First roadtrip ever
May 11, 2008 8:31 AM   Subscribe

In two months I'll be going to a conference in Denver, CO. I want to drive there. I am a new driver (at age 30, and have owned my car for six weeks). Really, I've been on a ton of long roadtrips before -- but never driving, and never by myself. Can I make the 18-hour trip?? Any tips?

Google Maps says the total drive time is 18 hours, so I've planned on the drive taking 2 (or 3) days. I'll probably stay in hotels rather than camp. The previous AskMe threads about long-distance driving have been VERY helpful. So far my longest drive-time has been 1.5 hours, so I will need to practice -- if I learn to drive 6 hours at a time, will 9 feel about the same? Are there any scary stretches of road on I-80 W//I-76 between Michigan and Colorado? What else should I know to become an experienced driver who just happens to be new to all of this?
posted by oldtimey to Travel & Transportation around Denver, CO (28 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I've made that trip in your position (non-driver on a long roadtrip) and Mrs. True has done it as a driver (she says "stick to the highways"). Some of the roads can be pretty deserted with lots of animals crossing, so I offer these two bits of advice: 1) gas up your car well before you would in a more populated area. Especially at night open filling stations can be further apart than you're used to. 2) If you're about to hit a small animal, don't swerve. Just hit it. I know that sounds awful, but you can very easily lose control trying to swerve out of the way.
posted by true at 8:44 AM on May 11, 2008 [2 favorites]

The best thing you can do is be very aware of your own physical condition. Try to stop for a break every two or three hours. Pull over earlier if you feel tired, and depending on the roads be on the lookout for "road hypnosis". Especially at night, long, straight roads can zonk you out pretty easily. Again, if you feel yourself wanting to close your eyes, getting distracted, or anything like that, pull over, run a couple laps around the car and generally try to wake yourself up.

It helps me on long trips to talk to people. Maybe invest in a hands-free device for your cell phone and call up a friend every now and then. It serves two purposes - it can keep you focused and in the event of an emergency someone will know where you generally are if you start the call with, "Hey, I just passed exit 31..."
posted by backseatpilot at 8:54 AM on May 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

The second half of that drive is going to be exceptionally dull... once you've passed Omaha, there's very little of consequence before you reach Denver. I'd suggest being well rested before making that last push. I'd also avoid driving it much after dark.

Since you're making the drive in July, however, you won't have to worry about getting stuck in a blizzard (which is the primary hazard on that stretch of road). You may encounter a big, isolated thunderstorm, however.

The above advice about filling up often is good, too. There are a lot of little towns along the interstate in Nebraska, but once you hit Colorado, it's slim pickings.
posted by jal0021 at 8:56 AM on May 11, 2008

In the winter, stretches of that road can get icy and snow-covered and so on, but in July I would not expect to hit many blizzards. So no, that route is not scary. There are rest areas and services the entire way, at fairly frequent intervals. You can book hotels ahead, or just plan on stopping when you get tired, your choice. (If you do the second, every so often you will try and stop in a town where all the hotels are full, because of some convention or something. Driving another 1/2 hour down the road will invariably find you a hotel room; the only exception is something like Sturgis which can clog hotels for a long way in each direction. I don't know of anything on your route in July, but keep an eye out for things like that.)

Nine hours is a lot more tiring than six hours, but both are totally doable. Highway driving is really easy: almost no navigation, no cross-traffic, services clearly marked. Make sure to stop frequently, and take naps when you are tired. I prefer to get started painfully early in the morning, and then be off the road before dinner (because after dinner the drivers get in a hurry, and sometimes they've had a few beers) so I can be relaxing in a hotel room watching bad TV or reading a novel while everyone else is trying to make up for the time they lost getting started at 10am. (And getting off the road before dusk means you miss the evening deer migration.) But whatever works for you -- there isn't one right answer to this.

If you haven't been to your destination before, try and schedule things so you arrive in the daylight. Navigating your way across a new city in the dark when you are tired and hungry and need to pee is no fun at all. Better to do two 8 hour days, plus a really short 2 hour day on the last day, then to show up at 10 at night worrying if your hotel room has been given away.

And get AAA or equivalent membership. The roadside assistance gives a lot of peace of mind, and the hotel discounts will pay for the membership with a few trips like this.
posted by Forktine at 9:04 AM on May 11, 2008

This is a question that I asked earlier. You might find some good advise there.

- Get a GPS. You really don't want to mess with Maps when driving by yourself.
- Take a AAA Rad Atlas as backup. You never know when the GPS will fail.
- Don't let the Gas tank be less then 50% full.
- Take some good music or podcasts with you.
- Have a toolkit and a jumper start cable.
- Do a oil change and check tire air pressure.
- Check the spare wheel.
- This is more of a personal preference. But I took a small pillow (kind that you have on your couch) to support my back.
posted by WizKid at 9:08 AM on May 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

Load up on good music. Take plenty of breaks. Get out and take pictures. I enjoy long drives alone. It can be a lot of fun.

But, do not assume that you will be able to just pull over an get a room. Reserve your rooms well ahead of time. If you are sure of your traveling schedule, now is not too soon to reserve. You may think it's easy to get a room in a sparsely populated area of the country, but during summer travel times, hotels are routinely full. Small towns you have never heard of will often have conferences, conventions, and all manner of events that fill up the hotels, in addition to the travelers. Nothing is worse than wanting to sleep and not finding a room. Yes, some people can sleep in the car at a rest stop, but I have never been able to.

Also, take plenty of snacks and drinks. It breaks the monotony and, as a local state trooper once told me, "I've never fallen asleep while eating."

Have fun!
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 9:08 AM on May 11, 2008

Get lots of varied stuff to listen to. If you're by yourself I favor podcasts, books on tape, askMefi on tape, whatever.

Also, driving at night is hard on my eyes. I'd do all the driving during daylight (or get started an hour or 2 before daylight if that's how you roll).

Spend the money to get your car maintained before you go.
posted by powpow at 9:09 AM on May 11, 2008

Driving on a long trip, in my opinion, isn't really a skill you need to practice. The primary danger, in fact, as you drone along the interstate is probably the boredom making you sleepy or inattentive.

My recommendations would be:

Have some good in-car entertainment. The advent of the portable music play, like an iPod with a big hard drive, is a boon for this. I find that listening to audiobooks and podcasts makes the time zoom past. If you're a classicist, you'll find tons of old-time radio dramas available on the internet. Satellite radio is fantastic as well.

Drink plenty of water. Dehydration is subtle but it can easily happen as you sit for hours in a dry, air-conditioned car.

Have enough time so that you can stop regularly and take a break without worrying too much about it. Part of the fun of a road-trip is being able to relax and you can't do that if you're under a lot of time pressure to get someplace.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 9:11 AM on May 11, 2008

Driving alone? Make it a two day trip. Come up with a destination in the middle where you can relax and not drive for a while.

I drive all the time for work (3500 miles last month!), and I still can barely do a 12 hour solo road trip without going nuts.

Things that help me:

- Go easy on the coffee/soda. A caffeine crash is no fun, doubly so behind the wheel.
- Drink water.
- Stop often to stretch your legs and empty the bladder. Do not get caught up in the desire to "make good time". If you start feeling figety, stop at the next stop and wander around for 5 minutes.
- Eat lightly, and choose non-tiring foods. Nothing like carbo-loading and then having to sit still and concentrate.
- I find that a lot of driving causes me to tire easily, but in a very specific way. My visual processing circuits go haywire. To solve this, I take a couple of power-naps at rest stops. Turn on some nice music, recline the seat and close your eyes. When I do this, the first few minutes of daydreaming turns into a daydream about driving. Once this settles and I get a few minutes of rest, I feel like everything resets itself and I'm good for a few more hours.
- Check the travel sites for construction issues and fuel availability. I haven't made that trip, but sometimes the gas stops out in the hinterland are spread out enough that you may need to top-off somewhere to be able to make it to the next one.
- Also check out the maps and make note of any alternate routes that you might have to use in event of an emergency road closure.
- Get a AAA membership. I recently had to use mine, and the savings I realized on the tow-truck charge more than paid for multiple years of membership.
- Make sure your car is in good shape, and keep whatever supplies you could possibly use along the way in the trunk. This can be as simple as bottles of oil, trans fluid and coolant, and as crazy as fanbelts and alternators for roadside repairs.
-- Really, really make sure your tire changing kit is complete and functional (tire iron, jack, wheel lock keys if you need them). And that your spare tire is properly inflated.
posted by gjc at 9:17 AM on May 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

I find podcasts and audio books to help me stay awake better than just music alone. I think cause I have to concentrate more on what is being said.

Other than that, everyone else have already posted good suggestions.
posted by at 9:20 AM on May 11, 2008

Many of the rest areas along I-80 have small picnic areas. Don't worry about losing driving time, try to spend some time outside at each rest stop you stop at- run around in the grass, eat a meal at the picnic tables, talk to other drivers (assuming it's midday and there are non-sketchy people around)- just doing *something* for an hour outside of your car will help keep you awake and alert when you're driving.
Also, nthing the music suggestion. My personal preference is the crappiest music I can find on the radio that I can sing along to (think top 40 hits from 10 years ago)- it's one of the perks of driving alone: there's no one to mock you when you sing along to New Kids on The Block or J.Lo at the top of your lungs, and it's a damn good way to stay awake and amused. Be forewarned, though, if you listen to this music while driving, it will be stuck in your head for weeks to come.
The rest stops also tend to have coffee machines. The coffee is horrible. Do your best to stop for caffiene at gas stations or when you're passing through towns to avoid ever having to drink coffee out of a truck stop vending machine. I'm a fan of Red Bull for long trips, but I can't say that I'd ever recommend something so vile to others.
Good luck!
posted by cheerwine at 9:23 AM on May 11, 2008

I drove from North Carolina to Denver in 2 days about 12 years ago. I averaged about 15 hours a day, got one speeding ticket in Kansas City (hint: "This state is so boring" is not a valid excuse.) and had excruciating leg cramps for the last few hours of the trip. I didn't have air conditioning, so my window was open the whole time, and I was noticeably darker on my left side for a few weeks. And crossing the Colorado state line is very anticlimactic - the landscape is monotonous, and you still have a long way to go to get to Denver.

I also never took a long solo trip again. I think I broke my will to drive.

I find conferences to be exhausting in themselves, so I would budget three days for the trip. And bring your own drinks and snacks. Driving on a grease-bloated stomach is not fun.
posted by bibliowench at 9:30 AM on May 11, 2008

I've driven from New Hampshire straight in to St. Louis with no radio, and from the Grand Canyon straight to the Canadian border. The biggest thing, as mentioned above, is boredom. Comedy albums and audiobooks are better for the lulls to keep you awake. You want to be caffeinated not to the point that you can feel your fingernails growing, but enough that you're a bit wide-eyed. Keep enough water in your system (and salty snacks) so that you have to pee every hour or so (easier if you're a guy) and pull off, pee, and do ten pushups and ten jumping jacks.

If your eyes start closing despite all this, do not hesitate, do not wait for the next exit, get off the damn road and catch ten. Set your cell phone alarm for ten minutes, crank the ringer, lock the car doors, and kick the seat back. One position I find tolerable is to put a pillow under your head, tuck your left foot under your right knee, and lay on your left side (or vice versa). Keeps your hips aligned. Soon as that alarm goes off, let it scare you, toss the pillow in back and head on down the road.
posted by notsnot at 10:03 AM on May 11, 2008

Take 3 days if you can but 9 hours a day is definitely doable.
You can often check cds out of the library, both music and books, so you can bring a bunch, definitely bring some music you know you like though. Do you have a cell phone? A cell phone with service that covers the states you are going through would be helpful. I always program the phone numbers of the hotels I'll be staying in and anyplace that looks interesting that I may want to stop at, that way I can call for directions if I need them. Sometimes it's hard to get to a hotel even when you can see it from the highway. Program AAA in there too. They have different numbers for in state and out of state and put your membership # in there too, though you can call them without it if you need to.
Stop and stretch your legs every few hours and that would be a good time to do some of those stretches you know you should be doing anyway. You'll figure out pretty quickly how often you need to stop.
I love driving long distances by myself. I can sing along with my music and stop where and when I want to. Truck stops have great gift shops. I find things in truck stops I never see anywhere else.
Go check out Roadside America and see if there's anything interesting along the way to watch out for. There are odd little things that could be fun and would give you an excuse to stop. Stick with things close to your main route though, you don't want to go wandering off and get lost.
Have fun!
posted by BoscosMom at 10:11 AM on May 11, 2008

When you're a new driver, it takes a lot more mental energy to drive, so you will get tired faster than experienced drivers. That said, 9 hours each day is a reasonable goal, but budget some time for roadside naps. Whatever you do, don't push yourself to keep driving if you're having trouble keeping your eyes open. Also, start early in the morning; it's much easier to stay alert during daylight hours. Coffee + audio books will help.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 10:15 AM on May 11, 2008

nthing frequent breaks! This is my hardcore driving secret. I try to stop every 1-2 hours, no matter what, even if it's by the side of the road. This always seems like a waste of time, especially early in the drive, but I think of it as charging batteries.

I do some leg stretches at every stop. I also carry a lot of water and snacks, and eat a little at every stop. I find that this keeps my body awake, making it easier to be happy and stay alert.

Long drives are hard but very doable!
posted by mindsound at 10:26 AM on May 11, 2008

I don't think you really need to practice driving for long periods of time, as long as you don't have any issues with sitting for hours at a time. Take breaks often.

Bring water as well as whatever else you like to drink (non-alcoholic), and some things to eat so you aren't stuck with a 3 hour drive before you get to a resturant that turns out to only serve greasy fried things and salads made with old lettuce. Some people like to break up the drive with sitting down in a resturant for meals but I find that is too much sitting for me, I prefer to eat outside when I can. You can pack complete meals or stop at a grocery store and get something from the deli.

Bring extra water in case your car needs it, oil, antifreeze, jumper cables, and all the tools needed to change a tire -- even if you don't yourself know how to use these things. Make sure the spare (and your other tires!) has the right amount of air in it. Since you've probably never been stuck by yourself on the side of the highway, I suggest a AAA membershiip. If this is a used car, and you didn't have it looked over throughly before you bought it, have that done now. Get the oil changed if it needs it. Learn how to refil the wiper fluid, check the oil, add new oil, check your tire pressure, and turn on the emergency blinkers. Check the tire pressure and oil levels each time you buy gas. Bring some windex and paper towels to clean the windshield well, having bug splats all over it is more tireing than you realize.

If you can do this as a 3 day trip, do that, and plan some interesting places to stop. Bring some music, and if you are into books on tape this is a great time to listen to them. As to the cellphone, there isn't much traffic to worry about in the middle of nowhere, but when you are driving and talking you need to be able to ignore the person on the phone immediatly if something comes up. If you can't do this, don't talk on the phone and drive. If you get too into talking on the phone and forget you are driving, don't talk on the phone and drive. A GPS might be nice, but don't try to figure out how it works and drive at the same time.
posted by yohko at 11:02 AM on May 11, 2008

Nth-ing the frequent breaks, getting podcasts or books on CD, etc. I've done 12 hour roadtrips by myself and that was tough, but 9 hours wouldn't be bad. For an inexperienced driver, I would suggest trying to get used to driving around a lot of 18-wheelers, as there is a lot of truck traffic along I-80. Getting on I-80 in Nebraska for the first time when I was a teenager, I got boxed in by 3 trucks and started to panic a bit. There are some good tips here
posted by weathergal at 11:31 AM on May 11, 2008

I've done a lot of long drives and generally really enjoy them.

I find that coke works better for me on the road than coffee (normally I love coffee and never drink soda). Even better, sometimes, is grapefruit juice, and definitely water. Did you ever have an evening class where you could barely keep your eyes open? That's how I discovered grapefruit juice. Think what worked for that.

I find that usually the first hour is the worst (checking the time every five minutes), but then I get into a groove and barely notice.

Roll the window down and turn the music up, it helps keep you awake but it's also more fun.

If you have cruise control it'll probably be easier on you to set it so generally people are passing you, but you don't have to constantly worry about passing (this eases up some of the brain demands that are more arduous on a new driver). Otherwise find a car that's going at a speed that's good for you and just keep up with it.

For me driving in the sun can sometimes be more tiring than at night, cloudy is perfect. Sunglasses are probably a good idea. At night, maybe you know this, but I didn't figure it out for ages, you can tilt your rear view mirror so it won't bounce all the headlights from behind you straight into your eyes.

Have fun!
posted by Salamandrous at 11:44 AM on May 11, 2008

The first hour is always the worst for me, too. There's nothing wrong with pulling over and resting your eyes for five minutes if you need to - or, ideally, before you need to. You'll probably realize better mileage with your windows shut, but where's the fun in that? Might want to carry an extra tank of gas in your trunk in case of emergencies - I guess there are state laws to check out with regards to that, though. If you're planning on being in the middle of nowhere, have ample fuel (for both you and the car) before you get there. Don't attempt to peel an orange while you drive.
posted by thejoshu at 12:03 PM on May 11, 2008

Oh, also, I'm going to disagree with using cruise control. The moment you lose the connection between your actions as a driver and the car's hurtling forward is the moment your risk of injury or fatigue greatly increases, on a long trip.
posted by thejoshu at 12:04 PM on May 11, 2008

One more bit of advice -- schedule things so you don't end up driving straight into the setting or rising (you are driving back, yes?) sun.
posted by yohko at 12:28 PM on May 11, 2008

It's good to have some sort of roadside assistance policy, but please keep two things in mind. First, many (most?) new cars come with one so you might have one and not even know it.

Second, the American Automobile Association (AAA) has done a lot of work against environmental causes and other policies about which you might have an opinion. The Better World Club, an alternative organization, has information along these lines at their website.

I, for one, am disinclined to give AAA any of my money.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 1:26 PM on May 11, 2008

Response by poster: Some comments: what's funny about being a new driver is that it's still challenging for me to pick up a water bottle while driving at the same time. I do have a cellphone, but won't be coordinated enough to use it while driving (probably even with a hands-free unit). Music is a definite yes and will be supplied by one or two ipods. My own food and water is also a high priority and I love to plan road-trip-food menus. I'll likely be anxious about getting there but not anxious enough to be hellbent on "making good time."

My car is brand-new so it shouldn't have mechanical difficulties, but, based on my first month's experience, I haven't developed any kind of sense of "Oh, I've driven 200 miles//the car's under 1/2 tank, so I should stop at a gas station" yet. I will probably have to put a note on the dashboard saying LOOK AT GAS GAUGE. How embarrassing. Likewise, I haven't learned how to use the cruise control yet (figuring I should practice maintaining a constant speed without it). Otherwise I've read the car manuals several times and am slowly learning about everything else.

All the pacing and alertness and body-stretching tips are super-helpful, as are the practical tips like bringing windex, smallish pillow for the back, etc. I will for sure practice driving in truck traffic.

Right now, and since it's my first long driving trip, my imagination fills in that the route is all busy ten-lane highways and Nebraska is a big blank rectangle with red lines through it and eastern Colorado is one gigantic mountain and any exit I take will be one of those ones where you can't get back to the highway. I am quite grateful for all the evidence to the contrary.
posted by oldtimey at 1:15 AM on May 12, 2008

Right now, and since it's my first long driving trip, my imagination fills in that the route is all busy ten-lane highways and Nebraska is a big blank rectangle with red lines through it and eastern Colorado is one gigantic mountain and any exit I take will be one of those ones where you can't get back to the highway.

Nope. After Omaha the drive is super easy -- straight, flat highways, usually two lanes in each direction but some stretches will have three. Lots of truck traffic, but they are professional drivers and will be maintaining constant speeds and are a lot easier to drive around than the cars that do the random speed up/slow down routine. Nebraska has services at convenient intervals, good rest areas, and the services are well sign-posted. Eastern CO is flat, but then you start uphill towards Denver -- don't spend too much time staring at mountain views at the expense of keeping an eye on the road. Exits with no return to the highway are always labeled as such (except in cities, which almost always have terrible signage) -- if the sign says "ranch exit" or similar, it is an ultra-local exit onto a farm and may or may not have a connection to the other side of the highway; those are good for peeing in the bushes and stretching your legs, but won't have any services at all.

My rule of thumb is that when the gas gauge hits 1/2, I start looking for gas; that way I'm never driving on fumes hoping to make the next exit. If you know approximately what your mpg is and how big your tank is, you can do the math to know how far that 1/2 tank is in miles. I always reset the trip odometer when I fill the tank, so that I will know if there is a sudden change in mpg (which might indicate something benign like a headwind, or something serious like an engine problem).

I've driven cross-country with and without cruise control, and I sure prefer it with. Without, my calf starts cramping after a few hours. But definitely turn it off when you hit heavy traffic, bad weather, or anything else that isn't straight, flat, mostly-empty highway.
posted by Forktine at 5:49 AM on May 12, 2008

if I learn to drive 6 hours at a time, will 9 feel about the same?

No. And I say this as a person who has quite a bit of experience doing lengthy solo road trips.

People above have made many excellent points about the importance of taking breaks, but in addition to those, I would recommend taking at least one long break on a 9-hour day.

I can do a six-hour drive fairly easily taking only what I consider "minor" breaks--get out for a few minutes, stretch legs, maybe use the restroom, get gas, maybe a quick bite to eat.

If I'm doing a 9-10 hour drive in one day, I find that I need to take at least one long break during the day, of about an hour or so (in addition to the usual short breaks every hour or two). If you can find a nice park (national, state, whatever) partway along one day's journey, get out and walk for an hour or so. Or visit a museum for a bit. Or just find somewhere to stop and read for a while. I'd be feeling pretty bad if I tried to do 9 or more hours in a day without at least one longer break. Yes, it makes a long day even longer, but it makes the day seem shorter.

I'd also advise planning to do as much of your driving during daylight hours as possible. Driving at night is more tiring than during the day--partly because you can't see as far, so more intent concentration is required, and partly because the environmental cues are telling you "time to go to sleep now!" This is something that has actually changed as I've aged: in my early-to-mid-twenties, I thought nothing of driving five hours after dark. Now, in my mid-thirties, I limit myself to at most two hours after dark, and avoid even that if I can.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 9:30 AM on May 12, 2008

seconding the advice that if you see a small animal run across the road you should not try to swerve at the last'll probably wreck. however, if you are not going toooo fast and the animal is rather large (deer as opposed to skunk) you most definitey want to try to avoid hitting it by braking or steering around it. a deer through the windshield can kill you.
posted by hulahulagirl at 10:55 AM on May 13, 2008

O.T. !

I did the mid-life drivers' license at 40, give or take, but haven't done any drives over 6 hours.; Sounds like you are getting lots of good advice here. Best of luck to you on your trip!
posted by mwhybark at 3:17 PM on May 19, 2008

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