How to Make the Most of Your Summer Road Trip

Vanessa Raymond Fact Checked
VW Vanagon in Desert
Photo by Dino Reichmuth on Unsplash

The great American road trip is back.

Yes, you do have to wear your seatbelt and there’s no beverage service. And your dear friend and travel buddy could end up more of a frenemy by trip's end.

But these road trip tips will help to keep you safe, awake at the wheel, friendly (or at least not downright irritable) and ready for adventure. 

Before you hit the road

Before your trip, you’ll want to do some pre-trip pampering—of your car.

Top off your car’s fluid levels (oil, coolant, power steering fluid, brake fluid and windshield wiper fluid), check your car's wiper blades, belt and hose connections, headlights, turn signals, horn and tire pressure. Consider getting a professional inspection if car maintenance is outside of your usual bailiwick.

And if your car is due for any major service like new brakes, tires or clutch, get the work done before you skip town. Nothing like a car breakdown mid-trip to test the limits of your patience and your pocketbook.

Quell that queasy feeling

Car sickness can put the kibosh on road trip fun within a matter of seconds. Motion sickness is believed to occur when your brain gets mixed signals from not seeing the motion your body feels or not feeling motion that your eyes detect.

Drivers can more easily avoid motion sickness than their passengers; that’s because by keeping their eyes on the road, they are inadvertently following doctor’s orders.

“The best ways to prevent nausea are to focus on the horizon or a stable object in the distance and to avoid reading and smart device screen time, as they add even more data inputs to your already-overloaded brain,” says Seth Cohen, M.D., clinic chief of the Travel Medicine Clinic at UW Medical Center - Northwest. 

Avoiding spicy or greasy meals and large quantities of food before and during travel helps to keep your stomach calm and reduce stomach acid. Some studies suggest that ginger may reduce motion sickness symptoms. But Cohen recommends against routine use of prescription-strength anti-nausea medications because one of their side effects is drowsiness.

And because being carsick is worse in the backseat and also for women who are expecting, if you’re pregnant, you get a free pass to sit up front—hello, diva!—without remorse.

Stay hydrated but not overhydrated

It’s true that dehydration can make you feel fatigued, and fatigue is your enemy on the road. On the other hand, drinking too much water means more bathroom breaks, so that’s a problem, too. Best of all is staying just the right amount of hydrated.

How much is that?

“Far less than eight glasses a day. You might need eight glasses of water per day on those days that you do hot yoga but not when you’re on a road trip,” says Cohen.

A good rule of thumb is to drink to your thirst. A practical way to tell if you’re drinking enough water is that your pee should be pale yellow.

But if you’re the pregnant woman in the front seat, there are still more special privileges for you: You need to drink 10 cups of fluid daily, which wins you extra rest stops that no one gets to whine about.

Bring some healthy snacks

While you may be tempted to eat at greasy spoon diners along the way (it IS vacation, after all), it’s best to bring healthy snacks along, too.

“Heavily processed foods with lots of added sugars will give you a spike of energy when you first eat them but will have the opposite effect a few hours later when the sugar rush wears off,” says Cohen.

You could even end up sleepy.


Bring some complex carbs and proteins along to keep your blood sugars in normal range, which is where you want them, both for the sake of maintaining focus at the wheel and for your relationships (you’ll be less cranky).

Foods like cheese, hard-boiled eggs, seeds, nuts, whole wheat bread, beef jerky, hummus, carrots, and apples travel well and you can also stock up on them for those long stretches of road without services.

If you have a secret fantasy life as Martha Stewart, indulge in the thought of a handwoven muslin-lined basket for your goodies. In real life, put your perishables in a cooler. Food poisoning on top of motion sickness would make this trip the wrong kind of memorable. 

Stop and enjoy the journey

Stop the car at a rest area or truck stop and get out and walk around every few hours.

“This helps to keep your blood flowing normally and contributes to your sense of alertness, too,” says Cohen. 

It will also further lessen the already-small chance that you could develop a blood clot. Loose comfortable clothing is also a good choice; while your skinny jeans are unlikely to damage your health, it’s not impossible

Stay awake at the wheel

“It’s good to know your body and have some strategies for remaining awake at the wheel,” says Cohen. “Know them ahead of time so you can employ them as needed.”

Here are a few ways to keep your eyes wide open.

Playlist. Crank the volume on your favorite tunes and maybe even start a singalong (if your fellow passengers won’t revolt or subject you to merciless ridicule).

Coffee. While it can be tempting to rely on coffee to keep you awake, too much interferes with your ability to sleep at night. It’s also a diuretic, which means it makes you pee. It’s best to stick to your usual dose. And remember that energy drinks, iced tea and soda may contain caffeine, as can some painkillers, too.

Audio book or podcast. Now’s your chance to listen to that book you’ve been meaning to get to. Keeping your brain active helps you remain alert.

Power nap. Twenty minutes of snooze time at one of the less-creepy rest areas can refresh you, but don’t sleep so long that you fall into a deep sleep.

Stop and stretch your legs. Get your blood flowing with some movement. Regular stops will counteract sluggishness and the tendency to become fatigued.

Open your window. A little fresh air can perk you up, but this is usually a temporary fix (until you can get that power nap you need).

Drive during the day. Unless you’re a true night owl, drive during the day because it’s the time you would be awake anyway.

Stay hydrated. Dehydration will make your body feel fatigued and your mind less clear.

Things you don’t need to be told but we will anyway

Of course the same rules that you use in real life still apply during road trips.

  • Don’t pick up axe-wielding hitchhikers.
  • Remain aware of your surroundings.
  • Don’t text while you drive. 
  • Never drink and drive.
  • Obey the speed limit.

OK, there’s one more thing

It’s a great American road trip, for crying out loud: Don’t forget your sunglasses.