In the driver's seat: 7 lessons I learned about road tripping behind the wheel
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For years, I was afraid to drive.
Like most suburban teenagers, I started driving the day I turned 16. But living in a city for more than a decade (goodbye, auto insurance — hello, subway tickets!) and one very bad car accident made me nervous about even getting into a car, let alone driving.
But there's nothing like a global pandemic to force you into your discomfort zone.
Unable to fly across the globe at a moment's notice and unwilling to rely on public transportation, I decided it was time to get back on the open road. Here's what I learned during my first road trips as the driver.
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You can earn bonus points
For my first road trip, I originally planned to book a rental car through Hertz, since I have complimentary Hertz Gold Plus Rewards program status thanks to The Platinum Card® from American Express. With this tier of membership, I get one free additional driver, a potential car upgrade, 10% more Hertz points and can skip the counter at many airport pick-up locations. Perhaps best of all, I can book my Hertz rental using the CDP discount code 211762 for four free extra hours within the U.S.
But after much hemming and hawing, I decided that now would be the perfect time to bite the bullet and buy a car. I bought my car in North Carolina, and because I paid for the vehicle outright, the dealer allowed me to put an amount of my choosing on my Platinum Card. In addition to getting 1 point per dollar spent, I also received an extra 1,000 Membership Rewards points thanks to a promotion rewarding big purchases of $1,500 or more.
Either way, I knew I'd walk away with a healthy stash of bonus points.
Related: 5 lessons learned from taking a road trip in the age of coronavirus
Don't overpay for insurance or assistance
You've probably already heard this from us, but it's worth repeating: Before you pay for collision insurance through a car rental company, check to see if you have a credit card in your wallet that offers primary auto rental collision damage coverage, such as the Chase Sapphire Reserve® and Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card.
Some credit cards even have roadside assistance benefits, in case there's an issue on the road. In addition to the aforementioned Reserve card, you'll have versions of this benefit with the United Explorer Card and the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card, among others.
Get the right car
Whether you're driving for two hours or two days, having the right car is incredibly important, especially if you don't drive frequently.
I learned to drive on a Ford Focus, and that was my first-ever car. So make fun of me all you want, but I decided to buy a Ford Focus. It also gets excellent gas mileage, a factor you should consider even if you're renting a car and plan to add a few hundred (or thousand) miles to the odometer.
Finding a vehicle I was comfortable with obviously played a huge role in my decision to buy a car, but it's also informed rental car decisions. During a recent trip to Arizona, I received an upgrade to an upscale, compact SUV. But I've never driven an SUV of any kind before (or a very nice car, for that matter), so I returned to the desk and asked for — you guessed it — a Ford Focus.
The agency didn't have any of those on the lot, but they did downgrade me to a comparable, small sedan. I may have been the first person to ever ask for a downgrade, according to the agent, but I felt much more comfortable in that Toyota Corolla.
Depending on where and when you're driving, there might be other factors to consider. My Focus isn't much of an adventure-mobile, so I know that I need to rent or borrow a car with all-wheel drive and higher clearance if I plan on driving in significant snow or navigating steep, rocky back roads on the way to a trailhead. I've already done both, but my Focus and I will both be much happier if I choose a vehicle better suited for those kinds of hazards.
Related: 10 tips for anyone taking a road trip right now
Inspect your car
When I went to buy my car, I inspected the vehicle to make sure it had four wheels and a radio. But during my first road trip, I learned to check for a few other things, including tire pressure (I now keep a tire gauge in my glove compartment) and oil level. It turns out there's nothing you can't learn on YouTube.
If you're driving a personal vehicle, plan far enough in advance to make sure you give your car a thorough inspection — or bring it to a shop for a quick tune-up.
Even if you're renting a car, you want at least do a cursory check to make sure all the pieces are in working order, and that you know which side of the car the gas tank is on, how to operate your headlights and windshield wipers — you get the idea. It's also important to take photos of the vehicle, in case there are any issues when you return it.
Pack the right snacks
Now, more than ever, it's important to keep the car stocked with healthy, filling snacks and meals so you can avoid stopping at crowded service stations during the drive.
For my first road trip, I brought a cooler stocked with Farmer's Fridge meals, which I was invited to try. You can get their handmade meals (breakfast oats, seasonal salads, bowls ranging from kimchi fried rice to falafel) delivered right to your door, and they're perfect for travel, already packaged in spill-proof, heatable jars.
You may even recognize their fridges (basically, vending machines stocked with real meals) from airports around the country, including Chicago O'Hare (ORD), Indianapolis Airport (IND) and Newark Liberty International (EWR) in the New York area.
It probably goes without saying that you want to bring along plenty of water, and you might even want to map out which coffee shops along your route have a drive-thru. I'm still more comfortable with my feet on my ground than I am in a car, which is why I love keeping a hands-free hydration pack (such as a Platypus) in the car with me. You can grab a drink without ever taking your hands off the wheel or your eyes off the road.
Figure out your apps
It seems like every time I get behind the wheel of a car (any car, even one that isn't going anywhere) the Bluetooth disconnects and all of my navigation apps need to be updated.
Before putting the car into gear, make sure your phone is syncing properly to your vehicle, if that's an option for you, and that you've got your GPS up and running (I prefer Waze, but use whatever is easiest for you). The last time I drove with any frequency, MapQuest was the latest technological breakthrough, so I still think it's incredibly novel that cars will now tell you where to go and politely alert you when you've missed your exit.
But hey, if your car doesn't have any of that newfangled technology or you simply prefer old-fashioned maps, just make sure you have a CD book full of your favorite mixes to get you through the long ride.
Plan stops along the way
You might be driving out of necessity, but that doesn't mean you can't break up a long trip with fun stops that help you clear your mind and refocus.
While driving home from North Carolina, my friend and I stopped at Hanging Rock State Park, Pilot Mountain State Park, Harpers Ferry National Historical Park and a series of wineries in Virginia (after we were done driving for the day, of course).
During even my shortest driving trips, I'll see if there's a park along the route where I can stretch my legs. In Arizona, for example, I punctuated the drive from Tucson to Phoenix with a 30-minute hike around Catalina State Park. I felt refreshed and ready to hit the road.
With flying off the table for so many Americans, it's no surprise that road trips are still seeing a meteoric rise in popularity. A recent Bridgestone survey, for example, found that more than one in three drivers plan to take road trips totaling 500 miles or more this winter alone.
As someone who has, in the past, relied on airplanes, trains, ferries, ride-hailing services and has even opted to walk for hours rather than drive, I can tell you my return to the road wasn't without its growing pains. But it's not an exaggeration to say that getting back behind the wheel has helped me regain a sense of freedom, at a time when the world feels incredibly restrictive and small.
If you're thinking about planning a road trip, these tips and tricks can help you have a safe, relaxing trip. Well, at least for you — maybe not for the person who volunteers to sit in the passenger seat.