Road Trip

5 tips for road tripping during the COVID-19 pandemic

Navigating the ins and outs of a road trip during a pandemic can be tricky.

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America is getting out, stretching their legs, willingly being cooped up in their car for hours rather than their homes. That's right, it's road trip time. Before you head out on the road, there's a few things you need to consider for traveling during this national health crisis - take it from someone who just got back from a lengthy road trip.

Check local regulations.

Not only do states have different regulations, there are variances between counties and towns as well. Check the regulations the day before you leave - they're prone to changing quickly. While some regulations effect dining hours and service, some impact things like public restrooms, wearing a face mask, and public gatherings.

Make planned stops.

Waitress with face mask serving family with children outdoors in summer on terrace restaurant


Photo by Halfpoint Images/Getty Images

Don't just play it by ear when it comes to bathroom breaks and meals. Planning ahead will help you determine what is open and where, as well as the regulations that come with dine-in service versus take out. Remember, not all service station bathrooms are open and you might not be able to just pop in to a fast food restaurant for a bathroom break. Many rest stops and parks also have closed bathrooms.

Remember to bring cash.

With the coin shortage and the switchover to cashless payment for most businesses, it's important to remember that tolls booths still run mostly on cash-only service. Bring an assortment of bills (lots of ones, not as may fives and tens) and coins to help you achieve exact change when going through toll booths to ensure that you don't have to get change and expose yourself (and the tollbooth worker) to additional risk.

Pack personal protective equipment and other supplies.

Young mother squeezing hand sanitizer onto little daughter's hand in the playground to prevent the spread of viruses

Photo by d3sign/Getty Images

If you have a few days before your trip, consider ordering a package of disposable face masks to keep in your glovebox or center console. You'd be surprised how easy it is to spill on your usual mask, drop it in a parking lot, step on it, or get it stuck between the seat and center console. What if it suddenly breaks? It's good to have a back up. The last thing you want to do is arrive at your destination out of luck.

Check and double check your car's emergency gear.

Being self-reliant is more important than it has been in recent memory. Before you set off, double-check the situation of your spare tire, making sure that you'll have the tools on-hand to change out a flat on your own if you need to. Don't remember how to change one out? Watch some YouTube videos and brush up on your skills.

You may want to consider purchasing a roadside rescue kit as well. These usually contain jumper cables, a shovel, reflective sign, tools, a flashlight, and more to help in the event of an emergency.

Refill fluids that need it. Stock the first aid kit and make sure that you have a few bottles of water and a clean cloth or two in reserve just in case.

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Nuts & Bolts

 
 

There are some easy ways to get more miles per gallon.

Photo by Getty Images/boonchai wedmakawand

If you own a car and are among the 99 percent of Americans not driving an electric vehicle, you likely spend a considerable amount of time and money at the fuel pump. And, unless you plan to purchase an electric car, this continued fuel consumption is not going to stop — even Toyota Prius owners need to fill up occasionally.

However, there are some easy things to do, as well as habits to change, that will at least make your trips to the gas station less frequent. So not only will you be using less of the planet's finite gas reserves, you'll be spending less cash, too.

Proper inflation

Midsection Of Woman Inflating Tire

Photo by Getty Images/Siam Pukkato/EyeEm

Make sure your car's tires are inflated to the proper pressure. Don't use the maximum-pressure number on the tire sidewall, look for the sticker or plaque on the driver's side door jamb – these will show you the correct inflation numbers for your vehicle.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), under-inflated tires can lower gas mileage by 0.3 percent for every 1 PSI that a tire is below its optimal pressure. In addition to the fuel savings, properly inflated tires are safer and will increase tread life.

Junk in the trunk

Dog by car full of luggage

Photo by Getty Images

If you're hiking with a heavy backpack, you're going to run out of energy a lot sooner than if you're carrying a light daypack. The same reasoning applies to your car. If you're carrying around a 50-pound bag of dog food, the pile of books you keep forgetting to return to the library or your pristine collection of every print edition of the Weekly World News (BatBoy Lives!), your car has to work a lot harder, and therefore uses fuel more rapidly.

According to the DOE, every 100 pounds can drop fuel economy by one percent. So clean out the trunk, removing anything you don't need in there (best to keep the spare tire and jack, though), and you may find that your car actually has better performance as well as improved fuel economy.

​Lead foot or light foot?

Low Section Of Man Wearing Shoes On Pedals In Car

Photo by Getty Images/José Luis Salinas/EyeEm

Are you one of those people who sees every red light as a signal that a race is about to begin? The light turns green and you put your foot to the floor to beat the car next to you off the line. Although pretending you're a racecar driver can be fun, as those revs ramp up your gas gauge is quickly going the other way. Instead, be light and smooth on the accelerator and you will quickly see positive results in fuel mileage. There's also a lot less wear and tear on your car and tires when you take it easy on the throttle.

No speeding

Roadside sign in desert landscape

Photo by Getty Images/Gary Yeowell

A typical speedometer will indicate that the vehicle can go 120 mph —or more — and most modern cars are fully capable of going well beyond most posted speed limits. Not only will that practice get you an expensive speeding ticket or worse (a big repair bill, an extensive hospital stay, or a lavish lawsuit), it will also make your car guzzle gas like it's going out of style.

As your speed increases over 50 mph, your fuel economy rapidly decreases. This is especially true with many of today's smaller, fuel-efficient engines — with less power they have to work much harder as speed increases. Stick to the posted speed and you'll make it a lot farther before you need to stop for a fill-up.

Check your rack

2021 Subaru Crosstrek Photo courtesy of Subaru of America Inc.

Most modern cars go through considerable wind-tunnel testing to make them as aerodynamic as possible, which improves efficiency and performance. When you put a large rack or cargo box on the roof, all of that wind-tunnel work gets blown away. The DOE estimates that a roof-mounted cargo box can decrease fuel economy as much as 25 percent at highway speeds. Skis, boats, bikes or other equipment carried topside have similar results. Granted, there are times when you legitimately need to carry these items, but remove them when they're not needed. Whenever possible use a rear-mounted carrier, or pack your gear inside.

Windows down or air conditioning?

Happy boy look out from auto window

Photo by Getty Images/Solovyova

Everyone wants to be comfortable in their car, and when it gets too hot, the answer is to either roll down the windows (in most cars, of course, "roll down" means push the button) or turn on the air-conditioning. At slower speed when driving around town, lowering the windows makes the most sense.

Air-conditioning puts a load on the engine and will definitely reduce fuel economy. However, at highway speeds lowered windows add considerable drag on your car, which in turn reduces fuel economy. So if you're going to be on the freeway, raise the windows and turn on the AC — there will still be a drop in fuel economy, but this is the lesser of the two options.

Or, you can go with option three (AC off, windows up), but we really don't recommend that during the dog days of summer.

Plan your itinerary

2016 Audi A7

Photo courtesy of Audi AG

If you have a number of places to go, make a plan to cover them all in one outing. Shorter trips with a number of cold starts will use much more fuel than if the engine only has one cold start and stays warm for the rest of your drive. It's also beneficial to plan your route to reach all your destinations with the shortest driving time. Be sure you choose the right time to go, if you can — avoiding rush hour will reduce your stop-and-go driving, improving both your fuel economy and your mood.

Avoid idling for a long while

Photo courtesy of Hyundai Motor America

Sitting in your car with the engine running is quite inefficient — that's obvious. When you're not moving, you're getting zero miles per gallon. According to the DOE, you can use a quarter to a half gallon of gasoline per hour while idling — possibly more depending on engine size and if your air-conditioner is running. This is why many newer cars shut themselves off automatically when you brake to a stop, restarting automatically when you release the brake. If you're going to be waiting in your car for a while, shut it off. It doesn't take much fuel to restart it, and you'll be saving gas and money, as well as being good to the environment.

Cruise control

2022 Chevrolet Traverse High Country Photo courtesy of Chevrolet

Keeping a steady speed on the highway can go a long way to improving fuel economy, and using cruise control is the easiest way to do that. However, this method only works when the road is relatively flat —cruise control will try to keep a vehicle's speed constant even when climbing hills or mountain roads, which makes the engine work harder, thus burning more fuel.

Proper motor oil

motor oil

Photo by Getty Images

Most people don't specify a type of oil when getting their oil changed, but this too can affect your fuel mileage. Look in the owner's manual to see what grade of motor oil your vehicle's manufacturer recommends for your car — using the correct oil can improve fuel economy up to two percent.

Buy a new, more fuel-efficient car

The 2020 Ford Escape Plug-In Hybrid gets 100 MPGe and 37 miles of all-electric range for under $35,000 Photo courtesy of Ford Motor Compay

Clearly this isn't an option for everyone, but cars today are among the most fuel-efficient ever produced, so if you are in the market for something new this is your chance to make a difference. If you can increase your fuel economy from 15 mpg to 30 mpg, based on $3 per gallon and 15,000 miles of driving per year, that's a $1,500 savings each year — enough coin for quite a few lattes. Added bonus: odds are the new car will be running much cleaner than your current ride.

Be hybrid and electric vehicle savvy

Rivian R1S

Even if you have already made the jump into a very efficient vehicle, there are still ways to improve your mileage. Avoiding hard braking will make better use of the regenerative braking system, putting more energy back into the batteries — for free. Any vehicle that you can plug in should be plugged in whenever you have the chance — especially true for plug-in hybrids, since the more charge you have, the less often the internal combustion engine will need to run. Most of these vehicles have indicators to tell drivers how to drive more efficiently. Listen to your car — it knows what it's doing.

Public transportation

Young mother father and infant riding city bus

Photo by Getty Images/Tony Anderson

Okay, okay, so we're being Captain Obvious. And Americans love their cars, so this may be the most difficult fuel-saving tip to follow: Leave your car at home. Take a bus, ride your bike, carpool to work (with this option you still get to drive, sometimes) or if the distance is short enough (or you're in really good shape) you can simply walk. It may be a no-brainer, but the less you use your car, the less fuel it will use.

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Yosemite National Park is a vast space primed for social distancing.

Photo by Getty Images/Jordan Siemens

In the first scene of the first episode of Aaron Sorkin's terrific HBO drama "The Newsroom", news anchor Will McAvoy rants during a lecture to journalism students. In the midst of a recitation of literacy rates and educational stats, he throws a question back to a student during a Q&A: "So, when you ask 'what makes us the greatest country in the world?', I don't know what the f*** you're talking about. Yosemite?"

The man makes a point. I'll leave the op-ed page to debate whether America is the greatest country in the world, but we can all agree that Yosemite is a national treasure, along with the rest of the National Parks system.

Joshua Tree National Park A stop at Joshua Tree National Park was on the interary. Photo by Seth K. Hughes/Getty Images

After four months of hunkering down at home, hiding from COVID, I'd had enough. I reached out to Kia to borrow a car, called a friend in San Diego who I thought might be interested in exploring a few of our National Parks and got cracking.

Our route would take us north of San Diego to Joshua Tree National Park, home to both extensive groves of the eponymous tree as well as some terrific stargazing. Then we'd head further north to spot some gigantic trees at the Sequoia and King's Canyon National Parks, followed by Yosemite itself. After Yosemite, we'd head west to Monterey, and south down California 1 along Big Sur, stopping for the night at Ragged Point Inn at the south end, before dashing back to San Diego. Four nights, four parks.

If you're looking for a COVID-friendly trip, a road trip to a National Park is a solid way to go. There's plenty of space for social distancing, and they're quite cheap. Yosemite, for example, costs just $35 for a weeklong vehicle pass. Though it's worth considering the $80 Interagency Annual Pass which is good for entrance at all Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service, Park Service, Bureau of Reclamation, Army Corps of Engineers, and Fish and Wildlife Service sites charging entrance or day use fees. Then there are countless people who qualify for free annual passes, including all U.S. 4th graders and active military members, plus heavily discounted senior annual and lifetime passes.

We picked up the $80 Annual Pass at the scorching Joshua Tree West Entrance, stopped by the public restrooms there (which have prominent posters showing what color your urine should be to avoid dehydration in the 110-degree heat — brown is bad, by the way), and headed into the park. I don't have nearly the space to review the full park, and anyway, you should just go yourself. Cameras, too, completely fail to do it justice. The bizarre and wonderful trees, along with the spectacular desert landscape, make for a spectacular visit.

Scenic view of landscape against star field at night Joshua Tree National Park comes alive at night. Photo by Getty Images/Cavan Images RF

But at night is when Joshua Tree really comes alive. City-living — or even being near a city — really puts a damper on what you can see in the night sky, and both the Park and local communities have invested significant time and money into helping keep Joshua Tree dark. We easily spotted the Milky Way, Saturn and Jupiter, as well as Comet NEOWISE in the dark sky, along with countless other celestial objects.

After picking up a Date Shake in nearby Palm Springs, we headed north to Sequoia. This was a bit of a National Parks Express Tour, so we didn't venture into the fantastic hiking and camping options that these parks offer, but the views were spectacular even from the main roads through the parks. The massive sequoia trees simply must be seen to believe, making for a rather humbling experience when one considers how old these living things are.

Yosemite is even more awe-inspiring. The glacier-carved Yosemite Valley, flanked by Half Dome, El Capitan, and Yosemite Falls, is jaw-dropping. Staring up at climbers on El Capitan and knowing that someone even climbed the imposing 3,200-foot wall without rope is bewildering.

Yosemite National Park AutomotiveMap road tripped to Yosemite National Park late last year. You can see our guide to the park here.Photo by Eileen Falkenberg-Hull

From the first view of Yosemite Valley from the famous Tunnel View lookout through to the drive out of the park, the landscape never disappoints. We even spotted a very healthy-looking black bear eating in a field, which is always a treat.

After the soaring peaks of the Sierra Mountains, we headed west towards the ocean and the Pacific Coast Highway along Big Sur. The twisting coastal drive along California 1, with the cliffs of the Santa Lucia Mountains rising out of — or plunging into, depending on your perspective — the Pacific Ocean, is one of the most beautiful coastlines in the world.

Our final stop, at the Ragged Point Inn at the south end of Big Sur — where we watched the sunset from atop the cliffs — was the capstone to an amazing road trip.

Highway 1 big sur Highway 1 near Big Sur includes the Bixby Creek Bridge, a famous landmark. Photo by Getty Images

COVID has stressed us all, with anxiety over mental and physical health taking a real and significant toll. And, luckily, the best antidote might just be to get outside. Even if you don't have the majesty of Yosemite nearby, I encourage you to just get in the car and take a drive somewhere new.

You never know — you might find what makes America the greatest country in the world.

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