Road Trips

Your Ultimate Guide to a Stress-Free Road Trip

Pack your bags and leave your worries at home on your next road trip. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Sure, you can fly somewhere to explore and discover new places, but driving opens a whole new world of freedom, sights, and opportunities.

A successful road trip is far more than simply cramming a bunch of people into your car, fighting over shotgun at every rest stop, and screeching off into the sunset.

Well, it can be those things, but if you want to have a memorable road trip without going stir crazy, there are a few more how-tos, travel hacks, and general best practices.

Whether you’re planning a multi-day, week, or month-long road trip, here’s how you can avoid the common pitfalls and pave a smooth road ahead.

1. Plan your route…but leave wiggle room.

road trip planner
Make a plan … a loose one. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Some argue that the allure of road trips is born out of a little spontaneity and mystery, but you’ll save yourself (and whoever else is with you) a lot of time, headaches, and nightmare-ish arguments if you plan the route (and alternatives) beforehand.

Not sure where to start? A few amazing road-tripping planning tools include:

  • TripAdvisor – A community-driven website that is chock full of information on places to eat, see, and stay, as well as things to do anywhere.
  • RoadTrippers – This helps you find the best spots to stop for sightseeing and rest along the way.
  • Road Trip Planner – An easy-to-use site that takes a lot of the extra work out of researching. You’ll get recommendations based on five categories: food, games, apps, music, and safety.
  • Weather Underground – Bad weather and road conditions can ruin a trip if you’re unprepared for them, but Weather Underground’s road trip planner can fix that.
  • Google – Good ol’ Google has your back with myriad road trip maps. This is more helpful if you want to include national parks in your trip.

If you’re the ambitious type, here’s an incredible interactive map of how to hit the major landmarks across the nation. Whatever the case, the responsibility to plan the route more than likely falls on one person.

If that’s you, make sure to clearly communicate your plans with everyone else so they know what to expect and can bring up concerns and/or input early on (preferably before you’re all stuck in a small space together).

More importantly, leave room for exploration, fun, relaxation, and metaphorical bumps along the road. Don’t be that person who needs to try to control everything and stick to an unbending schedule. You never know when and how often you might need to stop.

2. Set a budget range.

The expenses in a road trip can add up really quickly. The big elephant in the room is the cost of gas. When you start setting up the budget, it should be built around the approximate cost of fuel across your entire trip.

In fact, it’s better if you overestimate the cost per gallon a bit. An app like GasBuddy will be instrumental. Both can help you fetch the deets on the best spots to re-fuel based on your price preferences and region.

Then there are the costs of food and lodging, along with hidden costs of parking fees and tolls. If you’re working with a tighter budget, avoid big metropolitan areas or tourist hubs for food, lodging, and gas.

You can also check with organizations like AAA for various travel discounts. Services like Zipcar also offer great member benefits.

When you’re splitting costs and settling IOUs, apps like Venmo and SplitWise will help you organize all the expenses to make everybody’s lives easier.

3. Consider a rental car.

Depending on the length of the trip and where you go, a road trip can place a lot of stress and mileage on a car, which can depreciate its value. If you care about your personal vehicle, consider renting or car sharing.

The other benefit to springing for a rental car is that you can choose preferred features, like better fuel economy, more room, XM radio, GPS, and so on. Especially when sharing the cost with a few people, a rental car can definitely pay off on longer road trips.

4. Maximize space in your car.

road trip planner
Devise a car-packing strategy. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Without the limits of carry-on luggage and overhead bins, we tend to get overzealous with packing since we can just “shove it all in the car.”

The smarter thing would be to avoid packing your car to the brim with things you probably don’t need. You end up limiting storage space for your co-trippers (or souvenirs!), but also increase the likelihood of calling unwanted attention to your car (ruh-roh!).

To save space, try stacking several plastic organizing drawers in the trunk for your clothes rather than suitcases; or stick to malleable duffel bags. Remember that you can do laundry in public laundromats, too.

If you need more of an article type in particular, focus on socks and your unmentionables. Changing those on a more regular basis go a long way if you don’t have access to a shower. That and wet wipes. Lots of wet wipes.

5. Healthier road-trip friendly foods.

road trip planner
Snack matter. Keep ’em healthy. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Fueling your grumbling tummy in roadside diners and various grab ‘n’ go spots (for which RoadFood is a great resource, FYI) is an experience in itself, but having food and other munchies in the car with you will save lots of “hanger”-related decisions and disputes.

When eating on the road, you want to emphasize foods that are easy to reach, won’t make a mess in the car, are share-able but non-perishable, and help sustain your energy for those long drives. Some alternatives to the typical chips and candy fare:

  • Jerky – There are lots of different types of jerky, and it keeps you satisfied for longer hours.
  • Rice cakes, crackers, and popcorn – Greater lower-calorie options to munch on than Frito Lays.
  • Peanut butter – No matter how old you are, it’s always peanut butter time. Slap it on some pretzel chips, crackers, or even veggies to make a delicious snack.
  • Trail mix and nuts – A mix of nuts, dried fruit, and chocolate satisfies cravings of sweet and savory at the same time. Plus, the healthy fats and fiber help keep your blood sugar leveled compared to, say, chips.
  • Aseptic containers of milk – If you want something to drink other than water (which you should also bring plenty of), you can get aseptic cartons of milk or any dairy-free variety for extra protein. Skip the bottled fruit juice and energy drink sugar bombs, if you can help it.
  • Dried or freeze-dried fruit – While the sugar content can sometimes be the same as plain candy, there are more vitamins and minerals to be found in fruit.

Pro tip: It wouldn’t hurt to bring a cooler if you’ve got the room. There are even coolers/warmers that you can plug into the car.

6. Bring these road trip must-haves.

Do. Not. Forget:

  • Chargers. In this day and age, you can essentially call phone chargers the lifeblood of any (successful) trip. Have one for the car and a portable one to bring around with you.
  • Sunglasses. Have you ever tried staring into the sun while driving? No bueno.
  • Ear candy. Radio signals will go in and out, so have a variety of audiobooks, podcasts, and premade music playlists. Make sure that you have a phone adapter to plug into your car beforehand.
  • Sanitation. Wet wipes, hand sanitizer, and an extra roll of toilet paper. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.
  • Trash bag. A simple plastic bag will do, but you can cleverly MacGuyver a spill- and smell-proof trash container by lining a plastic cereal container with a plastic bag.
  • Sleeping bags. Sometimes you have to be prepared for some roadside sleeping. Pillows also help.
  • Emergency plans. Make sure you have resources you need for emergency roadside assistance, spare tires, and an emergency medical kit. Just in case.

Planning and having these things will pay off in spades when you’re finally on the road, and are hours’ and days’ worth of travel games away from your next destination. And of course, don’t forget to constantly check in on Facebook to let the world know about your super-awesome road trip.

This article was published as part of a partnership with Zipcar’s online magazine Ziptopia.