road, lulled to sleep by a Norah Jones ballad. Save music for post-coffee, daylight chat hours. Opt for podcasts all the other hours. Why? They keep you awake. If it’s a good one, your mind will be churning with new information. It’ll also give you and your driving companion(s) something to debate about after.
My favorites are Freakonomics, Stuff you Should Know, and The Sporkful… all fantastically interesting podcasts that have gotten me through marathon training sessions and long drives, both utterly boring endeavors. Star Tribune just came out with an interesting list of good ones for Summer 2017.
4. Get AAA.
I know this one goes without saying but yeah. AAA pays for itself. Not only does it save you when you break down in the middle of nowhere, but there’s tons of other travel perks that are rarely advertised. Like cheaper amusement park tickets. Hotel rooms. And LIQUOR. Winning!
5. Stop for quirky roadside attractions.
Certain midwestern states offer little entertainment. Maybe a plucky deer at 5 a.m. to keep you on your toes. Some corn. An interesting billboard that advises drivers to “Be polite” (no lie). But even the more attraction-heavy states can be lackluster interstate-side. Break up long hauls and give your sore bum a rest by stopping along the way at the kinds of attractions that rarely make traveler’s bucket lists.
As they say, when you see a sign for the world’s biggest snake, you pull over! Or, do yourself a favor and actually plan these stops in. Search your location in Atlas Obscura and pick out something random. Or look for blogs that highlight spots along select highways, like this one by Roadtrippers on I-90. Otherwise, you would miss unique slices of American history and culture. Like Salem Sue, the world’s largest Holstein cow. Or the Christmas Story House. Or the world’s smallest church. Find one in every state via this list by Travel + Leisure.
6. Get an early start.
Work out a driving schedule so one of you can gets up at 3 a.m. to start the drive. As mentioned before, logging in some serious hours before the rest of the world wakes up leaves you with a good feeling. While one of you drives, the other wakes up one or two states later. Have some breakfast and coffee then switch off. It’s a solid, satisfying system. Plus, getting up that early presents you with some epic sunrises, wildlife spotting (hopefully not directly in front of your bumper), and a relaxing chance for me time.
7. Routinely double check traffic up ahead.
For the most part, you’ll be driving without any need to consult traffic conditions. Or even a map if your route is as straightforward as ours was. But around the cities, especially during rush hour, Google Maps is your pal. Of course it lets you know— with a whole lotta red— that hells about to break loose, but it isn’t that intuitive. Help your pal out by refreshing your map as soon as you sense impending doom. Better yet, turn your wi-fi on. Doesn’t even matter if you’re connected or not… the location stalking feature somehow magically connects you to the bigger world and gives you a more accurate update. Let me them creepily track you. It saves you time in a car.
8. Pack with comfort in mind.
Road trip travel requires a very special list of items, much different than the one I offered for backpacking trips. It’s all about comfort this time around. Comfort and convenience. First things first, bring your favorite airplane travel pillow. If you’re smart, you’ll be able to both benefit from naps and getting miles logged. I am now a big fan of my new odd-shaped Travelrest one (see link below). I look like an idiot whilst in use but I have achieved something unheard of in my years of airplane travel: sleep.
Next, for beauty. Sunscreen for those endless rays that attack you through the windows. Baby wipes for your stinky self. And a toothbrush and toothpaste for gas station stops. Finally, get yourself a reusable coffee mug. I’ve been without one for so long and have wasted a mountain of disposable coffee cups in my months of travel. The one below by Klean Kanteen is rocking my world— keeps the coffee steamy and I can throw it around the car without spill. Travel Fashion Girl has a much more extensive list if you got the time.
9. Choose your hands free wise devise wisely.
If you’re using your phone to navigate, play tunes or podcasts, or for anything else, you need something seriously accessible. We recommend one that doesn’t sit on your dashboard or attaches to the window. One that both people can reach. Like one that attaches to your vent, of which many options exist on Amazon. These babies are at a great eye level, without being distracting.
We were not on the kind of road trip that gave us the freedom to Couchsurf, our favorite mode of accommodation. And surfing. As I discussed before, Couchsurfing allows you to stay with locals for free, in the sense that you are expected to participate in friendly travel exchange. I haven’t done a whole lot of surfing in the U.S. but I’ve definitely done some hosting. In California, I hosted bikers, backpackers, and interesting duos all happy to sleep on my air mattress and cook a delicious meal together. We can’t wait to Couchsurf in the northeast on weekend trips as well as host in downtown Boston. Note that if you do Couchsurf, please be aware of your schedule and that you have the time to actually spend time with your hosts. Otherwise, you’re just another shitty freeloader. Of which there are plenty in the Couchsurfing realm.
For more road trip tips and tricks… Clark Condensed offers some sound travel hacks and apps for your next road trip. A personal favorite: Going Zero Waste has some great tips on how to make your road trip waste free.