Road Trip Lessons


Having completed a long fly-n-drive road trip, I have some lessons and observations.

  1. If you will be driving a lot, use a rental car even if leaving your own city. We put 3000 miles on our rental car for $300 -- far less than the depreciation cost would have been on my own car.

  2. It's great to have a cooler in the car, you can buy perishables and get cold drinks when you want them, but forget about those $5 styrofoam coolers for any long trip. Within a few days ours was leaking, we fixed it by putting a plastic bag inside and out, but they are not very sturdy. There are collapsible coolers and we have one but didn't have luggage room. You can buy a cheap solid cooler for under $20 at wal-mart or Costco, but it seems wasteful to throw it away. If you have extra luggage, you can fill a cooler with stuff, duct tape it and check it as luggage, however.

  3. Speaking of luggage, for non-fragile things, consider using moving boxes in place of some of the suitcases. You can break these down to lie flat so they don't take up room in the car. Or, if you want to be wasteful, you can toss them, and buy some new ones at the end of the trip for a few bucks. Duffle bags also work in this area

  4. Sometime in your life, fly to Calgary and drive both the Icefields Parkway in Banff/Jasper and the Going-to-the-Sun road in Montana's Glacier Park. Two of the most spectacular drives in the world, all within about 3 hours of Calgary. Of course do the other parks in the area as well.

  5. When stopping for more than one day with laundary, do a quick yellow pages or web search for laundromats that offer "Wash and Fold" service (also known as drop-off service and Bachelor service.) Vastly cheaper than any hotel laundry and well worth the low price for the time saved over doing it yourself. To my surprise, one I found not only would pick up and deliver from my hotel, but the hotel was happy to put it on my bill, even though it was depriving them of the revenue at their own $5/shirt internal laundry. (Of course their internal laundry is just sent out to a local cleaners anyway.) I need to start another database where people can list how to quickly find services at "local" prices rather than "tourist" and "hotel" prices while travelling.

  6. Gotta hand it to Southwest Airlines, which allows 3 checked bags, 50 pounds each, per passenger. You can get more stuff than will fit in your car on SWA. Most airlines only allow 2. And of course their low fully-changeable fares are hard to beat if you want flexibility on when you will return. A good road trip is of course over when it's over, not at a specific date.

  7. On the other hand, those high drop-off fees from car rental companies do tend to demand you come back to the same airport, or at least near it. Too bad.

  8. The fly/drive question remains a hard one. Flying now takes 2 to 3 hours longer than the scheduled flight time, and constricts your schedule. We seriously debated between the 6 hours needed to drive 2 hours the other way to the airport, wait an hour at the airport, fly for 2 hours and spend an hour getting home, and the 11 hours or so required to drive home. The high drop fee was the killer, and the 10 cents/mile that gas costs in a typical car. However, if your time is valuable to you, the fly choice still wins, but by less, thanks to the nightmare of security.

  9. Speaking of which, the one downside of changeable flights: We decided we weren't ready for our flight out (refundable) so bought a later flight on a different airline (Alaska Air.) Due to a screw-up on their web site, they didn't process the charges and made me pay at the airport. By paying for a one-way flight at the airport, we both immediately became selectees for the "full-service" security screening. Since this is so well known, I can't imagine any actual terrorists are buying one way tickets at the last minute, so it serves just to punish folks like us.

  10. See other blog entries about GPSs and infltable RVs. I still want my inflatable RV. We tent-camped in a few national park areas and you do get closer to the park and save money but you do waste a lot of time in teardown/setup. We did try the trick of folding up the tent with air mattress, sheets and sleeping bags still inside for faster setup. It mostly works but of course you need a big piece of storage space for the bulky result. A GPS connected to laptop remains invaluable. Sadly, only Microsoft Mappoint/Trips&Streets has full Canada maps, and the 2003 version I have is really very spartan when it comes to what it does with the GPS compared to Delorme Street Atlas even in an ancient version. But it's what I had to use while in Alberta and BC.

  11. OK, I admit it, I scarfed internet access a few times from open wireless nodes with default SSIDs. Not that I mind paying (and in fact did pay at times, such as when we drove past a hotel that advertised good wireless and let us buy access at the front desk.) Nobody would have noticed the bandwidth we used. It would be nice if APs had a way to declare that they didn't mind casual drive-by use. An external rooftop antenna makes a huge difference about how easy it is to use hotspots.


(2) Among solid coolers, I've come to appreciate the ones with adapters to plug into the car's power to keep contents cool, rather than just stuffing the thing with ice. I know Canadian Tire stocks 'em, I would assume they're generally available pretty much everywhere.
(5) This would be a nice addition to, too.
(9) I thought this trigger pre-dated the terrorism screenings, presumably trying to catch drug-related activity which supposedly matches the profile.
(10) With the investments Google have made in their maps, I'm surprised there isn't more available from them (either or Even typing GPS coords into the location box might be nice (automating, better). Have you dropped a suggestion into their inbox?

We were given one as a gift and never used it. Perhaps this one sucks worse than the others, but it can't cool food, it can only keep it cool, and it uses LOTs of power, far too much to leave running on the battery in the car overnight, for example. No, it turns out ice and a well insulated cooler is a much better system, at least compared to the small unit we got. They are not very efficient in any event.

1) My best is 6,500 miles in 8 days in a compact car I rented for $169. As you say, that doesn't begin to pay for the wear and depreciation on a car. I'm surprised they don't blacklist me, since I do it repeatedly.

2) Alaskans (and environmental engineers) always have lots of rigid coolers around. Yes, they make versatile shipping containers AND coolers. Do NOT put labels on that imply there is tasty salmon on the inside. Sometimes those get "lost" in handling.

3) Yes, you can use shipping boxes (they make you sign a waiver). Better yet, jsut UPS the box to your destination a week or two ahead of time. You'll board the plane knowing your clean undies and toothpaste is already in your office or at your aunt's house. And you'll have no baggage to check at the airport, allowing you greater flexibility if flights are cancelled.

5) Don't do laundry, just pack old clothes. When socks or pants or whatever gets the first hole in it or my wife dislikes the color of something, I put in a special box. When I have a field work trip, I take those clothes. Wear them for a day or two and then throw them away. So I come back with lighter bags than I left with.

7+8) check drop fees with several companies. Sometimes they aren't bad or even much at all (cheapest I found was about $12, maybe for paperwork?). I'm guessing they needed to relocate cars from one area to another.

7+8) if you are really cheap about one-way travel, look for drive-away cars (college ride boards or matching agencies). They charge the car owner a fee, you buy the gas. Or school buses and motor home manufacturers who need to deliver stuff too big to truck. They pay for fuel and fly you back home.

All my drop fee tests revealed very large drop fees so I didn't do it. I've done one-way RV rental though getting your gear home can be fun.

As for the old clothes, that can be a good approach but if the trip is long you are better to do some laundry than to pack 2-3 weeks of changes of clothes -- if you can get a wash and fold to do the hard work. But yes, clothes are light and can be sent UPS or even the mail as an alternate, if you know where you will be. Having to stop by an office or aunt, if you are not already doing so, is a time consuming undertaking though. If you are sure of your first hotel, that can work.

The 50 pound limit many airlines have put on is a killer, since sturdy large bags can weigh from 12 to 20 pounds, I have found, if they have wheels. It's starting to make more sense to not have wheels and rent the wheels, even at the ripoff $3 price each side. (You can often get them free when people don't lock them up.)

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