Hacks That Make Road Trips So Much Easier

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When the U.S. interstate highway system was but a twinkle in Dwight D. Eisenhower's eye in 1956, he was picturing a way to reduce transportation costs and bulk up America's defense capabilities. Little did he know he'd be giving birth to a phenomenon now known around the world: the classic American road trip. It's so classic that it's practically a pilgrimage for every American and a bucket list item for foreign visitors. There's no need to explain the appeal of traversing long, lonely freeways amidst some of the most stunning natural splendor on this side of the globe.

Once you take off the rose-colored glasses, however, you remember all the not-so-romantic aspects of road-tripping. Windy roads that make you get carsick, a full bladder with no gas station in sight, and restless boredom that turns into family arguments. Don't get us wrong, road trips are the sort of experiences everyone looks back on fondly. But they could be better. Today, we will look at a few simple hacks that can make your road trip much more pleasant.

Get your car serviced

Being broken down somewhere on Route 66 — even if you have enough signal to call for help — is no less stressful than in the good old days when cell phones weren't a thing. Aside from an easy fix like a flat or low coolant, you might spend precious vacation days with your car on blocks at some mechanic's shop in Nowhere, USA. The AAA has a simple recommendation: get your vehicle serviced. You'll avoid the vast majority of breakdowns that way.

You can do most things on your own if you don't mind putting in the elbow grease, but it never hurts to let a professional check your baby from bow to stern. Test and possibly replace your battery. Check fluids like engine oil and power steering, and address any leaks under the vehicle. Test your tire pressure and fill all tires to their optimal manufacturer PSI for the best traction and fuel efficiency. Swap out dirty air filters. Tug on that engine belt to ensure it won't break on you. Aside from those things under the hood, ensure you've got a functional spare tire in the trunk with a locking lug nut key and jack. Everyone skips out on bringing an emergency kit (extra blankets, flashlights, first aid kits, etc.) and dearly regrets it if they get stranded on the roadside later.

Bring a power bank

If you've ever used a car's charging options, you've probably found them leaving a lot to be desired. Aside from recent models with built-in USB hubs, your best bet is that old cigarette lighter charger that tops up your smartphone at a snail's pace. That's fine for a lone driver, but it is an issue in a car full of people whose primary entertainment is their phone and who will want to charge their device at several points during the journey. So you play a juggling game of deciding whose gadget to charge next, risking the chance that you're left with dead smartphones should the car break down later. Solve both of these problems with a power bank.

Power banks have improved in recent years, allowing you to fast-charge multiple devices from a single block that will fit comfortably in your hand. We recommend steering clear of the cheapo no-name brands since they charge slowly and die quickly. Invest in a quality device from a major brand like Anker. If you've got a family of iPhone users, you can equip everyone with MagSafe battery packs that attach magnetically to the back of the phone for greater convenience. Just make sure you don't forget to charge these power banks when bedding down for the night. The big ones may take a full night to charge, especially with how many hotels appear to under-volt their rooms these days.

Get a quality phone stand

Cell phone use contributes to a whopping 12% of car accidents for obvious reasons. The problem is, unless you plan to go old-fashioned with a paper map (and all the inconvenience it entails), you need that phone to give you driving directions and double as the DJ for the trip. It will be a lot more of a distraction than it ought to be if you leave it sitting in the center console where you have to reach blindly for it — or worse, take your eyes away from the road. Even if you've got a full-time passenger princess to hold it, just get a decent phone stand.

We recommend one that has a special phone case with a magnetic mounting plate. These usually have the strongest grip without making it a hassle to mount or remove the phone. If possible, avoid any suction cup varieties that don't connect to the windshield, as these are a pain to mount and tend to fall off easily — trust our personal experience on this one. Vent-mounted stands are the most versatile and easiest to deploy. If you're reading this last second and have no time to buy one, you might create a DIY phone holder to make using maps easier.

Download as much offline media as possible

These days, most folks don't save their Spotify libraries or podcasts for offline listening. For your upcoming road trip, it's really going to suck when that gripping true crime podcast cuts out because you lost the signal — or worse, when you end up exceeding your data cap for the privilege. Prepare well in advance by downloading as much audio media as possible. Make a dedicated offline road trip playlist with upbeat tracks that dispel sleepiness. Get free audiobooks from your local library via Libby, or use Amazon's Audible free trial to get two audiobooks for free. Download all those podcasts you've been meaning to listen to but haven't had the time for.

Importantly, get a wide variety of media to switch between as boredom takes its toll. Stand-up comedy routines keep the driver awake with a good laugh. Chip away at your TED Talk backlog; they're excellent, bite-sized discourses that don't require you to commit to an hours-long ramble. Audio dramas and scary stories are movies for your ears that won't take away from the driver's alertness. If you have YouTube Premium, you can listen to downloaded offline YouTube videos in audio format. Get a free one-month trial if you'd rather not commit long-term. You can find a free trial for just about any audio-oriented entertainment option on the list, most of which will last the duration of your trip, so you can cancel them when you return.

Use an AirTag (or equivalent) to track your car

AirTags (and their competing options) make for affordable, convenient solutions to track items and — you guessed it — vehicles. A single tag costs $29 and has a battery rated to last an entire year. AirTags leverage Apple's global Find My network (i.e., other nearby Apple devices) to pinpoint your vehicle accurately. They will even guide you to it with a pointing arrow via your phone. There are competing versions for Android that also work pretty well and sit at a similar price threshold.

Keeping track of your vehicle in a foreign city is a lot easier when you can see it as a dot on the map. Say, for example, you leave your car in a multi-story parking garage or a huge outdoor mall parking lot. Your iPhone will guide you back to it if it proves difficult to re-locate. These tracking devices work so well that, in some cases, people have used them to track down stolen vehicles — extra peace of mind for you if you're paranoid about your car's safety while out of town. If you don't have AirTags or other effective equivalents, you can drop a pin on the map after parking.

Get food trays

Hey, there's no shame in admitting you'll pause the diet as you hit fast-food restaurants during your journey. We all do. But here we are, with all of life's advancements, and most drive-thru eateries (with a few exceptions like the West Coast's In-N-Out) still only give you a bag and a flimsy drink holder to contain the mess. Hello, stains and stale French fries between the seats. Consider buying a dedicated food tray to make eating easier and to contain the mess. You can find dozens of cheap options on Amazon or your online store of preference. There are solutions that latch onto the steering wheel, mount in the cup holder, or hang off the back of the seat.

If you'd rather DIY this one, bring a shower caddy or two. They're a surprisingly perfect solution for every family member to hold their main course, sides, and drink — rather than soaps and shampoos. After the trip, all they need is a quick pass through the washing machine, and they're ready for another round. Once you finish eating, they double as a temporary trash receptacle until you can empty them at the next gas station pitstop.

Bring a container with spare change or cash

Payment options have never been more convenient these days, with most places allowing you to tap your card or phone. Still, cash has yet to fully go the way of the dodo. The majority of small businesses — like small-town restaurants and shops — don't accept card transactions because of the high cost of fees. Then, there are other places that primarily only accept exact payments, such as toll roads. It would be a shame to find a cute little souvenir you can't buy because of a cash-only policy, especially when ATMs away from home may force you to cough up out-of-network banking fees to get that cash.

Just in case, grab as much spare change as you can and put it in a handy container, like an old mint tin or a small Tupperware. You'll be glad you had it should you need to get yourself the odd convenience store drink or pay a parking meter. At the very least, keep it in your car for emergencies. Before leaving town, withdraw cash from your home bank's ATM to avoid fees.

Have an actual trash solution

For most, your road trip trash can is a leftover bag you enlist by hanging off the back seat. That's fine, but you're missing out on all the nifty in-car trash cans that have been exploding in popularity in recent years. One of the most popular is the cup holder trash can, an excellent miniature solution for tossing napkins, crumbs, and anything else you can fit in it. It really helps to rein in all the wrappers and used hand wipes rather than cramming them into door holders for later.

For the bigger trash, you can get one that hangs off the back of a seat or wedges between the console and the middle seats. There are foldable and collapsible options, too, some of which double as a removable camping trash solution for later. It's a hard sell for someone fine with the good ol' grocery bag, but those are a pain in the rear when you've got your eyes on the road and a handful of garbage. It's a small convenience, but a worthwhile one.

Go to grocery stores before gas stations

Gas stations will never be beat for road trip convenience, but they are rarely (if ever) the best choice for healthy grub. Their hot food is usually of the high-carb, processed variety. If they've got an adjoining restaurant, it's probably some questionable, expensive fried chicken place you've never heard of and an 80s logo to prove it's stuck in the past. So, once you've got your gas topped up, consider taking a brief detour to a local grocery store for food.

There, you'll have way more food options and far better prices — whether you want to pig out on salty snacks or go a healthier route. Some places, such as Walmart, have a ready-to-eat section with hot food like rotisserie chicken and potato wedges. As an added bonus, grocery stores are bound to be a lot less crowded than the former. You'll probably find a cleaner bathroom without a wall of tired travelers lined up outside it. If you're fortunate, you might stumble upon a Costo or Sam's Club with its own gas station to take out two birds with one stone.

Bring spare rolls of toilet paper

Bathrooms are always a gamble — in terms of cleanliness — on a road trip, one that becomes even more fraught in our age of pandemics capable of shutting the entire country down. Yet, in the current year, a clean bathroom is still a diamond in the rough, one that even the gas stations advertising clean bathrooms get right only some of the time. You really just never know if you're about to step into a minefield of strangely-colored puddles and questionable toilet seats. Even if it is acceptably clean, there's a good chance it will be missing toilet paper. Beat it to the punch by bringing your own.

Toilet paper is a nifty Swiss army knife for road trips. It ensures your bathroom experience doesn't leave you trapped in a stall with no TP or one-ply that falls apart in your fingers. Beyond the bathroom, it's a must-have for all different types of jobs in the car — a way to blow your nose, wipe off those greasy fingers, and clean up the less extreme of the messes. It's a lifesaver in an emergency, too, such as getting nature's call while stuck on the roadside with nothing but the bushes to help.

Get a gas credit card

If you take many road trips, or you're going on a long, cross-country one, you might consider applying for a credit card that includes benefits for gas. These cards bump up the points you earn whenever you spend at the pump, some offering you up to 6% back. With gas prices always being a pain in the budget, this can make a difference for a family-sized car that eats hundreds of dollars of fuel and then goes for seconds. Any additional card spending still goes to rewards later on.

A few caveats here. First, Nerd Wallet advises against credit cards offered by specific gas station brands. It could be tricky locating that brand on your way from city to city or state to state, nullifying the benefits of getting it. Instead, opt for a rewards card from a major credit institution like Wells Fargo or Chase that has good rewards and gas benefits. The perks of these cards will cover a lot more than just gas, so use the rewards for travel-specific expenses where applicable. As with any good credit card, it's advisable to make everyday purchases ahead of your trip to meet the introductory point offer. Who knows, that could wipe the cost of an entire hotel stay off your upcoming bill.

Make a sick kit

The best, most scenic routes on your trip are often the serpentine switchbacks that urge the lunch you just had to come back up the wrong way. There may be no shoulder to stop on, or the nausea doesn't bend to your schedule, and suddenly, you've got a puddle of vomit in the back seats. Even if your family genes bestow you all with iron stomachs, it never hurts to make an emergency car sickness kit for your next road trip.

How you make the sick kit is up to you, but we have a few suggestions. First, a couple of big Ziploc bags — or non-transparent ones so you don't have to see what comes up. Include a trash bag to quarantine anything that gets tainted with the bile. Bring some sanitary wipes for cleanup and a small bottle of Lysol spray or deodorizing disinfectant spray to nuke the smell. You might also include hand sanitizer, facial spray to freshen up afterward, and aftercare items like a bottle of Gatorade, some light snacks, and Dramamine to neuter any further car-induced motion sickness. It will only take a few minutes to assemble such a kit, and everyone will be glad they don't have to hold their nose while upchuck enjoys the ride with them.

Call someone

Road trips leave you with tons of time on your hands once you grow sick and tired of endless podcasts and Taylor Swift playlists. If you've still got a signal, you've got another way to pass the time: calling someone. Give your mother, father, bestie, distant aunt, or anyone you can think of a ring, especially if your busy schedule doesn't open itself up to long chats such as these. It's a great way to do some needed bonding and far more engaging than any other car entertainment. For drivers, it's especially helpful as it keeps you awake and alert without taking your focus off the drive.

Grab a Bluetooth earbud so you can take the call without removing your hands from the wheel. Most earbuds these days, like Sony LinkBuds and Apple AirPods, have a transparency mode so you can make the call and hear your surroundings. Depending on whom you're calling, you can put them on speaker and have the whole family chime in for an engaging family discussion. We all have that one person we've been meaning to catch up with, and there's perhaps no better moment to do so than on a road trip.

Try this hotel bathroom hack

Still struggling to find a decent bathroom, even when you drop by grocery stores or have your own TP? You've got one extra ace up your sleeve with this lesser-known hack for bathroom breaks. Hotel bathrooms tend to be nice, clean, and relatively uncrowded. The problem is they're off-limits for anyone but paying customers. The concierge will be on alert for those who don't belong and won't hesitate to turn you away if they find out you're just passing through. The solution is simple: act like you belong.

Unless it's a tiny, vacant motel, the staff won't have memorized the faces of every guest. So go straight in with the confidence of a paying customer. Nod at the concierge as you go, or ignore them, and put purpose into your steps. 99% of the time, they won't even do a double take. This hack applies to any paid establishment with an accessible bathroom, such as fast-food restaurants and casinos. In the worst-case scenario, they'll politely ask you to leave. Apps such as Sit or Squat and Bathroom Scout are great alternatives for finding free, clean, reliable bathrooms if this hotel bathroom hack doesn't pan out.