There’s definitely something to the allure of road trips: the open road stretching out before you with a world of possibilities, something new around every corner, and the opportunity to discover hidden gems you might not otherwise encounter. And there are plenty of road trip tips that can make that experience even better. But what happens when your road trip goes bad? So bad that you find yourself on a road trip without the critical ingredient – your car?
That’s exactly what happened to Henk and I on our trip to the Gaspé Peninsula last summer, and it taught us a few things that we thought we would share.
Here, then are some of our best road trip tips that cover the good, the bad, and the ugly of hitting the open road. (Hopefully you’ll only ever need the ‘good’, but it’s always better to be prepared for the others.)
Road Trip Tips: the ‘Good’
The Biggest Suitcase Ever!
The reasons why Henk and I wanted to take our own car around the Gaspé Peninsula were many, not the least of which is we actually like to drive. Along with that goes the convenience of ‘car camping’ as we call it, since our car functions as a giant suitcase – but with no baggage fees to pay – yay. This means we can bring along ALL the stuff that we think we might need, not just the absolute essentials. All the footwear comes along for the ride: hiking boots, running shoes, fahncy shoes, flip flops. Ditto for coats: jean jackets, raincoats, warm coats, street coats, whatever we think we might need. And Henk’s photography stuff? It can all come too: the drone, the cameras, the lenses, tripods, filters, you name it. This all makes for two very happy [car] campers.
SAFETY TIP: While you can bring it all, try not to leave it all visible when you leave your car: put valuables out of sight, or lock them away in the trunk or glove box. (Henk and I always take our most valuable items with us whenever we check into our accommodations for the night.)
Snacks on the Go, 24/7
A cooler in the car is a must for extended road trips. Having snacks and drinks at the ready can help avoid someone (read ‘Jane”) getting hangry, and if your trip includes accommodations where you are doing any cooking, that cooler comes in handy for any leftovers for the next leg of your trip. It can save you money, too, because you’re not always at the mercy of pricey highway restaurants every time you want a drink or a muffin. Plus if you do find a great roadside food stop with say, pies to die for, you can enjoy one there, and take one ‘to go’ for later!
COOLER TIP: If you’re doing a fly/drive trip, you certainly won’t be getting on the plane with a cooler. Instead, you can just get one at the start of your drive. But don’t spend a fortune on one: hit up the local hardware store or supermarket and pick up a cheap styrofoam one. They do the trick and you can give them away or dispose of them before you return home.
They’re called roadside attractions for a reason, because having a car may be the only way you get to see some of these gems, and we’ve seen a fair number of them. Whether it’s a giant strawberry beckoning you to taste freshly-made local jam, a spectacular overlook, or a quirky art project that appears on the side of the road, having a car gives you the freedom to pull over and check these things out. And sometimes it’s these serendipitous little surprises and encounters that make your trip that much more memorable.
TIP: Resist the urge to slam on the brakes when you see something cool on the side of the road. It’s better to go a little farther ahead and pull over where it’s safe than to risk causing an accident. An added bonus: the walk back is an opportunity to stretch you legs!
Your Cell Phone is Always Charged
Driving your own vehicle is like driving a giant phone charger. No more will you have to worry about running out of juice mid-bus tour. Take all the photos or video you want, and just plug yourself back in when you return to the car.
TIP: If you’re running out of designated charge ports in your vehicle, you can always get an adapter for the lighter so you can use it to plug in another device! (who needs lighters these days anyways?)
Road Trip Tips for the ‘Bad’
Weather, Whether you Like it or Not
Road trips are not all blue skies and rainbows, of course. Which brings up the issue of weather. Mother Nature can be a b*&%# sometimes, let’s face it. Like when Hurricane Ida decided to time her visit at EXACTLY the same time Henk and I were visiting some of THE most picturesque parts of the Gaspé Peninsula. Nothing puts a damper on a road trip like driving through gale-force winds, lashing rain, or worse. But whether you travel by plane, train, or automobile, weather is out of your control, so the best advice is just to keep calm and carry on.
TIP: Use a reliable app to check weather conditions for that day’s entire drive, not just your departure location. Weather can change dramatically if you are close to big water, at elevation, etc. And don’t be afraid to pull over at a safe spot if the going gets really bad, or delay the drive a day if it’s too treacherous to head out. On a road trip, you ARE the boss of you.
Directionally-Challenged Pilots or Co-Pilots
Everybody can get lost. But some get lost more than others (not naming names, here.) Which is why it’s always a good idea to have more than one source for wayfinding in the car. Digital maps and apps like Google or Waze are awesome, until they are not. No cell signal can mean no maps, so if you like to go off the beaten track, you could find yourself without a clue which way to turn at the next dirt road. If you prefer digital maps, make sure you download them right onto your device so you can still navigate without cell service. Just download them when you have a fast wi-fi connection, and make sure you have enough room on your device. Or do what we do: we carry an old-school printed map with us as a backup whenever we head out on a road trip. After all, there’s plenty of room in that four-wheeled ‘suitcase’ you’re driving.
TIP: All distances are not created equal: winding, steep or gravel roads can mean it may take double the time to go the same distance as on a 4-lane highway, so plan accordingly if you are in the mountains, on coastal roads, or going off-the-beaten path.
Driver’s Duties vs Passenger Perks
Keeping your eyes on the road means the driver doesn’t get to enjoy the sights along the way the same way the passenger can, especially on narrow, cliff-side highways or other tricky stretches of road that require your full attention. The passenger, on the other hand, gets to take it all in from the comfort of the other seat, oohing and aahing at every new vista.
TIP: Take advantage of all of those highway pull-outs and overlooks, (they are usually located at or close to the most scenic spots). Of course, if you are both comfortable behind the wheel, swap out the driving so you can take turns enjoying the scenery.
Sticker Shock at the Pumps
These day, gas sure ain’t cheap. And depending on where you are driving you might be paying a premium, since different provinces, and even cities within those provinces, may be more expensive than others when it comes to filling your tank. There are apps that can help you find cheaper gas, and discount/non-name gas stations can save you a few cents per litre.
CHEAP GAS TIPS: There’s an easy-to-use app called Gas Buddy, which helps you locate cheap gas based on input from other drivers. (These may not always be accurate however, since the prices are fluctuating so often, sometimes in the same day.)
Certainly the best deals going can be found at gas stations operated on First Nations reserves, so keep your eye out for those opportunities as you can save a LOT per litre.
DRIVING AN ELECTRIC VEHICLE? Aside from limited range per ‘fillup’, finding charging stations may be the biggest hiccup if you are road tripping with an EV. Here’s a list of some apps that can help you locate the nearest charging station.
And Finally Road Trip Tips for the ‘Ugly’
No one plans to get in an accident. Certainly, Henk and I hadn’t. But they happen, and in our case, even though we were not at fault in any way, and no one was hurt, our accident resulted in the worst-case scenario for any road trip: our car was undriveable, and ultimately, was written off.
The story was kind of funny, though: where the accident happened was literally about 500 yards from the cabins where we were staying that night, but in a remote enough area that there wasn’t much else around. There were no taxis to call, no Ubers, and no way to actually GET from the side of the highway to our accommodations, short of making about 3 dozen trips lugging all our stuff by hand. (remember what I said about the car being the ‘biggest suitcase ever’? Not such a good thing in this particular scenario.) And since our car was being towed away, we needed to empty it out of everything.
Fortunately, the local police who arrived on scene understood our dilemma, if not our high school French, and they were kind enough to help us schlep our stuff the half kilometre up the highway – and I mean ALL of our stuff: the cooler, including the half-open bottle of wine (that looked pretty good right about then), all our shoes, jackets, hats, umbrella, front seat snacks, back seat snacks, roadside assistance kit, CDs, Kleenex box, even the spare change in our console.
I have no idea what the owners at the cabins must have thought as Henk and I cruised up in the back of a squad car to ‘check in’, but they turned out to be just as nice as the police, and even drove us to the only rental place in the area to secure the last remaining vehicle for miles. (You gotta LOVE small town hospitality and the kindness of strangers!)
But all of this taught us a few things, and hopefully these road trip tips will help you in case the ‘ugly’ happens to you, too.
It may seem obvious, especially if you are road tripping in your own country, but it’s important to know what emergency number to call if you need help. In North America, it’s 911, but in other countries, it can be different (in Italy, it’s 113, in Colombia it’s 123, in Germany there are two main numbers, 112 for ambulance and 110 for police, etc.)
TIP: If you are road tripping internationally, carry emergency numbers from the destination where you are travelling with you where you can find them quickly.
Roadside Assistance Coverage
We always travel with a roadside assistance policy, especially once our car gets a little older (we use CAA). Not only can it help with minor issues like dead batteries, or locking yourself out of your car, when it comes to a major accident, they have a large network on call to provide local towing services. Just be sure you bring along your membership number and keep that emergency phone number handy.
TIP: If there is an option, choose coverage than includes the longest tow distance possible (the extra premium more than pays for the extra-long tow you might need if you are in a remote area between towns.)
Dust Off that Insurance Policy
Look into your auto insurance policy before you head out to confirm whether the cost of a rental car is included in case of an accident. If you can’t speak to someone at your insurance company right away and you need to get a car ASAP (as in our case), at least you will know if you are covered and won’t have to fight about the costs later.
TIP: Don’t just have your actual insurance document handy, make sure you have your insurance contact number (on your phone, in your wallet, wherever you can find it in a hurry). Ideally, that number will give you at least the option to connect with a human. I was ready to kill my [now former] insurance company whose phone number only provided a voice recording directing me to ‘use their app’. Well, trust me, there isn’t always ‘an app for that’!
Different Places, Different Insurance Rules
Even if you are travelling within the same country, but between different states or provinces, insurance rules can be different in each. In Ontario, for example, ‘no fault’ rules apply, so you just deal with your own insurance company when it comes to post-accident processes and compensation. But in Québec, where fault is assigned to one driver or the other, it’s a very different process determining who pays for what.
TIP: Make sure you get PHOTOS of EVERYTHING. Starting with the other driver’s ownership and insurance documents. Ask to see everything, since they might look different than your own. And when it comes to the damage, take photos of both vehicles, multiple angles, close-ups, etc. Even photograph the badge number of the officers at the scene, in case you need to track down police reports later. A photo is literally worth 1,000 words and may be worth that much or more in dollars if there is a dispute.
INSURANCE RED TAPE: The ‘Ugliest’ of All
I don’t know anyone who actually likes their auto insurance company. But even if you do, the red tape that can accompany an accident is almost a bigger pain than the accident itself. When our car was written off, we had quite the dispute with our own insurance adjuster about their estimate for the value of our vehicle, and after speaking with the Auto Insurance Ombudsman, the system is absolutely stacked against the consumer. Even though Henk and I were not at fault, and the other driver’s insurance company was on the hook for the compensation, we still had to fight tooth and nail for every dollar in the valuation of our car, with our OWN insurance provider. Needless to say, that insurance company is no longer our provider.
TIP: Maintenance records can help you prove your vehicle’s condition, so keep all your invoices and records of regular servicing, repairs, etc. And it’s always a good idea before any road trip to give your vehicle a thorough once-over at your mechanic’s. That way, you have recent proof that speaks to the condition of your car. We had done both, and it definitely helped.
The Final Road Tip: Look for the Silver Lining
Optimism and a positive outlook can go a long way in life, and road trips are no different. There’s a lot of good stuff that you will encounter on the road if you’re looking for it (it might even come in the form of an accommodating police officer). There might be bad, whether it’s bad weather or bad directions, and there might even be the ugly. But there’s almost always a silver lining in every cloud. In our case, our silver lining was blue: because even though we left our car behind at a Québec wrecking yard, it gave us the opportunity to get a new vehicle., this peppy little roadster we affectionately call our little blue Go-Kart!
So our final tip for all you open roaders: Keep on Road Tripping. Henk and I sure will be.
Jane Canapini is a member of the Travel Media Association of Canada and the North American Travel Journalists Association. She established GrownupTravels.com in 2014 to share information and tips based on personal experience so her readers could get the most out of their travels.
Jane – these are excellent points. I frequently drive in the mountains and between provinces, so I am taking notes on all these points here. Thank you for such a good informative post.
You’re welcome, June. If what we’ve learned ‘the hard way’ can help others, it was worth it! 😉
Very good info even if not road tripping
Yes, it was an adventure that taught us a few things! 😉