10 essentials to avoid a disastrous road trip

Couple taking a road trip in vintage car.

Couple taking a road trip in vintage car.  (iStock)

It's that time of year when the car windows go down and speaker volume goes up. Anyone with a sense of adventure and a love for a good summer drive is probably thinking: road trip. While a spur of the moment cross country trip may sound like a good idea at the time, after eight hours of grid-locked traffic on Interstate 95, you'll be wishing you had done a little planning. That's where we come in. Here are 10 easy tricks to make the most out of road trip and help you keep your sanity and your savings.

1. Choose your friends wisely

Nothing teaches you more about a person than hours and hours of car-sized confinement. As a rule of thumb, choose your road trip companion using the "friendship over distance" constant. Take the amount of time you've known a person and how well the two of you get along and divide that by the distance you have to drive. The longer the distance, the better quality of companion you are going to want with you and the better the whole equation will work out. While a short trip is a great chance to get to know someone, if the distance is too long than you may wind up wishing for an ejection seat.

2. Don't eat at the drive-thru

Food is not only one of life's greatest joys, it's also one of the best ways to experience a new region and culture. Ordering food through a window for days on end doesn't just pack on the pounds, it also becomes expensive. Instead, take a few extra minutes to explore a back road and see what you find. Odds are the eats will be cheaper, more authentic and taste way better than anything you will pick up at a rest station fast food joint.

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3.  Take turns driving

This seems like a no brainer, but remember to switch up who's at the wheel. It's always nice to get a break from driving, but it's also nice to get a break from pensively staring out the window or trying to keep yourself from being a back seat driver. Don't be shy about letting your road trip buddy know when you are ready to take over driving.

4. Don't break the law, or at least don't get caught

One hefty moving violation can bankrupt a whole road trip budget. So while the open roads of the midwest may seem ripe for speeding, go easy on the gas pedal and drive the speed limit. Nobody wants to cough up money for your ticket, or even worse, your bail. 

5. Change your fluids and keep an eye under the hood

First, you sure make sure your car is road trip ready before you even set out. Take the car in for an oil change and make sure all of its fluids are full. Even while you are on the road, make sure to keep an eye on what is going on under the hood. If you don't know how to change a tire, rig up a jump start or add coolant and other fluids to your car, learn before you begin your trip. A car can be your worst enemy or your best friend on a road trip, depending on how much you know about its mechanics. 

6. Use the restroom whenever you can

All to often road trippers realize they need to use the bathroom after they've just left the rest stop. As a rule, use the bathroom every time you stop. If you are free from the car, think of it as an opportunity to visit the restroom. Even if you don't have to go, go anyway. Everyone will be grateful when they no longer have to stop by the side of the highway to watch you run into the woods.

7. Find where the gas is cheap

Luckily, in the age of the smart phone, it is easier than ever to find where gas is the cheapest. Apps like GasBuddy will help you locate the best deals for gas on the go. If you don't have a smart phone, you can figure out your gas budget ahead of time using an online fuel cost calculator, which will map out the cheapest stations to purchase gas during your trip.

8. Bring plenty of music, but don't forget the radio

Remember the good old days of the mixtape? In preparation for your road trip, relive those memories and fully stock your car with modern day mixtapes, a.k.a. playlists. Make sure to bring songs you can roll down the windows and sing to when the night and road feel eternally long. 

Another tried and true tip, don't forget about the radio. While it's nice to know that you have a treasure trove of jams waiting on your ipod, there is something timeless about American radio. Radio is a great window into the region you are driving through. Stations like WROX in Mississippi or KWEM in Memphis offer as much history as any roadside museum and they won't cost you a dime.

9. Expect the unexpected 

Let's face it, you don't take a road trip to get somewhere quickly and you're never going to look back and say, "Man, I just wish I had seen the Pacific Coast Highway faster." Plan time to be surprised by what you find along the way. Road trips are about the journey, so enjoy it. What is that John Lennon said? "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans." So use your road trip as a chance to slow down and enjoy life and all the strange unexpected detours along the way.

10. Bring a paper map

Sure, it's nice to have a digital copilot suction-cupped onto your dashboard, but what happens when there's a Garmin malfunction in the middle of nowhere? Don't put all your faith in technology, because the moment you do it's bound to fail. An added bonus of keeping a paper map on hand is that it can function like a travel log. Make the map personal. Write in notes about memories you made in certain cities, get a little BBQ sauce on the folds between Houston and Austin, and keep it somewhere special so you can take it out years later and experience your road trip all over again.