The classic road trip. Miles of open road spread out before you. Blue skies. Sunglasses. Wind in your hair. Smiling faces. There’s nothing like it! Are you planning a road trip? Check out this ultimate guide including everything you need to prepare for and think about for the trip of a lifetime!

Do you feel like you might be forgetting something? Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. After dozens and dozens of road trips, we finally sat down and debriefed our experiences and come up with the ultimate list of things you need to do to prepare for your next road trip. Don’t be caught on the side of the road. From topping off fluids in your vehicle, to packing the best fluids for your family, the perfect road trip starts with preparation.

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Why a Road Trip is the Right Decision

There are lots of reasons why taking a road trip is an excellent decision. These are some of my favorite reasons to hit the road.

  1. It saves you money. You pay virtually the same amount for gas whether you have one person in the car or 6, so why not fill it up?
  2. Air travel isn’t what it used to be. Have you seen pictures of people flying in the 50’s and 60’s? When people wore suits in the plane? Those days are long gone. It’s now more comfortable in your average city bus or subway train (smells better, too).
  3. It gives you perspective. You get a new sense of wonder at the vastness of this land.
  4. Driving allows you to see the countryside. From someone painting a water tower in Kansas, to a farmer proudly plowing his fields in Iowa. A billboard for a local BBQ joint, and mom-and-pop gas stations with the sign out front falling off. You’ll see slums, architecture, nature, new sights.
  5. New experiences. Encounter smells, tastes, and conversations along the way with accents you practice to yourself later in the car.

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Let’s Get Prepared

I’ve broken this article down into four main parts:

  1. Mental Preparation
  2. Vehicle Preparation
  3. Route Preparation
  4. Comfort Preparation
  5. Packing Lists
  6. Resources

Alright, let’s get started!

1. Mental Preparation

As your first step in preparation, if you have some time before your trip, read one or more of the classic books on road trips to get yourself in the mood. Settle in and re-discover America with Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck (Charley is the dog). Or experience On the Road by Jack Kerouac. Or peruse F. Scott Fitzgerald’s – The Cruise of the Rolling Junk.

      

Alright, we’re all convinced, enough with the romanticizing! How can we practically make this happen?

2. Vehicle Preparation

A road trip isn’t much of a trip if you’re stranded alongside the road. For this reason, it makes sense to conduct a basic vehicle inspection before you head out. Make sure you check the following items to make the road trip a success.

  • List of most common road-side breakdowns – statistically speaking
    • overheating – from driving so long
    • flat tire
    • dead battery

Basic Vehicle Inspection

A vehicle inspection doesn’t have to be complicated, and this is definitely something you can do on your own, even if you’re not a motor-head, but if you really don’t know washer fluid from motor oil, you can take it to a mechanic.

Check and Top-off Fluids

  • Motor Oil. Check the oil and make sure the oil level is between the min and max indicators. If the length of the trip will put you over about 5000 miles since the last oil change, go ahead and change the oil.
  • Coolant. Check the coolant (antifreeze) level and top it off. Over-heating is one of the most common break-downs that occur on road trips, since the engine is running for long periods of time, often in warm weather. Make sure you have enough coolant to keep the engine cool.

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Check and Change Air Filters

  • Engine Filter. Inspect and change the engine air filter. Also related to the coolant, make sure your engine air filter is not clogged, so that the engine is getting plenty of fresh, filtered air.
  • Cabin Filter. Your vehicle has another filter, the cabin air filter. You’ll be spending a lot of time in that car, make sure the air you breathe is as fresh as possible by changing the cabin air filter.

Inspect and Inflate Tires

  • Tire Pressure. Inflate all your tires to the proper pressure. Check your owners manual for the recommended values. Don’t over-, or under-inflate the tires. Long trips can cause the
  • Spare Tire. Don’t forget to check the spare tire as well. Make sure it is accessible and properly inflated in case of a flat tire!
  • Tire Tread. Check the tread depth. Make sure you have sufficient tire tread on your tires.
  • Tire Damage. Inspect the tires for any signs of damage, such as gashes, bubbles, or tears. Road trips can be hard on tires due to the extended periods of wear and heating, so any damage can potentially be made worse under these conditions.
  • Tire Rotate and Balance. When was the last time you had your tires rotated? In order to assure even wear of all your tires, have them rotated every 15,000 miles or so. If the trip will take you  past this distance since the last rotation, consider rotating the tires early.

Brake System Check

  • Brake Pads. How much more life do you have on your brake pads? Check the brake pads for wear, and if it has been a while, or if the wear-surface is less than 5 mm thick, change the brake pads.
  • Brake Vibration. Do you experience brake vibration or shimmying when the brakes are applied? Or does the vehicle pull left or right when applying brakes? You may have warped rotors that should be replaced or a stuck caliper pin.
  • Parking Brake. Also, be sure to check your parking brake. When applied, it should be able to hold the car stationary on a hill.

Miscellaneous Maintenance Checks

  • Belts. Check the belts in your vehicle for cracks, and undue wear. Road trips are hard on belts, too, as they remain in use for long periods of time causing heating and stretching.
  • Steering. Does the vehicle pull to the right or the left? If so, you may need a wheel alignment.
  • Check Engine Light. If the check engine light (CEL) is on, Invest in a cheap OBD2 engine reader and check the codes. Search for them online to determine what you engine is telling you. Resolve engine problems before you embark!
  • Battery. Check your battery. Clean off any corrosion that has formed around the terminals. Make sure the positive and negative terminals are tight and secure.
  • Lights. Do a quick check of your lights. Ask a friend to stand outside the vehicle as you tap the brakes, turn on the headlights and high-beams, turn signals, and reverse lights. Brake lights in particular are prone to burning out, since they are turned on and off repeatedly every time you apply the brakes. Replace any burnt out lights so that you don’t get pulled over far from home!
  • Wipers. Check the condition of your wipers. If they leave streaks or have cracks, replace them.  Don’t forget to check the rear wiper blade too, if you have one.

Maintenance Items to Keep in the Car

It is a good idea to keep a set of basic tools and supplies in your car, just in case you need them. The following is a pretty comprehensive list of the items you should have in your vehicle for a road trip, and really at all times!

  • Jumper Cables. “Who left the interior light on last night?” Have a set of jumper cables just in case you end up with a dead battery, a kind stranger can give you a jump.
  • Portable Air Compressor. One of these units will plug into your cigarette lighter and allow you to inflate your tires. Perfect for situations where you have a slow leak and just need to get to the nearest repair shop. Bonus: this is handy not even for emergencies, forget finding a gas station with a working air station, just pull this unit out of your trunk!
  • Emergency Toolkit. This kit should include all the basics: socket set, screwdrivers, pliers and vice grips.

Other Items to Keep in the Car

  • Documents. Find and organize your travel documents. Make sure you have your license (doh!), registration, and proof of insurance. Keep these someplace handy like your glovebox so they are easily accessible in the event of an accident or getting pulled over.
  • Emergency Funds. It’s easy to forget about this one. You have enough for spending money, food, and gas, but do you have a reserve just in case of major breakdown?
  • First Aid Kit. From cuts and scrapes to head wounds. Be ready for medical issues with a solid first aid kit.

3. Route Preparation

Planning your route is a lot easier these days than it used to be. Plug the destination into your phone, and you’re good to go. The following are a few things to keep in mind as you prepare your route.

Maps and GPS

Most people have a preferred navigation app on their phone. The one I currently use is Waze, since it gives you real-time traffic updates and notifies you of hazards and speed traps along your route of travel, all posted as they occur by other drivers using the app.

Also bear in mind that the GPS on your phone is great, but you may pass through areas where you don’t get coverage. Google Maps as well as some other navigation apps allow you to download offline maps. There are also always paper maps or road atlas. At the very least, have a general idea of the main roads you will be one, so that if you lose coverage at a critical point, you at least know which direction to head!

Scenic Routes

Plan to get off the freeways from time to time. While I wouldn’t suggest you over-do it, I do think it is fun to make some plans to get off on a few scenic routes now and then. Just don’t plan to spend more than an hour doing this. The quaint towns will be great at first, but when you realize that it takes twice as long as the freeway, you’ll be itching to get back in the fast lane. Not sure how to find “Scenic Routes”? Check out roadtrippers.com for suggestions as well as for attractions along your route.

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Traffic

While you’re on vacation, its easy to forget that everyone else has to get to work. Avoid entering or exiting large cities during rush hours. Construction and road closures can also put a damper on your progress. Check ahead for construction by consulting your navigation app, or for a more holistic view of the entire trip, check out online tools such as the Rand McNally TripMaker.

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Weather

Another consideration is hazardous weather. Keep in mind what time of year you are going and plan accordingly for snow, thunderstorms, and tornadoes. Have a backup plan in case you are unable to travel during part of your trip.

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Time Spent Driving

Be realistic about how much driving you can handle in one day. This probably varies quite widely depending on the person. If your day job is an over-the-road trucker you can probably handle a bit more driving than the couple with 4 kids under the age of 6! A good rule of thumb is that more than 6-8 hours of actual driving per day is going to feel pretty tiring and will not allow for a lot of extra excursions once you stop driving for the night. It all depends on what your goals are and how quickly you need to get somewhere.

Speaking of kids, if you are traveling with kids, this is an excellent opportunity to get the kids involved in the route planning and plotting. They can follow along on their devices, or highlight the route on a paper map. Got a kid who doesn’t seem interested? Every time they ask how much longer, tell them to check the GPS on their device!

Overall, it pays to have a plan, but keep it loose. By this I mean, be sure to leave time for “down time.” Schedule in some time to relax after driving for a good portion of the day.

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4. Comfort Preparation

We’ve talked about preparation as it relates to the time before your trip, the vehicle, and the route. Now it is time to consider what I call “comfort preparation.” How are you going to make this trip as fun and comfortable as possible? The following tips will help walk you through everything you need to consider.

Lodging

In general, I always make hotel reservations ahead of time. The several times where I decided to just drive as far as I could and then wing it – I ended up regretting it. One time, it was pouring rain outside, and every hotel I came to was completely booked! Another time, the prices were astronomically high. When it is midnight and you’ve been driving all day, the last thing you want to do is “shop around” looking for the best rates… If you do decide to wing it, make sure you have hotel or lodging apps on your device so that you can quickly search for available rooms without the hassle of looking up phone numbers for the hotel you just passed.

Another option is camping, which can usually save you money, but remember that camping requires a whole host of additional supplies which you may not have room for. Camping on a road trip can be incredibly fun and add an entirely new dimension to the trip, but it does take some know-how to pull it off successfully. If you do decide to camp, make sure you are well prepared, by planning which campgrounds and state parks you plan to visit and call ahead to be made aware of any unforeseen circumstances such as closures or full-bookings.

A great option is staying with friends/family; it saves you money and gives you a chance to catch up! But, don’t wear out your welcome. It is better to let them invite you rather than inviting yourself to stay with someone else. If fishing for an invitation doesn’t work, consider that a strong cue that perhaps you should be looking into hotel options!

Food

I find food planning to be one of the more difficult aspects of organizing a road trip. How often should you eat out? How much food should you bring with you? How do you keep perishable foods from spoiling? And how do you keep soda cold after the ice melts? All good questions and will depend heavily on personal preference and budget.

I would be interested to hear from readers. What are your strategies for meals while on the go?

For my family, we usually plan to eat out one meal per day, usually supper. The other meals are either travel snacks or free breakfasts in the hotel. This is a rule of thumb that works pretty well for us. Regardless of whether you eat at restaurants for every meal or pack it all, the following are a few considerations regarding food.

Don’t get Hangry

Plan to eat on time. I know it is tempting to get another 50 mile behind you, but you will regret it. Make eating on time a priority, and everyone will be in a much better mood and more agreeable!

Travel Snacks

There are many opinions on snack foods, so I won’t delve too deeply here, but for me personally, I like to choose travel snacks that aren’t too sweet or too salty. Also food that takes a long time to eat is also good, so that you aren’t ruining your next meal and can help pass the time (I know, don’t eat out of boredom!). For drinks, I plan to bring only what I can drink before the ice in the cooler melts. For everything else I’m drinking water.

Grocery Shopping on the Road

I do like grocery shopping while traveling, but it can be a bit of a time sink finding and navigating through a store you are not familiar with. But as long as you are realistic about what you can actually eat before it spoils, I find this to be an excellent option. It can be part of the experience too, since the brands, people, and other offerings can be quite different the further from home you venture.

Restaurants

One of the best parts about traveling is sampling new cuisine. Go to town with this and try foods you normally don’t eat, but if you have a sensitive stomach, tread carefully. For local specialties, check out Roadfood.com, a website with tips on the local specialties different localities.

Roles and Responsibilities

A road trip is like going on a mission, and like any good mission, there are roles and responsibilities for everyone involved. Figure out ahead of time who is taking the primary responsibility for each task involved on the trip. Obviously you should agree on who all will be driving and how much, but also navigation, meal preparation, and entertaining the kids can be discussed ahead of time.

Cleaning and Time Organization

Road trips have a way of making the car disgusting! Be pro-active about cleaning the car ahead of time, to get all the clutter out, but also during the trip. At every stop have every traveler carry a handful of trash to the garbage and recycling bins.

Get a good night’s sleep the night before you leave. Pack the vehicle the night before you leave with the items you will use last at the bottom and the items you will use first at the top, with the most common items easily accessible. Each person should have a personal bag that they load with themselves when you leave. Could also include a pillow or blanket.

Leave early in the day to get several hours of driving in before breakfast. It feels great to make a good start. There’s nothing worse than getting half-way through the first day of your trip and realizing you’re still passing through neighborhoods you are very familiar with!

Concerning what you do during the drive, I find it works well if you divide up the time into different parts. These have an effect of having the time pass more quickly and feel as though the trip has different phases. This works especially well with kids. Different parts of the trip can include times like:

  • Group Discussion Time. This can be a great time for kids to ask questions they’ve always wondered about, or tell favorite stories. Be creative, and get everyone involved. These discussions are often my favorite part of our family road trips.
  • Personal Electronics Time. Everyone eventually needs a little bit of time to themselves. Trips go a lot more smoothly if this is lightly enforced as a separate part of your time in the car, versus a punishment inflicted due to fighting and arguing! Use this time to listen to music, watch a movie, or play video games.
  • Quiet Time. This can be a time where everyone turns off their devices and looks out the window, notice the surroundings, or take a nap. Your choice, just no talking!
  • No-Electronics Time. This can either be quiet time or group-games time. Games like the Alphabet Game, where everyone looks for words on signs and billboards starting with A and working through the alphabet can be a great way to pass the time while taking in the local scenery.
  • Group Listen Time. This can be a great time to listen to an audio-book together. You’ll have hours of time on the road, and an audio-book or podcasts are great ways for everyone to listen together. These are particularly good for those who are prone to motion sickness as the eyes can be kept up and focused on the horizon.

Laundry

Packing clothing for a road trip is much like packing for any other trip, but the main difference is that since you are driving in your own car, there is a sense that you have “plenty of room” and you can easily over-pack. Don’t do it! Clothing has a tendency to get strewn about the car, so make it a point to have a suitcase or bag for each person and insist that clothing not being used be either in their seat or put away!

Another point about clothing is whether you are going to try to visit a laundromat on the way or not. Again, this depends on the person and the length of the trip. Trips lasting a week or less generally don’t need a laundry-washing stop. However, longer trips may require it. If you do stop, plan on clothes washing taking twice as long as you would expect due to unforeseen issues with the machines! If you are a do-it-yourself-er, and have a bit of extra space in your car, you might try the bucket method of John Steinbeck.

5. Packing List

This is a list of common things you don’t want to forget to bring on your road-trip. Personal preferences vary, but I find the following items to be nice to have along.

  • Sunglasses
  • Water and water bottles
  • Travel coffee maker
  • Portable battery charger for phones and tablets
  • USB charging cords and/or cigarette lighter adapter
  • Toilet paper (just in case!)
  • Hand Sanitizer
  • Travel car trash can
  • Camera/tripod
  • Phone car vent mount
  • Wet wipes/paper towels
  • Emergency or first aid kit
  • Load phone or mp3 player with music, podcasts, audio-books
  • Tablets and/or laptops for the kids – load with entertainment
  • Road games 
  • Travel games/kits (non-electronic)

6. Resources

The following are some of the resources mentioned in this article that you may find helpful as you plan your road trip.

Conclusion

Hey, this has been great! I really enjoyed re-living the memories of past road trips. I know yours will be great! I hope you found this article helpful, good luck as you prepare for your road trip, and safe travels from practicalmechanic.com!

What did I miss? I’m bound to have forgotten something, I would love to hear your thoughts and comments! Let me know in the comments section below!road-trip-open-road