I spent a total of 48 hours driving in the past two months, which is something I would have thought only long-haul truckers did, not thirty-something, middle-class women who live reasonably close to an airport. However, I am also a thirty-something, middle-class woman who likes to save money and travel in comfort, which is why I opted to drive from Chapel Hill to Indianapolis and back for both Thanksgiving and Christmas this year. Why?
Gas is crazy cheap
Gas prices have gotten so low that I sometimes think I’ve slipped into a time portal to the early oughts. On my Christmas trip, I filled my tank at one gas station for a price of $1.61 per gallon. Combined with the fact that I get about 38mpg on the highway, I only paid $72.70 and $71.63 for gas on my two trips. You will not find air fare that cheap anywhere for a Raleigh/Durham to Indianapolis flight unless you hop the fence and stowaway in the freight compartment. (And in that case you need to invest in a really good coat.)
Flying is great, but also sucks
There are a lot of great things about flying. You get there fast…and you get there fast. Actually, that’s the only great thing about flying. You’re also crammed into a tiny compartment next to someone who may or may not be sympathetic that you’re overweight. The person in front of you will probably recline into your knees which are already crammed directly into the back of the seat. You only get one carry-on for free which they might take from you at the gate anyway if the baggage compartments are full or if you’re on a regional jet which doesn’t have compartments large enough for your bag. You have to go through a slow, pain-in-the-ass security line. You can’t bring the large shampoo bottle with you. You have to get to the airport at least two hours early and you might have to wait longer if your flight is delayed or cancelled. You have to pay to park your car for the time that you’re gone. Have I left anything out? Probably.
Part of me feels ridiculous for complaining about the downsides of flying. We have machines that fly! That’s AMAZING! People from 100 years ago would think we’re nuts for complaining about the fact that we can travel 700 miles in two hours. We’re such spoiled brats. In 100 years people will probably be complaining about traveling to the moon. That said, traveling by air still sucks in many ways, even if it is a miraculous achievement by humankind.
Driving gives you more flexibility
I always get a bit stressed about getting to the airport in time to catch my flight, but when I drive I have complete control over when I leave. I still have to deal with the weather, but I have freedom to depart earlier or later than I want without any additional fees. It gives me the illusion of control, if not total control itself.
There are downsides to driving too. You’re more likely to die in a car accident. (The most dangerous part of flying is driving to the airport.) It takes a lot more time, like 12 hours each way. You can still get stuck in traffic jams or be forced to stop or delay your trip because of the weather. You might have car troubles and get stuck in an inconvenient location. I don’t have cruise control, so my right leg gets rather sore by the last two hours of the trip. That said, I’ve been more willing to deal with the negative aspects of a road trip than to deal with the negative aspects of flying in the past year. I’ve also learned a few things that could help if you decide to hit the road:
Check traffic and weather with apps when you can
On my round trip during Thanksgiving I got stuck in four traffic jams, which is soul-crushing and really hard on my leg because of the constant stop-and-go motion. What I didn’t know at the time was that I could have checked the traffic in advance with apps like Waze or Google Maps. If you have Google Maps, you can turn on the “Traffic” layer which will add green, orange and red coloring to the roads indicating whether traffic is moving normally, like a sloth or like a snail. I’ve started checking this at every stop I make to see how the roads ahead look. The Waze app is similar, but more detailed. Waze users can report accidents and police cars and other things, so you know exactly why you’re stuck in a traffic jam. If I do get stuck in a traffic jam, I like knowing how long it is, which both apps will be able to tell you.
I’ve also got the 1Weather app on my phone which lets me access a weather map of the region. This is particularly handy for spotting storm fronts and letting me know when I need to keep up my pace to stay ahead of the rain storm that is following me to the coast.
The day before I leave I also check the Intellicast future forecast to see how the weather will be on my trip and if I need to adjust my departure time. You have to click the “Future” link at the bottom of the map to switch it into future mode, and then you can scroll up to 24 hours ahead.
Break a long drive into more manageable pieces
At the start of a long trip it can be depressing to think about how much farther you need to go. After I’d been driving for an hour on my first trip, I thought to myself, “I only need to do this 11 more times! Oh, dear God,” which isn’t the best way to look at things. Instead I’ve broken my trip into four segments that are roughly three hours each, and I only allow myself to think about how long it will take to get to each stopping point. For me those points are Asheville, Knoxville, and Lexington. I also make sure the “Miles left to destination” setting on my GPS is hidden until I’m at least halfway there, otherwise I might lose all hope. However, the elevation setting is rather helpful to have on when I’m going up and down the mountains.
Know the terrain
You should also be aware of any challenges in the terrain you’re traveling. For me that’s the Appalachian mountain range which has positioned itself rather inconveniently between North Carolina and Indiana. There are two particularly challenging segments of I-40 in that area. One is a six-mile stretch east of Asheville, and another is a 30-mile stretch west of Asheville, both of which consist of lots of windy curves, steep inclines, and a tunnel or two. I don’t mind the steepness that much, but I hate sharp curves, particularly when there is a tall concrete barrier to my left and and a cliff on my right, leaving very little room for error. Thus I’m usually that one car in the right-hand lane with all the semis driving below the speed limit. On my return trip I leave at dawn, even though I hate getting up early, specifically so I can get through that part of the trip before dark. (That’s when the goblins come out and dance on the mountain, you know.)
I’m also aware of the fact that they’re doing bridge construction in Louisville, which causes an inevitable backup for a mile or two before the river. Getting stuck in a traffic jam you anticipate is much easier mentally than getting stuck in one you didn’t know you’d be trapped in. That happened to me on my Thanksgiving trip when I thought it would be easier to go through Cincinnati than Louisville. Spoiler alert: It was not. I got stuck in two traffic jams there and I’m not familiar with Cincinnati, so I wasn’t sure exactly where I was or how far I had to go until I reached Indiana. I used to live in Louisville, so I’d rather be stuck in a city that I know relatively well and have friends in instead of one I don’t.
Make sure your car can handle the trip
When I first made the trip in 2014, I had my mechanic do the 120,000 mile inspection that was due on my Saturn. When I made the trip again in 2015, I was a little less attentive to my car’s condition. For instance, while I was driving through the rain in North Carolina it became obvious that my windshield wipers weren’t so much wiping rain away as they were schmearing it all over the glass. I stopped at a rest stop and searched for the nearest auto parts store which was about 10 miles away. I purchased new blades which they were able to install, all in five minutes. Thank you, Advanced Auto Parts in Mocksville, NC! You are awesome! When I got back on the road, I could actually see again.
I’d also noticed that my brakes stuttered slightly when I was driving around town, but it was so subtle and my car is so old that I didn’t think anything of it. However, I could do nothing BUT think about it when I was careening down a 4% incline at 60 miles-per-hour, applied my brakes, and my car started shaking violently all the way down to my steering wheel. “If I don’t die on this mountain, I promise to get my brakes checked as soon as I get home,” I told myself. Thankfully, I did not die on that mountain. I did get my front brake rotors and pads replaced when I got home. If I’d been paying more attention to my car, I would have done that before my sort-of-near-death experience near the “Old Fort” exit which I always misread as the “Old Fart” exit.
Bring an extra change of underwear in case you have to stay at a hotel for the night
On my return trip for Thanksgiving I got stuck in two different traffic jams, and had foolishly left an hour after sunrise instead of sunrise itself. So I found myself in the dark and in the rain with poor windshield wipers before I’d reached the mountains. I stopped at the last exit before the mountains that actually had stuff at it, pulled up the Trip Advisor app and figured out which hotel I’d be least likely to be murdered at and stayed there for the night. It meant I’d have to spend another night away from my kitty, and I wouldn’t get back to my freelance as quickly as I’d hope, but I also wouldn’t slide off a cliff in the dark which would have been much worse. The hotel cost $100, which was more than what I’d paid for gas the whole way, but still kept the trip cheaper than a flight would have been.
I also keep an HDMI cable in my luggage so I can watch streaming shows on the in-room TV instead of on my laptop.
Leave when everyone else isn’t leaving
One of the mistakes I made when I returned home from Thanksgiving was that I left on the same day everyone else was leaving, Sunday. That meant the highway outside of Knoxville couldn’t handle the number of cars on it and I got stuck in a big backup even though there hadn’t been an accident. If I’d left on Saturday or Monday instead, I probably could have avoided that long and annoying delay. When I came home from Christmas I left on Monday and didn’t run into that problem
Bring lots of music and podcasts
I spend the night before a trip loading up my MP3 player with music and recent podcasts to keep me occupied during the 12-hour (or more) trip. I also make sure to download some music to my phone because my MP3 player tends to die around hour 11. I’ve tried to refrain from listening to my favorite podcasts in the week before the trip so I can binge on them during the drive, but I usually break and listen to them before then anyway.
I also have CDs in the car in case both the phone and the MP3 player die. And in case the CD player dies, I also have a mixed tape I made back in college which still holds up rather well, though I wouldn’t want to listen to it for 12 hours straight.
For some reason I get really dehydrated when I drive. I’m not sure why since I’m basically sitting all day. One of my headache medications gives me dry-mouth, but I’ve never had to chew as much gum and spray as much Biotene in my mouth in one day as I did on my trip to Indy for Thanksgiving. For my Christmas trip, I bought a 6-pack of bottled water even though I’ve always thought it’s kind of silly to pay money for bottled water. What I was really paying for was the bottles, which ensured I’d have water for the whole trip and it would be easy for me to store and drink. Of course, I tried not to drink too much of it or else I’d have to stop more often for pee breaks.
Text your mother
My mother learned to text a few years ago, so I send her a text every time I stop letting her know where I am. That way if I disappear they’ll know where to start looking for the body. She also served as remote tech support when I was stuck in the Cincinnati traffic jam and trying to figure out what was causing the backup. Answer: A truck dumping its contents on the bridge.
Bring a sense of adventure
You never know what you’ll see or who you’ll meet on your trip. One of the funniest highlights of my drive is when I pass the XXX Adult World store that is right next to a gigantic cross. I also pass a sign saying the first Kentucky Fried Chicken location is not too far off the highway, but have yet to stop off and check it out. You might also find yourself at a McDonalds in Knoxville talking to a man with such a thick Kentucky accent that you can only make out every other word and nod, pretending you understand what he’s saying. And even though the traffic jam before the bridge in Louisville was a pain, the lights on the pedestrian bridge were quite lovely to look at.
When I first attempted this trip, it seemed to be an epic undertaking. But like a lot of things, the more you do it, the more do-able it seems. I don’t necessarily want to drive to Indiana every month, but a couple times a year is fine, as long as my car stays in one piece and the mountain goblins don’t get me.