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Planning the Perfect Road Trip in North America 101

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Planning the Perfect Road Trip in North America 101

Tips for enjoying a long drive to the fullest

Maximize your experience

Focus on areas best seen by car, places that you are unlikely to experience during your usual travels, especially if you normally travel by air. In other words, get out into nature.

Pick your highways in part by their scenic potential. Don’t let a Google Maps tell you each route to go. It doesn’t care about what you see.

For example, the I-80 through Wyoming shows you mostly a few mountains in the distance--much of this road is remarkably flat--but the I-70 through Colorado takes you into the heart of the Rockies.

National Geographic Guide to Scenic Highways and Byways, 3d Ed, a favorite of mine, and other guides help with route selection.

Also, include as many national parks and great provincial and state parks away from cities as possible, such as Humboldt Redwoods State Park in California.

Seriously consider buying a U.S. national park pass for $80 that covers the pass holder plus three adults in the same personal vehicle. Children under 16 are free. If 62 or over, you get the best rate of all, $10 for a lifetime.

Mix it up

Mix road types. An all-Interstate highway trip in the States can be deadly to the soul—and to the stomach.

Mix scenery. For example, you could drive from Minneapolis to Padre Island with only subtle changes in landscape, but why not travel one-way via a lake or wild river in the Ozarks?

To maximize your time at the best spots, have what some Canadians call “haul arse days” on less interesting roads, days that you drive with just minimal breaks for safety and refreshment.

Balance these with days with little driving, stopping in an afternoon, for example, at a water park or taking a hike.

So many people divide the miles they must travel into the same amount each day. Don’t do that!

Pad your trip

Pad your itinerary. Plan days that you can easily skip if you lose time due to a vehicle breakdown or feel ill.

In any case, schedule time for relaxation.

It’s so easy to over plan and include more than you will end up wanting to do. Most of us don't go on road trips in order to come back exhausted.

Driver fatigue and well being

Be realistic about mileage.

Three drivers can easily do 12 - 14 hours, excluding stops, but everyone soon tires of that routine if done every day.

Keep in mind driver safety. No one should drive more than 2.5 hours without a break of some type. And, no one should drive so much each day that he or she becomes drowsy. That becomes a significant safety risk, with reduced reaction time and perception.

Schedule time each day for exercise, hiking, swimming, running, or whatever. Not only will drivers stay fresher, but also the digestion of everyone should stay healthier on long trips.

Accommodation

Stay two or more nights in some places, instead of moving on all the time. You’ll feel so much more relaxed at the end of a road trip.

Especially at peak travel times such as school holidays, plan your itinerary well enough so that you can reserve places to sleep in advance at the busiest spots.

You are simply not likely to find a last-minute camping space or hotel room in Yosemite and other such places at peak times. The U.S. has more than 300,000,000 people. It adds nearly 3,000,000 per year.

However, favor motels or camping spots that have liberal cancellation policies. You want to be able to cancel up to 6:00 p.m. local time on the day of intended arrival without penalty, not 72 hours or whatever in advance. I realize that this may not be possible at popular places like the Grand Canyon.

If traveling in the western U.S., consider camping some nights. This gives you a fresh experience of natural environments that you may not get any other way.

Along the California coast, for instance, you’ll encounter nearly no rain in summer and seldom a mosquito. In fact, I’ve never experienced one of those pests while hiking or camping near the coast in either the U.S. or southwestern British Columbia.

Dining on the road

Avoid eating heavily on long travel days, and have your larger meal at lunch. Save the “big deal” meals for days when you are not sitting in your ride most of the time, and also have these at lunch.

This routine helps you fall asleep more easily and soundly.

I have a rule on any long trip—national chain food only if I have to. Sometimes that means I look for quality regional chains like Culver's. Mostly, I seek out local independent favorites except where there are no convenient alternatives.

Dining well, with variety, makes travelling so much more interesting.

Roadfood.com

Roadfood.com helps you find the places locals love to dine. Check out its restaurant tab.

Reviewers include Michael Stern, the co-founder of Roadfood with his wife Jane, who until recently wrote a monthly column for now defunct Gourmet Magazine.

You’ll find a lively forum on Roadfood. Of special interest are its “Where should I eat” and “Trip Reports” sections.

Keep your children involved

Consider the feelings of your children, who may not be as interested in the drive as you.

Bring in your kids to help plan the trip from the very start. Seek their input for changes while traveling. Help them prioritize the various options in a way fair to everyone.

All this creates ownership and interest and helps them learn to make wise choices.

Have activities and materials to keep them busy. My parents staged contests, e.g., who would be first to notice a car with an Alaskan or Newfoundland license plate or a certain type of vehicle.

Hook up a satellite radio

On long trips, I cannot recommend enough a satellite radio network like Sirius (available both in Canada and the U.S.).

You will be amazed at the lack of reception and abysmal selection of stations still found in extensive areas of North America.

With Sirius, you’ll have perfect reception except under overpasses and in tunnels. (If not, try hooking Sirius into the auxiliary slot on your car radio/CD system, in order to avoid interference.)

One-way vehicles

Especially travelers from outside of North America should consider a one-way road trip. Overseas travelers can easily set up air tickets to fly into one coast and out of the other.

Most of us have no other reason to cross the Great Plains twice on the same trip other than we want to keep the vehicle we are using.

If that is not the case, you have choices.

You may find “auto drive away” companies that provide cars for free, sometimes with a gas allowance if the ride is a guzzler, but these very severely restrict the time and mileage allowed. You are not given time for much sightseeing, unless you can somehow negotiate this.

Instead, some travelers buy a pre-owned vehicle at, let’s say, a Southern California hostel, after having it checked by a mechanic, and then sell it once they reach Orlando or another place across the country. Obviously, this works best for people not on set schedules.

In addition, some rental car companies charge no drop off fee if they need cars moved. This May, for example, Alamo and National offered $10 per day one-way rentals from Florida to parts of the U.S. more popular in summer.

That was a deal! And one not that uncommon as rental car companies adjust inventories.

Next post: A sample road trip itinerary that uses these tips

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