A road trip means freedom. A road trip alone gives you more freedom than ever.
I've taken a number of solo road trips. I have:
- circumnavigated Lake Ontario
- driven from Nice, France to Amsterdam in The Netherlands
- traveled from New York City to Toronto via Massachusetts, Maine, New Brunswick and Quebec
- RV'd through Arizona and Colorado
On these trips and others, I've learned a few things about how to:
- Pack (Use our Gear and books page for both numbers 1 & 2.)
- Navigate solo
- Stay safe
- Have fun
And now I want to share with you what I've learned.
Top 10 Tips for a Road Trip Alone
Naturally, if you're going to do a road trip alone, you'll want to love driving. Long hours in the car can be physically taxing when you're the only driver but the compensation is that you can take any detour you want, listen to any radio station or talking book that interests you, change your schedule on a whim… the list goes on.
If long-distance driving is something you enjoy, and the idea of going your own sweet way is appealing, here’s the rest of what you need to know for a great trip.
1. Know Your Limits
I can drive up to 12 hours in a day. Other people have a limit of four or five hours. This can be due to physical problems from sitting for that long or from pure boredom. You should also know your limits in terms of driving in the dark.
2. Set Your Schedule
Getting the pace right is a big part of a trip's success. I've found that, generally, I need three days per destination. If I have four destinations, I need twelve days. I might be able to get away with ten but it's important not to squeeze too much into too few days. If you do, you'll miss lots and find that all you do is drive. I also don't plan to drive too far on any one day. Five hours is about my maximum and, even though I'm not typically an early riser, I like to leave early in the morning. I'm up at 6am and away by 6:30am to beat the traffic and arrive at my destination by noon.
3. Use Multiple Tools to Map Your Trip
On my trip to the American southwest I found myself using two maps. One was a map of the Four Corners by National Geographic called Trail of the Ancients. It had great information on places of interest. There are a variety of national geographic travel maps to choose from. The other was a standard road map. In addition, I used Google Maps . I also like road atlases for planning and for recording my trip which makes the atlas a souvenir in the end. I record multiple trips in one book. Here's an atlas for North America and another for Europe.
4. Know the Highlights You Want to See
Choose a theme. In France, it was history for me. I wanted to see the Bayeux Tapestry and also Juno Beach where the Canadians landed on D-Day. In Arizona it was landscapes. The Grand Canyon, the Painted Dessert, Monument Valley – could those landscapes from old western movies truly be real? Going around Lake Ontario I was visiting wineries. Every road trip I take has some sort of focus. Know what yours is and identify the places you just have to get to. Use this information as you plan your route.
5. Book your accommodation.
Now that you've mapped out your trip, book your accommodation. You can check out the Solo Traveler Accommodation guide with suggestions from other solo travelers for places to stay in 65 countries. I also recommend Booking.com. If you have a loyalty card with a specific hotel chain you may be better off booking directly with them rather than through any booking site.
6. Insurance – Make Sure You're Covered
Travel Insurance I never travel without it – no matter what. Depending on the coverage you buy, it can reimburse the cost of doctor fees, medical examinations, cost of medication and even hotel accommodations. Possibly more importantly, it may cover the cost of getting someone you love to your bedside after a medical emergency or return you to your home if that’s necessary. For details read Going Alone? Travel Insurance is a Must.
Roadside Assistance Whether you run your battery down (as I did in Maine) or lock your key in the car or get a flat or worse, it's great to have roadside assistance on your side. If you have AAA or CAA you’re fine in North America. If you don’t you can buy short or long-term roadside assistance from Allstate.
Rental Car Insurance If you’re renting a car for your road trip (read How to Save on Car Rentals), check with your insurance company and credit cards first to find out what kind of coverage you have through them. Read: When to Buy (and not buy) Trip Insurance. If you've determined that your current coverage is not adequate for your rental car, here are the questions you need to ask the rental agency:
- How much does the coverage cost?
- What type of collision coverage is offered and what is included in this coverage?
- Who is insured under the coverage?
- Is there a deductible associated with the coverage?
- Is liability insurance part of the coverage?
- Is there any item that could possibly void your insurance coverage for your rental car?
- Is roadside assistance available as part of your coverage?
- What steps need to be taken if you get into an accident?
7. Packing – Car Trip Specific
Pack light. I know I say this all the time but whether you're staying at hostels, B&B's, or hotels, you are going to be lugging your luggage in and out whenever you move on to a new destination. Having just one bag to carry makes life much easier. Here's a link to my Bare Minimum Packing post for a bit of guidance on how to pack light.
For your car, it's a good idea to bring along a roll of duct tape, a multi-head screwdriver, a couple of flares, a pair of pliers, vise grips, and maybe a coat hanger or two to hold up the muffler should it fall off – or you can buy a road trip kit from AAA. You'll want a good first-aid kit and a car blanket too. And I always travel with almonds and water in the car though you may want to take that further and have a cooler of food so you can picnic along the way.
8. Use Multiple Navigation Tools to Keep You On Track
Navigation when you're on the road alone can be a bit of a challenge. I travel with a Garmin GPS as I find it more reliable than following Google Maps on my phone when traveling places that I don’t know. A Tom Tom is another GPS option. In addition to a GPS, I like to have a compass as it confirms my direction if I'm unsure. A compass is a cheap little accessory. And naturally, I carry the map or atlas with which I planned my trip. It's also helpful to know that in the U.S.:
- Two-digit Interstates often go directly through cities while three-digit Interstates go around them.
- Odd-numbered highways run north to south and even-numbered ones run east to west.
9. Prepare Your Vehicle
Have your car tuned up and inspected at least a week before you leave. This will give you time for any repairs that are required. Car Talk recommends the following items be checked. You can click on any of them to go to the Car Talk site for details.
- The Cooling System
- The Tires
- Steering and Suspension
- Change the Oil
- Air Conditioning System
- Check the Tranny
Start your drive early in the morning:
- You'll be less tired and more alert.
- The roads will have less traffic making the drive more enjoyable.
- You'll arrive in daylight with time to find your accommodation if you haven't already booked it.
When you're driving, make sure your doors are locked and (need I say this?) you're wearing your seat belt. Be mindful of where you park your car. Try to park near an entrance to a mall or hotel. The lot may be busy when you arrive but if it's empty when you leave you won't enjoy a long walk across a vacant parking lot. If your trip takes you along roads with little traffic, consider getting a full size spare tire rather than a donut tire that can only go a short distance. You can get an affordable, decent quality spare tire at a used tire store. As per Tip 4, have bottled water with you.
10. Create a Playlist/Read that Book
There are definitely times to listen to local radio but chances are you'll get bored of it and, possibly, be out of range of a station. Whether your playlist includes audio books, music (you may want to get Spotify), lectures, or all three, be prepared with what will keep you happy, interested and alert as you drive.
11. Stay in Touch
Let someone at home know your route, when you leave, and when you arrive at your destinations. A quick text message will do. If you have WiFi, use skype or send a quick email. That's all it takes. If you want to avoid roaming charges, consider getting a SIM card for an unlocked phone or go with a skyroam. You have to buy the unit but then you can buy unlimited data for $8 a day.
12. Protect Your Identity
Also remember that if you use free WiFi you need to protect your identity. The need to go into accounts and use your credit card or check your bank status comes up more than you might think. Whether it's for booking a hotel or a flight or for checking the status of a credit card gone missing (read Eek! I Lost My Credit Card), a VPN is important. This is why I wrote VPN for Travel: What, Why and an Easy Setup Guide
13. Slow Down, Go Local – Radio, Diners, Diversions
Slow down, save on gas and enjoy the scenery and the scene. On my trip through the southwest I listened to KGHR 91.3 Native Radio. Listening to this station, I learned what was going on in Tuba City, what the native people care about, the values they hold, and much more. It's a wonderful aspect of travel that is most easily enjoyed on a road trip. Hungry for lunch? Look for the diner in a small town and you're sure to get some local flavor from the people as well as the food. Sometimes a local museum is the one that you'll find yourself telling people about years later. Don't overlook what may appear to be small experiences as they may be the most memorable.