I wondered whether we were planning our road trip too meticulously by having accommodations booked for every night of our monthlong expedition. Would this keep us on too much of a schedule and suppress spontaneity that can be one of the benefits of a road trip?
We called an audible on Day 19, canceling our Springfield, Mass., hotel room for that night and then waiting a few hours before booking in Providence, R.I. Big mistake. Everything was booked. It was prime summer vacation season on the East Coast, after all. We spread the net wider, called more hotel chains, and still the only room we found was $400 a night and two hours in the wrong direction.
Lesson learned: Even when enjoying the freedom of the open road, planning is essential. If you’re scheduling a road trip of any length this summer, there are tips that will take the stress out of your adventure.
▪ Select your route and study it. If you’re doing anything longer than a loose weekend trip within the state, it’s best to plan your route and study where you’re going. AAA offers maps customized to your route called TripTik, and they include notice of road construction with alternate routes. AAA advises that you order TripTik two to three weeks before your departure date. The best source for where to go and what to do could be your friends or friends of friends. Put a note on Facebook listing your future destination (but not specifics about when you are going) and see what suggestions are offered on what to see and do.
▪ Buy a AAA membership. Not only will the roadside assistance provide peace of mind, you can use your membership for free maps and guidebooks as well as discounts at many attractions. Having backup paper maps and guidebooks will come in handy if you find yourself with no cell service.
▪ Pick a GPS to use. There are many GPS units and GPS apps available; find one you like and learn to use it before you head out. We mostly used Google Maps on my iPhone 5s, although while driving through larger cities, I tried Waze, a community-based traffic and navigation app that allows other drivers to report traffic jams. It gave us alternate routes to avoid backups.
▪ Reserve accommodations and keep confirmations handy. If you want to retain some spontaneity to change plans, make reservations at places that accept cancellations up to the day of your stay. If your trip involves many different locations, an app like TripIt will keep all your details in one place and offer quick access to confirmation numbers, type of room booked, address, phone number and cancellation policies. Frequent bargain-hunters might want to avoid booking through discount sites (which often don’t have as liberal cancellation policies) and instead join a loyalty program. If your trip is long enough, you might earn a free night, and we found that we were assigned better rooms by booking directly through the hotel, especially when we alerted the hotel if we’d be arriving late.
▪ Consider buying attraction tickets in advance. If you’re driving to a particular destination to attend a specific event or attraction, buy your tickets in advance to avoid disappointment if they should sell out. If you’re more flexible, wait to book in case your schedule changes or weather intervenes. For example, we waited until the night prior or day of to book excursions like kayaking and whale watching in Maine so that we could enjoy calm water and warm temperatures.
▪ Download apps and have music for the drive. There are thousands of apps to choose from; those most-used by other travelers are the most trustworthy. Consider TripAdvisor for guidance on food, accommodations and activities at your destination. Yelp is excellent for restaurant reviews as well as attractions. Roadside America offers tips on quirky sights along your drive that you could easily miss without notice (think the larger-than-life Mr. Potato Head at Hasbro Headquarters in Pawtucket, R.I.). The Roadninja app will list shopping, hotels, drugstores, medical services, gas stations, attractions and nightlife near your current location. It divides restaurants into categories such as desserts, seafood, tacos and vegetarian. You might also consider a satellite radio subscription service so you have many music and talk radio options, or just load up the iPod.
▪ Have your vehicle ready to go. Have all scheduled preventive maintenance done several weeks before your departure date. Mention to your technician that you’re planning a road trip and ask for a thorough check to ensure everything is in good shape based on the length of your trip. Before leaving your driveway, check your vehicle’s fluids, and ensure you have the tools and a working spare in case you need to change a flat.
▪ Carry an emergency kit. According to AAA, an emergency kit should include a flashlight, extra batteries, warning devices such as flares or reflective triangles, jumper cables, a first-aid kit and extra water.
▪ Plan for international driving. If your road trip includes Canada or Mexico, check with your insurance carrier to find out what you might need. For example, American Family Insurance provided us with free documentation that covered us for the eight days we were driving in Canada.
▪ Watch your gas level. You’re likely traveling through unknown areas where there could be many miles between gas stations. Never get below one-quarter of a tank of gas. The GasBuddy app allows you to locate gas and prices throughout the U.S. and Canada.
▪ Pack the vehicle for safety. Pack your vehicle so that valuables are not visible when you leave it parked. If you have a glove box or console that locks, use it to secure wallets, phones and other small electronics if you make a stop, to hike for instance, and don’t want to carry these items.
▪ Keep a travel diary. Journals Unlimited offers a spiral-bound “Write It Down” series to make keeping track of your journey easy as it’s happening. My Road Trip Journal gives you a page of questions per day to record where you were, or the Visiting the 50 State Journal breaks the trip up by state. Another option is to keep a photo/video diary on Instagram and create a unique hashtag that nobody else will use, for example #schummer14.