Eighteen states, two provinces and 13 thousand kilometres driven– I would call that a pretty good road trip! Here’s what I learned.
Are you making time or having fun? Is it about the destination or the journey?
On my travels, there were times when speed was the requirement. A delay due to food poisoning meant I had to make up time across the Northern States, and when I arrived back in the States after a side trip to Europe, I had three days to get from New York to New Orleans.
America has a great system of Interstates. You can clock a lot of miles with well timed stops close to the highway, for gas, food, a leg stretch or an overnight stay. Some states have rest areas with gas stations, restaurants, and even free wifi; others only give you a shady place to stretch your legs, use the toilet, and plan how far you’ll go that night.
My routine when making distance would be to get up and eat the crummy “free” breakfast at the hotel. I was organized to bring in only one bag, so pack up was quick. Depending on the time, I would either search out a “good” coffee place before I went back on the highway, or drive two hours before I found one at my first stop.
Avoid the temptation to keep driving until you can’t anymore. Stopping every two hours gives you the physical breaks you need. When you get the rhythm, those breaks coincide with necessities, like gas and meals, but don’t skip them. Walking around and stretching regularly will save pain in the long run.
When I’m making time, I will drive until late afternoon and then make a planning stop. Am I going to be passing by a major urban area at rush area? In that case, it makes more sense to pause for dinner until the traffic clears and then drive a few more hours before stopping for the night. Other times, driving until later and having dinner after you have checked in will make more sense.
Where to stay? The chains have hotels or motels just off the highway, and the rates are often cheap. A quick check of Google, Expedia or other booking services gives you an idea of prices. Sometimes I will book online, other times I will go into the hotel with the rate pulled up on the phone, and they will almost always match it, allowing you to get points if you collect them. Most of them have little fridges in the rooms, so you can bring your juice or other beverage. Some people pick up food at take-outs or grocery stores, but travelling solo I liked being around other people in a restaurant in the evening.
If I am travelling a long way, however, I try every few days to find something different. I went off the highway to Natural Bridge, Virginia, for a change from the roadside chain hotels. Breakfast was not included but I was able to get a break from carb heavy, low quality choices, and I went hiking in the nearby park for an hour before I hit the road again.
To keep it from just being a blur, look for something to get you off the highway at least once a day. Museums on a theme, state parks, bookstores, Frank Lloyd Wright houses, graffiti walls– pick something that appeals. What got me off the road was “fancy” coffee. My search for espresso that wasn’t Starbucks sometimes ended up in shopping malls, but mostly it led me to the historic downtowns of smalltown America.
No matter whether you are speeding or meandering, grab healthy snacks if you have a chance. Fruit, nuts, protein bars and juice will balance at least somewhat your other limited options. They’ll also give you the flexibility to keep going if there are not appealing choices at meal time.
If you don’t have time constraints, get off the Interstates! Maximum speeds on the two lane highways can sometimes match the big roads, but you will be slowing down to 50, 45, even 30 mph as you go through small towns. That is part of the charm. If you see something that interests you, it’s easy to stop.
And there will be many interesting things! Quirky roadside attractions, abandoned buildings, a farmer’s market or baseball tournament underway– the random stops are the most entertaining, in my mind. The accommodations and restaurants are more interesting and often less expensive on the side roads.
The first Welcome Center or rest area in a state is often a wealth of information. There are usually maps and brochures, and those that are combined with a museum have knowledgeable local staff and can be attractions in their own right.
Not everyone is comfortable with that much uncertainty, I know. When I travelled with my young family, I would often have most everything planned weeks before we left the house. On a night that I didn’t, one cross Canada trip, we ended up sleeping in the car in a campsite on the Thousand Island parkway because an unanticipated local holiday left all the motels full. What might have been a disaster turned into a hilarious, much told family story of mosquitos and the aftereffects of tourtière.
My preference is to not plan too far in advance, but let chance and whimsy guide my path. When you haven’t booked ahead, you have flexibility to change your mind, and you haven’t built up unrealistic expectations of how amazing a destination will be. And with a flexible attitude, unexpected surprises, both positive and negative, are just part of life on the road.
That’s the perspective you need for brave travels.