Road trips are the ultimate form of freedom. You decide when to go and when to stop. You can even decide to scrap the whole plan and go somewhere completely unexpected. When you plan a road trip, think adventurous, spontaneous, and unforgettable.
Take these 3 adjectives and multiply them by 10 and you’ve got our most recent road trip. Forgoing any kind of road trip planner, we just decided to hit the road!
With less than 12 hours (and at least half of those spent sleeping) to prepare for an almost cross-country U.S. road trip, I only had time to plan a very loose itinerary, reconfirm our pet sitters, and repack my bag. I needed to swap out what I’d packed for Cuba and replace everything with shoes and clothes meant for trekking in National Parks, not to mention the somewhat cooler temperatures.
When we left New York City in our (literally) just rented black Chevy Impala, the poor little car had no idea what we had in store for it. We had no hotels booked and only our sights set on Utah, with Arches National Park as our first stop. That’s it. It was only along the way we realized, oh right, forgot that or didn’t bring that! Luckily, it all worked out fantastically, but now back at home, my more practical side is demanding a proper recounting of the lessons learned.
What follows is part plan a road trip tip list and part daily life scenes and ramblings of what happens when you plan a road trip last minute. You can find my complete, travel-tested road trip packing list to ensure your trip is successful from the start! 😉
Leaving from New York City in the early morning hours, it’s still dark and quiet. Everyone’s still tucked away inside their apartments. We loop around the block to get coffee. Should we stop at the market to get some snacks..maybe even egg sandwiches? Well…we packed a few bananas, 2 Kind Bars, and some pretzels. We both agree. That’s fine. Let’s just go before there’s traffic.
You ever make a decision you wish you could take back? Fast forward 15 hours. We’re in Des Moines, Iowa checked into a Sheraton I booked from the road. I’m near passing out from hunger, desperately searching for the room service menu. What arrives 20 minutes later is a barrage of food like none the late night kitchen at the Sheraton in Des Moines has before seen. We leave in our wake scattered empty dishes on trays that look as if they were mauled by piranha feeding in the Amazon. The not empty pizza box leaves with us in the morning.
Lesson Learned: Pack car-friendly food and drinks. If you’re really savvy, pack a cooler! When you plan a road trip last minute, somehow food and water seem insignificant. But, Oh, we can get that on the way doesn’t actually mean much when you’re starving after 15 hours in the car and have eaten only a few snacks. Remember, when driving across the U.S. especially, there can be long stretches with no stops for gas or food. If you’re picky like me, you’ll have even fewer options.
Returning from the food court and bathrooms at a rest stop somewhere in Ohio, my husband asks, Is the car key in the console? I’m immediately alarmed. He has a habit of being a tad forgetful. I look and thankfully it’s there. (Chuckles) I thought I left it there, but that would have been bad. My eyes widen. Yeah! You think?!? Do we have a spare key? We’re in the middle of the U.S. with no Alamo Car Rental locations in sight. Not sure, but didn’t see one in the glove compartment with the car manual. From then on, I don’t let the car key out of my sight.
Lesson Learned: Bring a spare key! If you rent a car, ask the rental office if there’s a spare key in the vehicle and where it is. If there isn’t, ask for one before leaving the rental location. If your rental company gives you a spare key but it’s attached to the same key ring, separate them so you don’t lose both.
Honey, I’m getting a Verizon message about having used 90% of my data with more than a week left in the cycle. At first, it doesn’t make sense. I spend an endless amount of time on my phone for blog work and hardly ever get this. I’ve even taken the last few days to decompress and disconnect and have connected less.
I grab Pete’s phone and absent-mindedly start another podcast. We’re binge listening to Radiolab as we breeze along Nebraska’s I-80 West. It’s an episode called Darkcode about a woman whose computer is hacked and her files stolen. She has to pay a ransom in bitcoins to get her files back. We’re shocked. It’s about halfway through when I’m smacked with a realization.
Did you download all these podcast episodes from our Wifi at home? His eyes look at me before he turns his head. Apparently not.
Lesson Learned: Podcasts, audio guides, music playlists, and audiobooks are perfect for road trips! Just remember to download them and save them to your phone from a Wifi zone or else you’ll stream your data right out the window and into a cloud of dust behind you.
The road is ending. Which way do I turn at the end of the road?
A seemingly innocuous question asked by my husband who was behind the wheel. Funny because my screenshot of the GoogleMaps directions showed no turn. I stare at the list of directions harder hoping for something to appear. Were we on the right road? Where were we anyway? Umm…What route is this? What route should it be? Don’t you just love it when your husband answers your question with a question! Let’s try a different approach..direct and honest.
Love, it says you need to go straight. I was hoping he wouldn’t realize the obvious problem with this. That being, the large orange sandstone slab of rock staring us in the face. No such luck. Do you see where we are? Well, not exactly. I pretended to try to find a cell signal, even though it clearly read No Service in the top left corner of my iPhone. Catching a cell signal in the Utah desert can be harder than spotting tumbleweed in Manhattan.
Remember how we loved getting lost in Tuscany? Silence. He decides to turn right. We are in luck! A gas station appears in the distance like an oasis shimmering in the sun’s rays. I hope it’s not a movie set. It looks that fake.
Lesson Learned: Bring a paper map. If you don’t have one, buy one. It’ll help you when technology isn’t an option. It’ll also ensure you don’t end up at a movie set gas station taking photos of a faded map on the wall.
While driving through the Colorado Rockies, night falls fast. I don’t even see the darkness swallowing the car until I realize I haven’t blinked in 20 minutes. Needless to say, this is also not the best time to see a Check Engine light or any other panic-inducing indicator light on the dashboard come to life.
Without warning, perhaps the most unwelcome words are released into the darkness. Looks like the back left tire needs air. I’m not sure what hits faster, my stunned speechlessness or the stinger in my neck at having whipped my head toward my husband.
He’s just slightly concerned, but one of my worst fears seems about to come true. I take a deep breath and state the obvious. We have to find a gas station. Of course, we find one but it’s almost as dark as the night surrounding us.
Let’s see if the air machine works. I feed it with coins. Nothing happens. I don’t even get the last of our coins back. The podcast we were listening to about wolves stealing a family dog from its yard never to be seen again takes on new relevance.
Lesson Learned: Never go on a road trip without an Emergency Car Kit. Luckily, we made it to our hotel just fine, but those were some tense moments not knowing whether or not the tire would deflate or not. We would have only had our cell phone flashlights, whatever tools happened to be stuffed into the trunk of the rental, and our flat tire changing inexperience.
I’d recommend putting together a Non-Emergency Car Kit, too. Things like hand sanitizer, wet wipes, toilet paper, paper towels, first aid supplies, and garbage bags are indispensable road trip items we found ourselves scrambling for during the trip. You can also see my complete list of road trip essentials.
As I said from the beginning, the road trip turned out better than great and, thankfully, none of the above mistakes ended up being a major detour. Clearly, it had been a while since our last road trip and the last minute aspect didn’t help. But, the rust has been knocked off and we’ll be ready the next time a road trip opportunity presents itself!
What mistakes have you made on a road trip? Have you ever planned a road trip last minute?
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