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Travel Smarter 2012: Take these tips for a better road trip

VW bug road trip photo

With temperatures hovering near the 70 degree mark on the East Coast this week, many of us can already feel spring in the air, and that means that road trip season is nearly upon us. I grew up as the youngest child in a family of six boys and road trips were an annual event for us. We used to pile into a big, old station wagon and spend the bulk of our trips arguing over who was taking up too much space, who smelled bad, and who got to sit next to the window.

Once, when I was five, I wandered off at a roadside rest stop and was left behind. An exit or two later, someone noticed that I wasn't in the car and they turned back to find me. My mother expected me to be upset, but maintains that I was completely unconcerned. I don't remember the incident, but nearly 35 years later, I still love to wander off and explore.

In the 80's, we had a radar detector and a CB radio and felt like we were on the cutting edge of technology. There were no apps and the concept of watching movies in the car was still many years away, but we amused ourselves by playing memory games, trying to decipher all of the dirty jokes we heard from truckers with thick Southern accents on the CB, and annoying the living hell out of my parents. These days, I have two little boys, ages 2 and 4, and the tables are turned.

Below you'll find some apps and tips that might be useful on your next road trip.
Free Apps

GasBuddy. With gas prices in the U.S. now at a national average of $3.79 a gallon and rising, saving a few bucks at the pump is a priority for many. This app allows you to comparison shop for the best price based on your location.

RoadAhead. This terrific app provides useful information about what you'll find near highway exits all across America. Listings include gas stations with the price of gas listed, and restaurants and cafés, some with links to user reviews on Yelp. The app can also tell you what's nearby even if you aren't on a highway.

Where. This app is similar to RoadAhead but isn't focused on highway exits. It does offer listings of places to eat, things to do, and local coupons. If you just need a bathroom, Sit or Squat can help.

WiFi Finder
. This app allows you to find WiFi hotspots and also has a worldwide hotspot database you can download (for free) and access while offline.

RepairPal and iWrecked. Some people love these apps, but they don't suit my personality at all. RepairPal helps you get roadside assistance, find a repair shop or get a range of estimates for fixing common problems. For example, the app says that in my zip code an oil change costs between $27-62, and a power lock problem I have with my Toyota will cost somewhere between $192-$338 to fix.

iWrecked helps travelers prepare accident reports and find taxi and towing companies. I suppose both of these apps could be helpful, but I just don't see myself standing by the smoldering ruins of my vehicle, fumbling around with apps. If you're a very bad driver, have an unreliable car, or are simply a very practical person who likes to prepare for the worst, these apps might be useful for you. But I think they just invite bad luck. The only contingency planning I'm into is AAA, which offers unbeatable roadside assistance with membership plans that start at just $66 a year.

Tips

Use a GPS but don't be a slave to it. I finally broke down and bought a GPS last year and now I don't know how I lived without it for so long. That said, it's always good to cross-check the GPS's suggested route on Google maps or another site, because Garmin and other brands don't always provide the best routes. There's also the danger of turning into a GPS zombie who will literally follow their device right into a body of water. In June, three women from Mexico did just that - submerging a rented Mercedes Benz S.U.V. with a Hertz "Never Lost" GPS unit in a slough near Seattle (see video below). Invest in a GPS but don't believe everything it tells you to do. And I wouldn't bother paying for the traffic function - I have it on my Garmin and it's virtually worthless.



Hit the library before you go. Before any long trip, I go to my local library and take out a few audio books. This is a great way to kill time while enriching your listening skills.

Don't strap your dog (or dead grandmother) to the top of your car. This is particularly important if you plan to run for public office someday.

Contest speeding tickets. In a recent poll, Gadling readers indicated that they think it's best to admit guilt when pulled over for speeding. I'm not sure I agree with that strategy. Don't construe this as legal advice, but based upon my personal experience, it is nearly always more advantageous to contest speeding tickets in court. Even if it involves a long drive from where you live, you still might save money.

Mix tapes really do help combat road rage. Let's face it - the roads are filled with bad drivers these days. Some like to tailgate, others stubbornly putter along below the speed limit in the left lane, and plenty are distracted by mobile devices, unruly children, or that sandwich they're shoving in their face. Make a playlist of some of your favorite tunes; it'll help put all the annoyances in perspective.

But listen to some A.M. radio as well. You'll hear all kinds of doomsday and conspiracy theories, revolting political ideologies, and God knows what else. You might not like it, but it'll be an education of sorts.

Indulge your children - to a point. A long road trip isn't the time to be a task master. Stop for ice cream, seek out playgrounds, and help them improve their powers of observation with games. Let them watch a movie or check out this list of apps if you'd rather have them focus on something more educational. If you prefer more old-school games, this site offers ideas for kids, toddlers and babies.

Get more miles to the gallon. To improve your car's fuel efficiency, use motor oil that is "energy conserving," take out any dead weight from your car you don't need, and keep your tires inflated to the proper pressure.



Venture off the highway. This is common sense, but it's easy to forget that the shortest distance between two points doesn't always make for the most interesting journey.

Brake for historic districts. Have you noticed that nearly every town in America is billing itself as a historic district these days? You really have to use your imagination to feel the history in some cases, but if you don't check them out, you might miss some legitimately interesting places. And even the bogus ones are good for a laugh.

Carpool. Paying to carpool is a common way to get from one city to another in some European countries and, according to a story on NPR last week, the company that runs the biggest carpool site in Europe is about to expand their operation into the United States.

Pick up a hitchhiker - preferably one who isn't a serial killer. This might sound like a crazy idea but, according to a recent Freakonomics podcast, it isn't nearly as dangerous as you might think. Full disclosure: I only pick up hitchhikers in certain foreign countries where hitchhiking is more common than it is here. If I tried to do it in the U.S., with our two children in the car, my wife would insist that I undergo a full psychiatric evaluation.

[Images via Dave Seminara and Albertopveiga on Flickr]

Filed under: North America, United States, Transportation, Budget Travel

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