photo courtesy of 1950s Unlimited @ creative commons
The great American road trip has a vaunted place in this country's history, and rightfully so. After all, we've been hitting the open road since the days when the family wagon had "Conestoga" chiseled on the wood panels.
Every road trip is memorable in its own way. Many of those memories, though, include overheating engines, circling vultures and expensive stays at bed-lice-ridden motels in two-bit towns — moments most of us would have preferred to avoid.
In that spirit, here are our Top 10 Road Trip Tips.
May the remembrances of your next road trip bring a smile to your face, rather than inducing a bad case of post-traumatic stress.
1. Get Your Car Checked Out
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Or, put another way, do you want to risk passing through the digestive system of wolves because of a loose hose clamp? We didn't think so.
Get your vehicle thoroughly serviced before you go. Wondering what to have checked? We shamelessly suggest the checklists in our Summer Driving Tips, Winter Driving Tips and our Service Advice area. If you need a good mechanic, you can check our humungous database of listener-recommended garages at the Mechanics Files.
2. Build In Rest Days
Are you going on a vacation — or a forced march? Give yourself a break!
When you're planning your itinerary, add in a few extra rest days. You'll enjoy the trip more, and since you'll be taxing your car less, it will be a bit less likely to break down. And you'll have time for that unplanned stop to see the World Famous Ear Wax Collection. (OK, there's not really a World Famous Ear Wax Collection. You weren't really looking forward to that, were you?)
3. Bring a Basic Repair Kit
Have a repair kit on hand for fixes you might be able to take care of yourself. At the very least, bring a few different sizes of regular and Phillips-head screwdrivers, vice grips, bailing wire to secure an errant muffler and a roll of duct tape. You can get a full list of suggestions over at our Roadside Survival Guide.
4. Grab Car Talk's Breakdown Lane App
Shameless Alert! We've got the perfect accessory for road trips, if we do say so ourselves: our Breakdown Lane application for iPhone users. No matter where you are in the country, Breakdown Lane will show you an instant map of the closest mechanics and their customer rankings, complete with reviews and ratings from Car Talk website visitors. It's bad enough to be broken down on the same road that the Joads took out of Oklahoma. Do you really need the extra hassle of Vern and the funny-looking old man he calls "Cousin Sue" charging you for repairs you don't need?
While you're considering apps, check out the full list of listener-recommended apps, right here.
Added bonus: Jump-starting and tire-changing instructions are "burned into" the Car Talk Breakdown Lane app, so even if you're miles from the nearest cell tower, Tom and Ray are still on your phone to help you get back on the road.
5. Join a Travel Club
If you're not already a member of a travel club, join one before you leave on your adventure. It will save you a hassle right at the moment that you least need another migraine. There's always AAA, which has affiliates almost everywhere. But if you don't agree with AAA's self-serving push for highways over public transportation, check out the Better World Club or an auto club offered by your car's manufacturer.
6. Don't Drive 15 Hours a Day
Think your reaction time is just as good at 10 p.m. as it was at 7 a.m.? You crack us up! (And you might crack yourself up.) Professional truckers aren't supposed to drive more than 11 hours in a 14-hour workday — and neither should you.
Even when you keep it under 11 hours, it's still important to stop frequently. Make sure you drink plenty of fluids to stay hydrated. It's good for you, and it will force you to pull over frequently and take pit stops!
Our recommendation? A 15- to 30-minute doughnut and caffeine break (or carrot and tofu juice for some of you) along with a stretch every few hours.
7. Don't Drive at a Sustained High Speed All Day Long
When you're getting hypnotized by the sight of cornstalks for hours on end, it's easy to find yourself doing 85 mph. (Not that we've ever done that, mind you.) Wind resistance increases exponentially with speed, so driving fast places a huge demand on your car's engine. The end result? Your car is working a lot harder than it works at 55 or 65 mph. Stick to the speed limit, and you'll prolong the life of your engine's lubricant and, in turn, the life of your engine's components. And it will reduce the chance of a flaming breakdown in, say, Bugtussle, Ky.
8. Check the Air Pressure, Including the Spare
Quiz question: How many tires does a car have? If you guessed five, you can skip to our next tip.
Don't forget about your spare. Before you leave for your trip, check its pressure, and make sure you have everything you need to install it in the event of a flat.
As for the other tires, late-model cars all have tire pressure monitors on the four active tires. But if you're driving something with a few years on the clock, remember to check the tire pressure daily on long trips. Improper air pressure can lead to poor handling or, in extreme cases, overheating tires and a blowout.
9. Pay Attention to Gauges — and Watch the Road
The gauges on your vehicle aren't there just to make the dash look pretty. They're there for a reason: Eventually, something will go wrong — and the gauges might tip you off before it's too late.
For specific tips for five of your car's most important gauges, see the rundown here.
And when your eyes aren't on the gauges, they should be on the road, not on the screen of your smartphone. Over the last decade, driver distraction has become one of the leading causes of accidents. Relax, listen to some music, enjoy the scenery, and save the cellphone calls for your next bathroom break!
10. Going Up a Mountain? Back Off on the Throttle
If you're taking a long road trip, at some point you'll have to cross a small mountain range like, say, the Rockies or the Appalachians. Back off on the throttle. Many people assume they are required by natural law to maintain the same speed going up a mountain that they've maintained on Interstate 80 through Iowa. Not true. Your engine is working a lot harder to get your car up a hill, so by slowing down a bit, you'll save wear and tear, reduce the damage done by overheating, and you'll improve your gas mileage. Here's another good reason: There are plenty of places without guardrails. We rest our case.
11. Skip the Junk Food
Roadside convenience stores are notorious for lousy food. If pork rinds and a Slurpee aren't your idea of a great road trip lunch, bring a cooler on your adventure. In the morning, fill it with ice and drop by a decent supermarket. The ice should keep things cool until the next morning, when you can refresh it. Then, when the munchies hit, at least you won't be insulting your body with food products whose ingredients were developed in a secret lab in New Jersey.
12. Bring Along Your Mother-in-Law
It will guarantee that your trip will be memorable.
13. Whatever Happens, Relax. Remember: You're on Vacation
Whatever you do, don't forget to have fun. Send us some photos, too, OK? Bon voyage!