Road Trip Tips
How to Read a Road Atlas
- Buy this year’s edition. The cost is less than buying a handful of maps, and it will have the most current facts on major construction activity. GPS isn’t infallible; you’ll want old-school backup.
- Study the legend. The little box of icons at the front of the atlas helps you decipher the maps. Most atlases indicate scenic routes and long-term construction projects. Some even show which rest areas have toilets.
- Know your numbers. Two-digit interstates (I-90) are often the most direct routes through cities; three-digit interstates (I-787) circle urban areas. Odd-numbered highways run north to south; even-numbered ones run east-west.
- Orient the driver. Highlight your route and keep the map in the passenger’s lap. Turn it to show the direction you’re going. That way, the driver can glance down and take it in.
How to Find a Good Place to Eat
- Plan ahead. Go to roadfood.com to map out the best small-town eats on your route.
- Skip the rest stops. “The point of road-tripping is not to see the interstate,” says Pauline Frommer, creator of the Pauline Frommer Guidebooks. “Get off the highway to explore, and patronize local eateries―clam shacks, barbecue huts, and soda parlors.”
- Stick to a meal schedule. “The hungrier you get, the worse choices you’ll make. Skip lunch and Pizza Hut looks like the gates of heaven,” says Carll Tucker, who spent nine months road-tripping to write The Bear Went Over the Mountain: Finding America, Finding Myself ($10, amazon.com). If you stop at regular intervals, you’ll be less likely to settle out of desperation.
- In a pinch, find a grocery store. “Supermarkets offer plenty of safe and healthy foods,” says Tucker.
How to Change a Tire
- First, drive slowly to a stretch of flat, firm road that’s out of traffic. Pull the parking break, put on your hazards, and set out emergency triangles if you have them.
- Next, remove the hubcap. (Follow your car manual.) Use a lug wrench to loosen the lug nuts. Give each a turn counterclockwise, but leave the nuts in place to keep the wheel attached.
- Position the jack. (Consult the manual.) Turn or pump its handle until the tire is four inches off the road (never, ever put any part of your body under the car). Remove the lug nuts; pull off the tire.
- Slide on the spare. Screw on the nuts (working in a star pattern, not clockwise) and tighten. Lower the car so the tire just touches the ground. Fully tighten the lug nuts.
- Finally, lower the car fully. Remove the jack. Give the nuts one last turn with the wrench (use muscle!), then get to a mechanic.
How to Check the Oil and the Radiator Fluid
- Oil: While the car is cool, lift the hood and pull out the dipstick, the rod that measures the oil level. (Trouble finding it? Check the car manual.) Wipe the stick with a rag, reinsert it, and pull it out again. If the oil level doesn’t fall within the zone marked with crosshatches, add a quart. “You can end up with severe damage if your engine is starved of oil,” says Michael Calkins, an auto-repair manager at AAA. Be sure to use the type recommended in the manual (or see the maker’s website). A car is made to run on a certain oil, and “using the wrong kind can cause increased engine wear,” says Calkins. Store a quart in the trunk.
- Radiator: Under the hood, you’ll see a transparent plastic tank (attached to the radiator by a hose) that’s marked with two lines. If the fluid falls below the lower line, top it off. Again, make sure you use the proper type of fluid or you run the risk of damaging the engine.
How to Signal That Your Car Has Broken Down
- Show your distress. First, put on your hazards. If you have emergency reflective triangles and can place them safely, set them 25 feet behind the car. Or hang a cloth on the antenna or the side-view mirror.
- Get everyone out. If it’s safe to exit the car, go behind a guardrail. But if you’re in a narrow lane with traffic whizzing by, stay in the car and keep your seat belt fastened.
- Wait for help. Some highways have motorist-aid call boxes; others have service-patrol vehicles. If you’re a member of AAA, call 800-222-4357. And be cautious about accepting help from passersby. “Worry about personal safety―you don’t know who will stop,” says Paul Ponzio Jr., president of the CVS Samaritan program, which provides free emergency road service in nine states.
How to Drive Like a Long-Haul Trucker
- Travel in the opposite direction of rush-hour traffic. Enter a city in the evening hours, and exit it in the morning.
- Listen to comedy. “A lot of us schedule our days around shows on satellite radio,” says Brett Nymeyer, who for about six years has been driving 18-wheelers for Challenger Motor Freight, which operates throughout North America. “Most guys listen to comedy channels, like Sirius 104. They keep you awake and happy.” No satellite radio? Pop in a comedy CD.
- Take walks. Park as far from rest-stop entrances as possible to gain some exercise.
- Get in rhythm. Truckers are very conscious of circadian rhythms, says Nymeyer. Plan stops for the afternoon and the middle of the night if you’re still on the road, he says, so “you’re not fighting fatigue when the body wants to sleep.”