Road Trips United States

9 Steps to a Smooth Road Trip

June 2, 2016

Hello from California! As you read this, I’m probably by my parents’ swimming pool, soaking up some delicious SoCal sun. As a West Coast girl, born and raised, mountains hold nearly zero charm for me—which is why at least a couple times a year (once the weather is nice again) I leave Colorado and drive the 900 miles back to California for a visit.

I recently wrote about how much I love road trips, but the fact is, long drives are also a lot of responsibility. And if you head out on such a drive then you owe it to yourself—and to everyone else on the road—to be as prepared as reasonably possible. That’s why every time I head out on the highway, I do a few things to help ensure a smooth road trip.

The funny thing is, I also just wrote about how I don’t know if writing lists is my style as a blogger…but this specific topic is actually something I’m an expert on! So, if you’re planning on hitting the road this summer, then here is my advice to you:

1) Get Your Car Checked Out—With Plenty of Time to Spare

The U.S. is so massive that if you’re driving more than a couple hundred miles in any direction, you’re bound to hit a stretch of lonely road with no cell reception. That’s even more reason you want to minimize the risk of something going wrong!

About a week before I hit the road, I take my car to a mechanic to get looked over. My trips usually coincide nicely with when my next oil change is due, so I get the oil change and also have my brakes and tires checked, as well as any other quirks I’ve noticed that could be possible red flags. I make sure to do this several days in advance, that way if an issue pops up, I have enough time to fix it without ruining my travel plans.

All that being said, guess what I noticed as I was driving through Utah over the weekend? My A/C isn’t working. Gah! I didn’t even think to check it before I left Colorado, because it’s still cool enough there that I haven’t had to use my A/C yet this season. But as soon as I was nearing the Utah border and about to get into Arizona, I reached to turn on my A/C…and greeting me was a blast of hot air. Great. I drove the final 400 miles of my trip with the windows rolled down, which is not a comfortable experience when you’re going 80 mph, hot wind and road dirt whipping onto your face.

The point is, getting your car checked out thoroughly is something you’ve absolutely got to do! I was too hasty this time, and paid the price. Grrr.


Driving through Utah in 2013. That truck in the distance belongs to my parents, who helped me move all my stuff to Colorado during that trip!

2) Get Your Documents in Order

Even if you’re super on top of things, you should still double check that your vehicle tabs are current and that you have valid proof of insurance and registration.

3) Make Sure You Have Roadside Assistance

I personally swear by AAA, so I always make sure my membership is active and that I have my card in my wallet. But even if your membership is lapsed, you can call and renew over the phone and still get immediate assistance. (I did that once when I locked my keys in my car but realized I’d forgotten to pay my AAA renewal fee!) Many people’s auto insurance also covers roadside assistance, so check your policy. Whatever way you choose to access roadside assistance, just make sure you know who to call if trouble strikes.

4) Double-Check Your Routes

With smart phones, it’s so easy to take for granted that Google Maps will get you where you want to go. But you never know when cell reception will drop out, so it’s wise to also have a GPS unit, or go old-school and print out a copy of your directions, plus a map.

5) Pack and Prep Everything in Advance

An efficient road trip is a smooth road trip! And the start of your adventure is when you’ll have the most energy and motivation, so you might as well make the very most of that time. That’s why I prep everything the day before I leave. I load up my car the night before, with the exception of my snacks for the road. But even then, I prepare everything the night before so all I have to do in the morning is toss everything into a cooler bag and go. I even go as far as laying out my outfit for the next day. Any loose end has the potential to delay your trip, and running late is no fun!


Sometimes you just have to pull over and enjoy some beautiful views, like the California coast here just south of San Francisco on State Route 1.

6) Leave Early—Like, Really, Really Early

One of my biggest peeves is when I’m on a road trip with someone else and they want to get a late start. That waste of time really drives me up a wall! The fact is, you never know what will happen when you’re driving. You might need to pull over for naps, or want to stop for a roadside attraction, or maybe you’ll even get a flat tire. The point is, leaving late is for amateurs. So, how early should you go? That depends on your destination but, unless I’m just taking a day trip, I leave no later than 5 a.m. Yes, 5 a.m.! That is the magic hour, because you’ll never hit traffic. If you live in a city, why would you want to battle rush hour to get out of town? Or, why would you wait until after rush hour is over to start your drive? Starting before anyone else is the way to go. You’ll get an amazing head start and you’ll be out of the city and onto the open highway long morning traffic.

7) Start with a Full Tank of Gas—and Fill Up Frequently

This is something I do the evening before I depart, too, so I can maximize those morning hours. And once I’m on the road, I never let my tank go below a quarter full; if I’m driving through especially remote or unfamiliar areas, I never let it go below half full. I’ve had a few scares where I was nearly out of a gas and there were no gas stations in sight for miles, so I’ve learned my lesson. There are no guarantees on the road, so it’s always better to fill up before you think you need to.

8) Take as Many Breaks as You Need

Sometimes I can drive for hundreds of miles without ever needing to stop except for gas. And other times, despite getting a good night’s rest, I get exhausted after just a couple hours. It may not be convenient if you’re trying to get to your destination by a certain time, but you should always listen to your body. That’s why rest stops exist! If you’re getting sleepy or achy from being behind a wheel for so long, then pull over at the next rest stop. Sometimes all you need to feel refreshed is to get out of your car, stretch, breathe some fresh air, and do a lap around the rest stop grounds. Sometimes you need a proper nap. Whatever you need, do it. Driving while drowsy is a serious risk, and if you don’t care about your own safety then at least think about the other people on the road who deserve to get to their destinations in one piece.


I was safely pulled over when this selfie was taken, during a 2012 drive down California’s legendary State Route 1.

9) Pay Attention to the Road

This should go without saying, but we all get distracted behind the wheel. How many times have you fumbled with food, your car stereo, or your GPS? None of those things should impede your driving. So if you’re packing snacks, make sure they’re all within easy reach and easy to eat one-handed and without having to remove your eyes from the road (no sloppy sandwiches or fruit you have to peel!). Have a hands-free setup for your cell phone, in case you need to take a call. Use voice commands and ask your smart phone’s personal assistant to switch to a different playlist or look up an alternate route. If you need to do anything more complex and you don’t have a passenger who can help you, then just pull over.

That’s it! Follow these simple steps and you’ll be in great shape for your trip. Happy (and safe) travels!



I love hitting the highway, but the fact is, long drives are also a lot of responsibility. Here are nine essential tips to ensure a smooth road trip.

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