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Driving down a remote, dirt road in the Rocky Mountains

Broken down cars, empty gas tanks, wrong reservations—our editors have made every road trip mistake in the book. Avoid these common blunders to make yours a success

Stephanie Granada  – August 6, 2019 | Updated September 10, 2019

Mistake #1: Taking the Wrong Car  

“In the summer of 2007, I took a three-month cross-country road trip in a 1989 Volvo station wagon I named Vivian. Among the calamities: my rear bumper just rusted right off near the Mexican border in Columbus, New Mexico; the fuel line overheated and Vivian ground to a halt in northwest Nebraska; my transmission died up on a dirt road in the Colorado Rockies, miles from a functioning telephone. So, yes, taking an aging Volvo on a 12,000-mile drive was one of the most ridiculous road trip mistakes I could make—I don’t recommend anyone follow my lead—but at the same time, Vivian was a fantastic companion who made the adventure a hell of a lot more interesting than if I’d been cruising around in some late-model Toyota.” —Matt Gross, special projects director 

Mistake #2: Waiting to Get Gas 

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“I went on a memorable car camping trip in Yosemite National Park with a few girlfriends when I was in my twenties. After a few days romping around the iconic park, we headed back home to the San Francisco Bay Area on a drive that clocks nearly 170 miles. I had volunteered to take on a significant driving shift. We didn’t have nearly a half tankful of gas upon departing Yosemite, but I figured I’d pass a filling station…eventually. I proceeded to push it for a while—a good long while—until we found ourselves in the hot, dry interior of Northern California on a two-lane highway with nary an exit in sight, and the gas needle was dropping precipitously towards empty. When the dashboard indicator light for the gas tank flared yellow, I thought, I still have more time. I mean, we’ve all tested the limits of how much time and distance that indicator light really buys you. But we still weren’t passing any exit signs, and I started to get nervous—which is not my default temperament, not by a mile. I didn’t want to freak out my passengers, so I just gritted my teeth and tried to manifest a gas station exit sign. I ultimately made it by the skin of my teeth, and finally admitted how close we came to getting stranded in the middle of nowhere in triple-digit weather with no shade. There was a bit of shock, awe, teasing, and a whole lot of relieved laughter. TL;DR fill up your vehicle early and often!” — Jessica Mordo, associate digital director

Mistake #3: Ignoring Traffic Patterns 

“I live in Los Angeles and have in-laws in the Bay Area. As such, I have made the mind-numbingly boring drive up and down Interstate 5 more times than I care to remember. The vistas are unrelentingly dull and the pitstops are subpar. None of that compares to the woes of facing late-Sunday traffic back into L.A. on a summer afternoon. There’s beach traffic. Shopping traffic. Vacation traffic. Weekend getaway traffic. All adding up to bumper-to-bumper gridlock. One day, many years ago, when my then three-year-old son announced that he needed to go to the bathroom and couldn’t wait, we were stuck. No exit in sight. No movement on the road. He was crying in pain. Against my wife’s advice, I handed him an empty water bottle and asked him to do his best. He did. And his best worked for a moment. And then it didn’t. His sister started screaming as she was showered. The ceiling of our station wagon was drenched and we all began to scream just as my son stopped screaming and looked like the happiest, most comfortable kid in the car. The takeaway? Plan your family drive to avoid heavy traffic times and stop often for bathroom breaks.” —Hugh Garvey, executive editor 

Mistake #4: Not Planning Enough (a.k.a. Not Being Mindful of Dirt Roads) 

“Sometimes, spontaneous travel can be great, but it can also be one of the major road trip mistakes. During my most recent road trip from Northern California to Idaho, my husband and I decided that we didn’t want to make too many plans beforehand. We wanted to follow the road and find local recommendations. This freewheeling approach was awesome for the most part—except for one major, fight-inducing blunder. Someone recommended we head to Jarbidge in northern Nevada. It’s a gorgeous, mountainous region that doesn’t look anything like most of the state’s desert landscapes. We took the scenic backroads to get there—we have a Subaru, after all. After driving through some of the most beautiful parts of the country I have ever seen, the dirt road started to get treacherous. Big ditches, fast-moving streams, and finally, a long section of steep, washed-out road with deep, muddy tire ruts. We were nowhere near civilization, so I was determined to get through this rough patch. My husband and I got out of the car and tried to fix some of the deep grooves by hauling in big rocks and smoothing the ground with our boots. After about 30 minutes slipping and sliding through the mud, we tried to coerce the car up the embankment. We took it slow, we took it fast, we took it sideways, and nothing worked. I wanted to keep going (I’m the reckless optimist in our family), but our tires became completely caked in mud and a panel of our car fell off. Through an excruciating 20-point turn process, we finally got the car out of the mud, but by then my husband had had enough. Needless to say, there were a couple of strong words and a lot of silence during our three-hour drive back along the dirt road. So, I’d recommend at least checking road conditions before you turn down the scenic backroads.” —Kendra Poppy, social media director  

Mistake #5: Being Distracted

At 19, I drove from New Jersey to California on one of my only two cross-country trips. When we stopped for gas in Denvermy friend went inside to get water and left me to fill the gas tank. After we drove off, we made it two minutes down the road when the car just stopped accelerating. My friend jumped out of the car to push while I steered. A homeless man came to help us push the car safely into a strip mall parking lot. (We gave him all the cash we had on us in thanks). While we were feverishly waiting for AAA, we were thinking about what could have possibly gone wrong. Maybe the battery died? It’s an old car—maybe we ran it too hard? Then my friend said, ‘Kelsey, this happened right after we left the gas station. What gas did you put in?’ Then it hit me: I filled his 2001 Toyota Camry with diesel, which a gas engine can’t combust. Turned out, I’d picked up the wrong nozzle and filled it all the way to the top. After paying a hefty fee, the mechanics in Denver were able to revive the old sport! Two days later we were back on the road. Moral of the story: ALWAYS pay attention to which nozzle you pick up.” —Kelsey Maloney, former editorial assistant 

Mistake #6: Careless and/or Reckless Planning 

“Once, after a whale-watching trip in Baja, my wife, Pipi, and I planned to pick up a rental car at the tiny Guerrero Negro airport and drive about 350 miles to the southern Baja city of La Paz. We expected to drive for much of the night, arriving in La Paz in the wee hours of the morning. There is no word for this other than loco. Two women who speak very little Spanish driving Mexican highways late at night is a learning experience waiting to happen. Then, at the airport, I discovered that I’d made the car reservation for the wrong day. Not expecting me, the staff had all gone home for the night. We realized we were more relieved than disappointed. I had been saved from my recklessness by my carelessness. Pipi and I did what we should have done all along: We got a good night’s sleep at a hotel, and the next morning we got on a bus to La Paz. Someone else handled the driving, and, traveling in daylight, we got to better enjoy the scenery. We arrived in La Paz almost a day late, but at least we arrived. And we learned an important travel lesson: Always double-check your dates before committing to a reservation. In my experience, even supposedly non-refundable airline tickets and hotel rooms can be changed if you discover an honest mistake quickly enough, say within an hour. By the time your vacation’s begun, though, you’re probably out of luck. Admittedly, sometimes that’s a good thing (like when you plan to drive through the night in a foreign country in a foreign landscape).” —Nicole Clausing, content producer

And, a Few Other Common Mistakes to Avoid: 

Mistake #7: Not Packing Snacks 

Highways and backroads aren’t exactly known for having excellent dining options. If you don’t bring some of your own food, you’re going to end up settling for some pretty crummy grub. Sure, there are some road food gemsBut for the most part, you’ll be dependent on whatever you can find at the gas station or the drive-thru. Those pitstops make for a time- and money-suck, too. Instead, do a little pre-planning: Hit up the grocery store to stock up on healthy nuts, fruits, veggies, and those less healthy road trip essentials like chips and sweets. Get a few water jugs and you can refill them at any water fountain or restaurant—it’s good for your wallet and the environment. And if you have some basic portable cooking tools, you can road trip like a chef or whip up tasty camping recipes at any pull-off spot just as you would in the wild. 

Mistake #8: Leaving the Entertainment up to Chance 

This might just be the biggest of road trip mistakes. There’s nothing worse than being 500 miles into a long trip arguing over the music or being at a pivotal moment of your podcast only to hit an internet dead-zone. Trust us—you’ll save many arguments, stretches of boredom, and possibly your sanity if you figure out your entertainment queue ahead of time. Before you get in the car, download your audiobooks, podcasts, and playlists. Get a couple of hands-on activities for the kids (coloring books, electronics—no one will judge you for handing over the tablet for some stretches). And come up with some screen-free games they can play on their own or you can play as a group. Everyone in the car will thank you. 

Mistake #9: Driving Super Long Distances in One Sitting 

Some trips might be about the destination, but road trips are really about the journey. Generally, it’s best to stick to less than 250 miles on any given day—that’s about three hours (account for eight hours of sleep and that gives you 12 to explore your stops). Of course, sometimes you have to settle in for a long haul to get where you’re going. Still, try to not drive more than eight hours in a day, or 500 miles, with at least a 15-minute break every two hours. Any more than that and you’re likely to get tired and distracted and be more prone to accidents. As an absolute maximum, keep in mind not even long-distance truckers are allowed to drive more than 11 hours in a 24-hour period. If you are going to be putting in a lot of mileage, do it during the day when you’re most alert. As a rule-of-thumb, don’t drive late at night either. If anything goes wrong, you want to be able to deal with it in daylight when there are more cars on the road. 

Mistake #10: Traveling With the Wrong Person 

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Nothing will ruin a good road trip like the wrong companion. Don’t think just because someone is one of your closest friends, he or she will make a good road buddy. It’s about how well your travel styles jive together. If someone is a meticulous planner and you prefer to leave things up to chance, you’re going to drive each other nuts. If they love to splurge on fancy meals and lodging, but you get a thrill out of roughing it, one of you is going to be uncomfortable. Yes, you’ll have to make some compromises in any situation, but you should at least see eye-to-eye on the big-picture things. Personality mismatches and quirks are amplified when you’re halfway through a 1,000-mile trip, dealing with a flat tire, looking for directions when your GPS suddenly stops working, or dealing with any number of things that can go wrong on the road. So, choose your sidekick wisely.