My Essential Tips for Car Travel (Plus a Recipe!)
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November is here! I’m so excited for the blustery weather and the upcoming holidays with all of their respective delicious foods. What I’m not so excited for is all the travel that goes along with the holidays.
As an Army couple, we’ve done our fair share of traveling. Luckily for us (I say luckily because I am not such a big fan of air travel, but maybe this should be “unluckily”), we have been able to make most of our trips home up to this point in our military career in a car because we lived near enough to our families that this made sense.
NOW, though… We’re moving to the Pacific Northwest, and since we’re both from Michigan, it wouldn’t exactly make sense to drive home for the holidays, so we’ll be flying this year. But before we leave for the holidays, first we have to get to the PNW, and that we will be doing by car.
There are several reasons why this makes me nervous, not the least of which being that we have to travel with our cat, Bitsy, who is a seasoned traveler, but she hates everything about it. But because I’m fairly Type A, I soothe my fraying nerves with planning, because the more you prep for various outcomes, the less surprised you’ll be when something goes wrong.
The goal of this post is to share with you some of my favorite tips for road trips, and they work whether it’s a long road trip or a short one. Specifically, these are some of my best tips for helping you save time or money, and making your trip more comfortable.
Tip #1: Pack Your Own Food
Seems like this one would be a given. If you’re reading this post for ideas on how to cut costs over the course of your road trip, look no further. We all know that eating fast food is not only unhealthy for our bodies, but also for our wallets; if we eat out for every meal, this can quickly add up, which diverts funds from the experiences we would rather be enjoying. A bit of forward planning is all it takes to have some healthier, homemade snacks and meals ready to enjoy on your car ride. The following is a list of foods that travel well, need minimal refrigeration, or can be eaten without making too much of a mess of your vehicle. Oh, and um … keep the cooler within reach, especially if you’re driving alone. Nobody wants to swerve into oncoming traffic trying to reach back for their Take5 bar.
Pasta salads – Italian, caprese, pesto, southwestern/taco, Macaroni, BLT, Cajun, tuna, etc.
Sandwiches/Wraps/Roll-ups – PB&J sandwich, ham & cheese sandwich, chicken salad wraps, buffalo chicken roll ups
Crackers & Cheese – cheese, salami, pepperoni, summer sausage, crackers
Instant Soup or Cup Noodles – just add hot water at the next gas station! But maybe eat it while the car’s parked.
Packets of instant oatmeal – again, add hot water at the gas station, and enjoy in a parked vehicle.
Cut fruit – apples, melon, grapes, mango, berries
Cut vegetables – carrots, celery, broccoli florets, olives. Snack on these with a vegetable dip if you’re brave.
Hard boiled eggs
Cheese – string cheese, cheese cubes (love these with grapes or apple slices!), cream cheese (for scooping up with crackers), cheese dip (enjoy with pretzels or crackers)
Chips/Popcorn – get larger bags and bring bag clips; it’s better for the planet, is usually cheaper than buying individually-bagged snacks, and saves room in the car
Chocolate – truffles, chocolate bars, M&Ms
Drinks – tea (most gas stations will allow you to fill your mug with hot water so you can steep your own tea!), lots of water
Trail mix – here’s a kid-friendly recipe for a “trail mix” my mom would always make for us when we’d go on family road trips. All the sweet ingredients get a little bit of salt on them from the goldfish crackers, which makes this mix surprisingly addictive.
Just toss everything together and store in an airtight container – quantities are based on your personal preferences!
Mom’s Kid-Friendly Trail Mix
Froot Loops cereal (or cereal of your choice)
Raisins (or dried fruit of your choice)
M&Ms (or baking chips of your choice: chocolate/yogurt/butterscotch/peanut butter)
Goldfish crackers (or cheese crackers of your choice)
Optional: peanuts, mixed nuts, or seeds
In addition to eating while you’re literally on the road, you will also probably want to eat when you reach your destination. If this is a hotel/AirBnB or something of the sort, here are a few more items of food, in addition to those suggestions above, that I try to keep on hand for our arrival, or pick up soon after we get there.
Breakfast foods – milk, eggs, yogurt, cereal, cheese, bread or bagels, peanut butter or cream cheese
Seasonings/Extras – butter/oil, salt & pepper, spice blends if needed
Snacks – microwave popcorn (it’s SO overpriced at hotels, but if you bring your own, you can pick the brand you like with fewer yucky chemicals in it, or make your own!)
Tip #2: The Overnight Bag
When you’ve reached your accommodations for the night, it’s so NOT cool to have to drag a thousand bags or your gigantic, wardrobe-sized suitcase into the hotel, or wherever you’re staying. If we’re on an especially long road trip and we are stopping somewhere overnight before reaching our final destination, I try to prepare an overnight bag that just has our pajamas, toiletries, chargers, and a change of clothes for the next day in it, so that when we arrive at our accommodations for the night, I can just pull out my overnight bag and we can head inside. I keep it within very easy reach, so it’s usually the last thing into the car when we pack the car for our road trip.
For those trips where you’re traveling for a week or more, this arrangement is ideal, because you still have your big luggage in the car. Each morning you can swap out the overnight bag’s contents for fresh clothes for the following day. Which leads me to my next tip…
Tip #3: The Laundry Bag
This one’s pretty self-explanatory. As you wear or dirty clothes, just add them to a designated bag for laundry so you’re not putting your dirty clothes back in your luggage with your clean clothes. I usually designate a large tote bag for this. That way, when you reach your final destination or get back home, you just dump your laundry into the hamper or washer straight from the bag.
Tip #4: Plan Frequent Stops
This is advisable whether your road trip is going to last for one day or twelve. I’d say one stop every 2 to 4 hours – at the very least for a restroom stop and walk-around to stretch your legs – if you’re traveling with only adults. If you have pets or children with you, I’d probably even stop every 1.5 to 2 hours, but do what works best for you and your family/passengers. Note: This tip may be difficult to maneuver if your husband is anything like mine! Sometimes I think if Kyle had his way, we’d blaze through an 8-hour road trip with no stops for restrooms or food.
Tip #5: Set a Driving Time Limit
For Kyle and me, 6-8 hours is a reasonable time to be in the car without getting too crazy. Try to plan to drive no more than 8 hours a day. Some might be able to do more and others might need to do less – it just depends on your personalities and needs.
Tip #6: Bring Reusables
Traveling by car is already tough on the planet, with all the gas being used, the carbon emissions, and the gas station snacks with their excessive packaging. That’s part of the reason I suggest bringing a cooler of snacks – if not to save the earth from extra trash, then to save yourself money. Kyle and I are still working on regularly using our reusables, but we try to bring our reusable water bottles, travel mugs, and sometimes even cutlery (still working on this one, though!), to lessen our negative environmental impact. I always feel a lot more comfortable rinsing and reusing my own coffee mug instead of having disposable cups taking up valuable real estate in the car in the form of trash. Also, bringing my own water bottle helps remind me to stay hydrated!
Tip #7: Accommodate Your Pets
I don’t have children, but if I did, I’d make a section for how to accommodate for kids on a road trip; as of right now my knowledge of traveling with kids is outdated information that I vaguely remember from my childhood family road trips with six siblings, and from that I only remember my mom’s famous kids’ trail mix and lots of McDonalds and bathroom breaks … so I won’t even try to offer advice on that front!
When it comes to pets, however, I have a little experience hauling my poor cat around on all our Army moves so far. She hates her life when we move, but I try to make it as comfortable as possible for her. I make sure she has a blanket or jacket of mine that smells like me so she feels at home, comfy in her carrying case and buckled in where she can see one of us in the front seats; I block any harsh sunlight from the windows with a blanket; I keep the cabin at a comfortable temperature and don’t blast music too loud; and I try not to drive like a maniac. (Just kidding, I'm a great driver. Anything my family or husband tells you otherwise is definitely a lie.)
On top of all that, Kyle and I have a pretty good system for traveling with Bits. She has her own travel litter box, and we always make sure to pack a small broom and dustpan combo for sweeping spilled litter, in addition to the usual basics (food, water, toys, and treats) with her collapsible travel bowls. We’re experimenting this trip with staying at pet-friendly hotels instead of illicitly sneaking a cat in when nobody’s watching. I found that bringfido.com has a ton of great options for pet-friendly hotels – many of which accept both dogs and cats! So we’re trying that this time around.
There are a ton of other great road trip travel tips out there, but these are my top tips that I never go road-tripping without considering first. And if you’ll be traveling or away from home for a long period of time, be sure to check out 21 Ways to Prepare for an Extended Vacation – and be on the lookout for more posts including my best travel tips and advice.
What are some of your best road trip tips? I’d love to pick up some more tricks and ideas on how to make traveling a little easier! Thanks for reading!