I have been living and traveling in an RV for 450 days now. Prior to that, I’ve gone on 4 crosscountry roadtrips, a 600 mile bicycle tour, crossed the Atlantic twice, hiked a few hundred miles, rode on the Texas Eagle, Coast Starlight and Southwest Chief trains, and experienced enough travel-related expenses to fly for free for the next ten years, if only I could understand how airline mile websites worked. Therefore, I feel almost qualified enough to write the following: Roadtrippers Guide to Roadtripping.
My goal in this typographical display of verbs, nouns, advice and ideas is simple: to convey a few brief points as to the knowledge I have gained from travel. How to make it easier, perhaps cheaper, and — from my perspective at least — infinitely more enjoyable.
- Stick to Two Lanes. This is perhaps the most valuable thing that I have learned, having wasted nearly an entire roadtrip and portions of others not abiding by such a simple rule. You may have heard it before, and I won’t bother with verbatim here, “Thanks to the Interstate system it is now possible to drive from one end of America to the other without seeing anything.” This is true, and not merely because most Interstates are, by design, geared towards avoiding towns and natural scenery (mountains and lakes make it difficult to go as straight as possible). You will see less for one simple other reason: speed. Not only will you actually be covering more ground as you barrel 75, 85, 95 miles an hour down the highway, but you will have such momentum that stopping to picnic under a roadside tree or go off course to explore a state park will seem ridiculous, time wasting. When you know that it will take you 4 days to get from New York to LA, you will plan for 4 days. Even with the extra speed on your side, you will essentially have less time to do, because both your plans and your mindset will be focused on getting to the next place, not enjoying where you are. And don’t fool yourself, the Interstate is not “just as good” as the Highway system (Interstate = red & blue signs, Highways = white signs with black trim). Take a trip from Denver to Lake Tahoe along Route 50, then do the same trip along I-70 or I-80 and tell me which one is more grandiose. If you want to get somewhere quickly, sure, take the Interstate. But realize that you’re not so much traveling as “going somewhere”. Take a US Highway, or even better yet, a state or county road, and you’ll be there even while you’re getting there.
- Use an atlas, not Tomtom or Google. Okay so there is much debate about which is better, GPS vs. paper. The answer is simple: if you want to travel, to explore, to go somewhere, not just get somewhere, then a paper atlas is definitely the way to go. I can sum it up simply: Google is an all-knowing creature, it can get you from point a to point b nearly flawlessly and quite often more quickly than even a local cab driver might. However, the point of being in travel is, again, not the destination. An atlas gives you both the chance to accidentally get lost (2 hours down the same highway and you realize you should’ve taken US 422 an hour ago…time to replot your course) as well as the option to purposely change your course. If you grow tired of looking at the endless flat that is Kansas (the only state longer and more boring than Ohio), your eyes might wander up and down the page. See those dotted green lines next to that little yellow road? That means scenery. Go look at it.
- You will not find yourself in every situation. I used to pack for multiple likelihoods. A shirt for going out to a nice restaurant, a sleeveless one for hiking, maybe a suit just in case we decide to get dressed up and go to a wedding… Your travels will mimic your life, most likely, so just bring maybe three days worth of clothing. You can always do a load of laundry when your underwear have all been turned inside out and since you’ll be in a new town every day anyway, no one will know that you’ve been wearing the same, completely fine, pair of jeans for a week straight. Pack light, move easily.
- Splurge a little. “Sure, the hotel across the street has a pool, HBO and a bar, but this one was $5 cheaper!” Who gives a hootenany. If you want to save money, buy a tent and grow your own vegetables in the Rockies. If you want to travel, spend money on having a good time when it’s available. You’ll still be in debt when you get back to your job, college, whatever, so why dull down this monumental time in your life (and let’s face it, it is monumental if you’re using your 2 week vacation, right?)
- Bring friends. Going it alone might be a really good time for the super extroverted, but for most of us, everything is better when shared. Find someone, a girlfriend works really well, but even a good friend and maybe best of all, two or three good friends, can make a roadtrip not only easier (less driving / person) but all of the different points of view and inputs will do much to alleviate the tensions that often come up when two people are stuck in a car with no interaction save those two people.
- Do something different. I spent my first roadtrip drinking in bars across America. This was great fun, but by the end of it I realized that I could have done something similar in my own county. Next time you hop in a car and cover a few states, try doing things that you don’t usually do: if you’re an avid hiker, go kayaking this time instead; like to eat healthily, try that bbqed pork in Memphis; love movies? get hammered with the locals tonight instead. I was afraid to try so many things until I just started trying them, and while many experiences were awkward and less than ideal, so many more have made up some of my greatest memories to date!