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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Break Room

Cross-Country Challenge: Surviving a Road Trip

Ever dreamed of driving across the country? Summer is the perfect time for grabbing a friend and hitting the road for an adventure.

My college roommate and I—after talking about it for years—finally took the plunge. We drove from DC to San Francisco, and 5,000 miles later, still think it made for a great summer vacation. (Yes, we know San Francisco is not 5,000 miles from DC—but they call it the scenic route for a reason.)

If you’re thinking about hitting the road this summer, here are 6 secrets to making your trip a success:

1. Plan just enough

You’ll want to know what route you’re taking, and at least roughly how many days you’re planning to be on the road. And if you’re staying in big cities or big National Parks, it’s a good idea to know ahead of time where you’ll be spending the night. Here, and good old-fashioned camping are great ways to save money.

But other than that? Keep the plans (and reservations) to a minimum.

In most of the U.S., it’s really not that hard to book a roadside hotel the night of. You never know what’s going to happen on the road—and you’re guaranteed to run into some surprises on the way.

Lesson learned: We were pretty sure we’d be spending night #4 off I-90 in South Dakota, likely in Oacoma. And we almost booked a place ahead of time. Well, it turns out Oacoma was flooded the week we were in the area—and reservation or no, there was no way we were staying.

2. Talk about non-negotiables upfront

Taking a road trip is kind of like having a new roommate: you’ll be spending a lot of time in close proximity. Choose your travel companions wisely. Everyone has friends they would never live with; likewise, there are friends you’re better off avoiding 10 days in a car with.

When you do choose a travel buddy, talk honestly upfront about expectations and non-negotiables. If your friend wants to listen to NPR while you were planning for a Lady Gaga and Ke$ha jamfest, or she expects you to be staying in four-star hotels while you’ve been looking up the locations of Motel 6—you’ll want to know and talk about it before you leave.

And if there are certain things you can’t stand or just have to do, lay them out there. For example:

Me: I need coffee in the morning. And not from a gas station.

My college roommate: The two places I definitely want to stop are Mt. Rushmore and the Grand Canyon. (note: we were doing an East-to-West road trip)

We managed to accommodate both.

3. Ask your friends

Chances are, you’ll have friends in many of the places you’re visiting. If you don’t remember where all your childhood and college friends ended up, Facebook will tell you.

Taking the scenic route

We made a Google map of our planned route and posted it on Facebook, and got plenty of advice—solicited and unsolicited—from our friends before we left.

Plus, staying with friends on the way is a great way to break up your routine—and help you stick to your budget.

4. Ask the locals

You’ll also meet people on the way who know the area much better than you will—the cashier at the rest stop, the waitress at IHOP, the rangers at the National Parks. Ask, ask, ask for advice and ideas on what to do. Some interesting things we learned on the way:

  • Oacoma, SD, where we were planning to stay one night, was flooded (see above).
  • The SPAM museum in Minnesota is right off the highway and makes a perfect short stop.
  • The Grand Canyon's ravens will get into any food or drink left out by campers—including boxed wine.
  • 5. Give yourself enough time

    Compromising is a lot easier when you don’t have to choose between seeing the Crazy Horse monument and stopping for lunch. Plus, having an occasional day off gives you a chance to see some of the cooler places on your route (which, let’s be honest, you may never come back to).

    Day off in Denver

    In 12 days, we picked 3 places—Chicago, Denver, and the Grand Canyon—to spend two nights, and the breaks were certainly welcome.

    But try to get across the country in 5 or 6 days and you’re hardly going to have a chance to leave the car—which, let’s face it, is not really the best part of the trip.

    6. It’s not all about 50/50

    Yes, you should split the gas and hotel bills more or less evenly. But not everything has to be divvied up down the middle. Give a little—especially on things that don’t matter so much to you—and everyone will be a lot happier. You and your travel companion are going to be spending a lot of time together, and you’re going to have to get used to compromising. For example:

    • My travel buddy did not take 50% of the morning driving shifts.
    • I did not take any of the driving-back-after-going-out-for-a-drink shifts.
    • My travel buddy did not get to pick 50% of the music in the car.
    • I definitely did not pick out 50% of the “Learn Italian” tapes that ended up in our car.
    • Above all, have fun. There’s a lot of the country you’ll never see unless you drive through it—and which you’ll never see again unless you drive back (not recommended). So enjoy it while you’re there, and remember, any bumps along the journey—such as having to pack up your tent and book a last-minute hotel after witnessing a lightning strike 100 yards away—will probably make for a great story later.

      What recommendations do you have for taking a road trip? Favorite routes, roadside attractions, or tips for getting along with your travel buddies? Leave a comment and tell us!