Lessons from the Road

Reflecting on our cross-country road trip this year, as well as our previous trip on our way to California, I have nothing but happy memories. Even when things didn't work out perfectly (or we thought we were about to get mugged), I'm happy to have had those experiences, and I can't say I would have done things any differently.

Road tripping isn't easy, though, and you have to have the right mindset, so I here present you with my own thoughts on how to have a successful road trip.

Allison's Tips for Making Your Cross-Country Road Trip a Success

  1. Don’t over plan!
  2. Know your audience.
  3. Your car is your #1 asset.
  4. Bring water.
  5. Find some alone time.
  6. Prepare for not having cell phone reception.
  7. Take pictures, but not too many.
  8. Wear sunblock and bring a hat.
  9. Don't forget the bug stuff!

1. Don't over plan!
Take it from an over-planner - this one is really important. Whether this means not planning every roadside attraction stop, not booking all your hotels in advance, or not even deciding how many days you'll spend on the road in advance, try to let go of some part of your instinct to plan. Embrace the spirit of the road!

You could obsess for months over researching everything and making sure you hit every important landmark along the way, but building up that level of expectations is probably more detrimental than helpful. This is a lesson I've had to learn myself and am still learning.

You never know what each day will be like when you are on the road, so keeping some flexibility to adjust to everyone's needs, and to provide space for the unknown and unexpected, will make for happier road-trippers.

For us, this meant cutting Niagara Falls out of our trip, but spending more time than planned in Wyoming. We did end up eating at some less-than-stellar restaurants and sleeping on some hard beds, but each one of those moments is its own story to remember and recount.

2. Know your audience.
This is kind of an addendum to point 1. When you're figuring out just what level of planning is really required for your trip, you'll need to take into account who you are and who your trip-mates are. A family can definitely undertake a road trip, but kids absolutely require more planning than a young couple. For instance, we were prepared to camp if we had to in some of the more popular places where hotels were pricey, but if that's out of the question for you, then you'll want to plan more carefully for where you're staying or when you're going.

This also applies to the type of stops you make on your trip. Someone else's road trip highlights aren't guaranteed to be your highlights. I'm so glad we went to Chicago and that I spent time there at the Art Institute of Chicago, but for my dad and my grandpa, it was more appealing to skip Chicago in favor of northern Michigan and Wisconsin along the Great Lakes. If they had hit Chicago, I bet they would have chosen a game at Wrigley Field over a museum day.

A road trip can be many things - do what's right for you.

3. Your car is your #1 asset.
So make sure it's in good shape! Get in for a tune-up ahead of time, check your fluids before you go, and check again while you're on the road. You'll be driving through some areas with little in the way of population and resources, and you don't want to get stuck.

That said, car help exists in places you might not expect. While we were in Yellowstone, we pulled off the road at an inopportune time and ended up dragging the undercarriage along the pavement. Worried that we may have damaged something crucial, we checked and discovered that Yellowstone has a few service stations. We drove slowly and carefully to the nearest one, and a helpful (and rather laconic) mechanic told us we had nothing to worry about.

4. Bring water.
And lots of it. For us, it was summer and it was HOT almost everywhere we went. Sure, you'll want some snacks for the road, too, but most important for reducing your need to stop at every gas station and rest stop is to have enough water.

Our approach was to buy a couple gallons at a time and carry two reusable water bottles with us. This way, despite drinking bottled water for days at a time on the road, we didn't create too much trash.

5. Find some alone time.
This is probably the most continuous time you've ever spent with the person or people you are on the road with. No matter how close and compatible you are, you'll want to find time to yourself over the course of the trip so you don't start a nuclear war inside your car.

Brendan and I got some separation thanks to the fact that he needed to work, so I would do some writing or take care of some of our food or hotel booking needs.

You could spend some time each day getting some exercise on your own (you'll be doing a lot of sitting, so you'll want to find time for some movement), or consider taking a day off from driving to each do your own sightseeing or relax in your own way.

6. Prepare for not having cell phone reception.
We have loved T-Mobile while in major metropolitan areas, but when you're in the middle of the country, and even in the middle of a state, T-Mobile fails you. You'll have better luck with Verizon or AT&T, but nevertheless, be ready for losing reception at some point.

If you're like us, this means you need to prepare for navigating without Google Maps guiding you step by step. On our first cross-country trip, we got all sorts of maps from AAA ahead of time, and I don't think we used them once while we were on the road. We would just check our route at the beginning of the day, and count on the fact that there will be road signs most places. Another tactic - save offline maps, or take screen captures of the directions for reference once you're away from wi-fi. We didn't even bother with maps the second time.

We also needed a backup source of music as we usually stream from Pandora or Spotify. Dig up your old CD collection, or load up your music onto your phone, because you'll want it.

Also, consider car games you can play. You'll be doing a lot of driving, and eventually you'll get sick of listening to music and want a change of pace.

7. Take pictures, but not too many.
You'll want pictures to share with your family and friends, and to remind you of your trip in years to come. Make sure you get shots not just of the places but the people in the places because it will make them more special.

That said, if you spend all your time trying to capture the right shot or a picture of everything you see, you'll miss out on just watching the world and experiencing the trip. You'll be focused on the picture-perfect moment, not the everyday moments that make up the whole experience.

Also, remember that some things just don't come across in pictures, so it's better to just enjoy and create mental pictures.

8. Wear sunblock and bring a hat.
When you are out sightseeing, you may not think about just how long you've been out in the sun. Also, some of the places you visit are at high elevation - thinner air means more sun exposure. So sunblock yourself, and don't skimp on the SPF.

With all that sitting in the car you're going to be doing, you're not going to want to deal with the discomfort of a sunburn. I had to hold my seatbelt away from my shoulder for a full two days while my Yellowstone sunburn faded. No fun.

Also, baseball hats were not my thing before, but the hat I bought in Jackson Hole saved my face from a sunburn the next day. Now I'm a big fan if I'm going to be hiking or walking in the sun.

9. Don't forget the bug stuff!
OK, so this one is really just for Californians or those of us who had been living in California for long enough. The rest of the country is not so bug-free as what you're used to, and especially when you get into the Great Plains, those mosquitos are unbelievable. Bring bug stuff and make sure it's the hardcore kind.

10. BONUS TIP FROM BRENDAN!
"Have a good time, all the time." - Viv Savage, This is Spinal Tap