What should I do to prepare for a road trip?
December 26, 2012 3:28 PM   Subscribe

What should I do to prepare for driving from SF to NY this January?

The last time I took a road trip was in college 8 years ago. I am now preparing to drive with a friend from SF to NY, as I get ready to start a new job.

I drive a 2005 Honda Civic with 85K miles. No problems to speak of. Should I spring for a tune-up before hitting the road? Our route will be mainly through the south (SF->Vegas->Grand Canyon->Oklahoma (i.e. BBQ)->St. Louis-Columbus->New York), but are snow chains something I should worry about? I've been told as long as we are on interstates we should be fine.

I have AAA, and I'll have cell phone and friend with me. Anything else I should think to bring with me? Any general advice for doing a cross country drive? Particularly resources for what roads are looking like each day? Would like to know before I drive into a blizzard/black ice.

posted by Peemster to Travel & Transportation (19 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
If you're at the point where you'd need chains on that trip, you should just stay off the road. Do you have a smartphone? I found tripadvisor and yelp and google maps and hotelcoupons.com invaluable in helping me find places to eat and sleep. Just pack an emergency kit in the car [space blanket, some basic tools, a few powerbars and water, flares, fixaflat, small first aid kit] just because it's a smart idea. Have a way to charge your stuff while driving [a lighter/AC adapter is really helpful] and a small cooler for keeping a few drinks and maybe some cheese cool, so that you don't HAVE to stop to eat until you can find a place you like. I've also found road atlases helpful even with a smart phone because you can see a few states around where you are and make some larger scale travel decisions. Also a GPS (or smart phone equivalent) is invaluable when you're rerouted for some reason and have to take a different path. Just be calm and don't press ahead if the weather looks sketchy and if you do get stuck in the snow (you have good tires?) drive slow and steady.
posted by jessamyn at 3:38 PM on December 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

You should definitely have, at minimum, good all-season tires with plenty of tread on them.

Have you ever driven in snowy / icy conditions before?
posted by kickingtheground at 3:45 PM on December 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Smart phone is insanely useful on roadtrips, both for navigation and for finding good food or interesting things anywhere you go. Plus, you can use it for music, audiobooks, etc.

New tires are probably advisable, I agree with Jessamyn that if you need snow chains you should just not drive. I don't think a tune-up is necessarily important, but I would certainly get an oil change and ask them to report anything that looks off.

Advice: Especially in the great plains states pay very close attention to your gas and how far you can go before you run out. Gas stations are relatively few and far between.
posted by drethelin at 3:52 PM on December 26, 2012

Paper maps & food in the car.
posted by desjardins at 3:52 PM on December 26, 2012

The easiest way I can think to answer this is by list, so here goes...

1. You should probably get snow tires in OK, MI, or Ohio. Chains require your car to be operated at quite low speeds.

2. My experiences have been that snow is easy, ice is terrible. I've driven a Focus in a blizzard in upstate NY with no problems, but I've skidded in a 4x4 F150 on the ice.

3. Most of the interstates will be salted and plowed regularly. Many Highways aren't. Keep this in mind.

4. Have an emergency kit in the car in case you (a) crash or (b) have to sleep in it overnight.

Finally, I have to ask if you're doing this for fun or to move all your stuff to NYC. If you're doing it for fun, go for it. If you're doing it to move your stuff, just put it on a train and fly here. It's a PiTA to have a car in NYC.
posted by NYC-BB at 3:54 PM on December 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Particularly resources for what roads are looking like each day?

Each state will have a driving conditions website and information line. Look them up before you go. In Wisconsin you just dial 511 (not that you're going that way).
posted by desjardins at 3:54 PM on December 26, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks to all! Paper atlas makes a lot of sense, and any excuse to buy cheese I will take. And I will pick up basic emergency kit.

Good advice on chains -- I've never used, and YouTube tutorials make it clear that I basically shouldn't be using them.

I'll get oil changed and ask them for a quick look.

And yes, I am doing road trip for fun. It may be last chance to get a chance to see the country in this way for a while for me (I've never seen Vegas or the Grand Canyon either) so this is more recreational. We're actually putting all of our stuff on Amtrak train (another great Ask MeFi suggestions). My plan is actually to sell the car shortly after moving there -- I'll be based out of Hudson, NY for first few months of job before moving down to Brooklyn, and would like to have a car while in Hudson. Once I am in NYC proper, I cannot wait to sell my car and stop driving. :)

Again, thanks to everyone. Always amazed at the great community here.
posted by Peemster at 4:28 PM on December 26, 2012

1. Fly Jessamyn from VT to SF, have her ride with you back to VT, drop her off, then go south to NYC. Clearly she is an experience road warrior and has the routine down and would be a great resource.

And think about......
a. Cheapo battery operated lantern (like a camping thing). It is far superior lighting at night to that of just a flashlight, especially should you be doing something like changing a tire.
b. Cheapo multi-piece tool kit. One of those 150 piece sets that can sell often for as low as $20. You may not know what to do with the tools, but if you have trouble and get help from someone who does, it will be great having a bunch of tools ready to go.
c. Cheapo 4-Way Lug Wrench. I would almost bet the wrench that came with your Honda sucks.
d. Cheapo gas can (empty preferably). For obvious reasons.
posted by lampshade at 4:29 PM on December 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I grew up in Oklahoma, and I'm passingly familiar with driving on ice -- basically, don't do it if at all possible, easy on the brakes -- but any specific advice is well appreciated.
posted by Peemster at 4:31 PM on December 26, 2012

If you plan on buying cheese remember to bring a knife and small cutting board! We had to make a Target pit stop on one of our cross-country trips to buy those. Paper plates, napkins, and utensils are a good idea too. We ate a lot of apples and cheese, yogurt, and PB&J sandwiches. Satsumas would also be good and portable. After a few days you'll really want some fresh food to eat! I also liked looking out for unusual regional food items, like the Idaho Spud chocolate bar.

You didn't ask about hotels but I had good luck using the Priceline name your own price thingy with my smart phone. We would think about where we wanted to stop and put in a bid in the afternoon. It worked really well and we were able to stay at some nicer hotels and motels for very good prices. It's worth it to pay a little extra to stay in a nicer place, which will usually be cleaner and have more amenities like in-room fridges and coffee makers, and breakfast in the morning. By nicer I mean Holiday Inn Express and HoJo instead of Motel 6 and America's Best Value (not so good, usually).

I also support the advice to bring a good paper road atlas. You should have cell service for those parts of the country, but it's nice to have just in case. It also really helps to visualize large portions of the country, and to see what interesting sites you might be close to. It also can be fun to get off the interstate for a portion of the trip. The road atlas will help you see where to do that.

Also make sure your spare tire is functioning and you know how to use the jack, etc.
posted by apricot at 4:52 PM on December 26, 2012

The road in winter always brings surprises. But I prefer driving in this season. I've driven SF->NY, SD->CHI, LA->BOS, and SEA->MIA, both on my own, and with a passenger.

(A Civic is a good car for long-trip mileage. I distinctly remember getting 674 miles out of one tankful of gas on one of my trips.)

Yes, take the car to the mechanic, tell him your trip plans, and check lights, belts, pumps, hoses, fans, brakes, tires (including the spare) and fix anything that looks iffy. This goes double if you haven't been regularly maintaining the car. (A Civic in good shape should be going strong at 85k. Mine lasted until 266k.)

Echoing Jessamyn, best not to plan for any routes that'll require snow chains. But you never know if you'll get caught by accident in snow (a fast storm may blow in.) Better to have them and not need them than the reverse. (If you do opt for them, practice putting them on before you leave, rather than try to figure it out when you fingers are frozen and its too dark to see.)

There's often snow and wind near the Grand Canyon (and the whole Kaibab plateau) at this time. So plan for it. If you're going to visit the park on your trip, especially if you decide to go to the northern rim, you'll definitely see weather. (I love that place in winter. The desolation is undisturbed by a crush of visitors. But, it's cold.)

Even on the interstates, sections can close due to weather. I've had it happen in Utah, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and even Texas. When that happens, call it quits for the day. Folks who know the region can route themselves around a closure on other highways and roads, but folks just passing through often navigate into problems when they try the same.

Driving in ice and snow? A review of the defensive driving tips you learned in school might be handy.

Especially in the western states, remember that mountains make their own weather. What looks like fine driving conditions at ground level can turn into something else entirely 6,000 feet up.

Audiobooks are a great way to keep entertained without too much distraction--especially if your iPod's music playlists are all worn out from shuffle and repeat. (Satellite radio is perfect for long trips, but not essential.)

Paper maps as backup to your smartphone (I still prefer a stand-alone GPS) are a must.

Definitely carry a spare gas can in case. (Once in Cheyenne, someone siphoned out my fuel while I was overnight at a motel.) It's another thing you'll probably not need, but will find immensely valuable if you do.

Seconding the tips for an emergency car kit, which you'll find useful even once you've made it to the Empire State.

A good set of jumper cables are another form of insurance. And you'll find yourself ready to play the good Samaritan by offering a jump to another stranded motorist every once in a while. (Nothing gains you more karma.)

Keep some cash on you.

Driving at dusk and at night can be very pleasant, but not if you're tired or the least bit sleepy.

Stop and stretch a couple of minutes once every hour or so.

A seat cushion can be a great aid in the cockpit.

Early morning and sunset glare on the road can be tricky so make sure you've got polarized sunglasses.

When driving at dusk/night and an oncoming car is wearing their high beams, direct your eyes to the right side of your car and focus on the outer line markings of the road until they've passed you.

Sleep can creep up on you and is a grave and often-overlooked danger. As soon as you feel your eyelids start to droop, peel a little bit of an orange. That citrus scent will pick you up for a few minutes, long enough to find an exit and call it quits for the night. No disgrace in that.

When passing a large truck on the open road (especially in a small car), as soon as you near the front of the truck, you'll be buffeted by wind. Keep both hands on the wheel.

Are you a leadfoot? Diligently use your cruise control on the highway. A speeding ticket on a long trip is a downer, and can be very expensive.

If possible, keep a civil relationship with your co-pilot. You may want to spell each other during the drive, and even if not, it's a hard slog to drive 3,000 miles in a frosty cabin.

Having and knowing all this makes you better prepared. Not needing to use it (which is most likely what'll happen) will keep you happy. Safe travels.
posted by dott8080 at 5:49 PM on December 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've made the same road trip (well, SF down the coast through the Grand Canyon, but then headed north along the Mississippi to Chicago) in February a few years ago.

Be prepared for snow at the Grand Canyon, and possible snow in the high plains (New Mexico, west Texas). In addition to the usual emergency supplies and new tires, I highly recommend keeping a can of gas/petrol on you. I didn't really need gas in E. New Mexico (heading to Amarillo) but for some reason stopped and filled up anyway. Glad I did... it's 5+ hours across the reservation, and there is nothing. NOTHING. No gas, no food, no nothing (just the occasional mobile home). There are a couple of stretches like this, though this one was definitely the worst/longest. (Another reason for a paper map.)

Also, the elevation in the SW makes a big difference really quickly... there was no snow in Albuquerque, and 20min. into a drive to a Ski place outside town there was so much snow (SO MUCH!) I had to turn back (roads/skiing closed etc.) It was nuts.

Are you sharing the driving? I did this by myself and it took a week (5-6 hours a day, sleeping in hostels at night); wish I'd taken longer and seen more. The Grand Canyon is beautiful in the snow (though no hiking!), and the outlook/giftshop had a fireplace and hotchocolate. Yum! Too cold to camp though. =) (at least with the gear I had)

Have fun!
posted by jrobin276 at 5:55 PM on December 26, 2012

A thing worth knowing is that Cracker Barrell rents audio books and you pick one up, listen to it, drop it at the next Cracker Barrell, get anew one. Also sign up for a hotel rewards program. Hilton, Martiott and InterContinental all have them and they correspond with a lower end motel. Hilton has Hampton Inns and they're all pretty good. Free hot breakfast too. Have a great time!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:08 PM on December 26, 2012

What I'd do:

Get the car serviced. You are probably coming up on a regular service interval and IMO it's better to do it before rather than after. On many cars this means oil change, air filter, maybe some other fluids. New windshield wiper refills. And if you are going to be driving at night new headlight bulbs as light output degrades over time. Clean your windows inside and out using a glass cleaner and paper towels.

I'd pack:
For the car
  • Spare oil
  • Windshield washer fluid
  • P/S Fluid
  • Antifreeze
  • Brake fluid
  • Tire Gauge
  • A roll of those blue shop towels
  • Ice scraper
For the travellers
  • a case of water
  • Some kind of food
  • Blankets or sleeping bags
  • Warm Clothing.
  • Flashlight
  • A basic first aid kit.
Ideally you want to be prepared to be trapped in your car at the side of the road for 24 hours. Interstates are generally well maintained but if a system catches people by surprise it can take a while for things to return to normal.

A small cooler is handy for sandwich things if you don't want to eat out all the time. The soft sided ones don't work as well as hard side but they are easier to fit in the car.

I can sign out audio books from my library over the internet and then put them on my iPod.

Have some sort of plan for what you'll do if the car eats it's transmission or something half way thru the trip.

Finally if you are taking your laptop and it has a media burner pick up some blank media. Burning each day's photos/videos to a disk and then mailing it to yourself is cheap insurance against loss or theft.
posted by Mitheral at 6:33 PM on December 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Windshield washer fluid

Make sure you have wintertime windshield washer fluid. Because you live in SF, it is entirely possible that you have non-winter windshield washer fluid. This is what happened to me when I drove from SF to NJ in December, and once I got to Colorado, the problem became clear, because the fluid froze in the reservoir.
posted by deanc at 7:25 PM on December 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Far from a comprehensive list, but some other things that come to mind that I'm not sure were mentioned so far.

Cat litter in case you need to sprinkle it around your car's tires to try to get grip if you're stuck in snow.

They say a medium sized candle in a coffee can is surprisingly warm. One site I just looked at even went as far as to suggest putting a roll of toilet paper in a coffee can and pouring some isopropyl alcohol on it and lighting that as a heat source. (If you do this inside the car, make sure to crack a window to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning). So you'd need matches too.

Spare batteries for your flashlight and whatever else you're bringing that might need them.

There's some great ideas in this thread but I might also spend some time browsing winter car care and travel tip websites to make sure nothing gets overlooked before you leave.
posted by cali59 at 12:38 AM on December 27, 2012

If you're not driving alone, bring a pillow so you can sleep while the other person drives. If you are driving alone, bring a pillow anyway; depending on the quality of your hotel, yours might be preferable to theirs.
posted by desjardins at 6:34 AM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

From Columbus to New York, I assume you'll be heading through PA rather than up around Cleveland. Either way, be prepared for a good amount of potential snow there, and I'd definitely recommend going across PA rather than across upstate NY. Places like St. Louis and surrounding areas are more likely to get freezing rain than significant snow, which sucks to drivein.
This may be stupidly obvious, but make sure you have warm winter apparel with you.
posted by ChuraChura at 6:39 AM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Find some podcasts you like and listen to their backlog. Or, if you have ones you like already, start "saving up" new episodes to listen to on the road. I'm always amazed at how fast an hour goes by when listening to a favorite podcast vs. music. I also tend to want to switch songs a lot, and flipping through your iPod or phone or whatever while driving is not ideal. There are quite a few threads on here asking for podcast recs, or you can memail me for some of my faves. The most popular ones on iTunes are a good place to start.
Similarly, if you have a book you've been meaning to read (I know a ton of people feel like they should have read more classics), get it on audiobook.

I tend to get achy when sitting in one place for too long. Consider bringing one of those icy-hot patches or similar. I also like roll-on Biofreeze.
posted by jorlyfish at 10:58 AM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

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