Ahhh. The open road. You’ve been bitten by the travel bug, but nobody else shares your longing for adventure. No worries. You aren’t going to let the lack of a travel companion stop you. By hitting the road solo you can choose when and where you stop (or don’t). You control the radio dial. You will live by your whims, your rules, and quite frankly – your bladder. Nobody else’s. You’ve got this. You’ve mapped your route, packed your bags; downloaded your ideal travel soundtrack and your favorite Podcasts. But do you have these 10 road trip must-haves in your arsenal?
- A National Park Annual Pass – For $80 you have one year’s access to all of our National Parks and Federal Recreation Lands. Depending on your route, this pass can pay for itself pretty quickly. By investing in this pass before you leave (or when you stop at your first National Park) you are free to stop at some of the most breath-taking and beautiful places this country has to offer – without worrying whether it will fit in your budget. It may also encourage you to make some impromptu stops that weren’t on your initial itinerary. I would never travel cross-country again without my annual pass. On my most budget-conscience days, I have been able to enjoy scenic hikes, awe-inspiring views, and some much needed one-on-one time with nature. Even if I only have an hour or two to spare, by having an annual pass, I always feel like I got my money’s worth.
- AAA Membership – Membership benefits include discounts at a variety of hotels, rental cars, theme parks and attractions, free trip planning, and maps in addition to their towing and roadside assistance services. But the biggest reason I have a AAA membership is simply the peace of mind it offers me. I travel on an extreme budget, and a flat tire or dead battery can mean the difference between my eating for a day or two, or paying for a tow truck. There are various membership levels that include different benefits, so you are sure to find one that is right for you.
- Snacks, water and beverages – This is for the health of your wallet as well as your body. Road food can be horrible yet tempting. Fast food and gas station snacks are convenient when you’re traveling, but can be full of fat, salt and sugars that can make you feel sluggish when driving. Not good! Plus that $5 here and $10 there can really add up. Eating local and regional foods is a joy on most travels – so save your hard-earned cash for those excursions. I always travel with plenty of trail mix, Clif Bars and fruit – stocking up at grocery stores and fruit stands instead of convenience stores and gas stations. Plus, I am always prepared for an unplanned picnic when the opportunity arises.
- An Electric Cooler for your car – I recommend the Koolatron 26-Quart Soft-Sided Electric Travel Cooler, available through Amazon. I love having a cooler to keep my road trip beverages and snacks cool, with no need for ice or freezable packs (which I don’t always have access to when on the road.) This one plugs right into your car’s cigarette lighter / 12 volt port. I prefer the soft-sided coolers because they are easier for me to fit in the small spaces in my front seat. I’ll be honest – it won’t take super warm drinks and make them cold (it cools to 30 degrees below ambient temperature) – but it works splendidly in keeping cold drinks cold, and from keeping my food from spoiling. This cooler also continues to keep things cool when I go for a hike a sight-seeing trip along the way – and it’s adjustable shoulder strap makes it convenient for picnics or moving from car to campsite and back.
- A good, large, spiral bound Atlas – When I was a little girl I would spend a lot of time with my grandfather looking through an atlas. We would trace different highways and routes between states. When on family road trips, I loved poring over the pages in the atlas, reading about states and cities that we were passing through. My love of travel – and atlases – can be traced back to those days. I have always driven with an up-to-date atlas in my car, and prefer the spiral-bound versions, like the Rand McNally 2016 Large Scale Road Atlas, for ease of use. Although I tend to mostly rely on Google Maps on my phone these days – nothing replaces an actual atlas when you are out of cell range, or have a dead battery. I also tend to leave the interstates quite a bit, and I still find it more useful to use an atlas than to try and work out details on my phone. You can also keep a highlighter with your atlas and trace the routes you travel on your road trip for a quick and easy memento.
- Baby Wipes – Whether you camp in your car (as I do) or stay at the finest hotels, road trips can make you sticky and grimy. Keeping a pack of baby wipes in your car will make clean-up quick and easy.
- A Travel Journal / Notebook and pen – Whether you are the “Dear Diary” type or not, it is always good to keep a travel notebook in your glove box. You can jot down notes, local recommendations, reservation numbers or daily observations. I tend to also track my expenses (especially fuel) so I can budget for future road trips.
- First Aid Kit – You don’t need to purchase a ready-made kit (although there are many available), you can simply pack some medicinal essentials in a spare make-up bag, lunch box or something similar. You can find a recommended list of what your kit should contain from the Red Cross here: http://www.redcross.org/
- Roadside Emergency Kit – Again, you can find a ready-made kit or put one together yourself. In addition to the basics (the jack and any tools that came with your car in order to change a tire, tire gauge, foam tire sealant, jumper cables, flash light and batteries, multipurpose tool, flares / reflective triangles) it is also good to have gloves, duct tape, an extra blanket and – depending on the season you are traveling – an ice scraper, rain poncho and portable snow shovel. I also carry extra socks and a small hand towel. There’s nothing worse than fixing a flat in the rain and having to drive with wet feet!
- An Open Mind and a Patient Soul – This is probably the single most important road trip must-have when traveling solo. Ultimately it is your attitude and perception that can make or break a road trip. Not everything will go according to plan. Traffic delays due to construction or accidents can knock you off schedule. The diner you had been just dying to try may be closed unexpectedly. You can either let these inconveniences ruin your day, or you can roll with the punches. Having an open mind can also be useful when asking locals for recommendations. Don’t be afraid to ask your waiter or the couple sitting next to you at that breakfast cafe for some of their favorite local spots. You never know what hidden gems you may discover, or what long-lasting friendships may form.
If you have a road trip must-have that isn’t listed here, let me know in the comments below. I would love to hear them!