Whether you want to hit the open road to find yourself or lose yourself along the way, keep in mind a road trip is all about you. You decide when to start and stop, you decide where to eat and sleep, you decide what is worth a second glance. "You're in charge," said Megan Edwards, editor of RoadTripAmerica.com, "for better or worse."
Road tripping isn't for everyone -- but even if you're accustomed to some hand holding, it still might be for you. Consider the possibilities: Maybe you tour Southern California in search of the country's best burrito, or your search for the perfect fried clam takes you to New England. Maybe you're a baseball nut and want to visit the ballparks of the United States. Perhaps you're sick of package tours and you want to see where the road less traveled will take you. No matter what, you'll have an adventure as you explore what, quite literally, is just around the bend.
You can take any number of tried and true road trip routes, or let the road take you where it may. But no matter what, you'll need a starting point and a good map. The biggest mistake novice road trippers make, according to Edwards, is "driving too many miles in one day." She suggests erring on the side of fewer miles per day. That way, if you see something that piques your interest or you get off-course, you can feel free to relax and go with the flow.
Edwards says that while you can take a road trip and find adventure virtually anywhere, some routes remain perennially popular. I-95 from Maine to Florida, Highway 1 in California and Route 66 remain the top three choices for first-timers and experienced roadies alike. She warns, though, that people from the East Coast "seem to underestimate distances in the West," and as a result often find themselves behind schedule.
First and foremost, you'll need a map. A first aid kit is also a smart purchase. What else you bring depends on your personality and your destination. If you're headed for a warm climate, be sure to bring plenty of water and keep it on hand throughout the trip. If you're headed for cooler climes, make sure you have plenty of cold-weather gear -- if your car breaks down and you have to wait for help, you'll be thankful for the extra pair of gloves in the back seat.
Edwards said she brings her own pillow on trips for a little bit of luxury. "Even if you find yourself in a less-than-wonderful hotel," she said, "having your own pillow makes it a little bit nicer."
If you're driving your own car or borrowing from a friend, it's wise to have the oil changed and the wiper fluid checked. Check your tire pressure and make sure you have a spare, and double check that your roadside assistance is up-to-date and that you know what it covers.
If you're renting a car, consider your route when you book your rental. Sure, Highway 1 is gorgeous through the window -- but imagine it in a convertible. If your trip is taking you to the mountains, consider an SUV. Do your homework and you may only end up paying a little more for a specialty car than you would for a compact. Consider also the number of passengers and find out how much luggage each person plans on bringing along for the ride. If you book your rental with a major credit card, you're probably at least partially covered with car insurance. Even so, call your creditor and be clear on exactly what is covered and what, if any, additional insurance you should purchase from the rental company.
Though it will cost a little more (usually around $5 per day), add at least one other person to the rental car contract. If one person is forced to do all the driving it is likely to cause tension along the way. Spouses are often covered free of charge.
Your companions will likely affect you more than any other aspect of your road trip. For that reason, says Edwards, "it's important to have a conversation before the trip to figure out everyone's comfort levels." Though you'll "rarely completely agree," it is possible to strike a balance between planning and adventure, even if personality types differ.
If your companion will feel uneasy without hotel reservations each night while you'd just as soon sleep in the car, try and compromise. Maybe booking hotels in advance on certain nights of the trip but keeping your accommodation options open for others will make everyone happy. The clearer everyone is about style and expectations before hitting the road, the more successful your trip will be.
Keep costs (and tempers) under control by striking a balance between dining in restaurants and eating from a cooler. Mix motels with camping out and bring plenty of snacks for those times you find yourself traveling long distances between meals. If you do stay at a hotel, motel or even a hostel, be sure to load up on any free breakfast before you get back on the road.
A great way to make sure no one person absorbs the majority of shared costs is to establish a kitty before ever leaving your street. Have each person contribute the same amount of money and use that money to pay for gas, tolls and hotel rooms. That way no one person can be accused of not paying his or her fair share.