My knuckles were white, tightly wrapped around my steering wheel. My wiper blades were swooshing slower than the rain was beating around my windshield. And the memory of the last gas station more than 200kms behind us seemed like a figment of my imagination. I saw the “kilometres until empty” counter plummet into the single digits. Road trips don’t always go perfectly, but it’s best to know some road trip tips before you head out so you don’t get into crazy situations as I did during a thunderstorm on a highway in Manitoba, running out of gas.
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Not only does hitting the road give you the freedom to go where you want when you want, but you also get a ton of legroom, ample snacks and the excitement of what around the next curve of the road. After road-tripping across Canada 11 times, and crisscrossing the US several times right from when I was five weeks old, I’ve come up with these road trip tips to help everyone get the most out of their summer road trip.
Road trip tips – getting your vehicle in tip-top shape
Make sure to get your car serviced before you make the trip – My car needed an oil change at 16,000 km, and it was going to hit that mark on my trip, so I got it serviced early to avoid the headache. My service person checks everything out for me; they topped up all my fluids, rotated the tires and even changed my wipers. Make sure to check your car’s oil, tire pressure, wiper blades, brakes, spare tire, a/c and other fluids!
Give your car a clean – Starting a road trip all clean and fresh will make you appreciate how much your vehicle will travel in the coming days. Vacuum the inside, wipe down the window interiors and clean out all the crumbs from the cracks.
Be prepared for an emergency – A car emergency kit is an essential road trip item. Keep a set of jumper cables, a flashlight, a small tool kit, your car jack and other roadside safety items in your car. Also, check to see what items are necessary for the places you’ll be travelling through. In some areas in Canada, you’ll need winter tires or chains during the colder months.
Know how far you can go on a tank – Before you go on a road trip, make sure you know how far you can go on a single tank. This will help you gauge when and where to get fuel. (And it will help ease your worries like mine during that crazy storm in Manitoba where I almost ran out of gas.)
Insurance – If it’s your car, double check your policy to see what it covered while you are travelling on the road. Sometimes costs like roadside assistance, towing or rental cars while yours is being fixed will be covered. If you’re renting a car, you’ll want to know how you’re coved by not only your insurance policy but also your credit card, which may have that type of coverage.
Road trip tips – plan it out
Research it – The best part of a trip (besides going on one) is planning it! Yes, I LOVE planning trips. I’ve got four documents on the go for road trips I want to take, just because. I love researching where to stop, where to eat, what to see and how far it’ll take to get there. I have a big document with accommodation, stops, restaurants, and costs. Call me A-type, but I am who I am. I use a mix of travel blogs, Pinterest, Google Maps and word of mouth to figure out all the details I need to have a smooth road trip.
Have a good idea of an itinerary – Knowing where you want to stop for the day, stops along the way, and other breaks will help you stay on track and on time. Itineraries are great, see above, but make sure to leave wiggle room for delays and unexpected attractions.
Make breaks a thing – Unless you are driving straight through to your end destination without stopping, You’re going to want to make stops, see the sights and enjoy the new places you come across. So don’t plan on going as far as you think. An 8-hour drive without stops can turn into a 15 hour day with stops.
Don’t be afraid of breaking the itinerary – Itineraries are great. I’m all about planning and spreadsheets to maximize any road trip, but sometimes things don’t go to plan. On one road trip, we had a three-hour delay outside of Sudbury due to an accident and the TransCanada Highway being closed. We didn’t make it as far as we wanted, but our motel in Wawa was much nicer than the wone that we had planned to stay at, so it worked out! It’s okay to deviate from the plan, and some places may have to be sacrificed if you want to spend longer at others, just go with the flow!
Keep loose change for tolls – There aren’t many toll roads in Canada, but there are plenty in the US. It’s a good idea to keep some loose change in your car for that moment. But remember to keep it hidden from view to prevent break-ins!
Road trip tips – packing
Making a packing list – This one is pretty obvious. Have a checklist and check it twice for the items you’ll need on the road. Need some inspiration? Read more about road trip packing essentials here.
Pack for comfort – Yes, having your own vehicle will mean you’ll have a lot more room for items, but when packing your car, make sure you are not cramped in the seat and have all your necessities within arm’s reach. This will make the drive a lot more comfortable and enjoyable
Blanket and pillow – Having some comfort items like a blanket and pillow within reach will make the passenger’s life more bearable. One some trips where I’ve split driving with others, having that time to rest your eyes and your mind is much needed, which is why a pillow and blanket make it so much better.
Garbage bags and wet wipes – having a dedicated garbage keeps your car clean during the trip. And having wet wipes on hand will allow you to feel fresh before and after eating!
GPS vs CarPlay/AndroidAuto vs Map
If there’s one thing you need to make sure works before you head out on a road trip, it’s your navigation. I’d never leave home without my GPS since my car didn’t have built-in navigation. Then with the addition of Apple CarPlay and AndroidAuto, I loved how easy it was to use! So what should you use? Well, that’s up to you. For long trips, I like having a GPS, but I find myself using AndroidAuto far more.
Should I use a GPS? – With GPS, you’ll rarely lose connection, it doesn’t require data, and it doesn’t drain your phone battery. However, it’s more cumbersome to use, it doesn’t give you as many route options, it doesn’t have the same search functionality, and it’s harder to add route stops.
Should I use smartphone navigation? – I loved my CarPlay when I first got it, and even when I switched over to AndroidAuto. Using Google Maps was so much easier than typing in things on a GPS, only to find out it had no idea where that was. It’s updated continuously, provides navigation and route options and allows you to add in a gas or food stop without losing your end destination. However, it does use up data, you have to have your phone plugged in all the time, and could potentially ruin your battery.
Download your maps and playlists – It’s almost guaranteed you’ll drop service at least once during your road trip, especially in Canada, where the further north you go, the more remote and spotty the signal is. Make sure to download the local maps you’ll need as well as your playlists and audiobooks. That way, you’re saving on your data as well.
Paper maps are just as important – I can’t negate the use of a physical map. Not only are they helpful for seeing the big picture, but they can also help you figure out where you are, how far to your next destination and where you’re going without the use of electronics. They are a great back up, and they can help you keep track of your trip in a memorable way! It also helps to know how to read a map, so make sure you know the key places before you go!
Road trip tips – on the road
Snacks are your best friend – Snacks will help you not get hangry, from getting too sleepy and from wanting to stop at every cool restaurant you see. You’ll want to keep snacks handy so that you can reach for them quickly when the mood strikes. Pepperoni sticks, crackers and chocolate almonds are my favourite.
Make dining out special – Food will likely be your most significant expense after gas and accommodation. To save money on this, plan out your trip with a few places you want to stop at. Then pack other meals, like snacks and camping meals you can make when you stop. What I like to do is plan for lunch out and eat breakfast and dinner at the campsite or motel. You can use a powered cooler, like this one, to help keep everything cool without the use of ice. Just remember to unplug it when you stop for long periods, or you’ll drain your battery.
Get informed – It’s a great idea to stop at the first information kiosk in a new place. Here you’ll find updated information, up-to-date maps, any construction notices and more for your trip. The people who work there might also have an excellent recommendation for where to eat or where to stay!
Keep an eye out for roadside attractions – Some of the fun roadside attractions happen randomly. Be sure to stop and get a fun picture before heading out. (It’s also an opportunity to stretch your legs!) There are some neat attraction stops along the highway, and you get to learn a little bit of history on the way. Some of the ones we passed by are the halfway point of the TransCanada Hwy, the Arctic/Atlantic watershed divide, the longitudinal centre of Canada, the provincial borders, and the border of where Northwest Territories was in 1877.
Keep your camera up front – There are so many fantastic photo opportunities on the side of a highway, and you never know when you might come across wildlife. They could run away before you get that camera out.
Get better gas mileage – Fuel will be a significant expense on a road trip, so maximize your mileage by setting your cruise control (if you have one) and maintain a steady speed. Natural Resources Canada found that most vehicles are the most fuel-efficient when they’re travelling between 50 and 80 km/h. Above this speed zone, vehicles use increasingly more fuel the faster they go. They have a vast list of fuel-saving tips.
Power up – A power inverter was the best purchase I made when I took a road trip in Iceland. It allowed the three of us to keep everything charged while we were driving. But remember to unplug it from your carport when you stop, or it can drain the battery!
Plan to park it – If you want to visit a city, make sure you look ahead for parking options. I will always pay for parking because it alleviates the headache of getting (or worrying about getting) a parking ticket. But, if you want to save money, you can look to park outside the city and take public transportation. For instance, in Toronto, the parking costs downtown can eat up your daily budget. But if you park outside the city at a GO Station, which has free parking, you can take public transportation into the downtown, saving a TON of money!
Road trips tips – Sleeping in your car
During my entire road trip along Canada’s eastern provinces, I slept in my car. I’d roll up into a campsite, transform the back of my car into the perfect sleeping spot and snooze away until morning. But what does it take to be able to sleep well in your vehicle? Well, these next few road trip tips will help answer that question.
Pick the right spot to sleep – Instead of choosing free places, I set up camp in a park, whether it was a provincial park or national park. The parks allowed us to access facilities like washrooms and showers; it gave us the feeling of being alone in nature and the comfort of safety while in the car.
Make it comfortable – Having a soft sleeping pad, like this trifold mattress, was the perfect solution to the hard surface of the car “floor.” That mattress was the best money I ever spent. Seriously. I also had an actual pillow and blanket, which made sleeping so much better.
Block the sun and the bugs – The one thing I was nervous about for sleeping in my car would be the heat. Thankfully, I found these awesome sunshades that slip over your car door. They helped block the sun and let me keep the windows open at night without letting the bugs in!
Podcasts for Road Trips
Sometimes it’s not always easy to agree on a tune, or maybe you’ve already burned through a playlist, or you want to keep your mind engaged while driving; that’s where podcasts come in.
Here are 10 podcasts I recommend for long drives:
- Criminal – Stories about people who’ve done wrong, been wronged, and/or been caught somewhere in the middle.
- Lore – Lore was the first podcast I ever listened to, and it’s one of my favourites. Every other week, Aaron Mahnke tells dark historical tales of mysterious creatures, tragic events, and unusual places in a vibrant and spooky story.
- The Habitat – On a remote mountain in Hawaii, there’s a fake planet Mars. This serialized documentary follows six volunteers, secluded in an imitation Mars habitat where they will work as imitation astronauts for one very real year.
- Homecoming – This fictional podcast, Homecoming, centers on a caseworker at an experimental facility, her ambitious supervisor, and a soldier eager to rejoin civilian life
- The Secret Life of Canada – The Secret Life of Canada is a history podcast about the country you know and the stories you don’t. Prepare to learn something!
- Uncover – a Canadian investigative journalism podcast, hosted by a different journalist, diving into Canadian crime stories.
- Noble Blood – Explore stories of some of history’s most fascinating royals: the tyrants and the tragic, the murderers and the murdered, and everyone in between.
- Today, Explained – News comes at you fast. Join Vox at the end of your day to understand it.
- Stuff you Missed in History Class – Learn about world history in a new and exciting way.
- Practical Wanderlust – If you’ve ever wanted a podcast to be like listening in on a hilarious conversation between two people, then this travel podcast is for you. It’s still new, with only 11 episodes. But Lia and Jeremy, notorious for their hilarious mishaps, are incredible hosts, and you’ll want to binge the whole thing.
Audiobooks for Road Trips
Listening to audiobooks has always been the best part of road trips. I find that it’s the best way to help me keep my mind engaged while I drive. Plus, who doesn’t love a good story? For this part of my road trip tips list, here are my favourite audiobooks for long drives.
- The entire Harry Potter series – Stephen Fry is one of the best narrators I’ve ever listened to. (He ruined other audiobooks for me because he’s so great.) And the Harry Potter series is my go-to whenever I have a long drive. Guess how many times I’ve listened to it? (It’s more than five.)
- The Lord of the Rings trilogy – These books about a Hobbit on an adventure is a great way to pass the time. Plus, the books are so descriptive, you might even think you’re driving through Middle Earth!
- Anything by Neil Gaiman – Neil Gaiman’s books are so fun and adventurous that any one of them would be a good listen on a long trip. I recommend Stardust (it’s one of my favourites), American Gods or Neverwhere.
- The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (and series) – What do you get when you add adventure, wit and the end of the world? Find out in this absolutely hilarious book.
- True Crime books – A riveting story can also be a riveting ride; these true crime books are jaw-dropping. I’ll be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara, American Fires by Monica Hesse and Columbine by David Cullen
- A great memoir – I find the memoirs are much better to listen to, especially if the author reads them. Great biographies include Born a Crime by Trevor Noah, Scrappy Little Nobody by Anna Kendrick, and Becoming by Michelle Obama
Must have road trip apps
Apps are designed to make your life easier, right? So here are 11 essential road trip apps to make your next drive a smooth one.
- GasBuddy – Save time and money by finding the cheapest gas in your area (App Store | Google Play)
- RoadTrippers – Find the best things to do along your route with this app. Note, it’s mostly geared toward the US. (App Store | Google Play)
- Google Maps – The best app for navigating and exploring an area. (App Store | Google Play)
- Spotify – Curate playlists, enjoy music and podcasts on this streaming app. (App Store | Google Play)
- Audible – one of the best ways to listen to audiobooks. (App Store | Google Play) But I also love Overdrive for free audiobooks through your library (App Store | Google Play) and Libro.FM, which supports your local bookstore. (App Store | Google Play)
- Splitwise – Split costs for trips using this app (App Store | Google Play)
- TravelSpend – Budget for your road trip with this handy app (App Store | Google Play)
- Weather app – be prepared for the weather wherever you go. (App Store | Google Play)
- Gas points app – Do you have a loyalty card with a gas station? Then make sure you have the app and keep the card at home. I use PC Points at Esso stations, but there are so many loyalty programs out there.
- HotelTonight – Got stuck in traffic and won’t make your next destination? Use Hotel Tonight to book last-minute stays. (App Store | Google Play)
- Airbnb – It may not work as well for last-minute stays, but it’s a good thing to have in your back pocket as an alternative to camping. (App Store | Google Play)
Road trips don’t always go smoothly. These 32 road trip tips (gathered from my countless trips across Canada and the US) will help you prepare everything for a safe and enjoyable journey. So, go on and hit the road!