On the Road Trip

Know Before You Go: The Rules of the Road Trip

by Cyrena Lee

Your road trip should be better than this. All photos by Cyrena Lee.

Road trips can be gorgeous and tons of fun, but tensions run high when you're trapped in the car. Even — or especially — with your loved ones. For hours on end. Before you hit the open road, consult the clever tips that contributor Cyrena Lee wishes she had known before her most recent cross-country road trip.

Road trips are the quickest path to discovery. Of Virginia driving laws, of the unexpected beauty of swamps, of a day in the life of a small town, of what relationships with fellow passengers are really like after thirteen continuous hours cramped in a car. Most importantly, the road trip is the fastest way to discover how to be free.

I helped my sister move from New Jersey to San Francisco, a 3,000 mile journey that would take ten days. We packed the trunk of her baby blue Prius to the brim and were barely able to squeeze it shut. This would be our maiden cross-country expedition. We were armed with two smartphones and the naive optimism that we'd figure everything out on the way.

And so we did. Sort of. I wish I had learned these painful lessons on the art of the road trip before crossing the Delaware.

The open road.

1. Plan Ahead

Don't go OCD-overboard mapping out the minutes, but if you do most of the heavy logistical legwork beforehand, like route and must-see destinations, it'll be cruise-control for most of the trip.

The Roadtrippers app is a goldmine for finding quirky and spontaneous roadside attractions, haunted bars, and the best BBQ around. Except in areas of spotty cell service. (Shout out, Iowa!)

2. Don't Sleep in the Car

Scour your contact list for friendly crash pads along the way. Staying with friends or acquaintances lets you temporarily live like a local (and stick to a budget). Don't forget to bring a nice thank-you gift for your pal.

No matter how much you plan, you will find yourself driving farther than you anticipated, desperate for a place to crash at 11 p.m. At moments like this, the Hotel Tonight app is a lifesaver. If you're brokering a deal in person, always ask the front desk for a deal. Chances are, they might just give it to you if it's fifteen minutes until midnight.

Road Trip snacks.

Homemade snacks = happy travelers.

3. Pack Snacks

Do not underestimate the importance of this one. Hanger (hunger-induced anger) is never your enemy more than when you're enclosed in a crowded, small space moving at 70 mph. Gas stations and convenience stores usually stock ultra-processed foods that will leave your blood sugar crashing and you feeling even worse. My sister has a gluten allergy, so we were well prepared with healthy foods: hard-boiled eggs and dried seaweed (a delicious duo), avocados, carrot sticks, crackers and hummus, organic fruit snacks, clementines, and pistachios. Unfortunately, once our supply ran out, we felt the sluggish effects of too many greasy spoon dinners. But until then, we felt energized and satiated.

4. Know the Local Laws

Everyone and their mother has been pulled over and ticketed in Virginia. (Thanks for the memories, Officer Smithers!) Any bid for sympathy seems to be cancelled out by an out-of-state license plate, so keep your foot light on the gas pedal or pay the price.

Other illegal moves to avoid: Don't curse at firefighters in New Orleans. Don't kiss the ladies in Eureka, Nevada, if you've got a mustache. And while marijuana is legal in Colorado, Washington, and Arizona, transporting any amount of weed under two pounds is a Class 6 felony. I repeat: Anything under two pounds is a felony.

Cyrena behind the wheel.

Cyrena behind the wheel.

Seen at rest stop mid-trip.

The mood at a rest stop mid-trip.

5. Create Boundaries (and Break 'Em)

No matter how close you and your travel companions are, things will get tense. (Jacob, is that you breathing in the back seat? Again?) It's intense to spend every moment together for any period of time, so go with the rhythms. Break up the driving hours fairly. Avoid the urge to have a continual conversation. Let yourself fall into contemplative silence. Take a minute to wander by yourself at roadside stops. Remember that everyone has been stuck in the same small space. Their legs hurt, too. And they're just as annoyed with you and your damn breathing. Chill. Stick your head out the window if the stormy mood arises. It'll pass. If it doesn't, then it's time to pull over, blast the speakers, and have an impromptu dance party.

Final destination, Pacific Coast Highway.

Final destination, view from the Pacific Coast Highway.

6. Relax: Nothing Is Sometimes Better than Something

Life is about the journey, not the destination, blah-blah-blah, but that really does apply to road trips. Don't stress out about the time or where you want to stop next. Turn your attention away from your phone and onto the beauty of the passing landscape. (Unless you're in the desolate wasteland that is most of Texas.)

When your attention is focused on constantly changing surroundings, there's nothing except what's happening in the moment. Road tripping offers an incredible rush of freedom that lets you roam and discover as you please. There's nothing more than that you could ask for.

I fell in love with the stunning variety of the Saguaro cactus tree in Arizona. I didn't know a monotone landscape could be so captivating. On our way out of the desert, I insisted that we stop at the abandoned town of Nothing, which once boasted a population of four. There was, of course, nothing to see. But in the silence, I had an epiphany: When you have nothing onto which you can permanently grasp, you are truly free.


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We make every effort to ensure the information in our articles is accurate at the time of publication. But the world moves fast, and even we double-check important details before hitting the road.