10 Rules of the Road Trip

On June 14, 2012, in Musings, by lisa
1949 Cadillac

Clark, with the 1949 Cadillac Fleetwood gifted to him by a friend glad to be rid of it.

My husband is a car guy who loves road trips; I hate them. So when he said he wanted to take a 2,000 mile road trip to celebrate his 50th birthday, I shuddered.

And then got to work planning. If I had to go on a road trip, I was going to make it bearable… or at least try.

The end result was a journey that, to my great shock, I enjoyed. You can follow along on our West Coast adventure here.

You learn a thing or two about how to take a road trip after a couple weeks in a car with your beloved. Here are 10 Rules of the Road Trip, as discovered by intrepid explorers Lisa & Clark — you know, like Lewis & Clark, only in a car, and without the frostbite.


10 Rules of the Road Trip


1. Get the car tuned up a few weeks before you go, not a few days before.

Get your car tuned up and any troublesome issues fixed at least two weeks before the trip. Fixing one problem can set off new problems, and you need time to deal with the new issues that will crop up. Yes, really. Better to have the time to work out the fresh issues at home, where you’re comfortable, than to work them out on the road.

And a corollary to that:  If there’s a funny smell coming from under the hood of the car (or a funny noise), yes, it’s something wrong. Wishful thinking or ignoring it will work for a while, but it IS a warning that the car is going to break down soon. We were lucky in that our radiator didn’t blow apart until we were two blocks from home, even though there’d been a funny smell plaguing our engine for hundreds of miles. If we’d driven it any further in an overheated state, we would have blown a head gasket.

Blown apart radiator hose.

2. It’s a journey, not a race.

Break up days of driving with days of staying put in one spot for a few nights, preferably spots where you don’t need to use a car (or where you can have someone else drive you).

Vary the length of your driving days:  300 miles one day, and 75 the next. Etc. We found that the most comfortable distance for seeing things and covering miles was somewhere around 150.

Choose secondary roads over freeways. A road trip isn’t about covering distance, it’s about seeing stuff along the way. The secondary roads are where the life is, plus they tend to be light on traffic.

In the same vein, small towns and remote destinations are more rewarding than big cities. Want to see a big city? Fly to it; it makes more sense. The car is the vehicle for the hard to reach places.

lisa and sign

Some days, it’s good to walk everywhere and forget you have a car.


3. Have a road trip theme.

Ours was Old Places and Familiar Faces. We’d see old friends and stay in historic hotels.

Having a theme helps you make decisions about where to eat or stay, and what attractions to see. There are hundreds of decisions to make while planning a trip, so make your life easier by eliminating half the options before you begin.

How much planning to do? At least some. It’s surprisingly difficult to research an area while on the road: by the time you’ve read about it and decided where to go, you’re already past it. Or it’s too late in the day, or you’re too tired by the time you get there. So have at least a bare skeleton of the trip planned out, knowing where you’ll likely be sleeping each night, and a few of the things you want to see.

4. See stuff, but not too much stuff.

Make at least one stop per driving day, but no more than two. One keeps you from feeling like you’re a long-haul trucker, only without the pay. Two makes it feel like hey, I’m seeing stuff!

Three makes you tired and grumpy.


5. Know where you’re having lunch.

It gives you a midday goal and something to look forward to. Your emergency stash of candy bars or dried fruit is not a substitute for a proper hot lunch, sitting down, with silverware. You want a chance to relax (especially the driver), and to use a proper restroom.

TripAdvisor or Yelp can point you towards places to chow down en route; try to find the non-chain places where the locals go. Our favorite such stop was Griff’s on the Dock, in Port Orford, Oregon. It was right down on the docks, stuck in amidst the trailered fishing boats, and we would never have found it if we hadn’t done the research beforehand.

Photos of Griff's On The Dock, Port Orford
This photo of Griff’s On The Dock is courtesy of TripAdvisor

Have alternate plans in case the restaurant burned down (seriously, this has happened to us) or you had to change your route.

If all else fails, look for a Mexican restaurant in a strip mall, or a taco truck; it’ll be better than typical chain restaurant fast food.


6. Always go to the bathroom when you have the chance.

Looking for a restroom? Go to a grocery store; they have the best ones.

No grocery stores? Look for a park where the park sign has the image of a picnic table, denoting picnic facilities. They usually have bathrooms.


Restroom at the Ft. George Brewery in Astoria, Oregon

7. Bring audio books.

With an audio book, everyone gets to listen and react to the same thing – and talk about it – and everyone can keep their eyes on the road and the scenery.

Our recommendation for an audio book? Shatner Rules! Especially if one of you has a birthday coming up. (Our road trip was to celebrate Clark’s imminent 50th birthday.)

We brought along a bag full of audio books for the trip, and I threw in William Shatner’s Shatner Rules at the last minute. We were surprised not only by how much we enjoyed it (which really shouldn’t have been a surprise; who doesn’t love William Shatner, except George Takei?), but by the frank wisdom of the man. His number one rule, “Say Yes” — say yes despite the possibility of failure and humiliation — is one we are adopting.

As Shatner says, “‘No’ closes doors. ‘Yes’ kicks them wide open.”

Really, it’s a good book, especially if you need a little courage to face life.

Great road trip listening.


8. All eyes on the road.

The front seat passenger may not sleep, because four eyes on the road are better than two.

A deer bounced out in front of our car, and I saw it before Clark; it was my, “Stop, stop, stop!” that alerted him to the danger, saving us a couple seconds and turning what could have been a brake-locking (or deer-hitting, deer-coming-through-windshield) stop into a much gentler slowdown. And, it was while my eyes were down on the map that we both missed seeing the turn-off to Highway One, which meant we missed seeing the coast of California down around Mendocino.

No dozing. No playing with a smart phone. When driving in unfamiliar territory, the driver needs that extra set of eyes.


9. Talk to strangers.
Ask for recommendations on sights from locals, from fellow travelers, from park rangers. Ask the same question of multiple people. It makes conversation, and gets you unexpected information.
It’s your interactions with other people that will stick with you as much, or even more than, the sights you see.
fern canyon

We only went to Fern Canyon because our dining companions the night before had recommended it.

10. You each have veto power.

Each voyager shall have the mighty power of the veto, to be used only with great discretion.

If someone would really be miserable going to a destination, they have the right to veto it. Taking a line from Suze Orman, “People first.” The mental state of your fellow travelers matters more than stopping at one more museum or view point.


Follow these rules, and you may, like me, go from loathing road trips to loving them.

Bon Voyage!


Follow along on The Lisa & Clark Expedition: Old Places and Familiar Faces, a West Coast Road Trip.

In which intrepid road trippers Lisa & Clark go in pursuit of historic hotels, old friends, rusty auto parts (the more the better), wineries, and gardens. And maybe a dress or two for Lisa, because she just can’t help herself.


Who are Lisa & Clark?

Lisa’s latest novel,

Great-Aunt Sophia’s Lessons for Bombshells, from Simon & Schuster

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