Road Trips – 10 Top Tips
"Oh the places you'll go!" Dr Seuss
I’m a huge fan of road trips – they take you beyond big cities and packed tourist spots, giving insights into local culture and the natural beauty of an area. They’re also a great way to see several destinations, without the restrictions of public transport – you can stop where you want, when you want. If you stumble upon somewhere you like, stay for lunch, a day, a week….
For all the wonders of road trips there are also pitfalls. A bit of planning and pragmatism goes a long way to making your trip happy and memorable for all the right reasons. Having completed six road trips covering over 15000 miles across 3 continents, this is what I’ve learned:
1. Location and duration
- Choose the region you want to see, keeping in mind the length of your trip – be sure to leave enough time to enjoy the places you visit
- Have a time contingency – you may fall in love with a place and want to stay longer, or get a great recommendation along the way that takes you off your planned route
- Check the road types along the route – a small winding road can take twice as long as a highway, although it’s probably more picturesque!
Example: On my Irish road trip, we loved the Ring of Kerry so much we stayed longer than planned, and it was worth it. But we didn’t leave any time to see the middle of Ireland on our way back to Dublin, or even time to get back to the airport so I put my foot down, and got a speeding ticket. We made the flight, just, but it was a pretty stressful few hours.
- Work out if a one way, two way or circular route works best. If you’re doing a two way route, divide up the planned stops so you visit some on the way up and some on the way back. Otherwise you could finish your holiday with a very long, boring drive
- Be realistic about how many miles you want to travel in a day. Too much time in a vehicle can make people grouchy, so create a balance between driving and time to enjoy your destinations
- If you’re crossing borders, be sure you have the right visas and/or vaccinations. Also be mindful of what you can and can’t take into various countries. You may have to ditch some food items before a border crossing or risk a fine
Example: In Australia, kangaroos often run in front of cars at night. We had a ‘roo’ bar to minimise damage to our motorhome but we didn’t want to kill anything, so we decided we’d only drive in daylight. We arrived in each location with enough time to get settled, shower and enjoy dinner in our new location.
Choose your trip buddies wisely:
- You’ll all need to get along well in a confined space for long periods of time. Even our nearest and dearest can get on our nerves at times
- Everyone should agree on the outline route, activities, budget and schedule, this reduces the risk of mutiny along the way
- Is everyone flexible and forgiving? One selfish person can cause a lot of tension
Example: A friend and I planned a long road trip, and at the last minute an old friend of mine decided to join us. She had always been a lot of fun, but at times selfish and rude. She also had champagne tastes when the trip was planned on a potatoes and pasta budget.
I hoped she would be a team player but she wasn’t, and it caused arguments and budget issues several times along the way. I learned that someone who’s good fun for a night out might not be so great in a confined space for weeks on end. These days I pick my travel buddies wisely.
- Agree what works best for your group – e.g. 4 hour driving shifts or a day each in turn
- Share the responsibilities – there’s a lot of admin involved; organising a vehicle, researching routes and stopping points, booking accommodation and excursions. Do your bit, recognise the efforts of others, share your findings and get everyone’s agreement before you book anything
- Long journeys cause grouchiness, be kind, supportive and forgiving
- Discuss how to resolve disagreements – flexibility is key, as is an understanding that everyone might have a down day
- Take something to entertain yourselves individually and as a group – e.g. books, pack of cards
Example: For one trip with two friends covered we decided we’d each drive a day in turn, and whoever drove picked the music. I had the longest driving day, covering 700 miles with only two quick stops. We decided as a team to cover those miles and the others offered me a break from driving, but I was happy to do it. When I started seizing up from being sat down so long we stopped on a long, dark stretch of road and did a bit of yoga right there on the highway (knowing we’d see cars coming from a mile away). I felt supported by my mates, we had a laugh doing our yoga, and the next day we woke up exactly where we all wanted to be,
- Everyone must have the funds for vehicle hire, insurance, fuel, food, excursions and a contingency for the unexpected. Holidays always cost more than we think
- If someone drops out at the last minute, costs such as vehicle hire go up for the rest of the group. It’s a good idea to pay in full, up front and agree that if someone drops out, they lose their contribution unless a suitable replacement can be found
- An accident could cost £1000 in deductable/excess, and whoever put their credit card down as security is responsible for this. Decide if you will share costs of an accident and be sure that your fellow road trippers will pay up. You can avoid this scenario by paying for full insurance – it’s expensive but reduces liability for all involved, especially the card holder
- Excessive luggage will add to fuel consumption. Be mindful of your speed and weight
- Excessive speed can increase your fuel consumption by up to 33%, and result in speeding tickets
Example: I once invited a fourth person to join a road trip, and we upgraded the vehicle size to accommodate them. They refused to pay more than the deposit until the day of the trip, when the final balance was due, and then they backed out at the last minute. It was too late to change to a smaller vehicle and, as I was the one who’d invited them, I took responsibility for their share. That cost me £600.
Car, campervan, motorhome, bike, motorbike, bus, coach or train? So many options! The best fit for your trip depends on where you’re going, how long the journey is, how many of you there are and your budget. Some pros and cons:
- Cars and campervans are great for 1 to 3 people – fuel economy will be reasonable and they are easy to drive and park in built up areas.
- Motorhomes come with beds, cooking facilities and a toilet so they’re great for long journeys, especially in remote areas. However they are more expensive to buy/hire and fuel. And agree a rota for cleaning out the toilet!
- Bikes and motorbikes have very limited luggage options but bring you closer to nature and are cheap to run. You also won’t get stuck in traffic too much in built up areas
- Organised coach trips are especially great for solo travellers. There are so many route options now, and usually a bunch of activities along the way. They’re more expensive though.
- Buses and trains can get you to most places, although they can have several connections. Be careful of your belongings though, keep anything valuable in your lap if you can. Booking in advance is usually cheaper, and look into month-long passes.
NB. If you’re taking your own vehicle, or buying one for the trip, make sure it’s mechanically sound and seriously consider breakdown cover
Example: In Coral Bay, Western Australia we met a group in a beat up old station wagon who’d broken down 100 miles out of town. They paid for an expensive tow and then were stuck for a week awaiting repairs. One of the group had a flight to catch out of Darwin he now wouldn’t make, his visa was about to run out and he couldn’t afford an alternative trip to the airport. I have no idea if/how he made it.
Example: In Alice Springs I saw several backpackers with beat up old cars packed full of trays of ramen noodles. A couple of them were painting daisies and slogans on their cars when they probably should have spent the daisy paint money on spark plugs!
- Hotels, hostels or campgrounds – work out what fits your budget, and if/where these options are available along your route
- Personally I prefer not to book in advance so that my schedule is flexible, but if it’s busy season you may need to
- If you haven’t pre-booked, plan in advance how you’ll find accommodation at your stopping points. If it’s late you probably won’t want to drive around for an hour looking for a vacancy, and a lot of places stop answering the phone/door after a certain time. Buy a travel guide, or print off options with phone numbers and addresses in advance. If you’re relying on your phone, check your destination has phone reception (be mindful of roaming charges, if applicable)
- If cheap accommodation is full, you might be stuck with an expensive alternative, budget for this
- Campervans and motorhomes are far easier, you can stop pretty much anywhere and sleep
- If you’re camping, you will likely need to allow enough time before sundown to put the tent up, this will affect your arrival time and therefore how far you can drive in a day
Example: I was on a road trip in Florida one Christmas, relying on cheap motels. On Christmas Eve everything was full – the highway was one long run of ‘no vacancy’ signs. As the night drew in we ended up walking into an expensive hotel in desperation. We were lucky, they gave us a room at the rate of their sister budget motel, but it could have cost us $200 more for that one night.
- Soft, compact luggage is easier to load, keeping as much space in the car/van free as possible. No-one wants to spend two weeks on the back seat sat on top of a suitcase
- Have a backpack for days out and trips to communal bathrooms. On days out decide if it’s safer to keep cash, cards and ID on you or in the vehicle
- Get a good toiletry bag for use in communal showers – one with a hook to hang on a door is ideal
- Don’t over-pack, but allow for the weather and terrain you’re covering
Example: For my Australian road trip I had a huge, hard suitcase, perfect for my year in Oz but not so great for a road trip. Luckily we had enough room for it, but it still got in the way. However I did have a great little hanging toiletry bag which I’m still using 17 years on
9. In case of emergency
A few things to consider:
- Insurance and breakdown cover; if it’s your own vehicle, make sure you’re insured for all countries you visit. For hire vehicles, check the excess/deductable which can be extortionate, it might be worth paying extra to avoid this
- Will you have mobile phone service along the route? If not, don’t stray too far off the beaten track without some form of communication e.g. emergency beacon. This is especially important in dry, remote places
- Let people know where and when your next stop will likely be, and check in with them. If you get stuck, your point of contact can raise the alarm for you
- For long journeys carry plenty of water, especially in hot climates
- Have a paper map covering your route in case you don’t have mobile phone reception
- If driving through remote areas, fuel up every chance you get – better safe than sorry
Example: I haven’t had any disasters fortunately, but stories regularly make the news of people who have broken down off road, run out of water and walked for help – sometimes making it, sometimes not. It’s not worth the risk. For the Australian road trip we decided to stay on tarmac roads. We would be out of mobile reception for much of it, but rather than buy an expensive locator beacon we carried 30 gallons of emergency water, enough for all three of us for ten days. Plus we had plenty of food, and the shelter of our motorhome. This would be enough to sustain us until a passing vehicle could call for help on our behalf.
10. Have fun!
Don’t sweat the small stuff, focus on the cool places and things you see, the fun times you have as a group and the people you meet along the way. Be flexible, be kind and make your trip memorable for all the right reasons.