Friday, June 6, 2014

road trip tips and tricks: essentials for your big adventure

Over this past winter I did a lot of traveling. Road trippin' to be specific. I drove more than ten thousand miles all together! I paid a visit to the Pacific coast, the Atlantic coast, and lots and lots of beautiful places in between. There have been so many things I've learned along the way, and I'm so happy to be able to share those things with all of you.


~ PLANNING ~ Where do you want to go? Do I have enough money? How far away is it? (I love using Google Maps to calculate the miles, hours, and possible routes of my trip. The map below shows the route of my second trip.) Are you planning on staying in your vehicle or in hotels/motels? What kind of gas mileage does your vehicle get? (Use fuel calculators like this one!) What attractions are you going to be visiting, and how much do they cost? What will the weather be like (approximately)?

~ VEHICLE MAINTENANCE~ (I learned this the hard way!) Before you leave make sure your vehicle is tuned up, oiled up, check that there are no warning lights on, and that your spare tire is ready for an emergency. Also, clean up! No one wants to spend lots of time in a dirty van/car/camper. Put in some effort (a vacuuming always makes everything SO much better!), and you'll feel much more comfortable.

PRIVACY ~ This goes for anyone going the camper/van route! Your van may have come with some curtains on the windows already (mine did). But since I knew I would be spending a lot of time in there that included changing clothes and sleeping, I knew I wanted some extra privacy. I thrifted some pretty curtains and fashioned a curtain rod out of a sturdy shower curtain tension rod (purchased from a department store), which I hung between the cab and the back area. I had help from the bf reinforcing it with some straps and screws. I hung a second shower curtain rod at the back that I could hang clothes from. This eliminated the need for lots of suitcases and the clothing also helped keep the back windows covered. (See this post for more photos!)

Spare keys - I had two sets of keys on my road trip and still managed to lock myself out of my car at one point. Have multiple sets of keys, know where they are when you're locking the doors, and if you're still worried about locking yourself out you can always affix one to the underside of the spare tire or something. You know, just in case.
GPS and atlas - My GPS is a few years old, but it worked wonders for getting me to and from my destinations. I'm pretty sure most smart phones nowadays come equipped with a GPS app, too. However, even if everyone in your vehicle has a GPS app, bring an old fashioned atlas, too! These are great for those times when looking at something on a phone screen just won't cut it. Plus, heaven forbid the GPS loses satellite connections or your battery dies and you're stuck without a functioning device. An atlas is your friend.
Chargers - Don't forget your phone charger! At least if you do leave yours behind most gas stations stock them. And especially don't forget your camera charger!
Power inverter - This was sooo helpful! (This is what they look like!.) It was great to be able to charge multiple things at once. I could have my laptop, my phone, and my GPS plugged in and going all at the same time. I don't recommend leaving them plugged in for a long time whilst parked, though - they could drain your battery!
Change for tolls - The search for loose change when you see a toll approaching can become frantic. However, you can alleviate this by bringing a big stash of change along with you.Store it up front and only use for it tolls. (There are a ton of toll calculators out there on the web! Check them out!)
Water jug and reusable water bottles - There is nothing worse than starting a leg of your trip and realizing you don't have any water. That will be the only thing you think about for the next hundred miles. You can fill these up at gas stations, truck stops, and fast food restaurants for free.
Cooler - I brought two small coolers and they were perfect. They didn't take up too much space, and they were perfect for the amount of food and drinks I wanted chilled. I recommend having a cooler with a spigot for easy drainage. When I gassed up I would fill a plastic bag with ice from the soda machine and used that to stock my coolers (it's free).

Blankets - I can't stress this enough! Even if you're going somewhere tropical I guarantee you are going to be cold at some point. Especially overnight. I bought a king size comforter from a thrift store (one that matched my van decor, of course), and I love it! It's super warm and it's so nice to have a blanket that fits comfortably over two people on the back bed so you're less likely to be fighting over the blankets in your sleep. I also brought a nice quality wool blanket (also thrifted) for extra warmth, a small lightweight quilt, and a throw blanket for driving. Thrifted blankets and sheets are also perfect for using on picnics, or for laying out on the beach.
Pillows - It seems kind of weird to think about packing them, but you'll be glad you did! One night trying to fold up towels and sweaters to sleep on and you'll never forget your pillows again. I used the pillows that I already had decorating my van and that was just fine.

Towels - Bring more towels than you think you'll need. I'm serious! (This is especially relevant if going somewhere where you'll be swimming and hanging out on beaches.) I'd recommend at least two towels per person. On my trip it was horrible to have to reuse a towel that was already damp, especially when I was cold and shivery. I'd also recommend leaving your nice fluffy bathroom towels at home and, instead, purchasing some from a thrift store especially to keep in your vehicle (they're cheap and you can always find really nice ones in a plethora of colors)! Make sure to bring enough that if you have some hanging up to dry you still have nice dry ones waiting for you.
Cards/games - If you're planning on hanging out in your van/camper/vehicle having a deck of cards or some games on hand is a great way spend some time relaxing in between being out and about. My boyfriend and I scored a game of Travel Clue that we played multiple times! It was fun, and since it was "travel size" it didn't take up much room.
Music - Whether your vehicle plays tapes, CD's, or your iPod, make sure you have a wide variety of your favorite music. The radio is always good, too, but sometimes you need a road trip playlist! My van has a cassette deck but I have an adapter that I can stick in and that lets me play my iPod! My essential road trip playlist includes a lot of Bruce Springsteen, Warren Zevon, Simon and Garfunkel, and FUN.
All weather clothing - I am the worst at this! When I know I'm going somewhere warm I have a tendency to pack all shorts, little skirts, and light tops. Don't be this person! Weather is fickle, people, and even if the forecast is sunny and bright you may get surprised later! Pack a variety of things - layering is your friend here. And please pack at least one comfy road trip get up. I'm talking leggings, baggy tee, sweatshirt, and some pair of moccasins or slippers. Even if you plan on being fabulous 24/7, traveling wears you out like the dickens and there will come a time (or many) that you'll want to be able to go back to your van/hotel and just get comfy.
Miscellaneous things - Hand sanitizer, sunscreen, flip flops, and a flashlight.


FOOD ~ Food, ugh! This is one of the most frustrating parts of traveling, in my opinion. I didn't want to take a lot of food. I didn't want to spend a lot of money on food, but I also didn't want to only eat junk. I didn't want to store food. And I didn't want to be hungry. Next time I will definitely put more thought into what I want to spend on food, going out for a more "fancy" meal, snacks, ect. It was definitely a bit willy nilly the last time around. Here's what I recommend. Apples, bananas, trail mix, and Nutella. These are the basics for me. Apples and bananas will be good for a few days without refrigeration, and they're fruits so BAM, healthy. I know what you're thinking - BORING. Well, yeah, pretty much. But that's what the Nutella is for. Having Nutella, peanut butter, or any other slightly sweet spread will make you want to eat the apples and bananas. At least that's how it worked for me. Give me a piece of that with some chocolate-y goodness all over it, YUM. And the trail mix is good for when you need something salty to snack on. You can make your own before you go so you can make sure to put all of your favorite things in it.

I definitely suggest hitting up grocery stores more than fast food restaurants. You can get much healthier food for a fraction of the cost. My thing over the last trip was those salad kits you can buy in the produce department. You get the greens, croutons, spices, and dressing all in one neat kit. I'd just mix it together right in the bag and eat the whole thing for dinner. So good. The tall smoothie bottles (also in the produce section) were something I bought a lot, too. They have tons of vitamins, minerals, and other goodness in them, and they're perfect if you're craving something fruity and sweet. Also, to be honest, canned beans were a staple. I ate them on tortilla chips or sometimes straight from a can. Not luxurious, but hella cheap (check the label for ingredients, though - I usually go with the organic kind or the ones with less preservatives even if they do cost a little more than the others).

Of course there are times I wanted to eat out. But I tried to make those time a whole 'experience' rather than just eating to be full. I tried a few new foods (catfish, lobster, and oysters!) and that really made those times stand out in my memory. I also tried to avoid tourist traps and searched for places where it seemed like the locals liked to go. The food is just the same as in the touristy places but is less expensive and usually much tastier! (Also, any time you can somehow score free food is great! I got my hands on a free loaf of bread that was being given away at a thrift store I visited, and I also scored a free doughnut from Krispy Kreme on Daylight Savings Day! That was a great way to start the morning!)

I would try to bring at least one set of actual silverware. They're easy to clean, they cut down on waste, and you'll never have to try and devour a can of beans without any (awkward). Also, a can opener is something you should have with you if you're planning on shopping the canned food aisle!

~ BATHROOMS ~ Ok, real talk. This is the first thing I learned on my road trip in the van. Especially if you are a woman or are traveling with one, you need to be aware of the bathroom situation ALWAYS. I mean, not ALL the time. Looking for a place to park for the night is key. You need to be in walking distance of a 24 hour restaurant, store, or gas station, or an outdoor nature-y area where you could feel comfortable popping a squat in the middle of the night.

The first night I spent in the van I was parked on on Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee. Everything was fine until I woke up in the morning and had to pee. Panic mode. What is open this early? Where is a cafe? Where is a gas station? Where is anything?!?! I had no idea, and let me tell you, trying to figure any of this out by searching on  my phone while I had to pee was probably literally the worst thing ever. That led to driving aimlessly, whimpering, hoping to find something, ANYTHING. Thankfully I came across a cafe that was actually open before any rash back alley decision had to be made. Lesson learned. From that night on when I was making overnight parking decisions I always had something in the back of my mind.

Of course there are tiny portable toilets you can bring with you, but I was adamant about not bringing one. And I'm glad I didn't. Ew. It really wasn't an issue after that first night. I definitely learned to be prepared!

~ PARKING ~ My van has a fold town bench in the back that serves as a bed. I slept on it every night of my road trip, save two (when the temperature got below freezing)! I parked lots of different places over the miles, like beaches, state parks, 24 hour pharmacies, big box stores, and city streets, and I never paid. Not once. The most important thing about free parking is reading the signs. Some places only allow you to park for a certain amount of time, especially when you get into the cities. Others have parking rules, but only during the day hours (perfect!). Just make sure you set an alarm and wake up in time to drive away before you get ticketed! However, some places prohibit overnight parking (boo). If there's ever a question I'd say be safe and just park in a 24 hour lot. Other places you could consider for sleeping are hospital parking lots, safe suburban neighborhood streets, or even auto repair shops (while they're closed!). (You can also try this site for free campsites!) Always always always use your best judgement, and if you don't feel safe, leave. I thought I'd be scared to sleep in the van at times, but once I was actually doing it I wasn't at all. I locked all the doors (twice). And slept with the keys in the ignition, just in case. I recommend being a stealthy parker. Don't draw attention to yourself (this goes for your vehicle, too, try not to have memorable bumper stickers, decals, ect.), and don't spend a lot of time with the light on after dark.

Being able to sleep for free in my van every night saved me a ton of money, and it also made my trip more special. Whilst traveling near the gulf I would set my alarm to make sure I got up in time for the sunrise, and those morning were some of the best I've ever experienced. My van gets about 14 miles per gallon, which isn't great, especially when traveling long distances, but when I figure that I'm also paying absolutely nothing for lodging it makes all those expensive gas stops worth it.

~ SHOWERING ~ Showers were few and far between on my road trip, but that really didn't bother me. I wasn't working up a sweat anywhere (it was pretty cold out), and I don't shower every day to begin with. I did get to a point, however, when I was like I need to shower NOW. If you're traveling around the coasts, there will usually be showers around public beaches you can use for free. However if you are traveling off season (like I was) these showers may not be turned on (most of them weren't), and if they are working the water is usually pretty cold. It'll work in a pinch.

Other than that, the YMCA turned out to be my best friend. Now, I am a member of the YMCA and my membership got me in FREE to the Y's I visited. That means I could work out, swim in the pool, soak in the hot tubs (if they had them), and shower for free. However, if you don't have a YMCA membership you can buy a day pass for $5-$10. I think that's pretty reasonable for those times you just need to shower or you'll explode.

Otherwise dry shampoo and rose water (used as a face freshener) were my go to beauty essentials. At night I'd take my toothbrush into a fast food joint or a convenience store to brush my teeth, and I'd also wash my face with warm water and plain sugar from sugar packets you can find sitting out on any table at a restaurant (those things are golden, take 'em). On nights when I wasn't anywhere near an indoor bathroom I'd brush and wash with water from my big jug. Other options for showering would be campsite showers (many let you use their facilities for a low price), or community swimming pools (they have showers, too!). Or if there's a lake nearby you could just go for a dip. Bring soap.

These are the things I learned on my past two road trips and I know they'll definitely improve the trips I take in the future. (Here's a little more about my road trips.) Living in a van was definitely a different experience, but I loved it. It was sort of a crash course in different American cultures, simple living, and myself, really. I can not wait to hit the road again! So what are your road trip essentials?



Abigail ~ said...

i always get super excited and restless whenever i read your road trip posts, but now i'm really about to come undone.
thanks for sharing all these super helpful tips and pretty photos. i'm sure this post took a while to put together, so thanks. i will definitely be saving this page for future reference.
i'd have to say my number one traveling essential has to do with art. i cannot go anywhere, even a day trip without a camera or sketchbook. i'll just bust and its little things like those that really make or break a trip.

Tilda said...

I'm glad you mentioned bringing an atlas! While I am thankful for today's amazing technologies, having a paper map or atlas as a backup is really important. Your batteries might die--but a map is always going to work. Unless you lose it :)

wardrobeexperience said...

this looks totally awesome ...
no american road trip this year ... i i had a tiny trip last year ...and the american husband is on tour now with the band he is tour managing...(it's a working road trip).

Ashley said...

Such great tips. I am so jealous of your roadtrips

Midnight Cowgirl said...

These are awesome tips!

Dressed with soul said...

Thanks a lot for your really helpful tips and for sure for the wonderful pictures!

xx from Bavaria/Germany, Rena

Frank Vinyl said...

yay im going on a roadtrip right this moment! how appropriate . love the photos!!

Spell & The Gypsy dress Giveaway now on my blog! Come by to check it out :)

Natalia Lialina said...

Fun and interesting blog! I couldn't see the dress you shared with Mis Papelicos Share-in-Style, but it looks wonderful on the one photo I saw. Thank you for sharing!! xxx

Kati said...

Thanks for these great tips! I would love to go on a camper holiday one day!


Lostvestige said...

I loved reading this post! Makes me want to go on a roadtrip so bad!

Lady Lilith said...

Nice. Looks like you were well prepared for your trip. Thanks for sharing the great tips so we can all learn from you.

monique said...

Amazing tips :) I loved reading this, i want to go on a roadtrip someday. I would love that!

Georgia Christakis said...

This was a great post. Agree with everything, especially about the food. I'd also adamantly recommend HEADPHONES if you're going to be in the car with other people for extended periods of time. That and audiobooks make the long hauls much more enjoyable :)

Marlen said...

Ahhh this post was all kinds of amazing!! Honestly, I've always hated road trips but after following your blog you got me mildly obsessed with the idea. I think the reason I didn't like them before was because i was using it as a way to get from point A to point B and not enjoying the journey itself. I bet it also helps having a roomy van like you have, and I can only imagine all the money you saved on not needing hotels! Also, spot-on tip about the bathroom situation haha. When I moved to Seattle we slept in the minivan and we learned right quick that we need to know where the bathroom is immediately. So those alley situations don't need to be experienced ;) Haha!

xo marlen
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