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6 Things to Know Before You Go On a Road Trip

Four people traveling in a convertible car.
Syda Productions/Shutterstock

Road trips are an epic way to travel, but they can be a total disaster if things go wrong. Whether you plan to go 500 miles or 5,000, here are six important things to think about before you head out.

Check Your Vehicle (or Bike) Before You Leave

Your car, motorbike, RV, scooter, dune buggy, monster truck, or whatever you’re driving is the most essential part of your road trip. If it breaks down, you’re going to be doing a tour of small-town garages rather than scenic mountain roads.

A Mustang on a road among a lush green hillside in Ireland.
Even my friend’s ’69 Mustang was reliable for a week driving around Ireland’s west coast after we gave it a proper once-over. Harry Guinness

Before you leave, give everything a once-over. Make sure you have a spare tire in the trunk, and that it and all of your tires have tread and are inflated to the correct PSI. Top off any fluids, like oil, coolant, and windshield wiper fluid. Make sure all your lights work, too.

If you rent a car, this still applies. Look it over and make sure there’s nothing wrong. Also, check for any pre-existing damage. You don’t want to be held liable for any dings and dents that were already there. For more tips, check out our guide on renting a car when you travel.

Plan Your Trip (But Not Too Much)

When you head out on a road trip, you should have a rough plan of where you want to go, the big stops you want to make, and any cities or national parks you want to see.

Aside from that, though, you shouldn’t plan too much.

A lot can happen on a road trip—both good and bad. You could get diverted by forest fires or meet some friendly locals who invite you to go kayaking. If you preplan and book everything, you’re trapped in your itinerary and have no flexibility if something comes up.

You’ll have a much better time if you allow room for serendipity—and disaster.

Harry Guinness sitting in a Mustang at the beach.
I drove this Mustang around southern California for a week. By keeping my plans loose, I was able to really enjoy my time. Harry Guinness

If there are some big things that you absolutely must book in advance, like concert tickets or sports events, then go ahead. But try to keep the day-to-day stuff loose. It’s super easy (and often cheaper) to book a hotel or motel on the day you want to check-in.

And, more importantly, it leaves you the time and flexibility to explore any random opportunities that come up.

Decide How Far to Drive Each Day

One of the big decisions you need to make about your road trip is how much road you’re going to cover. If you want to do 3,000 miles over 10 days, you’re going to spend quite a bit of time driving. If you shoot for 1,500 miles over two weeks, though, you have a lot of time to stop and explore.

I’ve found that I can drive six hours a day, comfortably. With stops for food and gas, it means I spend about seven hours in the car, but arrive pretty fresh at my destination, ready to explore.

Once the days stretch to the eight, or even ten-hour range, I’m just too tired by the end of the day to enjoy where I am.

Obviously, your limits might be different. If you stick to highways or share the driving, then you can push on for longer. However, if you’re driving through narrow, winding mountain passes, or other roads that require a lot of concentration, even six hours can feel like a long day.

No matter how long you drive, it’s better to start early and finish early. Get up with the sun and stop before sunset. Driving at night is much riskier.

Make an Epic Playlist

It’s a fact—music makes a road trip. So, one of the best things you can do before you take off is to make an epic playlist. If you’re traveling with other people, you can create a shared playlist on Spotify. This way, you can all add your favorite songs and have a personalized group mixtape.

Don’t Trust GPS or Google Maps

GPS services and apps like Google Maps make navigating a lot simpler, but that’s not necessarily a good thing.

Your GPS can steer you right on major highways, but as soon as you go off the beaten path, it’s a lot less reliable. It doesn’t know the conditions of the roads, so it might direct you to an unpaved dirt track. It also might put you on a boring back road when there’s a marginally longer, but much nicer route you could take.

Whether you want to get there quickly or enjoy the drive, it’s best to do a bit of research. Check out guidebooks for the places you’re going or blog posts by people who’ve done the trip. You can also use sites like Roadtrippers to plan.

The Roadtrippers website.
The Roadtrippers website is a great way to plan your trip.

And always bring a road map with you for backup. If your phone dies or loses its signal, you can still find your way with a map. You can also trace out your route with a Sharpie to see exactly where you’ve been.

Bring the Essentials

I’m not going to give you a complete road trip packing list. It’s your trip—bring what you like. But here are just a few essential items that are easy to forget:

  • A spare car key: Once, on a road trip in Mexico, my friend lost the car key. Three hours of panicked phone calls later, we got it back, courtesy of a friendly taxi driver who’d found it in his cab. We were lucky. If it hadn’t turned up, we would have had a multiday delay instead of a three-hour one.
  • Water and snacks: When you stop for food, it takes time. And you want to eat something besides fast-food, anyway. Stock up on water and snacks you like beforehand to get you through the drive. Then, when you get to your destination, have a real meal.
  • Cash: It’s still king. Make sure you have enough loose change for tolls and some bills for when you see the dirtiest words in the English language: “card minimum.”
  • A trash bag: Road trips lead to messy cars. If you use a trash bag on your trip, it’ll make the post-trip cleaning much easier.
  • A car phone charger: Your smartphone will probably play a big role in your trip, from navigating and playing the tunes, to booking your accommodations and bragging on Instagram. Keep it topped up with a cable that plugs into your car.
  • Sunglasses: Obviously, driving when you can’t see is difficult. Bring a good pair of polarized sunglasses.

You can add to the list as you see fit, but these are my must-have items on every journey.

A road trip is one of the best ways to explore any location. If you do it right, you’ll have an epic time. Ignore the tips above, however, and you might wish you’d taken a plane.

Harry Guinness Harry Guinness
Harry Guinness is a photography expert and writer with nearly a decade of experience. His work has been published in newspapers like the New York Times and on a variety of other websites, including Lifehacker. Read Full Bio »
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