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Consider the road trip

Airports are a nightmare. What about driving instead?

An illustration of a car parked on the edge of a cliff, as a man and a dog sit and look out at a beach in the distance.
Avoid the airport chaos, roll your windows down, and take to the road for a trip to remember.
Getty Images/fStop

The theory of relativity is felt most strongly in a vehicle. A broken AC, busted speakers, or your brother-in-law’s stories from his frat days can make the miles pass so slowly, you wonder if the universe needs a change of battery. Yet, sitting shotgun with the love of your life with a perfect windows-down breeze, it feels like you could drive for days.

There’s only so much you can control inside a car, and how much you prepare will make all the difference in how your ride feels. So if you’re planning a long car trip and the road ahead feels daunting, we’ve gathered some tips from experts to help. I personally became an expert last year, by surviving, nay, thriving, on a 10-day trip moving from one corner of the country to the other.

Here’s how you can put more joy into travel on the open road.

Why the car?

The open road has become the shinier option again as airports around the country descend into madness. The shortage of 32,000 commercial pilots, mechanics, and air traffic controllers is estimated to cause issues for the next 10 years.

Even if you avoid the long security lines and the nearly one out of every four flights that are delayed, you’re packed tight with The Others, unable to move your elbows without having to apologize. Of course a plane is faster than a car, but if you factor in the 90-minute arrival window, drive to the airport, luggage wait time, and driving to your destination, it may be closer in duration than you might initially think.

In your own car, there’s a looser limit on what you can pack, and you can take more than a three-day supply of shampoo. Plus, driving yourself can save you the trouble of needing to book a rental car for your destination.

In a survey by United Tires, almost nine out of 10 people said road trips are “one of the best ways for families to bond.” Or kill each other. Let’s help you make it the first one.

Primp and prep your ride

“Do we need seat cushions?” I texted my best friend.

“No,” she responded so quickly that I was sure she knew my Amazon cart was full of anxiety purchases. She would soon fly to Seattle to drive with me and all my worldly possessions 2,993 miles to Florida, across the street from her house, where I was moving. I was determined to make sure that the 43 hours we would spend in the car together would not be a stress test of our friendship.

I was in disaster-prevention mode. How could we keep the vibe high?

I tried to think of anything that could be mildly annoying. My first thought was the sun. For this, I got two sets of sun shades, and they were the MVP of the trip. The first set expanded on wire rims and stuck to the glass, and were see-through. They gave us shade, but didn’t black out the outside world entirely.

The second set came in the shape of each window of the vehicle, and used magnets to stick to the frame, providing a complete opaque box. This made security easier, with no one being able to see in the car. It also made it into a dressing room when needed.

I purchased seat belt covers, so that in our summer tank tops, we didn’t have rough straps digging into our collarbones. Even to this day, when people get in my car, they feel them and say “Ooh.”

I probably didn’t need the padded steering wheel cover, but you know what, that breathable microfiber was a lifesaver on my sweaty hands driving at noon in the Nebraska sun.

The glove compartment had reading material, wipes, and napkins. I made sure a cooler was accessible, and to keep things exciting, I brought bougie treats to ration out across the journey, from smoked salmon to a ginger dark chocolate bar. We packed reusable plastic plates and bamboo cutlery to reduce waste.

I also organized the hell out of the car. I have one of those deep center consoles, and I put mini Tupperware in there to separate and store coins, cords, and various sauce packets I’ve collected, a habit I became more serious about since I heard about that man trapped in his snowed-in vehicle who survived five days on Taco Bell hot sauce. My best friend mocked this sauce container, until she got a gas station sandwich on the very last day that, lo and behold, lacked both mayo and mustard, two mainstays stocked in the sauce container.

Safety first

If you’re handy, you can check out your car yourself. Look at the brakes, tires, and fluids. But if you’re anything like me, you should get a professional thumbs up.

“If you’re maintaining your car properly, you may not need to take it to a mechanic or a technician to have them take a look at it,” said David Bennett of AAA, an ASE master certified technician with more than 35 years in the industry. Be sure to head to the mechanic shop well in advance of your road trip — don’t take your car in the week of or day before your trip. “If something’s wrong, and they have to order a part, you want to give them time to be able to do that,” Bennett said.

AAA’s emergency kit list includes a flashlight and extra batteries, first-aid supplies, drinking water, non-perishable snacks for both people and pets, car battery booster cables, emergency flares or reflectors, a rain poncho, a basic tool kit, duct tape, gloves, and shop rags or paper towels. May I also recommend peanut M&Ms?

Bennett also suggests bringing a blanket or towel to lie down on in case you need to look under the car, and gloves in case things get messy (or in case the chocolate melts).

Other safety tips include a paper map, because you never know when GPS can fail. And also, please, get a phone holder that actually holds the phone. Not the one you bought off Instagram with a suction cup that couldn’t hold a pouf to a shower tile. Who wants to spend time searching the floor of the passenger side for your iPhone? It’s as annoying as it is unsafe.

Speaking of emergencies, let’s talk music. Download your playlists in advance so you don’t lose your flow. I have a playlist called “Belting,” which is my favorite list to sing, and you may create more harmony in the car if you use Spotify’s Blend feature, which creates playlists that pull from each person’s taste.

It’s a great idea to discuss the entertainment ahead of time. If you run out of things to talk about, you might have lined up a podcast you both want to check out. If you’re not lucky enough to be traveling with someone you’re particularly close to, it might be a good idea to fill the air with an audiobook.

“If you’re traveling with a friend, have them bring their favorite album, or their favorite mix or whatever,” said Bennett, “and see if maybe you’ll learn something new.”

Plan for the what-ifs

While you’re out there on the open road, you still have to think about being prepared.

“I would not let your gas tank fall below a quarter of a tank at any point in time,” Bennett said. “Because you never know when you could get stuck. We’ve seen it in wintertime. We’ve seen it in summertime.”

It’s only when people are stuck for hours that they usually remember that gas is their entire power source on the road. You need gas for heating and for cooling, as well as the radio and even to charge your phone.

He also suggested packing a cooler with drinks and food, evoking the 2022 I-95 shutdown in Virginia that had some people locked in their vehicles overnight.

“Plan ahead for the what-ifs,” he said.

Aside from entertainment, it’s good to come with at least a loose route and stopping plan. The king of the road trip apps in my opinion is Roadtrippers, which allows you to create a trip and search along the route for everything from places to camp to restaurants to mechanics. You can add stops to your trip, and get automatic estimated drive time and gas cost. You can add collaborators to share the trip, so that your passenger has a way to find out how much time you have left without interrupting your high notes during “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

Roadtrippers has the option to get offline maps, but it’s still a good idea to bring a printed map for any location you’re planning to drive through.

Who are you wearing?

“It’s all about the clothing,” said Brandon Schultz, contributor to Fodor’s Best Road Trips in the USA. “With so much time spent sitting in a small space, you’ve got to be comfortable.”

He suggests loose-fitting clothes, and long sleeves and pants whenever possible to keep you warmer when it’s cold outside, but also keep you comfortable if the air conditioner is on in summer. He also mentioned that the extra padding with layered clothing helps pad your joints when jostling with the car doors, consoles, and each other.

But it’s also important to not overpack.

“I’m a chronic overpacker, so I know it’s not easy, but you will spend a lot of time cooped up in a vehicle, wishing for more space,” said Schultz. “Luggage, entertainment, snacks — it all eats up the little room you already have, so bring less and thank yourself later.”

Consider your personal security

Kay Kingsman, who writes The Awkward Traveller, started road tripping as an Army brat, making drives like Alabama to California with every move.

She loves the freedom of the road, the fact that you can be spontaneous, turning down any side road you want. But, as a Black woman, she also must consider her safety. Many cities have Black Facebook groups that she uses as a resource for road tripping.

“If I’m driving somewhere I’ve never been, I will post in that group asking if there’s any particular spots or towns along the drive that I should avoid stopping through (aka sundown-esque towns) just for an added bit of reassurance in my drive from people in the area,” she said. It’s a sad reality, but drivers should always consider the safety of their route, surroundings, and destination.

Kingsman keeps a taser and pepper spray in her car just in case. And once, when she was followed for about an hour, even off an exit and into a parking lot, she was glad to have her dashcam.

If she’s traveling alone, she plans ahead so that she won’t have to stop for gas in the dark. With this, she travels by herself quite a bit, recently completing two months driving around 14 states in the southeastern US. “I usually do at least one good road trip a year,” she said, “if not more.”

Lessons from 10 days on the road

It helps to vary the style of travel from day to day. My best friend and I drove two long days, including one of 12 hours on the road, in order to make it for Tedeschi Trucks at Red Rocks. Then we rested for two days. We stayed with friends, and we stayed in a nice hotel. The trip felt like a flight of beer, but for cities. A taste of Park City, a sip of Nashville.

Make time for silliness. We pulled over for the world’s largest Czech egg, and we were not disappointed. Communicate about the goals for reaching the location and how much temporal padding to have; enough so that you can dally, but not so much that you stress out your co-pilots.

And with all the prep, the drive turned from a chore to an adventure, the miles under our tires practically the best part.

Paulette Perhach is a freelance writer and writing coach covering creativity, personal finance, business, life design, and travel.

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