Five years ago this week, I earned my college diploma. I’m very proud of that day. Like most, I worked hard for my education, right up until my last exam. I enjoyed being a student, so turning in that title was bittersweet. But upon graduating, I felt like I held the world in my hands.
For all of you who are about to wear a cap and gown and face your post-college future, congratulations! Let graduation day be a jumping off point, regardless of whether you feel ready to face adulthood. It’s called a commencement because it truly is a beginning, so seize the moment and the unknown adventures ahead.
For me, embarking on a cross-country road trip was the perfect way to start my post-college adventures. I did not have a job lined up (although I had been applying since earlier in the spring semester of my senior year), and my only plan was to move back home and keep applying. After all those years of school, it was a reward to kick-off a new chapter in such a freeing way. It was actually a brilliant idea, but oddly enough I didn’t know I’d be going on a road trip until graduation day when my two closest journalism friends invited me to join them on a road trip.
A perpetual planner, I had a few questions.
For how long?
What will we eat?
Is it already planned?
What are the driving arrangements?
Where will we stay?
How much will it cost?
What if a job offer comes through and I’m not here?
Before my two friends even had a chance to answer, I had already made up my mind that I wasn’t going to turn this opportunity down. And I’m so glad I went as it was one of the best experiences of my life. If you think you’d like to plan a road trip, it’s not too late. Here are some tips to help you plan a road trip (note: anybody can go on a road trip, so this advice isn’t just for college grads).
Road Trip Check-List:
Before saying yes, be sure you know who is going. I didn’t know the third girl, but she was a friend of one of the other two travelers, so we met before embarking on this journey. Point being you want to make sure you’ll get along with the people you’ll be living with for the next few weeks. You’ll be in very close quarters.
If possible, try to have a total of four people in the car, this way all gas and expenses are split four ways. More than four and you’ll be crammed (unless you’ve got a vehicle like a Suburban that fits many people comfortably). Just remember, you spend most of the time in the vehicle.
You’ll want to be smart about what you drive. We rented a dependable car that we all knew how to drive (no manual transmission). None of us had to put the wear and tear on our own vehicle. Obviously, you’ll want to choose a car that’s both comfortable and good on gas, which is another reason I don’t recommend a Suburban, even if it does fit a small army. Oh, and make sure your transportation choice has a big trunk.
The most fun in planning the trip is deciding where you’ll go. Create a list of places you want to visit, making sure everybody gets a say in this. Then, start putting the pieces together in a way that makes sense. We started in Massachusetts and headed south along the east coast and headed clockwise.
Now comes the part that takes the most planning: decide the exact route before leaving. AAA was a great resource for our route planning purposes. Print out an itinerary that estimates where you will be and when, and for how long. In other words, be detailed when you decide which states you want to drive through and landmarks you want to see. Will you stop in Graceland or just drive through it? Will you spend one night in San Antonio or do you need two to see everything? Having this plan in place is a lifesaver for keeping you on track and on route, which matters because…
You’ll need to plan where you stay overnight. Four people can’t comfortably sleep in a car, so plan your stops. (One night we slept in a vacant Walmart parking lot, which I don’t recommend.) Where possible, I suggest staying at campsites (each of us paid no more than $10 a night at a campground). Better yet, save money by reaching out to friends or relatives who live along the way to ask if you can crash with them (but no surprises…ask them before you leave). We found that the hosts were thrilled to have visitors who wanted to see their part of the country. And we were equally thrilled to have home-cooked meals before carrying on.
Our road trip was like a honeymoon taken a few weeks after graduation. We didn’t leave that night but we didn’t want to push it back too far either, in case one of us got a job offer. We left two weeks after graduation, allowing enough time to unpack from school, enjoy a few days home, and repack for the trip.
How long should you go? One week won’t feel long enough but three weeks might start to get tiring living in a car, unless you stop for long periods at your destinations. Two-three weeks is doable to see a good chunk of the country.
How to have a successful road trip is perhaps the key question. We learned things along the way that made the experience enjoyable. For instance, four hours was plenty for one person to drive at a time, so every four hours we alternated drivers, rotating clockwise. This system also meant the front seat passenger was the copilot for the same person each time, reading the map or keeping an eye out for road signs. After a few days, we also implemented a rule that whoever’s turn it was to drive got to control the music. What, you don’t like country?
Stop often enough for sightseeing, bathroom breaks and to stretch. You want to be comfortable and not let the whole trip fly right by.
Don’t buy souvenirs at every stop; you won’t have the room to cart them around. In fact, the best souvenirs are post cards from each stop along the way. Trust me. On the other hand, buy lots of snacks and keep them handy.
Lastly, have your camera out on your lap at all times. This is a must. You don’t want to be digging for your camera when a bear is in the middle of the road in the Blue Smokey Mountains (true story). Then, take photos constantly. Also, keep your maps nearby. If you must use a GPS, go for it. But a road trip can be done without (we didn’t use one), and to me, that’s part of the fun of it.
Looking back, the best part of my road trip was the traveling from place to place and not the destinations themselves. I learned you’re bound to go off course a little bit, but with a map and a good itinerary, you’ll at least feel prepared. Just like life after college, the fun is in the journey.