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How to Make Sure Your Car Is Ready for Your Next Road Trip

By Robert Firpo-Cappiello
May 11, 2020
Woman leaning out of car peace sign
Angkana Kittayachaweng/Dreamstime
Millions of Americans will make some colossal mistakes when they hit the road this year. Here, an easy checklist for preventing breakdowns and other roadside emergencies.

Budget Travelers know that some of the best (and most affordable) vacations are road trips. With the chance to enjoy scenic highways, jaw-dropping national and state parks, cool small towns, and mid-size cities, the “great American road trip” is one of our favorite warm-weather rituals.

Are you ready?

Not so fast. AAA sure got our attention when it announced that it expected to rescue 7 million American drivers during the summer months. According to AAA, more than 60 percent of American families hit the road on vacation, and an estimated four out of 10 drivers are unprepared for emergency breakdowns.

The top reasons for roadside emergencies are fairly predictable: Are you one of the two-thirds of American drivers who don’t test their car batteries? Are you the one in five who has no idea how to change a tire? Are you one of the four in 10 who don’t carry an emergency kit onboard?

Here, AAA's common-sense three-step road-trip preparation list:

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1. GIVE YOUR CAR A CHECKUP

You know the drill: Schedule a maintenance checkup in advance of your trip. Check the oil, fluid levels, battery, and tires. Sure, this seems obvious, but chances are you haven't done it yet, right?

2. CARRY AN EMERGENCY KIT

Auto science is not rocket science: Pack a mobile phone and charger that can plug into your car, flashlight (with fresh batteries and backups), a first-aid kit, basic tool kit (including tire-pressure gauge and adjustable wrench), windshield wiper fluid, jumper cables, emergency flares or reflectors, drinking water, and snacks for both humans and pets. Assembling an emergency kit may seem like a hassle. You know what's an even bigger hassle? Being stuck on the side of the road without any of the things on this list.

3. DON'T GET LOCKED OUT

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Carry extra car keys, always take a moment to grab your keys before exiting the car, and check the batteries on keyless-entry remotes and smart keys and keep them protected from water and other hazards. Some drivers find that establishing consistent car-key habits (you might even call them rituals) helps them keep track of their keys. For instance: Always store keys in the same place, say the word "keys" out loud before leaving your vehicle, and change batteries on remotes at the beginning and end of Daylight Saving Time.

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Road Trips

Road trip the Southeast on a budget

If you’re looking for a road trip that delivers some of the highest highlights of the Southeast, we’ve put together a peerless itinerary that takes you from the biggest city in North Carolina to the oldest city in America, with plenty of good eats, arts, and natural beauty along the way. Start your engine! Charlotte Your Southeast road trip begins with a taste of Charlotte, North Carolina. The largest city in the “First in Flight” State, Charlotte offers a menu of contemporary Southern cuisine like the exquisite BBQ at Midwood Smokehouse, several important art collections including the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, and the unique Levine Museum of the New South with its focus on events after the Civil War. A stop at the NASCAR Hall of Fame is a must for racing enthusiasts and newbies alike. The winding Blue Ridge Parkway is one of America's best drives © Pierre Leclerc Photography / Getty Images Boone & Blowing Rock From Charlotte, you’ll head north (don’t worry, we’ll get you down to South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida eventually) for about two hours on I-77 and US 421 to the scenic Boone and Blowing Rock region. The epicenter of beauty here is the stretch of the Blue Ridge Parkway that passes through the region on its way from Shenandoah National Park in Virginia to Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee, boasting seemingly endless hiking trails and scenic overlooks. Don’t miss the chance to witness living history with the costumed actors at Hickory Ridge Museum, and get to know the flora of the Boone area at its namesake Daniel Boone Native Gardens. In nearby Blowing Rock, spend the day at Ultimate Adventure park with zip lines and other out-of-this-world pursuits. Rest your head at reliable lodging like the Inn at Crestwood, in Boone, with rooms starting well under $100/night. The shops and restaurants in Asheville's Grove Arcade is a can't-miss experience © MilesbeforeIsleep / Shutterstock Asheville The drive from Boone to Asheville, less than two hours south on US 221, takes you into the heart of one of America’s hippest small cities, brimming over with culinary delights (including a delicious and imaginative vegan scene), craft beer, and vibrant local arts. But the great outdoors will most likely dominate your Asheville stay, including canopy tours, hot air ballooning, and zip lining. After hours, we recommend an evening at Well Played, a unique “board game cafe,” and a well-earned sleep at the Residences at Biltmore, starting at under $120/night. The illuminated Falls Park Liberty Bridge in Downtown Greenville at night © Kevin Ruck / Shutterstock Greenville About an hour and 15 minutes from Asheville on I-26 East and US-25 South, Greenville, South Carolina, beckons with an exceptionally walkable downtown that boasts cool shopping, artist studios and galleries, and great food (including the Greenville BBQ Trail Tour). Start your morning with a cup of coffee at Falls Park before you traverse the Liberty Bridge, a 345ft-long span over the Reedy River. A variety of comfy motels offer rooms at well under $100/night, and for a little over $100/night you can get a room at the Hyatt Place Greenville/Haywood. Alpharetta From Greenville, head south on I-85 for about two hours and 15 minutes and discover Alpharetta, Georgia. Explore more than 750 acres of parkland, try some of the 200+ restaurants like Cabernet Steakhouse or Chiringa with its coastal cuisine. Be sure to set aside your evening for music at one of the world’s finest jazz clubs, The Velvet Note. Savannah's Forsyth Park Fountain during the early evening © Sean Pavone / Shutterstock Savannah A four-hour drive from Alpharetta on I-75 South and I-16 East brings you to the uniquely charming city of Savannah. Take your pick of activities, including strolling along Bull Street from square to square to Forsyth’s Park discovering the city’s decidedly European flavors; visit the Savannah College of Art and Design with its exceptional SCAD Museum of Art; and for more art, both classic and new, visit the Telfair Museum, in Savannah’s Historic District, and the Jepson Center. Dining options include fresh oysters and shrimp at Bernie’s. Bunk down for a night or more at the Old Harbor Inn, with rooms under $150/night and worth every penny. Spanish Renaissance architecture at Flagler College in St Augustine © Sean Pavone / Shutterstock St Augustine Once you succeed in bidding adieu to Savannah and its charms, head south on I-95 about two hours and 45 minutes to discover the oldest city in the US. St Augustine, Florida, was founded in 1565 by Spanish settlers and delivers an experience that feels a world away from the beach towns and theme parks we associate with the Sunshine State. Explore the iconic Castillo de San Marcos, spend some time getting to know local history at the city’s exceptional museums, and enjoy a diverse menu that reflects St. Augustine’s native, colonial, and immigrant cultures (try Collage Restaurant for its international menu and romantic setting in the Historic District). Book a room at the utterly charming Villa 1565, starting under $125/night.

Road Trips

Road trip the Rockies on a budget

Of course a tour of the Rocky Mountains is on your to-do list. Whether it’s your first or umpteenth visit to America’s definitive mountain range, there’s always more to see. With that in mind, we’ve curated essential must-sees in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming that offer red rocks, black rocks, and views for days, along with a manageable itinerary that maximizes the wow factor. Grand Junction Your Rocky Mountains road trip begins in Grand Junction, Colorado. The town’s name is a tribute to its location, west of the Grand Mesa, in the Western Slope region with its exceptional wines, and smack in the path of the Colorado River. Before you hit the road, spend some time exploring Grand Junction’s galleries and boutiques, plus one of America’s biggest outdoor sculpture displays. And save time for the Museum of Western Colorado’s history exhibits and dinosaur collection. For something a bit wilder, try rafting the river, with options ranging from gentle to class IV rapids. Grab a bite at Bin 707 Foodbar, which focuses on locally sourced meats and produce. Reliable hotel chains offer rooms starting under $150/night. One of the USA's lesser-known national parks, the Black Canyon Of The Gunnison National Park features a steep-sided canyon formed by the Gunnison River © AlexeyKamenskiy / Getty Images Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park From Grand Junction, head east on US-50 for the 80-minute drive to one of the National Park Service’s most sublime “secrets,” Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Here, you’ll discover a world of unique black rock formations rising 2000ft over the beautiful Gunnison River. Stay a day, a week, or more exploring the canyon’s South Rim trails, opportunities for fishing and climbing, and ranger-led programs. The most affordable lodging is found at the park’s campsites; if you choose to camp, first pick up food and water in nearby Montrose. If roughing it isn’t your style, book a room at the Double G Guestranch, in Montrose, with rates starting under $150/night. Moab is an excellent jumping-off point for exploring nearby Arches National Park © JFunk / Shutterstock Moab From Montrose, head west on I-70 for the three-hour drive to Moab, Utah. In addition to its own considerable charms, Moab happens to be the gateway to two of Utah’s “Mighty Five,” Canyonlands National Park and Arches National Park. You’ll want to spend plenty of time hiking their distinctive red rocks, and you’ll also reconnect with the Colorado River in Moab. Save some time to discover nearby Dead Horse Point State Park (we promise it’s way more beautiful than its name). Grab breakfast at the Jailhouse Cafe, and unwind at the end of the day at Moab Brewery. Book a room at Expedition Lodge, starting under $150/night. Discover Salt Lake City's unique blend of cultures at Temple Square © Allison J. Hahn / Shutterstock Salt Lake City For a dose of big-city style in the midst of your mountain sojourn, head west out of Moab on US-6 for the four-hour drive to Salt Lake City. A visit here offers such a variety of experiences, you’ll want to customize your itinerary to your personal tastes. Nature lovers will want to continue with their hiking and exploring at Antelope Island State Park, Sugar House Park with its trails and lakes right within city limits, and a day trip to nearby Park City. History buffs will love strolling downtown around Temple Square and learning about the city’s unique cultural mix and stories. Foodies – and, honestly, everybody else – should get a taste of SLC’s culinary scene at Ruth’s Diner with its legendary biscuits (since 1930), and the city’s favorite Mexican eatery, Red Iguana. Great lodging is available at The Kimball at Temple Square starting under $150/night; motel options under $100/night abound near the airport. Iconic sites like the historic John Moulton Barn await you in Grand Teton National Park © Paul Brady Photography / Shutterstock Grand Teton National Park Before you leave Salt Lake City, pick up a dozen of the justly famous bagels and cream cheese at Bagels and Greens, then head north out of I-15 for the nearly five-hour drive to Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. The distinctive Tetons will look familiar to anyone who’s seen the classic black-and-white images by photographer Ansel Adams, and capturing the stunning landscapes and wildlife for posterity (or for the ‘gram) is a must. If you want to pay tribute to Adams by attempting to imitate his work, ask rangers for directions to the marker of the exact spot where Adams shot “Tetons and the Snake River,” in 1942. Hungry? The Chuckwagon Breakfast at Dornan’s is legendary, and you can also grab deli sandwiches there. Bunk down at Targhee Lodge in nearby Alta, with rooms starting under $150/night, or book a campsite in the park well in advance of your visit. (And don’t forget you can enter adjoining Yellowstone National Park for no additional fee!) Dubois, Wyoming, is surrounded by spectacular scenery, such as the Wind River © Edwin Remsberg / The Image Bank / Getty Dubois From Grand Teton, it’s about an hour’s drive on US-26 East/US-287 South to Dubois. Here, on the Wind River, you’ll find a cool town where Friday nights in summer mean rodeo and any day is a good day to take a wildlife tour of the nearby National Bighorn Sheep Center. Grab a burger at the Cowboy Cafe, and book a room at Stagecoach Inn & Suites for under $125/night. The statue entitled "Breakin' Through" that stands in front of War Memorial Stadium at the University of Wyoming in Laramie © C5 Media / Shutterstock Laramie From Dubois, it’s about four-and-a-half hours on US-287 South and I-80 East to Laramie. The Snowy Ridge Range is one of the star attractions in this region of Wyoming, with 12,000ft Medicine Bow Peak just begging to be photographed. Spend some time at the University of Wyoming’s renowned art museum and pay a visit it its geology museum’s allosaurus (“Big Al”), which was discovered outside of Laramie. Fuel up at Coal Creek Coffee & Tap, and get a good night’s sleep (with visions of the Rockies and Tetons dancing in your head) at the Holiday Inn, starting under $125/night.

Road Trips

The best Pacific Northwest road trip

Two major vacation-planning questions pop up again and again: City or country? Ocean or mountains? But there are places where the answer to both questions is, “Yes, yes, yes, and yes.” America’s Pacific Northwest may be the best example, boasting Pacific beaches and the coastal mountain range, the cities of Seattle and Portland, gorgeous rivers and forests, and the decidedly cool little city of Boise, in the foothills of the Rockies. Ready to get started? Here, a step-by-step itinerary that’ll take you across one of the US’s most rewarding regions. Seattle Kick off your Pacific Northwest road trip in Seattle, Washington, where you’ll indulge in fresh seafood, legendary coffee, sea kayaking, and more. Pike Place Market is iconic and busy but worth a visit for fresh fish and other culinary delights – strolling and shooting pics is free. Don’t miss Seattle’s cool museums, including the rotating exhibits and excellent guided tours at the Frye Art Museum, the world-class collection at the Seattle Art Museum, and the immense (and immensely impressive) works to be found in Olympic Sculpture Park. See the full list: 51 affordable discoveries across America 2020 Speaking of parks, Seattle’s ample green spaces deserve to monopolize much of your time here; from the little Waterfall Garden Park in the city’s Pioneer Square section to the 500+ acres of forests and beaches of Discovery Park, you’ll have to remind yourself you’re still in town. And for dramatic panoramic views, forgo a trip to the Space Needle and instead head to Kerry Park or Queen Anne Hill. If you plan to spend a night or more in Seattle before hitting the road, downtown’s Hotel Max has a convenient location for walking to major sights and its stylish rooms are the perfect place to rest up before hitting the road. The Hoh Rain Forest in Olympic National Park is one of the largest temperate rainforests in the US © maislam / Getty Images Olympic National Park From Seattle, you’ll hit I-5 South, then 101 North as you arc around the bottom of Puget Sound and then up the Olympic Peninsula, a two-hour drive to one of the National Park Service’s lesser known but utterly unforgettable destinations: Olympic National Park. Here, visitors can indulge in miles of Pacific coast, exploring the one of the US’s last temperate rainforests, and ogling the coastal peaks on easily accessible hiking trails. Comfortable lodging within the park includes Kalaloch Lodge, with rooms starting well under $150/night; the nearby charming town of Port Angeles also boasts an array of affordable properties. In March and April, Portland's cherry blossom trees explode in a riot of pink © EchoGolf Photography / Shutterstock Portland From the Olympic Peninsula, you’ll dip into Oregon: take I-5 South for the three-hour drive to Portland’s exceptional food scene and parks. For those who put eating at the top of their travel to-do list, Portland is an epicenter of yum. For retro-chic ambience and beef and martinis, reserve a table at Clyde’s Prime Rib; explore the city’s penchant for the artisanal at its countless craft breweries, charcuterie and cheese shops, an array of affordable and tasty food trucks. And, much like Seattle but on a smaller scale, Portland boasts parks, including Mt. Tabor and Forest Park, that’ll keep any visitor busy for days, and a bike-sharing program with dozens of stations makes it all the easier to explore. You’ll love Jupiter Hotel, an upscale riff on a mid-century motor lodge in the city’s Lower Burnside neighborhood, with affordable, pop-art-informed rooms. The Columbia River Gorge offers splendid vistas around every bend in the river © Zack Frank / Shutterstock Columbia River Gorge From Portland, you’ll pass in and out of Oregon and Washington along I-84 East and WA-14 for about a half-hour on your way to indulge in a journey along the Columbia River Gorge, with its ample scenic turn-offs and nearby world-class wineries. The Cascade Mountains serve as your scenic backdrop as the river cuts its way through the range on its way to the Pacific; keep an eye out for waterfalls within sight of the highway and consider pulling off for mountain biking and hiking. If you’re planning to spend a night or two, impressive nearby properties such as Westcliff Lodge and Columbia Gorge Hotel & Spa offer reliable, wallet-friendly lodging. And spending the night allows you to make time for sipping some of the region’s exceptional pinot noirs, chardonnays, and other wines. Bustling Boise features many downtown events, such as the Boise Farmers Market in late spring © Darwin Fan / Getty Images Boise Boise, Idaho, will welcome you with its array of funky downtown shops, mountain trails in the foothills of the Rockies accessible right from town, and an overall design-forward vibe. From the Columbia River Gorge, take I-84 East for the five-hour drive. (If you’re looking for a stop in between to break up your ride, consider Baker City, Oregon, which features a restored downtown, carriage rides, and the bordering Elkhorn and Wallowa mountains.) In downtown Boise, you’ll love shopping at one-of-a-kind establishments that offer vintage finds, local-themed books, and artisanal treasures such as barrel-aged vinegar and olive oil. While strolling, keep an eye out for public art, which the city has made a priority, including a tree crafted from scraps of metal and other projects that enliven the streets. If you’re visiting in April through December, stop by the Capital City Central Market for an incredible array of Idaho-made crafts and foods. And we absolutely love how the Modern Hotel and Bar offer art-inspired rooms and a restaurant that draws on diverse French and North African influences, all in an upgraded former motel with rooms starting under $150/night. The Snake River Valley is two hours from Boise and features breathtaking views © Robert Alexander / Getty Snake River Valley Cap off your road trip by discovering Idaho’s Snake River Valley – a two-hour drive from Boise along I-84 East – where a visit to the 500ft-high Perrine Bridge spanning the Snake River Canyon will take your breath away. Explore the canyon’s south rim along a paved trail, and don’t miss one of the most Instagram-worthy sights on this trip, Shoshone Falls. Bunk down in nearby Twin Falls, where there are several reliable motel chains that offer good value. Produced by Budget Travel for GEICO. All editorial views are those of Budget Travel alone and reflect our policy of editorial independence and impartiality.

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Road Trips

Road trip the Southwest on a budget

From the fun of Sin City to the jaw-dropping beauty of the national parks, this scenic route packs amazing sights and tastes into a manageable itinerary. If you’re looking for a vacation that includes warm sun, gorgeous desert landscapes, snow-covered mountains, and big-city stye, the American Southwest is a go-to option. Here, you’ll discover the 24/7 excitement, of Vegas, the otherworldly landscapes of national and state parks (think humanoid-like cacti and red rocks), and the vibrant communities and culinary scenes of Phoenix and El Paso. Here, a step-by-step affordable itinerary that includes wallet-friendly lodging, plus the best places to grab a taste of Southwestern flavors. Las Vegas, Nevada Start your engine in Las Vegas, where the legendary Strip beckons with endless neon and who-has-time-to-sleep gaming, food, and drink. Even the grandest hotels here typically offer reasonable nightly rates – rooms at Circus Circus Hotel, Casino, and Theme Park, for instance, can start as low as $25/night, but keep in mind that taxes and standard charges can add at least another $40/night to your stay. Before hitting the road, you may want to catch a concert, theater performance, or stand-up comedy, and remember that Vegas offers plenty of quirky off-the-beaten-path delights such as the Neon Museum with its incredible array of bright lights and kitschy designs, and the surprisingly riveting National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement, more commonly known as the Mob Museum. Food options, from shockingly affordable buffets to $700 burgers deliver something for every culinary preference. (Take a Taste Buzz Food Tour for a taste of a little bit of everything.) Valley of Fire State Park is known for its strange "beehive" rock formations © Carol Polich / Lonely Planet Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada Less than an hour’s drive from Las Vegas along Route I-15 North, Valley of Fire State Park, in the Mojave Desert, feels like a world away. As you enter the park, you’ll stay on Valley of Fire Scenic Byway, the only main road, which runs about 11 miles, connecting the east and west entrances. Pull over for one of the park’s exceptional hikes, where you can explore the iconic red Aztec sandstone formations that give the park its name – timing your visit to include at least one sunset is as must, as the combination of golden light and deep red of the rocks creates the namesake “fire” display. In addition to its geological wonders, Valley of Fire is also home to remnants of prehistoric communities, such as roadside petroglyphs and ancient rock art. Keep your eyes peeled for wildlife like antelope, bobcat, coyote, and Nevada’s state animal, the desert bighorn sheep. Arrive with picnic foods and snacks and plenty of water, and pack layers of clothing: winter temperatures can veer from the mid-70s to freezing; summer temps range from more than 100 degrees in the day to much cooler at night. You can treat Valley of Fire as a day trip from Vegas, or book one of the park’s 70+ campsites for the night. Sprawling Phoenix holds many surprises © tonda / Getty Images Phoenix, Arizona From the Vegas/Valley of Fire area, you’ll want to set aside a day for the 300-mile drive along US 93 South to Phoenix, Arizona; if more than four hours in the car feels like a long trip (westerners reckon driving distances differently from those visiting from back east), plan a stop in Kingman, Arizona, where a stop at the Alpacas of the Southwest ranch will delight kids of all ages. Once in Phoenix, you’ll want to spend at least a full day discovering America’s fifth-largest city (with a population of more than 1.6 million). Hike the trails on Camelback Mountain for the best vistas; visit Papago Park with its red rock buttes, botanical garden, and zoo just minutes from downtown; and drop by architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s former winter home, Taliesin West, a Unesco World Heritage site, for its beautiful synthesis of modern design and desert-inspired rooms and gardens. Don’t miss the Heard Museum, celebrating the history and culture of Native American people with an extensive collection of art and artifacts. Fuel up at the award-winning Pizzeria Bianco, in Heritage Square, and when it’s time to rest your head, Phoenix offers an array of affordable lodging such as the stylish Cambria Hotel Downtown Phoenix. See the strange saguaro cacti in Saguaro National Park © Dmitry Vinogradov / 500px Saguaro National Park, Arizona From Phoenix, you’ll hit I-10 East for the two-hour drive to Saguaro National Park. Get ready to meet the gigantic, humanoid forms of Saguaro cacti, some as high as 50ft and as old as 200 years. Some visitors swear the cacti take on a truly human appearance and personality, which only adds to the otherworldly quality of this Southwestern road trip. The park is also home to 8000ft mountains and unique desert wildlife such as javelinas, desert tortoises, and the Mexican spotted owl. Start at one of the park’s visitor centers for maps and advice about hikes, museum exhibits, a cactus garden, and ranger-led programs. Lodging options for visiting Saguaro range from posh digs in nearby Tucson, such as the University Inn to camping in the backcountry of the Rincon Mountain District (check in with the park’s visitor center for up-to-date camping options). Blossoming El Paso is a worthy stop on your Southwestern road trip © Beau Rogers / 500px El Paso, Texas From Tucson, you’ll get back on I-10 East for a four-hour drive across New Mexico before you dip into the western corner of Texas, where El Paso awaits. This vibrant city is ready for its closeup. A construction boom in recent years has led to exceptional hotel bargains, such as comfy and reliable stays at the Doubletree or Holiday Inn Express, and a renaissance of community spirit. Catch a minor-league baseball game and cheer for the hometown Chihuahuas, sip an exceptional local craft beer, and hop a ride on the newly restored streetcar line. Set aside at least a day to get to know this important border city’s art museum and gorgeous Franklin Mountains State Park. Strange cave formations await you in Carlsbad Caverns National Park © PHOTO 24 / Getty Images Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico Hit US-62 East for the two-hour drive from El Paso to one of America’s most extraordinary national parks, Carlsbad Caverns. Aboveground, the park is home to beautiful grassland, the lovely Guadalupe Mountains, and canyons. Below, you’ll explore the unique cave system that rivals any on earth for its scale and visual impact – at 250ft high and 4000ft long, it’s truly like nothing you’ve ever seen before. Ranger-led tours of the caverns, guided hikes among the mountains and canyons, and other hands-on programs keep every member of the family engaged. Reliable lodging is available about a half-hour’s drive from the park, in Carlsbad, NM, ranging from roadside chain motels to Quality Inn & Suites. Produced by Lonely Planet for GEICO. All editorial views are those of Lonely Planet alone and reflect our policy of editorial independence and impartiality.

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