Ready, set … drive! Here are a few essential trips for your summer road trip

by Laura Townsend Elion on May 29, 2009

The summer vacation season is officially in front of us. Although flights continue to be comparatively cheap, the recession means that many folks will be hitting the road.

When I was a child, my road warrior family made many trips crisscrossing the U.S. in a car. Unlike a quick flight, a car trip provides the ability to see our magnificent country unfold before your eyes. We passed it all — the horse farms of Kentucky, the orange groves in Florida, the St. Louis arch, Mt. Rushmore, the Grand Canyon, the Arizona desert, Las Vegas and more. I have some great memories, and a got a much larger world view by the time I was eight.

If you’re traveling by car this summer, maybe my years of ‘practice’ can offer you some valuable tips:

• Take the car in for an over-all inspection to make sure its safe. Check tires, brakes, hoses, the battery and fluids to ensure all are in working order. If you’re traveling to a hot climate and need air, test that. If heading for the mountains, make sure the heat works. Always make sure your wipers are operational.

• Make sure you have a jack, tire iron, and a spare in the car. Make sure the jack has all its parts.

• Check your car insurance policy to see if you want to make any temporary changes in coverages – you can always drop them after the trip. A zero deductible for one month doesn’t cost that much.

• Take an old fashioned road map. GPS is nice, but if you’re making a multi-state trip, or going places you’ve never been before, it helps to see the bigger picture a map can provide.

• Carry a car emergency kit. Mine is equipped for numerous all-season needs. A good basic kit has first aid, flashlight, blanket, flares, energy bars and water. If you sometimes wear footwear that is more fashionable than functional, throw in a pair of boots or anything you can walk in for a while.

• Never assume your mobile phone will work everywhere – consider getting a phone card to take with you.

• Don’t get stuck – join the auto club, if you don’t already belong. There’s nothing worse than being stuck where towing is exorbitant and you have no insight into the local mechanics. Some clubs guarantee work at certain garages, others give you a break on the cost. AAA’s extended coverage will even pay up to a certain amount to ship your car home, and pays your travel expenses such as lodging. (Note that some have a waiting period after enrollment before you can use benefits).

• Confirm all your lodging arrangements before you leave & get them in writing. I remember once sleeping in the car when the motor lodge turned us away. Consider identifying a second hotel as a back-up before you leave.

• If you’re worried about whether the area where your hotel is located is safe – call the cops! I used to call the local precinct when my children were traveling by themselves to ask the sergeant if he would allow his kids to stay there.

• Lastly, always make sure someone back home knows where you are traveling to and how to get in touch with you.

What are your best car tavel tips?

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  • Bill

    Great tips, Laura.

    My best advice is to stay awake. If you can’t stay awake, stop driving.

    Second piece of advice, if you are not comfortable with your motel, find another one and check out of the one you’re in. There are lots of chains that allow questionable properties to put up their signs. If you are worried about it before check in, ask to go and see the room first.

    Something I do before a trip is to make a spreadsheet of very truthful travel figures. That way, I am always at or below budget. It does cost a significant amount of money to travel, any way you do it, and you can’t hide the fact by pretending to budget that it is less.

    Of course, it is important to take your time and enjoy the trip – safely.

  • jlawrence01

    A few other ideas:

    1) If you are travelling out west or to remote locations like Big Bend in Texas, realize that cell phones may provide you little protection or assistance.

    2) In desert and humid climates, always carry plenty of water in case of break down.

    3) Do remember that should you need to make reservations, there is free or low cost access to the internet at most public libraries and at the local Fedex/Kinkos store.

    4) Do not plan to sleep at a rest area as it may not be safe or well patrolled.

    5) While phone cards are a low cost option, do not expect to find pay phones in most locations. (Spoken from a person who has only had a cell phone for a year.)

    6) Be realistic. The notion that you can jump in the car at 6 am in Chicago and drive straight through to Tampa in a single day is an invitation to disaster. Fatigue amount over-the-road truck driver is a big issue discussed by the NTSB and DOT but is rarely addressed for car drivers.

    7) If you are planning more than 50 miles per hour (including stops), you are probably asking for trouble with fatigue.

    8) Once you get past age 50, do realize that you start to lose your night vision and some of your reflex reactions (speaking from experience). You may need to make some adjustments to how you drive.

    9) Personally, I have better experiences booking 3-4* hotels on Priceline and getting a higher quality hotel at a 2* price than by booking 2* hotels on traditional sites.

    10) Chain hotels are only as good as the worst property in the chains. I have had some phenomenal Holiday Inns that are better than Hyatts and Marriotts; however, that is negated when you end up in one where the hotel was last renovated in the 1970s.

    11) When you travel to other regions of the country, take into account elevation and climate. I have seen people collapse in the Arizona summer when they were hiking and not drinking the proper water. Also, if you are a “flatlander”, realize that hiking at 9000 ft will be far more stenuous.

    Have a good summer.

  • laura

    Just to clarify-

    Phone cards can be used from any phone – so if there are no payphones, you might ask a local business if you can use their phone with the card. My experience has been that folks are pretty friendly and won’t object if they know you’re not sticking them with the blll.

    Also, you might want to purchase one of those battery charging units (the kind that can jumpstart a car without needing another vehicle). I finally gave in and bought one about a year ago. I can almost guarrantee that if you shell out the $100 or so bucks for one, you will never have to take it out of your trunk,. Sort like when I made sure I have spare keys for every car I owned and then never lost he keys again.

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