Tips for a long cross-country drive?
January 25, 2008 11:11 AM   Subscribe

Driving cross-country (FL->WA) in a week and looking for advice

I'm leaving Orlando on Feb 1st, bound for Spokane, WA. I'll be up there through June and then returning to Orlando.

I haven't taken this trip driving since 1996, and wasn't alone at the time nor in my own car (U-Haul). I've done 10-hour roadtrips alone several times, but this is the first time I will be driving this far without a companion.

Google and MapQuest tell me that if I'm really ambitious and drive up to 16 hours a day, I can make St. Louis by the first night, Rapid City by the second, and Spokane by the third. I realize that this is an ambitious schedule, so I'm not making reservations or plans anywhere, and have 5 days off work just in case it takes longer.

I'll be driving my car (a 2005 Prius), which will be loaded with stuff that I'm taking up there. The car is equipped with GPS, and I have a laptop with EvDO card for internet access at rest stops. I'm planning on getting the oil changed and the car checked out before I leave. As far as snowy conditions I have all-seasons on the car now with deep treads, and the car has VSC, traction control, and antilock brakes. I'm not sure if I'll need studded tires on the trip but may buy them once I get to Spokane anyway if not.

I'll be loading up a lot of podcasts before I leave to keep myself entertained along the trip. I'm also planning on bringing snacks along that I can eat along the way to minimize stops.

As an additional wrinkle, I'll be about 3 days into an effort to quit smoking.

Mainly I'm looking for any advice you have that will help make this easy and not leave me in a bad way. Is the schedule I'm planning totally insane? Are there current conditions on the route that may affect my trip? Got a way to find cheap places to stay along the way? Is quitting smoking going to affect my ability to make this trip physically or mentally? Should I invest in studded tires before the trip is over?

Thanks for any help you can provide.
posted by tkolstee to Travel & Transportation (28 answers total)
Sounds like you really want to burn through this trip. Why? You've got five days. If you see something on the side of the road that you'd like to stop and look at, stop and look at it. Who knows when you'll make it to Wyoming again.

Oh. I drove through South Dakota and Wyoming and Montana in March of last year, and on a few occasions the roads were closed due to snow and ice. Check your routes in advance when you get to the snowy states.
posted by bluishorange at 11:19 AM on January 25, 2008

I've done similar trips a couple of times. My advice is to grab some music, if you like that sort of thing. If you get new music, it kind of imprints the journey, and can help energize you if you find a brand new song you really like, because music always sounds better in the car.

But I didn't do it so close to the solstice, so you're going to have a lot more dark-time than I did. Keep your cell phone charged and watch the road signs in metropolitan areas. I always hated driving through those because you have to make 14 lane changes just to keep going straight.

Other than that, be ready for random, unknowable-in-advance construction. Nothing kills the spirit more than planning out where you're going to be at precise moments, and then hitting a snag. Accidents too. So don't try to overmaximize it and wait until your gas light comes on, because you might just hit traffic/construction/an accident.

I think another thing you might not necessarily have paid attention to before, but you might want to at this time of year, is wind. I don't know how you could be ready for it other than expecting to see your gas mileage drop when you're headed due east (or north east) at night, with not much ground cover to act as a buffer.

You should already know this one, but don't fuck with trucks. Big rigs will cut you off at the darndest times and they'll drive for miles without letting you by. Maybe it's just urban legend, but when I took my trips, I was always wary of pissing them off and them calling ahead to someone who would run me off the road or call the local police to pull me over for no reason.

I remember how stiff I got sitting in one place for days on end. Maybe when you get to each stop for gas/food/lodging, do a cartwheel.
posted by cashman at 11:26 AM on January 25, 2008

West/Northwest, not east.
posted by cashman at 11:27 AM on January 25, 2008

I'm not sure if I'll need studded tires on the trip but may buy them once I get to Spokane anyway if not.

I'd say no to the studded tires, but yes to chains, a small shovel, a first aid kit, blankets, etc.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:30 AM on January 25, 2008

Uh, just for clarification, bluishorange, WA is Washington, not Wyoming.
posted by grumpy at 11:31 AM on January 25, 2008

My main advice? A box of nicotine patches.

The last thing you need while driving hour after hour is to be edgy and jonesin' for a smoke.
posted by grumpy at 11:32 AM on January 25, 2008

Oh, christ, it's gonna be hard not to smoke. Good luck on that.

As for the driving, get some books on tape. After a while ("a while"= different things for different people) even the loudest sing-along music is gonna make you drop.

I've personally driven from St. Louis to the Four Corners area, then to the North Rim, then to northern Montana, in a three day leg of a holy-shit-I'm-never-getting-another-vacation-day-need-to-see-this-and-this-and-this road trip. Might be pretty, I don't know - I was too fried to notice half the time.

Take your time, as much as possible. As for caffeine, crystal lite makes these "energy" powder pouches (if-Dow-made-strawberries flavor) you can get at Target, that I like to dilute to one packet in one nalgene quart. Enough caffeine to keep you up, enough water to make frequent pitstops that will keep you from losing. your. freakin'. MIND, maaan.

The instant you feel your eyes droop, pull over IMMEDIATELY, set your cellphone alarm for fifteen or fewer minutes, and zonk out.
posted by notsnot at 11:52 AM on January 25, 2008

Three days is optimistic for that drive in the summer; in the winter, allow extra time for bad weather -- even if the roads are not shut, snow will slow your average speed by a surprising amount, and driving in the dark and in bad weather is much more fatiguing.

Like any drive in the winter, make sure you have a blanket or sleeping bag in the car, some food and water, warm clothes, an ice-scraper for the windows, and it is best to carry chains and a shovel. (You probably can't buy chains in Florida, but you can buy them at any Walmart or equivalent once you are a bit north.)

My experience has been that the windshield wiper fluid that they put in in warm places (like Florida) freezes at not-very-low temperatures. You can buy (again, once you a bit north) better fluid and deicer at any auto parts store; in a real emergency you can add a couple of bottles of the methyl (not isopropyl) alcohol Heet (sold for deicing gas tanks) to try and thaw your wiper fluid. Better to put some good stuff in before hand, but I'm not sure what you will be able to find where you are.
posted by Forktine at 11:57 AM on January 25, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks so far for the advice. Please keep it coming! I keep previewing this comment and adding to it as I see more answers rolling in:

bluishorange: Ordinarily I'd agree with you about stopping to check things out, but I'll be making the trip again in June, when the weather's better and my fiancee (by then wife) will be with me. I'd really rather not shell out for an extra night in a motel because I took too much time sightseeing. This time is the one when I just want to get through the trip as quickly as possible. As far as checking the road conditions goes, is there a website or some other means to do so? I'll have my internet access as I mentioned, and an internet-enabled cell phone for more on-the-go access.

cashman: I know what you mean. I'm trying to plan on the fly to NOT hit major cities at rush hour. Nice thing is if I hit a traffic jam or construction, my engine shuts down and doesn't use any gas at all until we hit decent speeds again. The wind I hadn't thought about, nor the number of dark hours in the day - definitely points to consider. I've found that if you're nice and courteous to big rigs (i.e. signaling them when they're clear in front of you for a lane change), they will go out of their way to be nice to you in return. Hmm... Wondering if I should buy a CB. I used to talk on them.

Cool Papa Bell: I will definitely consider packing a small shovel. Already thought of the first aid kit and blankets but didn't think about the shovel. Guess I've been in Orlando too long. Anyone have any idea where I might be able to get chains in a climate where they're not typically needed, or should I pick them up along the way?

grumpy: I'll be on the patch when I go. And a couple days before. I've heard, though, that quitting can cause mental fogginess and wasn't sure if it would add to fatigue.

notsnot: Are those different from the premeasured crystal light packets that you can add to a bottle of water I normally see in the stores? A special energy brand? I don't think the ones I'm thinking of had caffeine at all. Also, are you suggesting a caffeine nap? Any experience on whether or not those work well?

Forktine: good idea, I'll see what I can find locally for wiper fluid. Probably will check on antifreeze too just in case.

Last time I made this trip in '96, I had to deal with a broken-down truck, two U-Hauls in a row that were on their last legs, a VERY close call with a tornado, and trying to find a place to stay in Rapid City while the big rally in Sturgis was going on. I'm hoping that going at a different time of year, and having a newer car in good repair, will help me avoid any repeats of that experience.
posted by tkolstee at 12:00 PM on January 25, 2008

Response by poster: One more thing: Anyone have any websites/phone numbers that will help me locate Wal-Marts, motels with vacancies, road conditions, etc. along the way? My GPS database is a little out of date and it's so hard to find a good personal concierge these days.

How good is the iPhone's traffic indicator at helping me?
posted by tkolstee at 12:02 PM on January 25, 2008

The packets of which I speak are in the same area as the rest, but they're the only ones that specifically have caffeine. And as far as naps go, I'm not specifically saying to slam a cuppa then nap - just get the hell off the highway at the first sign of sleepies, that way being safer, *and* getting your naps at exactly the right time.
posted by notsnot at 12:20 PM on January 25, 2008

I just drove from Portland to Denver last week and it ended up taking me 3 days due to I-80 being closed as well as super scary blowing snowstorms, icy roads, and slow slow trucks over mountain passes pretty much the whole way. I was also driving alone and found that after 12 hours of concentrating on not skidding to my doom, I was exhausted. I hate books on tape but a wide selection of music is good plus I like scanning through the local radio stations, just to see what's going on in a given area. Most states have an interactive DOT map online, check it often for weather conditions. I have driven across country many times and have always found the truckers to be super friendly and helpful. They tend to know the highways really well and can give good advice (example, I'm in Wyoming trying to decide if I can make it to Denver that night, I was told that once the wind picks up I-80 gets shut down at Rawlins and I should plan on getting a room. This was true and since I called ahead I got to stay at a "nice" place). Take lots of water, having to pull over and pee is a good way to keep yourself alert, especially in some of the cold ass states. AS for the smoking, when I quit I used tangerines. I was helpful for me to have to peel something, so maybe that may help. Oh and Little America is one of the saddest places I've even been, so depending on your perspective you may want to heck it out or avoid it at all costs.
posted by yodelingisfun at 12:22 PM on January 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

iPhone traffic is as good as (that is where it queries the data), which I think you will be using a lot to locate the walmarts, and motels. has travel advisories.

The drive in February is a pain, but possible. I did CT -> WA two years ago on Feb 7th. I went to Seattle, not Spokane, but I would suggest minimizing your time on i-90 as it is a baren stretch of land for a large portion of it.

Maybe St Louis -> denver -> salt lake, kennewick, spokane?

I suggest a big ole bag of cat litter to help with ice traction, a sleeping bag, and some candles, in case you get stranded. Make sure you have road flares, and atleast a box of power bars or something. You can get stuck in a drift in the middle of nowhere, where cell phone towers are far and few between, and need to be able to flag down a passing car.
posted by mrzarquon at 12:23 PM on January 25, 2008

Also a trick for naps i learned from tour bus driver- Don't sleep in the drivers seat. The last thing you want is your body to associate your drivers seat as a comfortable place to doze off. Move crap off of the passenger seat and sleep there. That also means when you want to get up and go, you will have to get up and out of the car, walk around it, and get back in, which will help the rest of your body wake up before you start the car.
posted by mrzarquon at 12:26 PM on January 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

Uh, just for clarification, bluishorange, WA is Washington, not Wyoming.

I know that, grumpy. But between Rapid City SD and Spokane WA, you can drive through WY, like this.
posted by bluishorange at 12:26 PM on January 25, 2008

Response by poster: yodelingisfun: Little America? What is that? A tourist trap?
posted by tkolstee at 12:26 PM on January 25, 2008

Little America is a truck stop in Wyoming that advertises itself for hundreds of miles. Totally gets you psyched up for $.25 ice cream cone and then turns out to be a pit of despair. It has it's own highway exit though so that makes me laugh. Of course, I'm extraordinarily easily amused.
posted by yodelingisfun at 12:30 PM on January 25, 2008

Is the schedule I'm planning totally insane?

Yes. Driving 16 hours a day for three consecutive days is nuts. And I say that as a person who likes long, solo road trips.

I drove from Indianapolis to Los Angeles solo in 2006. Did it in four days, which was broken up into about 6 hours on the first day, and around 8-10 hours each of the second through fourth days, and a similar schedule on the way back. That gave me a little time for stops--no half-day long stops, certainly, but I could pause for fifteen minutes here, an hour there. Even that was taking its toll on me by the end of the trip.

It's really the consecutive long driving days that get to you. One 12-hour day wouldn't be a problem for me. Two or more in a row tend to build up on each other in terms of fatigue, in my experience. I could maybe see myself doing 16 hours in one day, in rare circumstances, although I'd much rather split it up into two 8-hour days, but no way I'd try 16 hours two or more days in a row.

Keep in mind that truck drivers are limited to 11 hours a day, to prevent fatigue, and they're professionals.

I'd plan from the start on taking the whole five days--that sounds reasonable.

As far as other advice, I've found that audiobooks are sometimes preferable to music for passing the time. I don't know what kind of podcasts you have, but I'd try to get a mix of spoken and music, even if you normally listen to only one or the other.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 12:46 PM on January 25, 2008

I hesitate to say this, because I know there are people much better than I am at long-distance driving, but this strikes me as being in you-must-be-on-crack territory. The closest experience I've had was 10 days from OH to CA (taking it easy, on an old motorcycle and avoiding freeways, so not equivalent), but I can't imagine doing three straight 16-hour days and living through it. Google, BTW, tells me that you're looking at almost 14 hours of driving time per day if everything goes perfectly, and you know it won't. Add two or three stops for gas each day, plus finding and eating meals, getting into and out of hotels, etc. and it adds up to no-frickity-frackin'-way.
posted by jon1270 at 1:06 PM on January 25, 2008

Earlier this year I did St. Louis to Fayetteville, NC with 2 kids in my car. It took me about 16 hours in one day. I was pretty sure I was gonna die. Now, I like long road trips, but 16 is pushing it. The return trip at 14 hours after about 4 hours of sleep return trip by myself led to a panic attack on a bridge. All I'm saying is be careful, and try to limit yourself to 11 or 12 hours of driving, if you must. 8 is preferable and way more enjoyable.
posted by khaibit at 1:15 PM on January 25, 2008

Turns out I'm still pretty tired. Ignore one of the references to return trip.
posted by khaibit at 1:16 PM on January 25, 2008

My husband and I drove between Fl and OR twice.

The most we were able to do was 12 hours a day. It took us between 4 and 5 days each time. By that mark, we were exhausted and simply unfit to be driving. During our drive down, which we did in November 2004, we encountered some bad weather for a lot of our trip and that always comes with its own challenges. We did better on oour drive back up.

I suggest getting on the road early in the day - like 6:30 or so, so that you can be done by early evening. Driving into late night and having to get up again in the morning is really, really brutal. Don't do that to yourself.

I also do not suggest being just 3 days into quitting smoking. A trip like this requires a lot of you, and dealing with withdrawals is just going ot make it worse. Even as just a passenger you will be wrecked by the end of each day. Put it off until you are done with the trip.

I have to admit that we didn't do a whole lot of pre-planning on where to stay, because even though we knew more or less in which city we'd be by the end of the day, it's just hard to know where you will be when you are ready to stop. We looked for Exit signs that had a cluster of hotels and we'd run in really quick and ask for their rates. Whatever was cheapest and safest-looking won.
posted by DrGirlfriend at 1:21 PM on January 25, 2008

Anyone have any idea where I might be able to get chains in a climate where they're not typically needed, or should I pick them up along the way?

Any good auto-parts store should have them, regardless of climate. I'm sure you'd be able to find them in the mid-Western states.

One more thing: Anyone have any websites/phone numbers that will help me locate Wal-Marts, motels with vacancies, road conditions, etc. along the way?

This would all be included with an Auto Club membership.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:28 PM on January 25, 2008

I used to love these types of trips and sometimes boasted that I could drive 15 hours without getting tired.

Alas, to be young...

As I got older, I found my stamina for it waned considerably. Could I do it today? Well, I don't think so. Road hypnosis takes over. Roads start to look the same. You don't feel like listening to the books on tapes you picked up. And just when you want to see what's on the radio, you're always in Dead Radio Land (unless you like listening to Limbaugh, Hannity, the 3,000,000,000th replay of Stairway to Heaven, then you're all set anywhere, I think).

But, ultimately, I would just get tired. My wife and I drove from Boston to Houston a couple of times and by the last trip I resolved to get over my fear of flying. I hated it. This is about ... oh ... 10 years after driving from New Orleans to Buffalo in the winter and loving the 15 hours days.

Lastly, it doesn't do you much good to push yourself. If you doze off for three seconds, that could be your last three seconds. Just a thought, morbid though it be.

posted by tcv at 2:08 PM on January 25, 2008

No one has mentioned this yet, but deer is going to be a problem. And there are A LOT of deer in the territory you will be driving through. I know there are this things you put on the underside of the front of your car which is supposed to make some whistling sound that's only audible to deer to help scare them away if you're coming down the road, but I don't know how well those really work. You might want to research that a little bit. When I was on a cross country road trip (coast to coast), I got into a really bad accident with a deer...flipped and totaled the car and everything. I wasn't driving. Another piece of advice, never, ever, ever swerve to miss hitting a deer. Your chances are better if you stay in a straight line and hit it and hope it goes over the hood. Yeah some people will say that the deer can go through the window blah blah blah...but I'd rather hit a deer than hit a tree, or flip the car (which can land you on the other side of the median and into oncoming traffic). The tow truck driver that came to get our car that night said that the people who get injured the most are the people that swerve to miss hitting the deer. And he towed multiple cars a day from deer accidents.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 3:34 PM on January 25, 2008

Crap, I just noticed two glaring grammatical errors in my sorry.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 3:40 PM on January 25, 2008

We have driven to Rapid City from St. Louis several times. However, we usually did it in two legs - St. Louis to Omaha and then Omaha to Rapid City. Omaha to Rapid City is somewhat mind-numbing and desolate. I would be really, really careful as it's going to be tough to stay focused and very easy to doze off at this point. You will run into bad weather and icy roads, most likely. It has been a hard winter for the midwest. I now live in Omaha and I haven't seen my lawn in its entirety since for two months now.

As you drive through South Dakota, don't let your gas tank get too low. Gas stations and exits are few and far between. I would recommend stopping in Mitchell, S.D. and then again in Wall, S.D. for fill-ups on the way. If Wall Drug is open in Wall it is a good place to stretch your legs.

Little America is ... interesting. You can pick up a real stuffed jackalope in their souvineer shop.
posted by Ostara at 5:52 PM on January 25, 2008

Driving 16 hours per day is too much in the wintertime, or anytime really. I did Philly to Portland in October over a stretch of 5-6 days and drove for 13 hours each day, alone. More than enough, and the weather conditions were pretty decent then. My body felt like hell by the time I got to Portland, after being crammed in a pickup that many hours per day.

You will encounter bad weather for sure. I drove from Boise to Pocatello and back in the past couple days; won't be doing that again anytime soon. On the way there, I drove through a horrendous snowstorm and the car slipped on the road because I got too confident and I'm not used to driving in snow (I'm here on a business trip). Portions of I 84 got shut down soon after due to a multi-car accident; I myself saw a car upside down and a tractor trailer in the median. Later on in the trip I got blinded by snow blowing across the highway. I encountered high winds throughout. On the way back this evening I drove through 40 miles of fairly heavy fog. Both situations added a considerable amount of time to my trip, as well as stress, anxiety, and fatigue.

So, perhaps a bad time to quit smoking. I actually keep a pack of cigarettes just for long trips. It's really the only time I smoke, just to punctuate the boredom, mainly.

If you're really bent on driving so many hours per day, please take frequent breaks.
posted by medeine at 8:52 PM on January 25, 2008

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