It’s the first week of May. In the U.S., that means the Memorial Day Weekend, the start of the summer travel season, is getting close. Summer in the States screams “Road Trip!”
I love road trips — the chance to climb in a car and drive off with family to explore and truly experience an area, its sights, culture and food. They’re a great way to travel and they have some important advantages over other forms of travel.
Road trips have flexibility that bus tours and trips which primarily use planes, trains and ships to get around don’t have. Other than the schedule you impose on yourself, road trips give you a chance to do what you want without a tight timetable.
Road trips are not without some constraints, such as days when sites are closed, opening and closing hours of some sights, show times, etc., but who’s to say what you miss today you can’t do tomorrow on a road trip.
If you hear about something special to see that’s not already in your plans, when on a road you can decide to divert. If you find something is boring, you can leave early. If something’s unexpectedly great, you can stay longer. Many times on thoroughly planned road trips, we’ve found great, previously unknown destinations we added as we went along and some stops we quickly dropped because we found they were duds.
Road trips are not without their own set of potential problems, however, whether you’re using your own car or renting one for the trip. For a great road trip, car safety and planning for potential problems is important and can be critical.
Here are my top tips for road trip driving and car safety:
1. Don’t drive a car on a road trip without a spare tire, even if you have run-flat tires. There is nothing that kills a road trip, or at least causes untold angst, delays, and missed opportunities, more than a flat tire.
A study by AAA in 2015 showed that 36 percent of 2015 model year cars sold in the U.S. came with “tire inflator” kits instead of spare tires, making a total of 29 million cars on U.S. roads without spare tires. If your car comes with an inflator kit instead of a spare, recognize that it can cost as much as $300 to replace it, once used. That means it can cost 10 times the cost of a tire repair to use an inflator.
Moreover, for an inflator kit to work, the object puncturing the tire must still be in it and the puncture must have been in the tread. If the object has come out, was in the sidewall, or a blow-out occurred, an inflator kit is useless. Run flat tires don’t work in case of a blow-out, and will generally die after driving on them when flat in less than 50 miles. Drive that much on them while flat and they will need replacing.
On your road trip, when you’re in the middle of nowhere, if you have a properly inflated spare tire, you can weather typical flats, sidewall punctures and blow-outs. Even if your spare tire is a donut type, you can likely drive as far as 50 to 70 miles and your regular tire may be able to be inexpensively repaired.
If you’re driving a rental car on your road trip, make sure it has a properly inflated spare tire and a full jack kit before you leave the rental car lot. If you’re unfamiliar with the car, have the rental company show you how to use the jack kit.
2. Watch out for bad weather. Summer storms can make many road surfaces extremely slippery, especially at the beginning of the storm. It can take as long as 30 minutes of rain to rinse off the oils and dirt which make wet roads especially slippery.
3. If you’re driving your car on your road trip, make sure it’s up to date on its maintenance. If you’re driving a rental car, before you leave their lot, in addition to the spare tire and jack kit, check its lights, mirrors, brakes, air conditioning, windshield defroster, the air pressure and tread of all tires, rear window defroster and windshield wipers. On a trip to Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama last year, I went through three rental cars at the lot before I would accept one.
4. These days, most people use a GPS-based navigation system to direct them during road trips. Since you’ll likely be on unfamiliar roads, it may seem like overkill, but have a backup to your navigation system with you, especially if it’s not a factory installed unit, such as the ones that often come in rental cars. Either bring some maps with you, or if you have a smartphone, get a top quality GPS-based navigation app like Navigon and don’t forget to bring a smartphone charger for the car to keep the phone working.
Most likely you’ll have smooth sailing on your road trip, but it’s better to be prepared for trouble, if it comes, to minimize its consequences.
After many years working in corporate America as a chemical engineer, executive and eventually CFO of a multinational manufacturer, Ned founded a tech consulting company and later restarted NSL Photography, his photography business. As a well known corporate, travel and wildlife photographer, Ned travels the world writing about travel and photography, as well as running photography workshops, seminars and photowalks. Visit Ned’s Photography Blog and Galleries.