The ultimate guide to road tripping with an electric car
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While 2020 has changed the world in many ways, two things stand out to me: road trips and electric cars. Road trips are on the rise while there’s been a coronavirus-fueled dip in air travel. At the same time, more and more drivers are switching to electric cars, with adoption steadily rising both in the U.S. and abroad.
I bought into both trends this year. After a summer of rental car road trips, I purchased a used 2016 BMW i3 last month. Its 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.
I’ve taken the car on a couple of short trips since acquiring it. 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 though, 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, how to find charging stations and run through 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 to take if you’re in the market for an electric car and plan on road tripping it. Here are a few things to consider as you go through the car buying process. Some of these include range and whether or not you should consider purchasing a plug-in hybrid instead.
Criteria for a road-trip capable electric car
It’s important to look for a car that has appropriate range for trips that you plan to take. So, in short, don’t buy a car with an 80-mile range if you plan on taking 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 and — if you don’t mind making a few stops — can be a good bet for long trips.
If you want to avoid frequent charges, consider a long-range Tesla or a Chevrolet Bolt. 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, so 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 extended 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. On top of this, many plug-in hybrids can’t drive in an EV-only mode, which makes them feel more like a traditional gas vehicle. Range-extended vehicles don’t have this issue since they’re always driving on electricity.
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 — in the case of the BMW i3 — a vehicle to 80% in just 45 minutes. This is possible as fast chargers — commonly referred to as Level 3 charging — charge up to 50kW 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 that 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 thing’s first: You’ll need to charge when out on the road. When planning out your road trips, you must plan your driving route around available public chargers that are near highways, expressways and otherwise near where you’re driving. You’ll need to charge before your battery dies to a call to 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. That said, 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 you wait 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 by using 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 planning out long, multi-charge road trips.
Look for hotels with charge points
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 here 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. Make sure to download these before you head out on your first electric road trip.
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 whether or not you have to pay to use them. 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 so that you can 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 they’ll 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 warning: 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 you find 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 too. 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 I’ve found its stations can be unreliable. On a recent drive from Philadelphia to New York, I stopped at a charger only to find that 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.
Coming soon: EV Passport for unlimited charging
While not officially launched, EV Passport is an upcoming option for electric car owners. This service will integrate with major charging networks to offer unlimited charging for $39 per month. The app will show all nearby chargers and whether or not they’re in use. Additionally, you’ll be able to see charging status right from your phone.
It’s a nifty concept that could change electric road trips for the better. The features are great, and the $39 per month subscription could save you a ton of money on future electric road trips depending on how often you charge. We’re hopeful that the service will launch soon.
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 unbonused spend. There’s a variety of these cards on the market, with our favorites being:
- The Blue Business®️ Plus Credit Card from American Express (2x Membership Rewards points on the first $50,000 in purchases per calendar year; then 1x, giving you a 4% return based on TPG’s valuation)
- Chase Freedom Unlimited (1.5% cash back/1.5x Ultimate Rewards points for a 3% return based on TPG’s valuation)
- Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card (2x miles 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 than a road trip in a gasoline car, but it’s still a ton of 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.
Here, I walked you through everything you need to know before heading out on your first electric car road trip. 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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