HC's Guide to Summer Road Tripping

It’s easy to feel trapped during the summer; most of us spend the majority of those three months sitting behind desks at internships, living at our parents’ houses, or shut up in collegiette budget-friendly apartments that would work really well... as walk-in closets. If you and your friends are feeling stifled and need to fly the coop – but don’t have the funds for a pricey plane ticket – plan a road trip! After all, is there any better way to get in the summer spirit than by hitting the highway, blasting Sheryl Crow’s “Everyday Is a Winding Road,” and exploring the country?

We spoke with collegiettes who have braved the interstates to get the skinny on planning, budgeting, packing, passing time... anything and everything you’ll need to know before you buckle up and hit the road.

Determine Your Budget

Sure, you’ll save some major dough by not buying a plane ticket to Europe or falling victim to that pesky exchange rate this summer, but you won’t be able to get by on only the stray coins lodged in your seat cushions if you want a real road trip experience. Laura Baugh, a collegiette from Virginia Tech, estimates that she spent about $500 during her recent four-day cross-country trip from California to Virginia.

$500 is steep, but there are plenty of ways to cut back on your cross-country spending. Campsites are a great option for collegiettes who want some fresh air after a day in the car and who don’t mind skipping the hair dryer, and they only cost about $10 to $40 per night as opposed to the $50 you would probably spend on a motel. You can also make use of the barbecue grills at the site, so you’ll be able to swap an expensive restaurant bill for cheap groceries (plus you’ll look like a champ flipping burgers). If you pack lots of snacks and choose well-reviewed local restaurants over chains, you can estimate that you’ll spend about $25 to $50 per day on food per person.

If you’re low on funds and want to keep your bank account alive and breathing, play around on RoadTrip America’s Fuel Cost Calculator to determine how many miles your car can drive given today’s gas prices (keep in mind they change from state to state!) before you reach your budget cap. You and your friends will likely be splitting the cost, so sit down and talk about your personal limits together before making any plans. Keep in mind that you’ll need to budget for gas, food, lodging, sightseeing, attraction entry fees, and any souvenirs you want to bring home to prove that you did in fact lay eyes on the world’s largest ball of string – and that it really was enormous.

Plan Your Trip

So you’ve drawn up your daily spending limits and used the Fuel Calculator to determine just how far your little-engine-that-could will make it on your dime. Now you just need to know where to go and how to get there.

Destinations

Alexandra Churchill, a 2012 University of New Hampshire graduate, had a method to her road trip madness: “It was last summer that my best friend Sammie and I packed up in our friend Tyler’s car and made a road trip out of following the royals, Will and Kate. This was when they were just married and were visiting Ottawa for Canada Day. It was over the course of a few days [after starting in New England] and we had an absolute blast!”

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like Kate Middleton will be gracing the Americas with her golden presence again anytime soon, but if you have a specific goal like Alexandra’s in mind – be it following your favorite band on tour or hitting up all of the hottest summer music festivals – your planning will be fairly straightforward because you’ll already know all the stops you want to take!

For those of us who are eager to see the country but have no idea where to begin, it’s best to turn to a planner site. Road Trip USA provides 11 scenic and historical routes for those who are really stumped (but who love a good view), and Best of the Road features countless regional routes. RoadTrip America Map Wizard allows you to plug in your start and end cities and shows you all of the best attractions along the way, including local events, natural wonders, and museums. Just keep in mind that these route planners often don’t factor in time for required stops, so you should tack some extra hours on to the driving time.

If you’re in the Independence Day spirit and want to experience classic American culture, Laura suggests directing yourself to the Wild West. “The Grand Canyon, Hoover Dam, Las Vegas – it's all out there, and it's all awesome,” she says.

Lodging

We’ve already mentioned the costs of motels and campsites, but can you guarantee that you’ll actually find them along the way?

Nicole Gartside, a New York University collegiette and veteran road tripper – she drives for 16 hours to Texas with her family each summer – says not to worry. “As far as planning where we stay along the way, we usually wing it,” she explains. “Unless you're planning on staying at some ritzy hotel or spa, chances are good that wherever you decide to crash for the night, there will be a vacant motel.”

If you’re neither a seasoned road tripper nor traveling with your parents (who were alive in the ‘60s and thus probably have more road tripping – or even [gasp] hitchhiking – experience than you will ever know), it’s better to be safe than sorry. “Make sure you do your homework so you don't end up staying in a sketchy part of town, but don't always try to book the [super nice hotel],” Laura suggests. “Motels get a bad rap, but they are super convenient and were very nice on my wallet. If you aren't going very far and are only planning on stopping once, scope out a deal online before you set out. Booking in advance will make you feel better about your trip.”

Driving Schedule

The all-important driving schedule determines how long driving shifts will last and the order in which drivers will rotate shifts. “If you have more than one friend with you, rotate out so the back becomes the sleep area and the person in the passenger seat is in charge of road watching,” Laura advises.

AAA suggests taking a rest stop and switching shifts around every two hours or 100 miles to stay refreshed. The company also recommends limiting yourself to 5 to 7 hours in the car per day, meaning you and your friends will go through two to four driving shifts before you all get off of the road for the night. By those calculations, a cross-country trip (which generally takes around 40-50 hours of driving) will probably take you around six to 10 days to complete.

If you find yourself getting sleepy behind the wheel before your shift is up, tell your friends and find a safe spot to pull over and switch places or rest. Sleep deprivation can have the same detrimental effects on your driving as intoxication, so it’s important to take naps when you get a break from the wheel (and who doesn’t love naps?).

Pack Your Bags

It’s easy enough to daydream yourself into a Jack Kerouac novel, but what does it take to actually pack up and leave for 10 days? For most of us, the beatnik-style road trip – the kind where you get by on nothing but the clothes on your back and the gas in the tank – is just a tad too rustic (not to mention outdated; hellloooo, GPS!). Here are our collegiette-approved road trip necessities:

  • “Never rely on just your GPS. Road maps might be old school, but they're really helpful when you're driving down the highway at 4 in the morning running out of gas with a dying GPS... trust me.” – Alexandra
  • “A fully charged cell phone (or a car charger).” – Laura
  • “I stress that you can never have enough snacks. Literally never.” – Nicole
  • “Water. So much water. You can never have enough water.” – Laura
  • “Definitely bring plenty of quarters; tolls pop up at the most inopportune times.” - Jessica
  • “A book on tape! My family and I love mysteries because they keep you interested while you're driving.” - Nicole
  • “Bring multiple iPods. You'll need LOTS and LOTS of music to get through all of those hours.” – Jenni

There’s an App for That

One more Her Campus packing list suggestion: an iPhone or iPad, which earn our love for being handy dandy road trip sidekicks. Here are some of HC’S favorite appsfor when you’re speeding down Route 66:

  • Roadside America: Check out all of the oddest stops along your way. World’s largest garden gnome, anyone?
  • iExit Interstate Exit Guide: To avoid those moments when you convince yourself that there will be another McDonald’s at the next exit and that you can wait just five more minutes... and then there isn’t. Heartbreak.
  • Gas Buddy: Find the cheapest gas in the area!
  • AroundMe: Search for nearby restaurants, pharmacies, movie theaters, pubs... it’s like Sonar for necessities.
  • License Plate Travel Game: Bringing license plate-spotting into the 21st century (and possibly turning it into a blood sport). 

If Breckin Meyer and Seann William Scott taught us anything in Road Trip (besides what not to do), it’s that the road trip is still as much of a rite of passage today as it was during the days of Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty (they may be fictional characters, but they’re based on real, state-hopping people!). So gather up your friends, map out your route, take a moment to imagine all of the Instagram possibilities, and drive! Nothing says summer quite like fresh air and the open road.