Preparing for this summer's road trip
Somebody once observed that getting there is half the fun. And, theoretically, you agree. It may even be the reason you're taking the car for your summer vacation.
But after a few dozen "are we there yet" whines from the back-seat delegation, you realize that you haven't gotten very good fun per mile so far. When Fido projectile vomits into the new DVD player, you momentarily imagine running from your personal minivan hell to hitch a ride home — in a fun car. You stay, of course. You even plan to coax everyone into a group songfest, after you have a rest-stop break. Sadly, when you emerge from the front seat and stand up, you can only watch as your car keys tumble out and down into a storm drain. No fun at all.
I'm exaggerating, of course. Well, sort of. These things happen on Great American Road Trips.
Sure, they're great. All this country's scenery and history to look at and explore outside, all the people you love the most together, inside and comfy in your own personal mode of transportation. What could be better?
Still, there are potholes, and not just literally. The good news is that when the going does get tough on the road, the tough can get all sorts of gadgets, apps and real-time advice and service to keep them not just rolling along, but getting more out of their trip. Read on, and you'll find our list of great road-trip products and resources.
No matter your preparations and technology, stuff will go wrong. Of course it will. All the famous road trips owe at least a little of their popularity to spectacular mishaps. Remember that.
And remember that someday, the oopses will make for good stories. So go easy on Fido — he was just contributing in his own way to the memorable vacation moments.
The one area you do have to get right when going on the road is safety. And there are several aspects of safety on a road trip.
CarMake sure it's ready for a long trip in the heat. There are a lot of lists for what to check before a road trip — carcare.org is all about keeping your vehicle running smoothly.
Make sure that the spare is inflated and that the jack is easy to access and complete (and that you know how to put it together).
Carry an emergency kit in case something breaks on the road. That kit should contain some highly visible marker to signal for help. Traditional road flares work but ironically can be dangerous themselves; you can burn your hand just lighting one, and they've been known to roll around in windy weather and ignite leaking gasoline at accident sites. A safe and dependable alternative is an LED flare like the First Alert Emergency Beacon ($7.98 at Lowes) with a magnetic base that will stay put on your car.
Another handy item: The Brightech Scorpion Car Jump Starter and Battery Charger is only 14 ounces and about the size of a TV remote control. It carries enough charge to bring your battery back to life. No need to rely on the kindness of strangers' batteries. And it also is able to recharge your laptop, tablet, cellphones, etc. The Python model is smaller and will still jump-start an engine up to 2.5 liters (both on Amazon, $59.99 and $39.99).
Also remember to put your roadside assistance program membership card in your wallet; it has emergency numbers and your ID, which most will ask for.
If you're traveling with your four-footed family member, download the BringFido app, one of the best-reviewed of the pet-friendly services. It offers lodging ideas, as well as nearby pet services and amenities. Others include Dogfriendly.com, FidoFriendly, gopetfriendly and, for European trips especially, Bauwowworld.
Please, please, please do not leave your dog in the car and go off for even a few minutes. Car windows are like magnifying glasses, and 80 degrees outside can become 120 inside in just 10 minutes.
Passengers— Pack a first-aid kit, as well as enough water for your crew to sit out an hour or two in the heat.
— Get car and booster seats checked before your trip to ensure they're installed properly. Go to SeatCheck.org to find an inspection location; local fire stations often provide free inspections, as well.
— Other items you'll be glad you packed: stain remover, a spare set of keys in a hidden but accessible location, and, of course, duct tape.
— Sun safe: Car's windows don't filter out all harmful rays. UVA waves get through and can not only burn exposed skin but also cause health problems down the road.
— Drivers: Sunglasses need to do more than look cool. They need to minimize glare and, while filtering out harmful rays, provide as much light as possible. A few companies specialize in driving and other specialized sunglasses: Most highly rated are Serengeti (starting prices of $47 on Amazon, but most are around $150) and Maui Jim (the Stingray model goes for $147 on Amazon).
— A car sunshade is relatively cheap and can be applied to passenger windows with hardly any loss of visibility for the driver. If you're traveling with toddlers, it's important to protect their sensitive skin. Brica RICA Pop Open Cling Window Shade and Britax shades can stick right onto the window, and peel off easily. Use a windshield sunscreen when you're leaving the car, so you don't return to an oven — and upholstery so hot it can burn your skin.
— Speaking of windshields: consider using glass treatments that repel water, causing rain to bead and roll away. They also help reduce glare in wet weather, particularly at night. Rain-X is widely available and inexpensive ($4.99 at Advanced Auto Parts), but some comparison tests show Aquapel lasts months longer (up to six months) and doesn't get cloudy as it ages. ($7.95, www.autopia.com).
Digital driving help Before you leave, update your GPS system with the latest map data. Download any routes or itineraries you've plotted out at home.
— If you don't have an emergency road assistance membership, try one of these options: www.honkforhelp.com has a free app that connects you with more than 35,000 roadside assistance providers and will find those near you. Urgent.ly and www.openbay offer similar help.
— Waze, the popular crowd-sourced traffic map and navigation app, helps you avoid the snags in the road ahead.
— GasBuddy provides you with the cheapest gas prices at nearby stations.
Planning First, a reminder that paper maps and atlases are not obsolete. When you're off the grid, when your GPS is acting weird or when you just need the big picture, you'll be glad to have the old standbys to turn to.
But for those who want online assistance:
— Roadside America is the app to turn to for something wonderfully unusual or offbeat nearby — you wouldn't want to miss that 15-foot-wide ball of string, would you?
— www.roadtrippers.com finds me the most interesting route for a journey, including good rest stops, great attractions and some off-the-highway scenic routes. It's also good for finding kid-friendly restaurants and parks.
— For electric-car devotees, to keep those "will I make it" situations to a minimum, download the CarStations app to find recharging stations around the country.
Entertainment Of course, you'll be stocking the car with the de rigueur tech gadgets for hours of screen entertainment. But remember the part about it's the going, not the...? Have interpersonal fun by reviving some of those no-tech car games: the license plate hunt (one from each state); the scavenger hunt (looking out for a list of items out the window); or the sing-along.
Mad Libs is perfect for the car. Buy a booklet or — I'm breaking the rule — download the Mad Libs free app. For a grown-up game, Chat Pack: Fun Questions to Spark Conversations ($9.95 at Barnes & Noble and other bookstores) gets you thinking about "the biggest obstacle you've ever overcome" or "your worst experience in a restaurant."
Add adventure to your rest stops by eschewing the official highway stops (especially advantageous in summer, when they're at their most crowded). Apps like iExit and RoadNinja can tell you what's available if you take the off ramp up ahead; Goby will find restaurants, food, hiking, family fun.