Turn Your Car Into a Road Trip Machine

March 6, 2010

We're coming close to emerging from what seems like a painfully long Winter (at least, in Ohio it does) and Spring break season is upon us.  That might be the only thing I miss about college.  For those of you still fortunate to get this nice little window of freedom every year, there's a good chance you've at least considered a road trip.  If you're first car is anything like the one I had in college, it lacks bells and whistles like navigation and bluetooth.  That doesn't mean you can't have a fun, safe trip on the cheap.  Depending on where you're headed and who you're with, you may benefit from some of these long distance travel tips.

Navigate with GPS
A little over a year ago, I spent about $300 on a nice Garmin GPS unit, since neither my wife's nor my car has the feature built-in.  I thought I had gotten a pretty good deal.  Well, I had.  The great news is that the prices on these portable units have dropped substantially since smartphones began to gain many of the same tools.  You can get a very capable GPS device for under $150 now, and once you've taken your first trip with it, you'll wonder how you ever got anywhere with maps!

Power up
While AC outlets are becoming more common in modern cars, some of us are still left with a regular old round 12V outlet, or a cigarette lighter.  Don't worry though, these can be really useful!  A few bucks will get you an adapter capable of powering smaller devices, right from your dashboard.  Bring along a laptop and your passengers can watch movies or play games.  Let your imagination go wild.  Spend a little more and you can get a more powerful inverter.  This could come in handy when camping too.  Use it to power some lights, or heck, even a little TV!  $20-$50 should get the job done.

Hands on the Wheel, Eyes on the Road
Maybe you're doing a solo road trip, or meeting up with some friends.  You'll most likely be relying on your cell phone to keep in touch.  Speaking of touch, use your hands to drive, not to make phone calls.  If your phone has bluetooth capabilities (most new ones do) play it safe and pick up a hands-free device.  Look for one that rests on/in your ear, or mounts on your visor.  You should be able to do this for under $50.  In any case, you should still keep phone talk to a minimum.  Be aware of the cell phone laws of the state in which you are travelling.

Maximize Your Payload
Think your trunk will hold clothes for a week, beach gear, camping gear, coolers, and all manner of portable electronics?  You may find yourself deciding who's got to leave his sleeping back behind.  Or go without shoes for the week.  Don't worry just yet, because most sedans can be outfitted with an aftermarket roof rack.  This will be especially helpful for groups travelling with bikes.  Companies like Thule and Yakima produce universal roof rack kits, with vehicle specific brackets.  Mounting these yourself can take some patience (much easier with the help of a friend).  You'll end up spending a couple hundred bucks for a new one, but it might be worth it to fit that extra case of... beverages...  You shouldn't have any trouble finding a used rack on ebay or craigslist if you're looking to safe a few extra bucks.  You can get hard or soft containers to mount on the racks as well, depending on what you can't fit in your trunk.

Prepare to EAT
This may sound silly, but make sure you're well equipped for fast food and convenience store stops.  You'll want plenty of cup holders, which can be added temporarily to almost any car.  You definitely don't want to waste travel time by having to stop and clean up a spill.  Give yourself capacity for full and empty cups and bottles.  Stock up on napkins and some small trash bags ahead of time too.  A pit stop can generate quite a bit of trash.  Yes, I am suggesting that you do not throw it out the window.

The key here is to keep things safe and streamlined.  Road trips are about more than getting from point A to point B.  You've got to have some fun in the process.  Having a well-equipped set of wheels can't hurt.  Got any tips of your own?  Share them in the comments!

[Image credit: Monica's Dad, creative commons]

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