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The Open Road Beckons

Road Trip Planner: Plan a Road Trip in America

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What comes to mind when you think “road trip?” Is it a cross-country drive for you and your friends, with just the right music on the radio and plenty of good conversation along the way? Or is it the classic family road trip, with too much luggage, kids in the back seat searching for out-of-state license plates, with lots of breaks at rest stops, gas stations, and fast food joints?  Or maybe it’s any trip that takes you out of your daily routine and off to somewhere interesting.

You're all in this together. Image by R. Nial Bradshaw.
You’re all in this together. Image by R. Nial Bradshaw.

Get Your Car Road Worthy

It’s always a good idea to keep your car well-maintained. Before you head out on any road trip, CARFAX recommends that you inspect your car for any necessary service before you leave home so you can focus on having fun and worry less about breaking down on the road.

A Service Checklist

Check tire with Lincoln penny.
This tread looks good with the old penny check.

We got some advice from Nils Olsen at Tire Discounters, a regional chain of auto service centers headquartered in Cincinnati, OH. Olsen recommends taking your car to a service shop for a “courtesy check” before a road trip. Many shops will check your car for free since their recommendations can lead to business. Here are his road trip service tips:

  • CHECK TIRE PRESSURE. “Every car made after 2006 has a Tire Pressure Monitoring System (TPMS) that will light up a warning indicator if tire pressure is low.  Otherwise, use a simple tire gauge. Not only does low pressure increase your risk of a blow out, but it lowers your gas mileage.”
  • CHECK YOUR TIRES’ CONDITION. Look for signs of wear like dry rot or scuffing on the sidewalls. “You can measure how much tread is left with a penny. You shouldn’t see the top of Lincoln’s head when there is more than 2/32″ left of tread.” An even better indicator are the wear bars across the tread. “When the treads wear down to the bars, it’s meant to tell you its time for new tires.”
  • GET A BRAKE CHECK. This includes examining the break pads to see if they need replacing and checking brake fluid level.
  • TEST FRONT END FOR WEAR. “A mechanic can see if your car is in alignment and if the suspension and steering is firm. There should be very little play in the ball joints.”
  • PERFORM ANY OUTSTANDING SERVICE based on  the automaker’s suggested service schedule. “Just do it,” says Olsen. “Replace any fluids such as transmission, coolant, power steering, and brake fluid at the scheduled interval listed in your car’s owner’s manual.” It will extend the life of your vehicle and  can prevent costly repairs.
  • BUY A FIRST AID KIT. “You can buy one at auto parts stores and keep  it in your trunk.” These kits include gauze, bandages, antiseptic, scissors and other first aid items. “The other thing to be sure to have is a working flashlight and plenty of water.”
  • JUMPER CABLES.  “If you need a jump from a stranger, they might not have a set.” Olsen also recommends buying a quality set with a long reach.
  • MOBILE PHONE. Be sure to charge your cell phone. It’s also a good idea when taking an extended trip to have an in-car charging adapter.
  • SPARE AND TIRE JACK.  When you check your tires, also check your spare to make sure it isn’t flat and is still in good condition. Have a sturdy, easy-to-use tire jack. Get it out and see how it works before you have to use it. Also make sure the fastener on the spare isn’t rusted shut.

Olsen also advises that if you have to pull over on the side of the road because of a flat or engine trouble, park as far off the road as possible. Avoid changing a driver side tire on the right side of the road if you can for the risk posed by passing traffic.  By the way, If you’ve signed up for MyCARFAX,  you can automatically keep track of your car’s service history and get alerts when your vehicle has an open recall.

Pre-Trip Planning

Is the trip all about the destination, or is the journey the destination?

Before you take your next road trip, it’s worth spending a time up front to think about what you want to get out of the trip. Be sure to include your fellow travelers in the planning so that there are no surprises or hard feelings.  Is the trip all about the destination, or is the journey the destination?  Do you just want to get there as efficiently as possible on major highways or take the proverbial scenic route?

Mapping Your Itinerary

Before the Web, part of the fun of a road trip was pouring over printed maps. Your choices included a big atlas of North American highways, state maps that once unfolded were never as easy to refold, and, sometimes, the odd hand drawn map from your dad or other guide. Of course, all this still exists, but now there is an app for that! And websites.  Here are some popular tools you can use before you leave, or right from your mobile phone during the trip

  • MAPPING APPS.  It’s likely you already use a mapping app such as Map Quest or Google or Bing maps.  The popular Waze app can plot the fastest route to a destination and uses crowd sourced live data to help you avoid traffic jams. They all use the GPS  built into your phone to show you where you are on the map. They can give you turn-by-turn instructions that you can print out ahead of time or listen to as you drive. Take a wrong turn and these apps will reroute you to get you back on track. You won’t even have to stop and ask anyone for directions, provided there’s a cell tower in range.  They also give you current traffic conditions for estimating travel times. You may not realize that they include overlays that will show you hotels, gas stations, restaurants, and tourist attractions.
  • GAS PRICE APPS. Dozens of apps can be found in the Google Play store for Android and iTunes for finding gas stations. A popular app and website for checking gas prices along your route is Gas Buddy.  It tracks current gas prices for individual gas stations based on crowd sourcing, and tells you where prices have recently risen or dropped.
  • ITINERARY PLANNERS. Road Trippers and Roadside America are two popular websites & apps that allow you to plot a route from point A to point B, set waypoints, and find out a ton of information about things to see and do along the way. You can read reviews on restaurants and attractions, view photos and save your route plan. Such pre-trip planning tools help you explore your options and make trip decisions with confidence.

Choosing Hotels and Restaurants

  • HOTEL BOOKING. It’s easier today than ever to know the price of any hotel room before you walk up to the front desk.  Every hotel chain has a website for learning about hotel amenities and booking rooms. Any number of travel sites can aid your research, but TripAdvisor and Yelp include valuable customer ratings, reviews and photos.  Websites like Kayak and Priceline, can help get you a great deal on a room.
  • EATING WELL. Yelp and TripAdvisor are not just for hotels. They also offer a massive database of restaurant reviews generated by actual customers, with travel directions from your current location.  Chow Hound is similar. Another great source of research on places to eat while on a road trip is a search engine. Try searches for “best restaurants in (town name)” to find magazine articles or local foodie blog posts.

Chris Basso with CARFAX suggests his favorite app for finding great places to eat. “The ‘TV Food Maps’ app is my go-to. My job takes me all over the country and I love to support local restaurants in the cities I visit,” he says. “I enjoy watching the shows on Travel Channel and Food Network, and this app lists the restaurants nearby that have been featured on them. Visiting each eatery is like a little adventure in itself and keeps the trip interesting. Plus I haven’t had a bad meal yet!”

Making Memories

Be sure to take lots of pictures to commemorate your road trip. You can upload them to Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, Instagram, Flickr–pick your favorite social network. Record audio of conversations because sometimes being on the road makes you philosophical.  There are websites and apps that can put it all together in an online travel journal. Mapquest Travel Blog lets you write about your trip, show your route on a map, and highlight it with posts, photos, and comments.

Most of all, have fun. Have a plan, but enjoy the unexpected experiences the road brings your way.

 

Featured Image by Angus Macrae

One thought on “Road Trip Planner: Plan a Road Trip in America”

  1. Thanks for the helpful post. For me a major requirement on road trips are well planned playlists. We make a new one for any trips we have planned.

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