This story was originally written on Million Mile Secrets. For the latest tips and tricks on traveling big without spending a fortune, subscribe to the Million Mile Secrets daily email newsletter.
When summer rolls in, all I want to do is hit the road and explore the country. There’s nothing more relaxing than taking the long way to your destination with the windows rolled down and your favorite playlist on. The sun is out, the sky is blue and you have no plans other than to drive. To me, that is perfection.
Over the years, I’ve racked up tons of information about planning the perfect road trip, but when a friend gave me a really good tip about finding the cleanest bathrooms (read on…) I realized there was still a lot to learn. So I asked 14 friends to share their best tips on anything road trip-related. These answers are pure gold.
Bonus: I couldn’t resist and had to add my own tip at the end to round it out to 15 total.
1. The Cleanest Bathrooms Can Be Found at McDonald’s
This was the tip that started the whole conversation. I had no idea that McDonald’s was known for clean bathrooms (also Starbucks) and since they are everywhere when you’re traveling, it is super easy to find one when nature calls. I’m sure that there are some exceptions to this rule, but it sounds more promising than many of the gas station bathrooms I’ve visited.
2. Always Stop Driving Before it’s Dark
One of my friends made this great point – if you start driving when it’s light out and end your day of driving before the sun sets, the drive doesn’t feel as long. I never thought of this before, but it’s so true. The nice thing is that in the summer when the days are longer, you can still easily get a 12-hour day in by starting and ending your drive at 6:30.
3. Start the Day With a Full Tank of Gas
For some reason, it seems like stopping to buy gas just takes forever on a road trip. Between fueling up, hitting the bathroom and looking for snacks the time adds up. When you’re on a multi-day road trip, make sure that the last thing you do before parking for the night is to fill up your tank. That way you can really maximize your driving time the next day.
4. Sometimes Taking the Back Roads is Faster
This one is from my dear husband who is notorious for saying, “If we take the back roads instead of the interstate it only adds 20 minutes to our trip!” While that 20 minutes often is stretched into two hours, there are certainly times when the back roads truly are faster than the highway, especially if you’re traveling on a holiday weekend through a highly-trafficked area. Plus, isn’t it just nicer to take in the scenery by going a little off course?
5. Buy a National Parks Pass
There are 60 national parks and thousands of federal recreational sites throughout the US. Each of these requires an entry fee. But you purchase an annual National Parks pass the one fee gives you free entry into all of them. As a bonus, if you’re 62 years old or older, you can purchase a lifetime pass for just $80! Depending on where you’re traveling, there’s a good chance you’ll be near one of these parks; and with this pass, you can drive through or stop for a hike along the way.
6. Go A Little Out of the Way to See Friends
When you’re mapping out your route, consider which friends and family live (even somewhat) along the way. When you’re on a multi-day road trip, going an hour out of the way to visit with friends and stay the night is totally worth it. It gives you something to look forward to at the end of the day. Plus, that’s one less hotel that you’ll have to pay for.
7. Download Podcasts Before You Hit the Road
Asking any of your friends “What’s your favorite podcast right now?” is both a great conversation starter and an easy way to research everything you need to listen to on your next road trip. Anyone who has been on at least one long-distance car ride can attest to the power of the podcast. There are times when you’re just done talking and don’t feel like listening to music. Be sure to download the podcasts you want to listen to (instead of streaming them) just in case you’re driving through an area without cell service. The last thing you want is to be stranded halfway through Serial wondering what happens next.
8. Make a Game Out Of Maximizing Your Rewards Points
All right, this one is kind of nerdy, but if you’re reading this, you’ll probably appreciate it. One of my friends (who is also into collecting rewards points) suggested coming up with a game to see how many points you can rack up on a road trip. I love the idea of earning points and miles on purchases that you’d have to make anyway. It makes spending money at the gas station a little less painful.
9. Come Up with a Tradition That Symbolizes the Beginning of Your Road Trip
This suggestion comes from my Dad, who always started every single family road trip by playing the song “On the Road Again” by Willie Nelson as soon as we pulled the family station wagon out of the driveway. It’s such a fun way to mark the start of your trip and adds a little bit of nostalgia and familiarity as you celebrate the adventure ahead of you.
10. Look at the Map to Identify the Natural Landmarks Around You
I never would have thought of this, but it’s such a great idea. Keep an atlas in the car so that you can identify the mountain ranges, rivers, and other natural landmarks along your route. It’s such a smart way to get to know the area that you’re traveling through and might lead to some additional exploring as well.
11. Keep an Eye on Deals With Hotel Tonight
There are many reasons for delays on a road trip. Unexpected weather, construction, traffic — anything could happen. In the event that you don’t make it to your destination by nighttime, keep an eye on the hoteltonight.com app. Hotel Tonight offers super discounted rates on hotel rooms when you book the same day. It’s a great backup in case you need to find a hotel but don’t want to spend a ton of money.
12. Pick Up Postcards But Don’t Send Them
I was recently hanging out at a friend’s house when I noticed she had created an entire gallery wall in her living room with tiny postcard sized pictures. When I asked her about it, she mentioned that they actually were postcards that she had collected from her various travels. I love this concept so much, I had to share. What a cool (and inexpensive) way to decorate a wall in your house and have a constant visual reminder of all of the places you have traveled.
13. Save Time at Gas Stations by Figuring Out Your Purchases Before You Stop
Chances are, your gas station stops are planned at least 20 minutes (if not more) in advance. Stopping at the gas station should be quick — there’s no reason to delay the arrival at your destination just because you couldn’t find the chips you wanted. One of my friends has this great strategy for minimizing your gas station time: Figure out what you want ahead of time. If they don’t have that item, move on. Also, don’t ever purchase food that is rotating on a hot roller. That tip might seem unrelated but can really reduce your future bathroom time (hint, hint).
14. Keep Extra TP, Napkins and Utensils in Your Glove Box
You never know when the burrito you picked up on your lunch stop at Chipotle is going to explode down the front of your shirt, so be a pro and keep all of the necessities in your glove box. You can save yourself a second trip to pick up napkins or any of these other essentials if you keep them in stock in the vehicle.
Bonus: 15. Take Notes and Pass Them on to Friends
I couldn’t resist adding my own suggestion here as well. As you’re traveling, take notes on your favorite restaurants along your route, any places that you detoured to see a cool site or special geological features that you want to remember. Get out your highlighter and don’t be afraid to mark up your map! These notes serve as a lovely memory of your trip and can be a useful reference point for other friends who are traveling the same way.