Making Your Summer Road Trip The Best It Can Be
If you’re planning to do any driving this summer, you’ll be one of 35 million hitting the roads. But the fun is in the experience, my friends. Summer road trips and vacations have a unique place in the American experience. So we wanted to put together a little primer with some tips and suggestions on how to make your summer road trip or driving vacation the best it can be. Just like we always do, we’ll give some tips on how to get the best mileage and how to make sure your vehicle is in prime working order. But we’ll also throw in some more interesting things, too. What are they? You’ll have to drive on to find out!
First, let’s get the business out of the way with some tips on making sure your car is in best driving condition before you hit the road.
Tires and Tire Pressure
No doubt about it, the tires are the most overlooked part of the car, especially when it comes to safety. Yes, tires are part of the vehicle’s safety system. They maintain contact with the road and work with the braking system to ensure you actually stop at the red light and not in the shop window across the street…
Having the right tire pressure is the best way to ensure your tires work properly. There are two numbers to pay attention to. Your tires will list on the side wall what their maximum tire pressure is. That’s not the one you want to go by. Instead, go with the recommended tire pressure provided by your vehicle’s maker. It’s located either on the side of the driver-side door, on the glovebox door, or in your owner’s manual. The reason you want to go by this figure and not the maximum figure is because tire pressure increases as temperature goes up. And since this is a summer road trip, the tire pressure could be 5-10 psi higher on the highway than when you started out. Excessive tire pressure increases the chance of a tire blowout on the road.
Having the correct tire pressure will keep you safest, give you the best handling, and best mileage. Overinflating the tires, as we just said, might give you better gas mileage but is dangerous. Underinflating the tires gives you worse gas mileage and wears your tires out quicker on the edges.
Speaking of tire edges, look at your tire tread before you start any trip. The proper depth of tire tread will keep you on the road in the rain. You’re looking for uneven wear patterns on one or the other side. If it’s more worn on one side, go get an alignment. Alignments cost a little upfront, but save you money in the long run by keeping your tires from wearing out prematurely.
The Cooling System
Your cooling system works hard in the heat of the summer to keep the car functioning. No, we’re not talking about AC, we’re talking about the system that keeps your engine from melting. The cooling system has a number of parts, and since few of us are very skilled at diagnosing coolant problems, the best thing to do is have your system checked out by a good mechanic before you leave. You do not want to be driving across the Arizona desert with a bad cooling system.
Here’s a brief rundown of the cooling system parts, so you can at least appear like you understand what your mechanic is telling you:
Radiator core – the little tubes in the radiator that hold coolant. Exposure to road salt rots it away over time. Bad news if you’re driving and it happens. Or it can get plugged, which means your engine will run hot when you’re driving at high speeds. A radiator flush is a good idea here.
Belts and hoses – check for small cracks in the rubber and make sure the hoses are still tight and clamped.
Coolant and thermostat – obviously your radiator needs coolant antifreeze in order to work properly. But keep an eye on your thermostat. They do eventually wear out and get stuck, which will cause engine overheating. If you haven’t had a new thermostat in a few years, get a new one before your trip.
Water pump – the water pump circulates… water. Good mechanics will replace the water pump when they replace the timing belt. You don’t want your water pump to break because it will cause all your coolant to leak out. And that’s bad news if you want to continue doing any actual roadtripping from that point forward.
Cooling fan and heater core – a cooling fan sounds like something important, and it is. But the heater core is just as important for your cooling system (sounds funny?). That’s because the heater core keeps your coolant from leaking out all over the place. You don’t want a busted heater core.
This seems like a given necessity for a summer road trip, especially if you’re going to some place like the tourist haven of Florida. If your AC is blowing cold, you’re good to go. But if it’s giving any hints that it might want to cause trouble up ahead, it’s definitely a good idea to get it checked out. Because, like many things in the vehicle, the AC system doesn’t just work by itself. The AC belt also helps to power things like the water pump and alternator. So if the AC belt breaks, or the compressor (the really expensive part) stops working, the belt could break then. And now you’re really stuck without an alternator or water pump. So have the AC system checked. Better safe than (really) sorry.
Therefore, it’s a really good idea to take your vehicle in for a once-over before your big trip. Your mechanic will test all of these systems and do the proper repairs to ensure you all come back in one piece, and on the day you actually schedule to come back on.
Emergency Stuff To Be Prepared
It’s always a good idea to be prepared for emergencies. Throwing a few handy things into your trunk can turn a potential bad luck crisis into not-such-a-big-deal. And, like any good financial planner will tell you, auto (and financial) problems are only a matter of if, not when. So make like a Boy Scout and be prepared. Here are some things to take with you on your road trip:
Coolant – you can’t always count on there being a service station at regular intervals, especially if you’re travelling out west.
Oil (2 quarts) – to keep your engine from blowing up if you have an unforeseen leak (is there any other kind?)
Maps and/or an Atlas – you also can’t count on there always being cell service, even if you do have a smart phone. Don’t let the phone be smarter than you. Bring something that resembles an actual map. On paper.
Duct Tape – for repairing leaky hoses (not for strapping stuff to your roof). It will buy you time to get to someplace where you can replace it.
A Real Spare Tire – you can get a used tire at the local junkyard. You may say “I’ve already got the spare donut”. Those aren’t recommended for more than 50 miles of driving and you can’t go very fast on them. Having a full-sized spare will keep a flat tire from cramping your style if you’re on a tight schedule.
Assorted Tools – simple stuff like a screwdriver, pliers, even a coat hanger. You never know what handy use you can find for a simple thing like a coat hanger. Until you really need something like that and you don’t have it.
Some Other Handy Tips
Here are some handy tips that you might not have thought of with respect to any road trip you’re planning. Depending on who you’re going with, some of these might be more relevant than others.
Make sure you pack for hot weather – this seems obvious but sometimes we forget the obvious if we’re going to new places. Don’t forget to pack sun screen, light clothes and bug repellent. It’s the little things in life, you know?
Take a swimsuit – if you like being spontaneous, don’t forget your swimsuit. You never know when the opportunity might present itself for a quick dip in a place you’ll remember. Just don’t do it in Florida, okay? Too many alligators.
Limit your afternoon driving – hopefully your schedule isn’t so tightly packed that you feel you have to chew up the miles during every spare moment of down time. Afternoon driving is, of course, hot, and you get the most traffic. If you drive at night or during dusk/dawn, you also save gas because it takes less gas to cool your car when it’s not as hot outside.
Three words: Truck. Stop. Showers. – when you’ve been driving for hours on end, think outside of the box and hit the showers at a big truck stop. They’re typically very clean and will perk you right up. You’ll feel great instead of grungy. So pack your shampoo and conditioner, and bring rubber sandals, too. If there’s no good truck stops where you’re going, just bring a jug of water and wash your hair in a parking lot. You’ll be amazed at how good you feel when you’ve cleaned up a bit.
Get enough sleep – this seems obvious, but we have bad habit of packing too much into our trips such that we’re driving 14 hours at a time. You’re supposed to enjoy a road trip. Get your rest.
Choose your electronics wisely – by this, we mean a couple of things. Turn your phone off or limit yourself to checking email only a couple times a day. The business world won’t implode if you make family time a priority by disconnecting for a day. Do have a camera ready to go and store some fun tunes on your mp3 player to have at the ready.
Get off the well-traveled road and go someplace you’ve never been (and might never be again) – everyone takes the highways. Try hitting the scenic routes instead. Sure, it might take longer, but you’ll have better memories of getting there.
Eat where the locals eat – this is always fun. You can go to McDonalds or Cracker Barrel any time you want at home. You’re not going to remember the Applebees in Metarie, Louisiana. But you will remember the small local hole-in-the-wall joint that’s always packed out by the people who live in the area and know where the good food is.
Eat healthy (somewhat) – we’re not suggesting diets are for road trips. But someone once said that the best way to feel “terrible” on a road trip is to eat “terrible”. Substitute your own appropriate words, there. You want to enjoy yourself on your trip. Just take along some fresh fruit or small things like that, to keep you from having to snack on gas station Bugles. You’ll feel better, plus it will give you an excuse not to hold back from that great local fare you’ll be trying at lunch or dinner.
Camping, anyone? We know that not everyone is in a position to rough it. But if you have a tent or sleeping bag, go ahead and throw it into the trunk and bring it along. The idea is that it will allow you to be flexible in your options when you’re faced with a choice of where to bed down for the night. And who knows, it could be a lot of fun to say you slept under the stars.
Save your contacts and tell people where you are going – this is something most people forget. We rely on our phones to store information, but what happens if you drop your phone in that lake you’re camping by? Back up important contact information in multiple places – online (send yourself an email?) and write them down in a notebook. Make photocopies of your driver’s license and credit cards too, while you’re at it. And always let someone know where you’re going. Let them know where you’re going and when you plan to be in what area. Simple common sense (which isn’t so common these days).
Suggested destinations for trips
Have you done the Disney thing before? Not up to following the crowds to the places everyone tends to go? The great thing about road trips is you can go against the flow and make a truly memorable experience by seeing places others don’t think to see. But there’s so much out there that what do you choose?
Here are some handy online resources for planning some truly memorable destinations.
http://www.bestoftheroad.com/roadtrips (Rand McNally’s road trip guide)
http://www.coastalliving.com/travel/coastal-road-trips-00414000077699/ (a list of the best coastal road trips, from the publishers of Coastal Living magazine).
There were several more suggested trips, but we can’t list all the links here. But you can find great suggested roadtrips from the American Association of Retired Person and National Geographic’s 50 Great Road Trips from around the world; just Google them.
Tips for Driving
So you’ve had your cruiser looked over and everything is good to go. You’ve packed wisely and are prepared for most emergencies likely to happen (alien attack and zombie apocalypse do not count). What about how you’re driving during the trip?
Here’s a tip. Don’t be such a slave to schedules that you forget to actually enjoy the journey. We like to get where we’re going and get there fast. So sometimes we try to squeeze too much distance into one day. Try not to do that. On the highway, don’t drive 70, drive 55. Enjoy the view along the way. There’s another reason for this – if you’ve got a big load packed, always driving 70 will stress your engine unduly. So slow down, live in the moment and enjoy the ride. Plus you’ll save a lot on gas driving 55 instead of 70.
We hope you have a lot of fun this summer and make some great memories!