Friday, February 16, 2018

Provisioning a road trip

I'm making my weekly blog post a little early, because we're going to be away this weekend visiting some friends. We're making the trip by car, which we find is nearly always the most convenient and cost-effective way for us to travel. It's by far the cheapest option per mile traveled; we can leave and arrive on our own schedule; and it's easy to haul any extra baggage we want, such as a batch of home-baked cookies for our friends and a crate full of board games, books, and other equipment for role-playing games.

In addition to the stuff we'll need when we get there, Brian and I always like to pack the car with a variety of items we might like to use during the trip itself. Having snacks, drinks, medications, toiletries, and entertainment ready to hand makes the drive a lot more agreeable, which makes it an easier call for us to choose driving over a costlier method of travel. So I thought I'd do just a quick post here to tell you about what we like to take along on a road trip like this, and why our choices help make the trip a more ecofrugal one.


Brian and I have worked out what we consider a reasonable division of labor on trips like this: he does the driving, and I provide entertainment by reading aloud to him. We first developed this pattern on the very first road trip we took together, when Brian was moving out to New Jersey from his old home in San Diego. I kept offering to take a turn at the wheel, but Brian generally preferred to keep driving and have me read to him from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. So he drove most of the 2,500 miles by himself, and I read most of the 636 pages by myself, and we each considered that we were getting the better end of the deal.

So now, before we set out on a trip, we always make sure we have one or more books with us that should be long enough to get us through the journey. We prefer lighter fare for these occasions— usually fiction, which gives me a chance to show off my talents at switching among character voices and accents, but occasionally a collection of entertaining and informative nonfiction pieces like the latest Freakonomics book.

These days, the book we choose is as likely as not to be an e-book downloaded to our tablet, usually from the electronic library or Project Gutenberg, rather than a printed book. These e-books have the advantage of being easy to keep reading once night falls without having to switch on the light in the car; the downside is that they're often harder to read in the daytime, when sunlight can create glare on the tablet screen. I often find myself attempting to cover the tablet up with a blanket or something, or hold it in an awkward position to keep it out of the sun, just so I can see the screen clearly. At some point we should probably shell out a few bucks for one of these anti-glare screen covers to make it easier.

Cost for books: Usually free, though we might occasionally spend a few bucks on a Kindle e-book that the library doesn't have (such as the latest Ilona Andrews) or a secondhand printed book from a yard sale.

Other Entertainment

On long trips, I can't keep reading aloud the whole time without a break, so we like to have some other forms of entertainment available as well. One of our favorite features on our current car (which we still think of as our "new" car, even though it's now seven years old) is a built-in music player that can read audio files off a data key plugged into a cord tucked inside the glove compartment. We can simply use the controls for the car stereo to select the album and track we want, which is much easier than trying to manipulate the controls on a phone or music player while driving (or fumble with CDs and cassettes the way we used to do back in the day).

We always like to have a wide variety of music available on this data key, so we can switch it up depending on our mood. For this latest trip, we're loading on a copy of the Hamilton soundtrack, which I got as a Christmas present but haven't yet got around to transferring to the key. This will be nice to have available at other times as well.

For longer trips, we also like to have a few podcasts loaded, so we can listen to something with more of a story. This, in fact, is how I first became familiar with the show "Critical Role," (in which "a bunch of nerdy-ass voice actors sit around and play Dungeons & Dragons"), which is now a near-obsession of mine: Brian downloaded the audio from the first several episodes (each of which is several hours long) onto the key, and we listened to them en route to and from Indianapolis. By the time we got home, I was gung-ho to watch the rest of the series, and after going through the backlog of old episodes we've kept up with the new ones every week thereafter. We've also listened to episodes of "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me," "S-Town," "Freakonomics," and something called "Bullshit."

In addition to audio entertainment, I usually take along a few crosswords to amuse myself with. However, these are less for the car trip itself than for filling up spare moments while we're away, since it's rather awkward to do any crossword—print or electronic—in a moving car. I just print out a selection from my favorite sites, which include the Wall Street Journal, Best for Puzzles, and, when I'm in the mood for some real punishment, Puzzlecrypt. All of these are free, except for the cost of ink and paper to print them out.

Cost for entertainment: Free.


When we're driving out to Indiana, we usually grab some breakfast to go at Dunkin Donuts and plan to make one stop along the road for dinner. We used to try and get up ludicrously early so we could make it to Indiana in time for dinner, but we found we lost too much sleep this way, and stopping for dinner helps break up the trip a little.

However, to save money and time on the road, we don't stop for lunch; instead, we pack ourselves a bag of foodstuffs to nibble on as we drive. Typical choices include peanut butter sandwiches, clementines (which are better than most kinds of fruit because they're easy to peel and not too messy), baby carrots, and cookies. Instead of taking a formal lunch break, we'll just help ourselves from the bag whenever we feel peckish. I usually keep the bag up front near my feet, so if Brian wants something, he can just ask me to dig it out and hand it to him as he drives, which minimizes the amount of distraction from the road for him.

For shorter trips like we're making today, we have lunch beforehand, but we still pack a few snacks for the road so we don't get cranky or fatigued from low blood sugar. Today, we have a bag of mandarin oranges and most of a batch of sourdough raisin muffins. We also take along a couple of reusable water bottles (just Snapple bottles emptied of Snapple), which fit handily in the car's cup holders. On longer trips, we carry these into rest stops en route to refill them as needed; for shorter ones, like this, three full bottles are enough to carry us through the whole trip.

Cost for food: Varies depending on the length of the trip. For a long trip, figure a couple of bucks' worth of peanut butter sandwiches, maybe four or five bucks for fruit, and a dollar or two for baby carrots. (The cookies are usually free, since we get a care package from our friends around this time of year and save it for the trip.) So it's around ten bucks for a long trip and maybe half that for a short one. That's not counting what we pay for meals we actually stop and eat along the road.


In addition to these necessaries, we always have a few other things in the car to keep ourselves as comfortable as possible on the trip. These include:
  • Blankets. It gets chilly in the winter, and the car's heater isn't always good at directing heat where it's needed, so we always keep a couple of blankets in the car. Brian can't exactly drape himself in one while driving, but I'm usually the one who gets cold anyway, so that works out fine. And, if we're ever stuck in a snowbank, we'll have something to keep us from freezing to death. Cost: We paid about $10 for our biggest blanket, and we've had it close to 15 years, so I think we've gotten good value for it.
  • Medication. I always carry a pill box with an assortment of often-used OTC drugs: ibuprofen, antacids, antihistamines, and one or two Gas-X capsules. These days, I even carry zinc spray in my purse, since I know that if I feel a cold coming on, the faster I can use it the more likely I am to shake off the infection. I also have a small first-aid kit with bandages and antibiotic ointment. Cost: Maybe a few cents per pill, since these are meds I always buy in bulk for our medicine chest at home.
  • Emergency Supplies. In the wintertime, we always have an ice scraper in the car and even a small shovel, in case we get stuck somewhere and have to dig ourselves out. We don't carry a bottle of antifreeze or washer fluid, but we check the levels and top them off before setting out on the road. And we always keep a couple of rags in the car in case we need to clean something off ourselves or off the car itself, as well as a small packet of tissues in the glove compartment. Cost: The rags are free (made from Brian's old socks, usually), and the shovel and scraper cost maybe 10 bucks together.
  • Maps. Yes, actual paper road maps. We still don't have a smartphone (though I really do intend to get one in the next month or two, honest), so we carry maps in the car for whatever area we're passing through, just in case we run into an unexpected detour. They also come in handy if we want to where the nearest rest area is. Cost: We've had most of these maps for ages, so I don't remember what we paid for them, but I know we picked up a couple for free at the last town yard sale.
  • Phone and charger. Though we don't have a smartphone, we make sure to carry our little clamshell phone in case we need to make a call from the road and say "We're going to be late, there's traffic" or "We have to turn back, there's a blizzard" or even "We're stuck behind a truck full of flaming marijuana candy." (This honestly happened once, though we didn't know what was in the truck while we were stuck behind it—we had to look it up on Google afterwards.) We make sure the phone is charged up ahead of time, switch it on during the trip (something we don't do most of the time), and bring the charger to bring it back up to full afterwards. (We don't actually have a car charger for this phone, though we'll probably get one for our future smartphone.) Cost: Essentially free. The cost of electricity is minimal and our cheap prepaid phone plan supplies more minutes than we ever use anyway.
And that's how we make our road trips as comfortable as possible, without adding significantly to the cost. With these costs, plus gas and tolls, a trip like this one costs us maybe $100 round trip, including money spent while we're there—less than the cost of just one plane or train ticket. Getting there isn't exactly half the fun, but with these supplies, at least it doesn't detract from the fun too much.
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