Road-tripping is not just an activity; it’s a mood. Sometimes, when the urge strikes to load up the car and just keep on driving, even the destination itself is an afterthought. Like the old adage says, road trips are all about the journey.
But even the most spontaneous drives benefit from a little planning, whether that means outfitting your car for optimal safety or stuffing a few handy accessories into your glove compartment. Next time you’re in the mood to hit the road, heed these tips for getting your car road-trip-ready to ensure your journey is unforgettable in all the right ways.
1. Do a tune-up before hitting the road.
Get an oil change, have them check the battery and tires, and hell, even get the filter replaced. Most drivers put regular tune-ups off because they can get expensive and because mechanics tend to offer services you don’t really need, but it’s worth spending on this before heading out.
2. Keep an eye on tire pressure.
During your trip, watch your tire pressure. This is not just to make sure you’re not going flat, but because properly inflated tires give you better gas mileage. Having the windows down on the highway also reduces your gas mileage. Aside from use in vending machines, most tire-filling stations and gas station vacuums only accept quarters, so it’s worth having a few rolls to spare on your trip.
3. Check your spare tire — and learn how to change it.
You do not want to be stuck in the desert with a flat and then put on your spare only to find its flat, too. It’s also worth checking the lug nuts on your tires before they go — some of them can get rusted into place, and that makes the tires extremely hard to change. Find that out now before you’re in the middle of nowhere.
4. Just get an EZPass.
If you’re from the middle, southern, or western part of the country, you’re probably not used to paying tolls, and you might find yourself suddenly rolling up on a toll with no cash to spare. Some of them — especially around major cities like New York — can get ridiculously pricey. They’ll get pricier if you roll through without paying: you’re probably not going to get pulled over, but you will get a bill and a penalty fee in the mail when you get home. So just buy the EZPass. You won’t have to worry about tolls anymore. Google Maps also offers an “avoid tolls” option, but on the East Coast, that usually adds a bit of time to your trip.
5. Make sure you have some form of roadside assistance.
Here’s the thing. You never know when you’re going to run over a jagged piece of glass or have car troubles that leave you shaking your head. This is hectic enough, even more so if you’re stuck on the side of the highway in the middle of nowhere. Roadside assistance gives you the luxury of having someone to come to save the day. Before you ever pull out of the driveway, have that peace of mind.
AAA Roadside Assistance is the old standby, and it can be as affordable as $66 per year depending on your location, vehicle, and other factors. OnStar is the modern-day equivalent, often as easy as pushing a button on your dashboard in many newer car models. Some high-end travel rewards credit cards, including the Chase Sapphire Reserve and the Capital One Venture Rewards, also offer roadside assistance as a perk for their members, and might even hook you up with a cheap or free hotel room should you have to stay overnight. If you aren’t keen on the annual fees that come with these cards, go with the United MileagePlus card — it costs just $95 per year.
6. Get the GasBuddy app on your phone.
Gas adds up, and on a road trip, you often end up in a situation where you’re just taking the closest station to the exit. Avoid that impulse, do a little planning, and get the free GasBuddy app, which will tell you the cheapest gas nearby. It also is a helpful tool for figuring out how to split the gas fare between your road trip companions.
7. In fact, put everything you can on your phone.
Phones are the ultimate space saver on road trips — use Spotify Premium for downloading playlists offline and cut back on CDs, use Google Maps offline to avoid actual maps, use Waze to avoid traffic, RoadTrippers to make plans, get Hotel Tonight to make quick last-minute reservations, use OpenBay to find the nearest and cheapest mechanics, and stock up on Podcasts and Audiobooks to kill time.
8. Invest in a good water bottle/mug.
This is fairly obvious, but there’s no point in spending a ton of money and creating a lot of plastic waste by relying on gas station drinks. Instead, get a good mug/water bottle and fill them up with coffee or water wherever you stop. Note: do not just get a Nalgene. Nalgene’s are great, but the liter-size bottles do not fit into many cup-holders, which can be a pain. Yeti’s are amazing and are worth the price tag.
9. If you can, use a tablet rather than a computer.
If you’re traveling and trying to work remotely, a tablet with a roll-up keypad is a way more convenient choice than a laptop. Laptops are bulky, can’t be charged with your phone charger, and can’t be slung over visors as makeshift movie screens.
10. Buy a cereal container for a trash can.
If you’re traveling for long enough, your car will get disgusting. Those plastic containers that keep cereal fresh with the flip open lids work as short-term garbage cans.
11. Put cupcake papers in your cup holders.
Cup holders can get disgusting, especially if stickier drinks than water are spilling into them and they’re filling with crumbs. You can keep them from getting gross by placing a cupcake paper into the holder, and replacing them as needed.
12. Get organizers for your bits and bobs.
If you don’t organize your car ahead of time, it’s just going to turn into a mess. So for the small loose things you’ll be using (snacks, coins, utensils, etc.) get a few organizers from a local Target, Walmart, or Container Store so you can keep it all together. Don’t overdo it, though — a ton of organizers scattered around is still clutter. A hanging shoe-holder draped over the passenger seat is a pretty good way to store loose items, and it should be all you need.
13. Get a compact cooler.
If it’s a long-term road trip, it can really suck to be eating nothing but gas station food. Instead, start every morning by going to a local grocery and getting some fresh food for the day. Rather than filling a cooler with ice, get freezable ice packs — you won’t have the slosh of dirty water at the bottom, and you can reuse them whenever you stop.
14. You only need two cords.
Don’t overdo it by buying a trillion adapters. The only thing you’re really going to need in your car is a phone charger and something to connect it to the audio system — sometimes you can do this with a single USB. Everything else can wait till rest stops and hotels.
15. Make a pill bottle bug-out kit.
If your car is packed with luggage, clothes, tents, and other gear, you’re not going to have a ton of space for emergency kits. A good workaround to a bulky bug-out bag is a pill bottle survival kit. Survival at Home has a great guide for putting your own DIY kit together, and it’ll all fit in a prescription pill bottle. Included are things like birthday candles (as small, fairly slow-burning fire-starters), Band-Aids, Neosporin, firestarter straws, thread and needle, matches, and tweezers. It’ll fit in your glove compartment no matter how packed it is. Pill bottles are also great for storing small items like coins and jewelry.
16. Know where you can stop without being hassled.
If you aren’t bringing a tent, you can still catch some z’s without shelling out for a motel by crashing in your car. But as any veteran road-tripper knows, this often results in a knock on the window from a security guard or cop. One place that doesn’t do this? Walmart. It has a policy of allowing people to sleep in their cars in its parking lots. And Walmart is everywhere. So there’s your motel.
There’s also actual camping. If camping in the Walmart parking lot amid the hum of RV engines sounds less than appealing, and you’re in the western part of the country, locate the nearest plot of Bureau of Land Management or National Forest Service land to wherever you hope to end up that day. You can camp free of charge on most public lands (here’s our guide to exactly everywhere this is possible.)
A version of this article was previously published on April 6, 2018, by Albie Hartshill and was updated on July 10, 2020, by Tim Wenger.