The ultimate guide to road tripping with an electric car
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The past couple of years have changed the travel world in many ways, but two things stand out to me: road trips and electric cars.
Early in the pandemic, we saw road trips take the spotlight during a coronavirus-fueled dip in air travel. Even after vaccines helped air travel rebound, many travelers still prefer to take the great American road trip when visiting national parks, cities and everywhere in between.
At the same time, more and more drivers are switching to electric cars, with adoption steadily rising both in the U.S. and abroad. This has become more prevalent as gas prices continue to rise due to world conflict and supply chain issues, and even rental car companies have begun to add EVs to their fleets.
After a summer of rental car road trips, I purchased a used 2016 BMW i3 in August 2020. It’s a range-extended electric compact car, meaning that it also has a small gas motor that can charge the battery on the go. This, combined with the car being a hatchback, makes it — in my opinion — the ultimate road trip vehicle for those living in a major city like New York.
Since buying the i3, I’ve taken it on a couple of short trips. It’s a different experience than road tripping with a gas car, and newcomers to the electric car world might be deterred if they don’t know what to expect.
In this article, I’ll share some tips I’ve picked up while on the road with my EV. I’ll discuss everything from what to look for when buying an EV for road trips to how to find charging stations. I’ll also share some trip-planning tips.
Let’s dive (drive?) in!
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Choosing an electric car for road trips
There are some important considerations if you’re in the market for an electric car and plan on road tripping it. Here are some elements to examine as you go through the car buying process, such as car range and whether or not you should purchase a plug-in hybrid.
Criteria for a road-trip capable electric car
It’s important to look for a car that has appropriate range for the trips you plan to take. So, don’t buy a car with an 80-mile range if you plan to take 500+ mile road trips regularly. That said, you don’t need an ultra-long-range electric car for these trips. Something like the BMW i3 94ah has a 153-mile range which — if you don’t mind making a few stops — can be a good bet for longer trips.
Consider a long-range Tesla or a Chevrolet Bolt if you want to avoid frequent charges. These cars have well over 200 miles of electric range. This means you’re subject to less charging stops, but you’ll generally spend more on the car. This is especially true on the used market where long-range cars tend to have a higher resale value.
In my opinion, road trippers should avoid cars like the Fiat 500e and the electric Mercedes-Benz B-Class. These cars have sub-100-mile electric range and don’t offer a range extender option. That means you’ll have to charge frequently on long trips. Further, these cars may not be able to handle longer trips that don’t have chargers en route.
Consider a plug-in hybrid or range-extended vehicle
Further, you may want to consider an electric car that’s not fully electric. You have two options here: plug-in hybrids and range-extended electric vehicles. The former are essentially standard hybrid vehicles with larger batteries that can be charged externally. These cars generally have 15 to 50 miles of electric range and full-size gas tanks.
That said, these vehicles don’t have a fully electric driving experience and don’t generally offer fast charging options (more on that soon). I find these cars less fun to drive and — if you want to drive in electric mode — considerably more inconvenient to charge. At the same time, they can make great road-trip vehicles with a gas engine.
On the other hand, range-extended electric cars are fully electric vehicles with a small gas motor. This motor effectively charges the car’s battery to provide additional range when driving long distances. My BMW i3 is equipped with the range extender option, and it’s saved me on longer trips where I find myself far away from a public charger.
I prefer range-extended cars to plug-in hybrids since you always have the electric driving experience (think: immediate torque). Plus, these cars are usually equipped with fast charging and other EV-specific technology features.
DC fast charging is key for a sane road trip
Here’s a big one: only purchase a car with included DC fast charging if you plan on road tripping. More and more fast chargers are popping up around the country which can charge a vehicle — as in the case of the BMW i3 — to 80% in just 45 minutes. This is possible as fast chargers — commonly called Level 3 chargers — provide up to 250kW+ per hour.
On the other hand, a vehicle without this option can only use Level 2 public chargers, which charge at around 11kW per hour. This is still faster than plugging in at home but will take a ton of extra time to charge when on the go. Going back to the i3 example, it takes around three hours to charge from 0% to 80%.
This option is even more important when on long road trips. If you have to wait hours every time your vehicle runs low on battery, it will take you quite a long time to get to your destination. On the other hand, a 45-minute stop is enough time to grab lunch and set navigation to your next charge point or final destination.
Thankfully, almost all new fully electric vehicles and range-extended cars are equipped with fast charging. Some older electric cars don’t have this option, though, so make sure to inquire about it before you go for a test drive. Some cars that aren’t equipped with this feature include some 2014 and 2015 BMW i3s, all models of the Fiat 500e and some older Nissan Leafs.
Check battery degradation when buying a used car
Plan on buying used? Make sure to check the car’s battery status before you buy. Like all batteries, the battery inside of an electric car will degrade over time. This is normal, but excessive degradation can make your road trip life difficult. You can usually check battery status on the car’s infotainment system.
Thankfully, most electric cars have long battery warranties. For example, my used BMW i3 has a 100,000 mile/eight-year warranty on the battery, meaning I’m covered through 2024 on my 2016 model. According to BMW, a battery replacement can be authorized if a battery degrades 30% or more during the warranty period.
How to plan a road trip with an electric car
As discussed, road tripping with an electric car is different than with a gas car. It requires a bit more planning for pure electric vehicles which — while tedious — isn’t too bad once you get the hang of it. Let’s take a look at how I plan road trips in my electric car.
Plan your route around fast chargers and be mindful of range
First things first: You’ll need to charge when out on the road, so you must plan your driving route around available public chargers located near highways, expressways or wherever else you’re driving. You’ll need to charge before your battery dies to avoid calling roadside assistance, but there’s a bit more to it than this.
Unfortunately, electric car range is dynamic. You’ll use more battery when accelerating quickly, going up hills and when using climate control. Always give yourself at least a 10% buffer when looking for chargers. This means that if you have a car with a 100-mile range, plan chargers that are no more than 90 miles apart.
Additionally, try and stick to fast chargers when you’re on the road. This ensures that you’re not stuck at a given charger for hours while waiting for your car to charge. Instead, you can plug in for 30 to 40 minutes and you’re back on the road without issue.
You can plan your trips manually or use an app like PlugShare. I’ll go in-depth on this app in the next section, but in short, it’s a crowdsourced directory of all chargers available near your location. The app’s built-in route planner can be a huge timesaver when mapping out long, multi-charge road trips.
Look for hotels with chargers
Another way to save time on charging is by staying at hotels that offer electric car charging in their parking lots or garages. These are becoming more and more common, and oftentimes charging is either free or included with the parking fee. These are generally Level 2 chargers, though, so they’re best suited for charging overnight.
No charging at your hotel? Ask the hotel staff if they have an outdoor plug you can use. Most electric vehicles include a Level 1 wall charger that can be used with any standard wall socket. If the hotel is OK with it, this charger will slowly charge your vehicle overnight and give you at least enough power to make it to your next destination.
Use these apps and charging networks to find public chargers
Now that you know how to plan a trip, let’s take a look at the best way to find public chargers. As mentioned in the last section, several charging networks exist nationwide in the U.S. Some of these include ChargePoint and Electrify America. That said, there are many non-networked public chargers that you can find in parking garages and on city streets.
Here’s a look at the apps and charging networks I use on electric car road trips. Before you head out on your first electric road trip, make sure to download these.
PlugShare for most public chargers
PlugShare is a community-powered electric charger app. You can use this app to view networked, non-networked and home chargers that are open to the public. Even better, you can sort chargers by speed, connector type and cost. This can be immensely helpful when trying to find a fast charger on a long trip.
Further, the app has a trip-planning feature that will help you find electric car charge points along a given route. Just enter your origin and destination and the app will show you all the chargers nearby. You can even input your car’s range to plan your route around charging stops.
Tesla owners are also in luck with the ChargePoint app. It shows all Tesla Destination Chargers, SuperChargers and other compatible chargers on the map. Just toggle on the Tesla connector in the app and locations will appear on the map.
ChargePoint has chargers around the US
ChargePoint is one of the biggest electric car charging networks in the U.S., offering both Level 2 and Level 3 chargers in major cities and along some major highways. Many ChargePoint locations will show on the PlugShare app, but I recommend downloading both apps, as PlugShare will often miss specific chargers. Also, you can use the ChargePoint app to pay for charging at several charging locations.
One word of caution: The ChargePoint app sometimes shows chargers that aren’t available for public use. This is especially the case here in New York where many city vehicles have transitioned to plug-in hybrids or full electric vehicles. Keep an eye out for this when looking for places to charge.
Electrify America for DC fast chargers near highways
In the Northeast, I almost exclusively use Electrify America chargers on road trips. The company has a huge network of fast chargers located both within cities and near major highways, usually located at Walmarts, Targets and other shopping centers. Pricing is pretty reasonable, too — it varies based on how fast you’re able to charge and you can get a discount by signing up for a membership ($4 per month).
Using these chargers is remarkably simple. Just drive up, plug in your car and select the charger you’re using on the Electrify America app to start charging. The charge fee is billed to your credit card after you’re finished charging.
One downside to Electrify America, however, is that its stations can be unreliable. On a recent drive from Philadelphia to New York, I stopped at a charger only to find three of the four available chargers were out of service. The fourth charger was in use, so I called tech support who offered me a free fill-up at a nearby charger.
Earn bonus miles on electric car charging
Since you’ll usually pay for charging when on the road, why not earn miles in the process? Most chargers do not code as travel, so you’ll want to use a credit card that earns extra points on general spending. There’s a variety of these cards on the market, and some of our favorites include:
- The Blue Business®️ Plus Credit Card from American Express (2 Membership Rewards points per dollar on the first $50,000 in purchases per calendar year; then 1 point per dollar, giving you a 4% return based on TPG’s valuation)
- Chase Freedom Unlimited (1.5% cash back/1.5 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar for a 3% return based on TPG’s valuation)
- Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card (2 miles per dollar on purchases, giving you a 2.8% return based on TPG’s valuations)
If you’re completing a credit card spending requirement, you may want to use it to pay for your charging. For example, I use my Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card to pay for charging so I can earn bonus Medallion Qualifying Miles to qualify for Delta elite status.
Road tripping in an electric car is different from a road trip in a gasoline car, but it’s still fun. In fact, I’ve often found that road trips are more enjoyable in my EV as I see new places I otherwise wouldn’t. On top of this, money saved on gas can be used to stay in better hotels and eat at nicer restaurants. Sounds like a win-win to me.
I think the biggest takeaway is to always be mindful of your range. Planning your route along charge points and stopping to charge before you need to charge is key to an enjoyable and stress-free trip. If this isn’t for you, consider a range-extended electric car or a plug-in hybrid for more flexibility.
Feature photo by Andrew Kunesh/The Points Guy.
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