I love highway driving and I love long road trips most of all, even if I’m driving alone. Most experts recommend that for anything over 400 or 500 miles, you should think about staying somewhere overnight and splitting your trip into two days. It’s good advice, but because I want to spend more time wherever I’m going and less time actually traveling (and saving money by not spending it for an extra night at a motel along the way), I never follow that advice, as sound as it may be. For anything under 700 miles, I make the whole drive in a day.
I’ve made at least five car trips from North Carolina to the greater New York and New Jersey area, and I clocked those trips at 637 miles one way. Amazingly, the Tampa Bay area where my son lives is exactly the same distance from my home in North Carolina as those trips to the greater New York area were — and take about the same amount of hours to traverse. I also once drove from New York to Chicago in just one day — that was a slightly longer trip at close to 800 miles — but that was a little too much. I’d definitely split that into two days if I ever had to to it again.
There are apps and online programs that tell you how long a car trip should take, but you should always add about two hours to it. Those calculations they give you don’t take into account the various stops you will need to make along the way — and if you’re driving alone (or even if you aren’t), you WILL have to stop. You can get exhausted and stiff as a board from sitting in a car all day, not to mention you will definitely need to relieve yourself from time to time and fill your gas tank.
Since I’m experienced at one day long road trips and have done so many of them, I’m going to offer some tips to make your trip not only tolerable, but utterly enjoyable. I for one, consider the road trip part of the vacation itself — even the road trip back. As far as I’m concerned, the vacation isn’t over until I’ve stepped inside my house. The actual road trip is definitely part of the pleasure of a vacation. I can’t even imagine taking a plane for trips like these because the driving part has become such an integral part of it for me. There’s a delicious feeling of freedom and adventure driving along the highway, especially when the scenery is lovely and you make music a part of it.
Here are eight things I do to make my long road trips not only tolerable, but an absolute blast.
1. Before your road trip, make sure your car is road worthy and in good shape for a long trip. Check your fluids, get your oil changed, and get any repairs made beforehand. If your tires look worn, it’s a good time to replace them. There’s nothing worse than breaking down on the side of the road 400 miles from your home in an unfamiliar or remote place, especially if you know no one there. It’s happened to me and believe me, it’s a nightmare and you’ll waste much of your trip with car repairs and towing, not to mention wasting money.
2. Time your trip well. Leave early enough — preferably very early morning, or even at dawn, to start your trip. That way you won’t be rushed, and can actually enjoy the drive instead of stressing out over the possibility of being late or arriving late at night — and absolutely exhausted. In my case, I try to time my trips so no to very little time is spent driving after dark — since I don’t see well at night.
3. If you leave at dawn (as I do), there’s something almost otherworldly yet serene about an empty highway with only you (and maybe a few early morning truckers) on the road. It’s a very zen-like feeling, and you feel like the whole world consists of just you, your car, and the road. It’s an incredibly peaceful feeling. Just be sure to carry a thermos of coffee so you don’t fall asleep!
4. Pace yourself. Never try to drive straight through to your destination without stopping. Even if you’ve brought along snacks and don;t plan on stopping to eat anywhere, you will almost certainly need to stop for gas or to use the restroom. Whenever you stop, get out of the car and walk around, stretching all your limbs and getting the blood running through them. You will be surprised at how stiff and sore your muscles will feel after hours of nonstop driving (or sitting in the passenger seat). It can be worse than after a workout at the gym! Spend about ten or fifteen minutes just walking around or stretching. When you get back in your car you will feel awake and refreshed — and a lot less sore.
5. Stock up before your trip with high energy, healthy, but light snacks. Granola bars, trail mix, nuts, high energy but filling fruit such as bananas, orange slices in a plastic container, juice, water and coffee will keep you going without filling you up so much you feel heavy and sleepy. Cheese sticks or slices will give you the protein you need, but nuts will too if you prefer those. I don’t like to eat big meals along the road, because they always make me fall asleep. Keep a thermos of coffee that will last most of the day. Water is better than soda — if you don’t like the taste of plain water, stock a small cooler filled with naturally flavored sparkling water. It tastes like soda but is much better for you. Make sure it’s sweetened with real sugar or a sugar substitute like aspartame if you can’t eat sugar, but avoid anything with high fructose corn syrup.
6. Enjoy the scenery and local customs. Even in the most seemingly boring locales, there’s always something of local interest to enjoy. If you stop for gas, look around at the local fare at the gas stations (you may find things there you never saw before and want to try), and spend time people watching to get a feel of the local culture. Listen to the local accents too. If the scenery is breathtaking, just enjoy it — but avoid taking pictures unless you’ve stopped the car to take them (or are with a companion who can take them for you).
7. If at all possible, make your road trips take place on weekends. There’s a lot less traffic on the highways, and you won’t run into annoying rush hour traffic, which can slow you down and make your trip stressful and less pleasurable. Also, on the weekends, you won’t have to deal with as many semi-trucks and 18 wheelers, which can sometimes become intimidating when you find yourself boxed in by them on the highway. That probably won’t happen on a Saturday or Sunday.
And finally, this is probably the most important of all —
8. Make music a big part of your road trip. A road trip just isn’t quite right without a soundtrack to go with it. If you enjoy listening to the radio, there’s something compelling about just flipping around the stations and finding music you like. Personally, I love to listen to stations come in and fade out as you enter new cities and regions. It gives me a feeling of vast distances and a kind of ineffable mystery. It’s hard to explain but I love it. I also enjoy listening to my own music on road trips. If you have a special “road song” you love and that fills you with energy or happiness while you drive, turn it into your own driving anthem. Here’s mine — the feeling of freedom this song conveys makes me want to roll down my windows all the way and sing as loud as I can along to it: