Tuesday, January 10, 2017

How to Prepare your Car for a Road Trip

Welcome back to our Planning a Back Roads Road Trip series!  This week, we'll share our suggestions for what to do to prepare your car for a road trip and what to pack to be certain you have everything you need.

When an Eagle Scout and a Girl Scout Gold Award recipient pack a car for a road trip, they tend to pack everything they could possibly need in an effort to 'Be Prepared.'  There were few times we found ourselves without an item we needed, and we thought there might be others out there who could benefit from what we learned on our 80-day road trip.  

48 No Interstate: How to Prepare your Car for a Road Trip

Traveling can get expensive, and you don't want to drop cash you planned to spend on an experience on something unnecessary or use your limited time in search of something you could have just brought with you.  Save time, stress, and $$$ by following our tips on packing and preparing your car for your road trip!

Vehicle maintenance and safety
I'm guessing you don't have 'get stuck on the side of the road due to car trouble' on your road trip itinerary.  Making sure your car is in good working order is a pretty important step to take before embarking on a road trip!
  • First and foremost, make sure your car is up-to-date on regular maintenance: oil, wiper fluid, tires, etc.  The manual that came with your car should be in the glove compartment so you can quickly identify whether any lights that show up on the dashboard during your trip require immediate attention or whether you can wait until you get home to address them.  If you're renting a car, it should come to you with regular maintenance complete and manual available in the glove compartment.
  • Make sure you have easy access to your registration and proof of insurance in case it's needed.  If it's a rental, put the rental agreement in the glove compartment or center console where you can reach it easily.
  • Don't forget your jumper cables!  Tuck them under a seat where they're out of the way but available if needed.  Hopefully, you'll never need them!
Travel club membership & Loyalty programs
Memberships in travel clubs are beneficial, providing discounts and access to free roadside assistance:
  • AAA membership card
    • AAA is not paying us to say this, and they probably don't even know we exist other than our having a membership.  I've found my AAA membership to be quite a useful tool over the years, but we really benefitted from it on this trip.  Primarily, we saved hundreds of dollars on hotels over the course of three months of travel, but many parks, museums, and other attractions also offer a AAA discount.  The rate is not always published, so just ask!  
    • Another benefit is the roadside assistance - which we were fortunate to not have to use this trip - locksmiths and free towing are the main ones that come to mind at the moment, but if you don't know how to change a tire, they can help with that, too!
  • Hotel loyalty card(s)
    • Here's another free plug for some companies:  Sign up for the loyalty program at a couple different hotel chains to earn points toward free nights.  The ones we used most were Choice Hotels (Comfort Inn/Suites, Sleep Inn, etc.) and IHG (Holiday Inn).  We got many free nights from Choice, as it was our primary hotel chain, and one or two from the handful of times we stayed at a Holiday Inn.  These hotels were clean, reasonably priced and gave us everything we needed: free breakfast, a mini refrigerator, parking (free except for large cities), wireless internet, and comfortable beds.  Most also had laundry facilities, which was important for us on such a long trip.  We enjoyed staying at a handful of locally owned bed and breakfasts during our trip, too, but primarily staying in chains was most practical as we wound up with free nights 2-3 times per week, keeping our average cost per night well under $100 for our long trip.  
When combined, these two saved us a ton of green. 

48 No Interstate: How to Prepare your Car for a Road Trip
In our garage, setting out on the first leg of our trip.

Pack the necessities
On a shorter trip, many items in the list below might seem like overkill.  But when you're traveling long term, your car becomes this weird combination of kitchen, living room, and office, and having certain road trip essentials within arm's reach can make your life easier.  For a longer trip lasting 10-14 days or more, I would highly recommend considering keeping most, if not all of the items on the list below where you can easily access them:
  • Cell phone chargers
    • You never want to be unable to communicate with the outside world in an emergency!
  • Extra camera battery
    • So you don't miss the perfect photo op!  Make sure to charge both batteries at your hotel daily.
  • Spare change for tolls
    • Within cities and on many large bridges across the country, toll roads are common.  You don't want to be 'that guy' holding up a line of cars while you search for change, and lines for 'exact change' tend to move more quickly than the ones for drivers who need change.  An old prescription canister with the label removed is perfect to fill with quarters and store in the center console.
  • Cash
    • There are many places in this world that only take cash.  Some restaurants, parking lots or meters, or roadside attractions fall into this category.  Make sure you have $20-$50 available either in your wallet or in the car (keeping it in the car instead of your wallet keeps you from accidentally spending it).  You never know when you'll need it and you'll avoid searching for an ATM by getting it in advance.  If your bank doesn't have ATMs in the area you're traveling, you can always get cash back from a purchase at a drug or grocery store to avoid the ATM fee.
  • Scissors/pocketknife, scotch tape
    • You never know when you might need to cut something up or tape something together!
  • Notebook, pens/pencils
    • To record your thoughts, write a note, create an itinerary, etc.
  • Flashlight
    • To use in the dark...hopefully only to check the map - not while stuck on the side of the road!  
  • Blanket(s)
    • In case one of you gets cold.  Or you wind up sleeping in your car.  I found my blanket helpful in shading my legs from the sun when it was shining in through the window.
  • Road map/Atlas
    • There are times when you need more than a 2" x 3" screen.  There are also times that you won't have cell phone service.  You can buy a large atlas for under $15 and it will easily slide into the space between your seat and the center console.  I traced the route on ours as we went so we'd always be able to look back and see our route.
  • GPS
    • Avoid using your cell phone data and draining your battery by purchasing an inexpensive GPS system if you don't already have one.  It's also more likely than your cell phone to work in remote areas.  It also doesn't count against your data usage, which is helpful if, like us, you don't have unlimited data.
48 No Interstate: How to Prepare your Car for a Road Trip
Rainy sunset on US 90 along the Gulf Coast in Florida
  • Spare car key
    • JUST IN CASE you lose your keys, hiding a spare car key somewhere will save you hundreds of dollars and a long wait for a locksmith (Even with a AAA membership, this can be a very expensive and time consuming process if your key is computerized.  We didn't have a problem on this trip but did once in the past and it was a pain and also cost an arm and a leg on top of the amount that AAA covered.).  
      • A purse or wallet will allow you to keep a spare key with you at all times, assuming you don't lose your purse or wallet - in which case you have a bigger problem!  
      • A magnetic box attached to the underside of the car is another option; I can't say whether it will stay there over thousands of miles, though.  
      • Last, you can keep it in a safe place inside the car and use your AAA membership to call a locksmith to unlock your car for free.
  • Sunglasses
    • Great for bright days, especially as you drive due West directly into a sunset or due East directly into a sunrise.
  • Sunscreen
    • Use it!  Even in a car, your arms and face are pretty exposed.  If you stop to hike or have a picnic, you'll be glad you have it.
  • Gloves
    • In case it gets cold.
  • First aid kit
    • Complete with a few bandaids and a small container of advil/other painkiller, cold/flu and motion sickness medicine, etc. to keep you from having to find a pharmacy or overpay at a gas station if these items become necessary.  You could also keep this in your suitcase.
  • Chapstick and lotion
    • If you're going anywhere in the West, this is a necessity.  We're used to high humidity in Columbia, SC, so when we got into west Texas and beyond, my hands and lips dried out and I was constantly lathering up.  This is also when it became hard to drink enough water to not be thirsty all the time!
  • Hand sanitizer!
    • There are a lot of gross gas stations in the US that don't keep up with refilling their soap dispensers.  In middle of nowhere in the west and in many national parks, there are a lot of...outhouses.  Keep the hand sanitizer close.  You'll be glad you did.
  • Food.  A cooler for the cold stuff.  A cardboard box for the rest.
    • Taking food with us allowed us to save time and money on lunches most days by eating the roadtrip staple lunch of PBJs.  Midmorning yogurt held us over until lunchtime.  Tortilla chips and salsa were a favorite midafternoon snack.  Having the snacks with us kept us from having to search for food when we got hungry.
    • We packed a few essentials like yogurt, a couple of soft drinks in case the need for extra caffeine arose, salsa, jelly for sandwiches, etc.  At night, we would store these in the hotel mini fridge.  We didn't have a problem getting ice at most hotels, though there were a few with signs posted asking guests not to use the ice to fill coolers.  On those days, we picked up a bag at a gas station or grocery store.  Each time we headed to the store to restock our food supply, we also picked up fruit like grapes, apples, or bananas (a few times we'd take one to go from the hotel breakfast buffet), but they don't last long in the car without getting bruised, so we had to eat them quickly. 
    • In the cardboard box, we kept pretzels, sandwich bread, peanut butter, Pringles, almonds, tortilla chips, plastic spoons and knives, paper towels, and a few non-chocolate (hot sun + car + chocolate = disaster) treats. 
    • We used our spare blanket and jackets to cover the cooler and box to keep the sun from shining directly on them as we traveled, helping to keep the cooler cool and protect the pantry items in the cardboard box.  Sweaty bread = gross.  Also, does peanut butter melt?  We didn't want to find out.
  • Water.
    • Save money by buying a large pack of water at a grocery store instead of individually at the gas station.  We reused our bottles a few times before opening new ones and kept 2-3 liter bottles of water in the cooler each day to make sure we were never thirsty.  If you're a fan of soft drinks, buy them at the grocery store, too, just be prepared to look for restrooms more often!
    • I also kept a gallon jug of water in the back for JUST IN CASE we got stranded in the middle of nowhere.  We never had to use it, though.  :-)
  • Windshield screen
    • Hot sun + car = uncomfortable.  We only needed ours a few times, and it fit nicely in the pocket on the back of the driver's seat out of the way the rest of the time.
Congratulations for making it through the list!  Each item above was carefully considered before making the list, and we never once regretted having any of the items.  It took a little longer to pack and unpack at the beginning and end of our trip, but on all the days in between it was great to know we had what we needed and wouldn't wind up having to drop a chunk of change on some item that we could have just packed from home for free, or use up an afternoon in search of some necessity instead of exploring the country, which is, of course, the reason we took the trip in the first place!

48 No Interstate: How to Prepare your Car for a Road Trip
Langtry, Texas.  That's Mexico in the background.

Are there any items you would recommend to other travelers?  Share them in the comments section below!

Happy travels!

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  1. I can't think of better people to get a list of how to be prepared then an Eagle Scout and a Girl Scout Award recipient. You guys have a fantastic list!! We always travel with the kids and there is no better reason to be prepared than having the kids along!! We will be road tripping this spring and will be uber prepared now. :)

    1. Good luck with your upcoming trip! We don't really have any tips for traveling with kids, but if they are into Harry Potter at all, I would highly recommend the audiobooks. They are recorded by Jim Dale, who does a great job with the voices - and the adults would probably enjoy them, too. :-)