So many Americans fly everywhere these days that you might think the classic American road trip is a thing of the past. This is not actually the case. While it does seem that the "On the Road" experience of getting a car and just going for the sake of going is in decline, the statistics (and the number of cars all around you on the roads) prove that more Americans than ever are taking to the roads for vacations and family visits, albeit apparently for more frequent but shorter trips. And frankly, with the airport and coach-class experience unquestionably in decline, many Americans would rather drive than fly.
Stats be damned, there is no denying that the lure of the road is undeniable and probably eternal; it almost seems embedded in our very makeup. This is more true for some folks than others, but there is a richness to traversing the land an inch at a time that is absent from the experience of climbing into a metal canister and climbing out at your destination. If this is what you're looking for this summer, here are some tips to maintain the romance while minimizing the rigors of the road.
1. Clean your car before and during your trip
Go ahead, leave the napkins and gum wrappers under your seat; leave the receipts from your last business-related drive in the glove box; don't sweat the dog hair in the back bed ... but you'll be sorry you did. A few days into your trip, when the old gum wrappers are joined by new fast food wrappers, when the glove box starts overflowing with hotel receipts and local maps, when dog hair starts sticking to your luggage and your gear, you'll rue the day you failed to pull out the Shop-Vac.
As your trip proceeds, take time every couple of days to purge your car of undesirable flotsam and jetsam. Even if you can tolerate some chaos (as I can), the accumulated junk and minor filth will start to drive you mad in the close quarters that define a road trip.
2. Have a loose plan
Delays are the one thing that you can count on when driving significant distances. Admittedly, the archetypal "BRIDGE OUT" sign is a rare sighting these days, but the flashing "Road Work Ahead, Merge to One Lane" message is not. You don't have to have seen a lot of Chevy Chase movies to know that things aren't always going to go your way. If you overschedule your road trip, it is almost a lock that you will find yourself slogging the last few miles long after you had intended to be asleep, trying to cancel one hotel reservation so you can pay for another well short of your originally planned destination.
On the other hand, having no plan at all is only recommended for the most hardy souls. On a trip through New England a few years ago, our plan was simply to pull over when we got tired to crash in a hotel; after taking three exits without success, we finally stopped at a hotel at which the front desk person asked "are you staying the whole night?" Ugh.
3. Get off the highways — but beware the Blue Highways
Unless you have a specific destination and a strict schedule, there is little point in hitting the roads to see the country if you don't spend some time on the back roads. However, some blue highways (as certain back roads were called in the popular book by William Least Heat-Moon) are not much more than endless strip malls. Most U.S. road maps have some indicator of whether a "back road" is an interesting one; the map I use most has small red dots along those roads recommended as scenic routes. I have found these recommendations to be fairly reliable; most have at least a few miles of interesting local scenery, offer driving experiences ranging from a rambling bucolic feel to truly stunning views of America the Beautiful, and pay off handsomely for those with the time, patience and inclination to wander a bit. However, that being said ...
4. ... have an escape plan to get off country roads
When I was a kid, my family took a trip down the East Coast by cutting inland to take the Skyline Drive. The Skyline Drive is certainly beautiful and occasionally visually stunning, but after a few official overlooks and an intensifying bout of car sickness on the winding roads, the kids in the car were ready to come down from the hills. It was also fantastically slow going; average speeds were about 35 mph, which, starting in New Jersey, gets you to Florida in about four days of 10-hour drives. After about 600 sharp turns surrounded by a whole lot of trees and mist, I-95 never looked so good.
5. Anticipate trouble spots
If you are grinding out long miles on a road trip, it's not hard to find yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time — like trying to cross the Hudson River at rush hour, or driving the long bridges to Key West on the Friday afternoon of Memorial Day weekend. You'll want to plan ahead so you cross the Hudson at, say 10:30 a.m., or blast down to Key West on a Thursday.
5 1/2. Consider a satellite radio subscription
The days of regional radio offering a musical or informational palette that you can't find anywhere else are almost all but gone, so tapping into the local vibe via radio is far less satisfying than it used to be. Were this not the case, I wouldn't recommend a satellite radio subscription. But it may be the traffic reports from major cities that tips the balance; if a city like New York or Los Angeles lies in between your car and your destination, you are going to need some timely traffic information to hope to beat the inevitable traffic congestion. XM features traffic and weather for about 80 cities; Sirius offers about a dozen.
6. Tend to division of labor
Some people are good at navigating; others couldn't read a map if they tried. Some people are good at planning meals, while others think a big bag of chips counts as a good dinner. Know who does what well, and what really matters to your traveling companions, and you will get things done efficiently and to the satisfaction of all. Divvy up and delegate jobs by talent and predilection.
7. Join a roadside rescue service
If you take enough road trips, eventually you will end up stranded on the side of the road outside East Gibbip a few miles from Podunk, equidistant from the four corners of Nowhere. Having that 800-number that immediately ties you in to approved local tow services and mechanics is going to save you a lot of hassle, and also shield you from some of the dangers of the road that none of us wishes to encounter.
8. Supplement your cell phone with a phone card
On a recent trip that took us to the far reaches of the Olympic Peninsula, we had a plan to connect by cell phone with friends from one of the many small towns dotted along Route 112. A friend who lived along the route said he had an intermittent but functional cell signal, and thought our plan should work fine.
Save for one problem; he had a different cell service than we did. Our service worked great near our hometown; his was pretty much the only one that worked well on the Peninsula.
Long story short, the only pay phone in existence on the Peninsula ate $3 of loose change, and I ended up in a small grocery store begging to use the landline. It all worked out, but I really could have left my cell phone home that trip. Had I a reliable and easy-to-use phone card, my problems would have been solved. I know you can use your credit card for many phone calls, but it's an added step you'll be happy to avoid if you get in a jam.
9. Have your documentation and a clean record
I don't know about you, but it sometimes seems like my new insurance card takes days or weeks to get into my glove box. If you are traveling without current documentation of license, registration or insurance, you could be in for a world of hurt if you are pulled over for any reason. Further, you may want to clear up any old traffic and parking tickets before you go; under the right (or perhaps wrong, in this case) circumstances, your car can be impounded for your scofflaw sins.
10. Know when to hold 'em, and when to fold 'em
Sorry for the hokey country song phrase, but sometimes on the road you need to play the hand you are dealt, for better or worse. This advice might apply to road trip decisions both small and large. On an eight-week, 15,000-mile circle of the border states of the United States in 1991, we were driving up Route 1 near Big Sur with a mind to staying with friends in Santa Cruz. We pulled over to stretch our legs near a restaurant/hotel, fully intending to get back behind the wheel in short order to continue grinding northward. It took only two or three deep breaths for us to decide we were going no further that day. It ended up being one of the best long afternoons of the trip.
However, later on the same trip, we woke up in a state park in Wisconsin with about a week to go with a plan to linger in Chicago and Detroit, cut across Canada to Buffalo, come down through the Finger Lakes region, and generally finish off our trip at a leisurely pace. As we headed for a gas station to fill up for the day, we turned on the radio to listen to the news from the previous evening that the United States had invaded Iraq to repel their advances into Kuwait. When we arrived at the gas station, we found that gas prices had spiked about 25 percent, and the proprietor told us to expect more increases in the next few days. We quickly made the decision to make a stop in Chicago — we couldn't blow off one of the country's greatest cities — and then to bolt eastward to get ourselves home. It turned out that the sight of our front door and our own bed was more welcome than we had anticipated; we weren't home early, but rather right on time.
Here's wishing that your road tripping finds you on time and in the right place, even when you least expect it.