Road trip season is upon us. And with the price of overseas travel skyrocketing, there’s never been a better time to get acquainted with the good old open road. But what about all that European jet-setting you’ve been doing? Maybe your road trip chops are a bit rusty. Well we’re here to help. This thread—Essentials to Pack on a US Road Trip, from our Travel Talk Forums—is full of great ideas, and we wanted to jump in with a few tips of our own. These are our very best road trip packing tips, along with advice from our community, to ensure that you’re optimally prepared for your great American road trip.
Leave essentials within reach. Leave the emergency kit out until after you load all your bags, and then find a corner where it will be easily accessible. Be sure that every passenger has an extra shirt or a jacket for a pillow and for darting in and out of the car, as well as his or her own book or iPod or MP3 player.
From the Forums: “I packed one tote bag of picnic items–paper plates, cups, napkins, plastic silverware, tablecloth, hand sanitizer, good knife, can/bottle opener, trash bags and a good supply of Ziplocks of assorted sizes. When we stopped for a picnic lunch, I just pulled out the tote bag and set the table. And then put it all back after we ate. Very handy.” –Lady
Invest in an electricity power inverter. These adapters, which plug into your cigarette lighter and cost from about $30 to $60, depending on wattage, can power virtually any appliance that runs on electricity: cell-phone chargers, mini-refrigerators, TVs, and so on. Just remember that you can run power appliances only when your engine is running, and that you need to be careful not to overload the adapter.
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Leave big suitcases at home. There are few things less pleasant than having to haul a giant suitcase around when traveling. Keep the bulk of your clean clothing in a laundry basket in the trunk of your car, and repack your carry-on suitcase every few days as needed, storing your dirty laundry in a separate bag.
Make a spare set of car keys. Be sure your traveling companion has a set or, if you’re going solo, pack an extra set in your luggage in case yours are stolen or misplaced. Maybe stash a copy of the door key in your wallet, in the event you lock yourself out.
From the Forums: “As it’s your own car, be sure to have contact numbers for your insurance agency for auto and homeowners. Remember to take the phone number of whoever will be watching your house. Don’t rely only on the data in your cell phone, as it won’t be available if it is lost or not charged. And don’t forget the charger at home or in a motel room!” –AJPeabody
Separate your "getting there" and "there" clothes. If you’re planning the kind of trip that involves a stay at some place bracketed by a long drive there and back, keep the clothing you plan to use once you arrive in one piece of luggage, and store this at the back of the trunk or under other bags. Fill lighter and smaller duffel bags or luggage with the clothing you’ll be using during your drive, and keep these in an easier-to-reach place by loading them last.
Pack folding chairs. You can guarantee yourself a comfortable front-row seat wherever you are by packing collapsible nylon chairs (they resemble director’s chairs) in your trunk.
Organize with plastic drawers. Organize with plastic drawers. You can buy cheap, stackable plastic drawers at most department stores. Put a few of these in your trunk, filling one with books and maps and another with toiletries, and you’ll have an efficient system for even the longest trip from home.
Travel with a soft, collapsible cooler. Collapsible coolers are ideal for car trips, and because they fold up compactly and can fit inside your suitcase, they’re also worth taking with you when you fly somewhere and rent a car.
From the Forums: “The size of the cooler will depend on your vehicle. If you can easily reach the cooler sitting on the back seat, then you can go with a larger size. If you have to set the cooler on the floor then you’ll be limited to the area dimensions. Preferably, you want it big enough to hold 3-4 drinks per person plus one small bag of ice.” –toedtoes
Stock up on road supplies at warehouse shopping clubs. By far the most expensive places to buy snacks and toiletries when traveling are the convenience stores attached to roadside gas stations. Try to buy groceries at discount department or grocery stores before you leave. Members of warehouse superstores, like Costco and Sam’s Club, can save a huge amount by stocking up on bulk foods and even toiletries at these places. Best bets include bottled water, crackers, cookies, chips, trail mix, sports bars, nuts, and breath mints, as well as aspirin and pain relievers, antacid tablets, laundry detergent, and film. These shopping clubs also usually have the cheapest gas prices around, and many are just off major interstates or along other well-traveled roads; before you hit the road, research the locations of some on your route.
For more tips like this, check out our recently published book of 1,001 Smart Travel Tips, in which Fodor’s editors, writers, and members of our community share their hard-earned travel knowledge.
Photo credit: Photo by Geatan Lee