Whether you’re traveling from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific, heading up Highway 1 (with that damn California breeze in your face) or journeying south for mint juleps and Creole cuisine, getting in a car and driving for an extended amount of time, while beautiful, can also seriously suck.
Unless you do it right. Here are some tips to guarantee your four-wheel drive, the open road, and all the sights in between are nothing short of fantastic.
Travel with the right person. Do you love your best friend dearly, but (s)he drives you up a wall after an evening out on the town? Do you disagree with your other friend on acceptable driving speeds, gas-station donuts for dinner, or staying at a Motel Six over the Ritz-Carlton? Then you probably shouldn’t take this pal along for the ride. Find a friend, travel buddy, partner, or pet (why not?) who has a similar demeanor, sense of adventure, and ability to be spontaneous and smart while out on the road. Pick the wrong road trip buddy and you’ll really realize it on that open stretch of road in Kansas.
Have a plan, but be flexible. You should have a good idea of where you plan on going, what major highways you need to take to get there, and a few must-see’s along the way. Be sure to figure out what friends you can crash with and what affordable hotels or campsites are en route, too. Then, once you have a general idea of who and what you want to see, be open to (sort of) completely changing your plan and going where the road takes you. For example, if you’re supposed to leave for Albuquerque from Sedona at 5 in the morning, but you happen to meet some people the evening prior who invited you on a free, private booze cruise on one of those random lakes 300 miles north in Utah — go. Forget Albuquerque. The hot air balloon festival is in October anyway.
Take an old school map. Seriously, iPhone, you make traveling and not getting lost way too easy. Take a break from modern technology and see what it’s like to unfold one of those huge maps and trace your fingers along the winding highways. It’s fun and makes you feel like Jack Kerouac.
Give yourself a break. There will be times on the trip when you’re exhausted, hungry, and/or whiny and impatient. Stop being so stoic and do what you need to do to be happy. Splurge on a nice hotel room, stop at a laundromat and clean your clothes, or buy yourself a ridiculous souvenir and give up writing postcards to your 80 friends at home.
Talk to locals. Nobody knows where to go and what to do in a small town better than the people who have lived there their whole life. Make sure you talk to tons of people to learn all you can about the little secrets of un-seemingly awesome sectors and cities. (Like that small grocery store with the best cheese curds in Wisconsin or the unexpected twelve-star sushi restaurant in North Dakota.)
Don’t be too frugal. Sure, it may feel heroic to cross the country without spending a lot of money. But if a cool opportunity presents itself that calls for cash, don’t pass it up for the sake of frugality. Did you happen across a really cool art museum, an impromptu beer festival, or a place to rent kayaks for a day? Hand over the money and have a blast.
Find alone time. It’s seriously important to find some “you” time on a road trip, especially when you’re trapped for long hours in a car with your travel pal. Don’t be afraid to part ways for an afternoon and explore a city by yourself, eat alone, or simply go on a solo-walk.
Don’t freak out. In between the amazing cliffs you’ll hike, the cool cuisine you’ll eat, and the old friends you’ll get to visit, there will be times when you’re sick of pressing your right foot on the gas pedal for an upwards of ten hours. (Until you realize, of course there’s this thing called cruise control, at which you begin to beat yourself up for being so stupid). Or maybe slightly worse — you make an enemy out of a black bear that lives in the same woods you decide to camp in, and it eats your travel companion in the tent, in middle of the night, while you’re outside peeing. Don’t. Freak. Out. Dealing with some of these common challenges on a road trip encapsulates the whole experience. You’ll make it out okay.
Record the small things. It will be easy to remember the Grand Canyon, Bourbon Street, and Times Square. It will be a lot harder to remember that funny man you met at a gas station in Nebraska, that time you made a wrong turn and drove through a really quirky small town, or that one sunset among many that, for whatever reason, really struck a chord with you. Write down the small details of your trip so you can reflect back on, and never forget them. These are the moments that make a road trip something special.