Road Trip Queen: That’s me. Give me a car, a map, a debit card and some new discoveries to satiate my quest for novelty and you’ve got the makings of a happy traveler here. I’ve logged over 150,000 miles on road trips across North America, so I think one could safely say I’ve learned a thing or two about how to do it right.
If these remaining weeks of summer are tempting you to hit the highway in pursuit of some relatively cheap freedom, here are my top “road rules” to make your trip the best it can be.
To be honest, I broke this rule on the most recent trip I took in July — a grand swing west from Denver to San Francisco, up the Oregon Coast to Seattle and home again across Idaho, Montana and Wyoming — and I’m regretting it. I slotted in too many places and people to see, with too many commitments on particular dates, and frankly, I was exhausted when I got back. As with the old adage about packing, once you’ve laid out all you’d like to do (or bring), remove about half. Save time to pull off for fresh peaches at a local fruit stand. Stop at historical markers. Linger over a picnic lunch or an impromptu swim at a refreshing river wayside. You’ll enjoy everything twice as much when you’re not rushing.
Watch your auto-to-activity ratio
This rule is related closely to the one above. Especially when you’re traveling with kids, everyone is happier when the time spent in the car does not exceed time outside the car. You may prefer some long-haul travel days if you’re aiming for a destination, but the best road trips are those in which the journey itself is the focus. There may be days when covering 100 miles is plenty when you’ve got a host of inviting stops beckoning, as along coast-hugging Highway 101 on Oregon’s Pacific edge, or Route 100 down the bucolic center of Vermont. Start early enough each morning so you’re able to set a leisurely pace, and plan to arrive wherever you’re going by early evening to unwind.
The whole point of travel is to discover something different, right? So don’t settle for what’s familiar just because it’s easy or a known quantity. Our family has a policy that we avoid chains on our road trips — whether restaurants, coffee shops or places to stay — in order to sample what’s distinctive in the region we’re visiting. I’ll settle for Starbucks when it’s the only option for decent coffee (and I’m mighty grateful to find one when I’m crossing Utah or southern Wyoming), but I had an extra-fine latte at Columbia River Coffee Roasters in Astoria, Ore., last week … And then there was the fresh blackberry milkshakes we enjoyed at the Alpen Drive-In in Startup, Wash., after a hike in the Cascades!
Slot in down days
Though it seems wrong to me to “waste” a single precious day on a road trip doing prosaic things rather than experiencing all that’s out there, I’ve learned that it is important to set aside time for doing errands or doing nothing at all. This is especially the case if you’ll be gone for more than a week. You may need time to check e-mail, send a few postcards, do laundry, stock up the cooler or just sleep in and kick back by the motel pool with a magazine for a few hours. Even if you follow my first tip and keep your agenda more spare, you still need to add margin to it for pursuits like the above or for unexpected contingencies, like when I had to get new front brakes two hours out of Seattle on my return drive home.
Drive as “greenly” as possible
I confess, our family owns a 14-year-old Chevy Suburban. We use it exclusively for camping, hauling and ferrying the occasional group that requires more than the five seatbelts in my Toyota Corolla. It’s a comfortable big beast, but it’s rarely driven because it uses way too much gas. So when my daughter asked if we could take it on our three-week, 4,700-mile road trip this summer, I told her no. We packed light and crammed into the Corolla, which got a respectable 35 mpg most of the way. Here are a few tips on making a good road trip greener:
- Use a fuel-efficient vehicle. This includes rental cars.
- Pack as though you are taking only a carry-on bag on a plane. You’ll fit into a smaller car, and you’ll burn less fuel.
- Make sure your engine is tuned up and tires are inflated properly to achieve optimal gas mileage.
- To save further fuel, roll the windows down instead of using air conditioning whenever it’s comfortable enough to do so.
- Keep reusable cups, utensils and shopping bags in the car to minimize the amount of trash you produce along the way.
For a few more ideas on how to achieve a more eco-friendly road trip, check out this post: “‘Greening’ the Family Road Trip.” Do you have some tips of your own to share with fellow readers? Please add them to the comment thread!
Now, find a route 66 and go get your kicks!