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My family and I were planning a mega road trip from Southern California to Nashville, so I need to know what to take with us. And not only what we should bring, but how can we save money on the road trip to make it more affordable. Here are the 11 road trip essentials we used for the best vacation ever.
Why pick a road trip vs. flying?
Many people choose to go on road trips because airfare can be expensive when you have a family. Buying a $400 plane ticket isn’t so bad when you’re single. Stings a bit when you’re a couple. But if you have a couple of kids, the thought of spending almost $2,000 just to get to your destination is downright nauseating.
When you go on a road trip, the biggest costs are time, gas, and the hotel each night.
Flying is much more expensive, plus you have to pay for airport parking AND worry about transportation once you get to your destination. Plus, you’ll possibly get a friendly pat down from a TSA agent.
Why we chose a road trip
I use airline miles for most of our vacations, so the cost of plane tickets isn’t much of an obstacle.
For us, the choice was a bit different. We were moving from Southern California to our new home in Tennessee. We could have used a service to move our cars and dog for us, then flew to Nashville. But, we wanted to take our time, visit family & friends along the way, and explore whatever fun things we came across.
Our dog, Stella, sat in the front passenger seat the entire time. Yes, Anna is a saint for allowing this to happen.
The 11 road trip essentials for the best vacation ever
When you’re getting ready to hit the road, you want to make sure you have the essentials. This is especially true if you’re traveling like we were – through the desert, with two small kids, and an 8-year-old dog.
Bestek 300 Watt Power Inverter
We were traveling with 2 laptops, 4 iPads, 2 cell phones, and Apple AirPods. But our SUV only had so many ports within reach. Big thanks to Bestek for providing us with one of their Bestek 300 Watt Power Inverters (see my review). It allowed us to charge up to 4 devices at one time without worrying about overheating any device. There are 2 AC plugs and 2 USB 2.4 amp ports which provided us with ample power throughout our entire 10-day road trip.
Jump Start Devices
Although we have an AAA membership, we weren’t in the mood to wait around in case our battery died. So, we grabbed a couple jump start devices to make sure we weren’t stranded someplace.
The myCharge Adventure Jump Start device has a 6600mAh capacity that’s big enough to jump start most 4- and 6-cylinder vehicles. I like that the jumper cables are spark proof and have a mistake-proof design to ensure you don’t reverse the polarity by accident. The myCharge battery also includes an integrated power bank with a max 3.1A output to charge handheld devices. And in an emergency, it can also be used as an LED flashlight with SOS function. This is going to work perfectly for my wife’s car.
Because I have an SUV with a V8, I went with the beefier Jump Smart from Limitless Innovations. This jump starter packs 400 amps of power, big enough for larger vehicles. It is designed with a durable aluminum housing that resembles a metal flashlight. And the jumper cables have 10 built-in safety features to warn you of an improper connection. This jump starter also includes an 1100 lumen flashlight and a 10,000 mAh power bank. For convenience, it can be charged in a car or plugged into a wall.
Long gone are the days of Thomas Guides and AAA TripTick maps. Ok, the younger generation totally doesn’t know what I’m talking about here, but if you’re 40+ like me, you totally get me.
The three most commonly used GPS apps are Waze (iTunes, Google Play), Google Maps (iTunes, Google), and Apple Maps (iTunes). I like using Waze because it factors in traffic when routing you to your destination. It also lets the community warn other drivers of accidents, police, closed roads, and dangerous conditions. Being able to let others know where you are and when you’ll arrive is also a great feature that provides a bit of safety.
Cell Phone Dash Mount
For years, I’ve driven around with my phone in my lap on in the center console. But I just knew that wasn’t going to cut it when I was going to drive for 8 to 10 hours every day.
In order to keep my eyes on the road and have easy access to GPS directions, I needed a cell phone dash mount. The Vansky Car Phone Mount that I ordered is versatile because it includes 3 different ways you can mount a phone in your car. The 3 options are – window, dash, or air vent. I went with the window suction cup mount to keep my iPhone in the line of sight as I’m focused on the road.
Take care of your eyes
While driving on a long road trip, your eyes will get tired. This is especially true if you’re driving in the direction of the sun. You need a good pair of sunglasses to protect your eyes from the sun’s UV rays.
What I like most about sunglasses from Sunglass Warehouse is that they are really affordable. There are literally 100s of styles to choose from and they’re all under $20! And when you order $25 or more, shipping is free! Sign up for their email newsletter and get 20% off your first order.
The ones I choose are around $13 each so I’m not concerned if they get lost, broken, or scratched while exploring on vacation.
Save money on gas
Gas is a pretty hefty expense while driving. This is especially true if you’re taking a summertime road trip when gas prices tend to be higher.
Apps that help save money on gas and credit cards that offer bonus rewards for gasoline purchases are road trip essentials. The best part is that you can stack all of these rewards!
The first one I use is Dosh. Dosh gives you 2% cash back on purchases at ExxonMobil stations with your registered credit card. And you can stack the 2% cash back with the ExxonMobil SpeedPass app (iTunes, Google Play), which gives a $0.10 per gallon discount when using the app to purchase gas.
Shell Fuel Rewards (iTunes, Google Play) increases the gas discount when you fill up more often. Discounts start at $0.03 per gallon and increase up to $0.05 per gallon with Gold status. You’ll earn Gold status when you fill up 6 times in a calendar quarter. When you sign up for Shell Fuel Rewards, you’re automatically granted Gold status for the first 6 months. You can also earn up to $0.10 per gallon for dining and $0.20 for shopping online for a total $0.35 discount per gallon.
GasBuddy (iTunes, Google Play) is an app that helps you find the lowest priced gasoline or the gas station that is closest to you. They’ve also released a feature called Pay with Gas Buddy that acts like a debit card. The free version allows you to save $0.05 per gallon, with paid versions offering $0.20 per gallon. The math shows that you are better off using a credit card offering 3 to 4% cash back on gas and stacking with SpeedPass or Fuel Rewards for a discount of at least $0.10 per gallon.
Bring snacks to munch on
When you’re on a mission to get to your destination, you don’t want to pull over for food. You need to bring some snacks to munch on and a cooler full of drinks.
Because it can get hot inside a car, I would stay away from chocolate and other food that will melt. The way around this is to bring a small cooler filled with ice and put your chocolate inside a ziplock bag.
We always bring an assortment of goodies because you never know what the kiddos will want during a road trip.
Save money on food
To eat healthy and save money while on the road, we like bringing prepared food in our Vaya Tyffyn 1000 insulated lunchbox. It is BPA-free and eco-friendly, which makes Anna happy. The vacuum-insulated, leak-resistant lunchbox keeps food warm or cold for up to 5 hours. And the 3 separate compartments maintain the temperature long enough to stop for lunch. The Vaya Tyffyn is also perfect when you go camping, on a hike, or out for a picnic because there are 3 different spill-proof containers so you can enjoy a variety of dishes.
Fast food is just a part of road trips. But you can save money at the drive-thru when you use the fast-food restaurant’s apps and fill out the receipt surveys. For example, the McDonald’s app (iTunes, Google Play) always offers discounts and BOGOs. And when you fill out the survey on the receipt, you’ll get a BOGO offer for a Quarter Pounder with cheese or an Egg McMuffin.
Entertainment for the kids (and adults)
Entertaining the kids so they aren’t bouncing off the walls for 10 hours at a time is one of the road trip essentials we all need. During a road trip, there are two kinds of entertainment – something that will keep the kids occupied so you can talk with your spouse or focus on the road and interactive games for the whole family.
Music, movies, and apps
To keep our kids occupied for the 8 to 10 hours we spent on the road each day, we bought them iPads. We protected the iPads with the HDE Shockproof Bumper Hard Cover with Handle. These are the same protective cases that my son’s private school uses, so I knew they could withstand the torture our kids would inflict on their iPads. They come in multiple colors, and I like that the handle can be used as a hands-free stand so the kids can watch movies easier.
We filled the iPads up with movies and TV shows from Netflix and Amazon Prime (try free for 30 days). They now let you download movies and TV shows to “rent” them for about a week at a time. When the rental period expires, simply log in and “renew” the rental. It takes a while for the initial download, but the renewal is very quick.
A new program offered by Amazon is called Amazon FreeTime (30-day free trial) which offers more than 16,000 kid-friendly books, games, videos, and apps that offer parental controls. As a parent, I like that you can control what your kids have access to. My 3-year-old definitely needs more controls than my 7-year-old does, so I can adjust accordingly.
Because I don’t need to hear everything that the kids are watching, I got them some buddyphones. Buddyphones are wireless Bluetooth headphones designed for children. They’re waterproof and have a 24-hour battery life. Most important to me is that they have “safe audio” settings which allow you to control the maximum volume based on a child’s age. Toddlers are maxed out at 75 decibels, kids can go up to 85 decibels, and travel and study modes top out at 94 decibels.
When I drive, I listen to podcasts and audiobooks (get 2 free audiobooks from Audible) to entertain and educate me for hours on end. However, the kiddos can be quite loud sometimes, so I bought some iLive Noise Canceling Wireless Earbuds for the trip. They sounded wonderful and I love that they are sweatproof so that I could use them on a morning run or workout and not have to worry about ruining them. When you’re driving 8 to 10 hours a day for days in a row, it is important to get the blood flowing in the morning or evening to shake off the rust. The earbuds charge in about 2 hours and offer up to 4 hours of battery life during workouts.
Games for the entire family
Ok, we’re not “those parents” that just gave the kids iPads and ignored them for hours on end. We also brought along some interactive games that we could play as we drove.
Some games are just verbal, like the “Alphabet Game” that my son loves so much. As we drive, we look for words and names on signs, cars, and trucks that start with each letter. Because some letters are more difficult (like “Q” and “X”), we also include any letters on license plates.
One of the most fun games we played is called Utter Nonsense. Technically, the game is for kids ages 8 and up, but our kids (ages 3 and 7 years) still had a blast making up accents when saying the phrases. There’s even an adult “naughty version” if you’re taking a road trip with just your significant other or adult friends.
Another one that was a little more serious, but still plenty of fun, is Table Topics. These cards ask questions to start conversations and allow you to better understand what someone is thinking. At last count, there were almost 30 different Table Topics games to choose from on Amazon. I know there’s a set you will enjoy.
In Case of Emergency
Although we had a great road trip without any problems, that doesn’t mean that every drive will go as smoothly. Being prepared for the worse is part of packing the road trip essentials.
We brought a can of Fix A Flat, roadside flares, extra engine coolant, a couple quarts of oil, and a roll of duct tape. A quick stop at your local auto parts store and you can pick up exactly what you need for your vehicle and engine type.
It’s a good idea to always keep an emergency kit to address any minor medical emergency you may face.
Some uncommon items that you should pack are:
- baby wipes
- ziploc bags
- bug repellant
- baby powder
- a couple of towels
- a blanket
The wipes make it easy to clean up spills and sticky hands. Ziploc bags have many uses, including if you or your kid gets sick. And baby powder is an excellent way to get sand off your body after a day at the beach. And the towels and blankets are good for keeping warm, a stop at the beach, or a picnic.
The Bald Thoughts
When you’re hitting the road, there are 11 road trip essentials that you need to pack so you can have a great time while saving money. I like that most of these items serve dual purposes either during your vacation or when you get home. With a little planning, you’ll create a memorable travel experience and arrive at your destination happy, healthy, and safe.
What are the items that you bring with you on a road trip?