Summer days on the open road invite the kind of spontaneity impossible within the confines of a bus, train or airplane.
I was in Oklahoma because driving I-40 across the country was the most entertaining way to reach Los Angeles. If I’d flown instead, I would never have witnessed the unearthly beauty that is a Tulsa thunderstorm by night. In fact, I probably would never have seen Oklahoma at all. It’s that kind of serendipity that makes road trips so rewarding — whether they span the continent or simply the county.
Summer days on the open road invite the kind of spontaneity impossible within the confines of a bus, train or airplane. I enjoy following signs just because they have interesting names — that’s how I ended up in Mecca, Calif. — or letting my gastronomic caprices dictate my detours, a strategy that recently led me through the loveliest creeks of the Texas Hill Country in pursuit of strudel.
But if a long weekend or even an afternoon is all you have, virtually any swath of the American landscape is fertile ground for adventure. That’s because, as every traveler knows, a road trip isn’t a drive; it’s a state of mind. “You just have to notice that you’re on a road trip,” said Mark Sedenquist, the publisher of RoadTrip America (roadtripamerica.com), the authoritative website on the topic and a resource for routes, advice and expert planning since 1994. “Seriously, with this mindset, two hours is enough for an excursion that can offer at least a bit of the same respite from the challenges of daily life as a monthlong, cross-country trek.”
Philadelphians hardly need encouragement: last year, nearly 90 percent of Philly-area residents planned to drive to their summer destinations, according to the Mid-Atlantic office of the American Automobile Association. This year’s cheaper gas makes road-tripping all the more attractive. “It’s the most cost-effective and convenient way to travel for families, and the most customizable,” said Jana Tidwell, public affairs manager for AAA Mid-Atlantic, who has road-tripped to Myrtle Beach, S.C., every summer for the past several years. “You can decide when you want to start, where you want to stop along the way and who drives on a longer road trip.”
Within a day’s reach of both New England and the South, Philadelphia is ideally situated for road trips of any length. Head west, and you’ve got Civil War battlefields to explore, along with the rolling farm country of the Pennsylvania Dutch; go north or south, and in hours you can be in New York, Baltimore or Washington, D.C. All three are on the top-10 list for Philly road-trippers, according to Tidwell — as are the world-class Carolina beaches, which offer a family-friendly, relaxing change of scene.
Sedenquist, who has been traversing America’s highways and byways for a quarter-century, is a particular fan of the salt marshes of nearby Delaware and the beach town of Fenwick Island, all of which can be done in a leisurely day trip from Philadelphia. But for the adventurous, he recommends imagining a 500-mile radius from the city: “You could plan trips to destinations as far north as central Maine and Quebec, west to Cincinnati and southeast to Charleston,” he said. Extend that radius to 1,000 miles — two days’ drive — and you could get as far as Michigan’s Upper Peninsula or the beaches of Georgia.
With so many possibilities, there are a few pre-trip things to consider for the smoothest possible ride. Before you hit the road:
Get the Car Checked out
Just as you’d want to be physically conditioned before running a marathon, your car needs to be in good shape for a long drive, especially in hot weather. The AAA recommends having routine maintenance performed as a preventative measure — not just for safety, but also to save the time and expense of mid-trip repair in the boondocks. Check the battery, air conditioning, fluid levels and tire pressure (underinflated tires can cost you significant gas mileage).
Stock Your Vehicle With the Basics
Some items are seasonal: bottled water, which may freeze in wintertime, is a warm-weather essential — both for overheating radiators and overheating passengers. “Nobody ever thinks, ‘Today is the day I’m going to break down and get stuck for hours,’ ” Tidwell pointed out. In addition to a fully charged cellphone and a car charger, an external battery charger comes in handy during a breakdown.
Besides that, I recommend traveling with jumper cables, flares, a flashlight, work gloves, scissors or a knife, a first-aid kit and non-perishable snacks (I stash bags of pretzels in the front-seat compartment).
Speaking of Food
Eating is unquestionably one of the biggest challenges of long-haul road tripping. Most of us don’t want to rely on a steady diet of the Golden Arches and Taco Bell, and even fast food can get quite expensive. I stock up every day or two on healthy basics that travel well: bread, peanut butter, apples and bananas, which don’t require refrigeration; cheese, which lasts for a day or two and can be used for sandwiches (the Babybel brand, wrapped in wax, is especially handy); carrot sticks for healthy noshing; and nuts and dark chocolate for energy. Some people travel with a cooler, but between air conditioning and the motel fridge, I can go a few days between grocery runs.
Of course, sampling new fare is one of the chief pleasures of travel. On a long drive, I try to plan so that lunchtime coincides with someplace interesting — this allows me to try local cuisine, experience the town and break up the trip.
Bring a Real Map
Like everyone else nowadays, I use my smartphone GPS to find my way back to the highway after a detour, hunt down the nearest Super 8 or calculate a rough ETA. But experienced road trippers know not to rely on technology: chargers go kaput, batteries die, coverage can be unreliable — and above all, electronic devices are only machines. “I could tell you some horror stories about people who valued info from their GPS over common sense or paper maps,” said Sedenquist. “But they have sad endings.” Sedenquist also pointed out something virtually every traveler has learned the hard way at one time or another — that Google Maps is a fantasy version of the route you’re on. Like Sedenquist, I mentally add 25 percent to whatever ETA Google suggests. And unlike my phone, if my road atlas gets splashed with rain or coffee, I can still use it to figure out an alternate route.
Have a Backup Plan for Emergencies
I called AAA for advice because I’ve been a member for as long as I’ve been driving, and I personally can’t imagine a road trip without the backup of an emergency road service. My basic AAA membership costs $52, and over the years it has more than paid for itself; in addition to rescue from breakdowns and lockouts, I get motel discounts, free maps and travel-planning with a smartphone app.
If you’re renting a car, check both your auto insurance and your credit cards to see what coverage they include for rental vehicles — and then supplement as necessary (liability is often excluded, for example). And if your road trip will take place beyond U.S. borders, make sure your rental agreement permits driving in each country you plan to visit. Do the same diligence for your insurance coverage, too. In Western Europe, my American Express card insured me for collision and damage everywhere except for Italy — an exclusion that surprised me until I drove into Roman traffic.
How Much Driving Can You Do?
If covering serious territory, decide in advance how many miles per day you want to drive, allowing time for meal stops and sightseeing along the way. Most experienced road-trippers put the sane maximum at about 500 miles a day, which is roughly eight hours of highway driving and takes about 10 hours once you factor in stops. At that rate, you can make it from Philadelphia to San Francisco or Los Angeles in about a week, with stops for lunch or dinner and a few hours each day strolling around destinations. Add another week or two and you can spend quality time at museums, tour historical attractions, gawk at canyons and hike through national parks.
Keeping the Kids Happy
My sister and I still recall with delight the pastimes that kept us occupied during our family’s cross-country road trip in the ’80s — things like jumping in every motel swimming pool and collecting gift-shop souvenirs from the Alamo to Dollywood. If youngsters are on board, plan a flexible itinerary with frequent stops and fun activities. “Get the kids involved,” advised Tidwell, who travels with her two children, ages 6 and 8. “Let them be a part of it and help plan.”
Long hours in the car are manageable with familiar items from home, Tidwell counseled. “For young kids, it’s creature comforts,” she said. “With older kids, it’s technology. That first road trip, you never know how your kids are going to react, so anything that distracts them is worthwhile.” Popular distractions include crayons and markers, coloring books, gaming systems (with ear buds so parents stay sane), and tablets for movie-watching. “A summer road trip is also not a bad time to do that summer reading for school,” added Tidwell, whose children read in between movies on a daylong drive.
To Reserve or Not to Reserve
With the flexibility of driving, that really is the question. If you plan so that you know exactly how far you’re going to get and where you’ll sleep each night, you can research your lodging options and get the best deal. On the other hand, that approach limits spontaneity somewhat. You can’t drop in on friends or stop to stroll a particularly fetching stretch of beach if you have a set amount of ground to cover. My personal solution is to check Expedia on my phone at some point late in the afternoon, when I have a rough idea of where I might be spending the night. If a particularly good deal pops up that’s only available online, I show the screen to the front-desk clerk and usually get that rate.
Hilary Danailova is a frequent contributor to Jewish Exponent publications.