Road Trip Essentials

In January we took a “quick” thousand-mile road trip down to vacationland in Central Florida. We followed that up with a couple-thousand-mile road trip to New England. And since June we’ve been on a mega-road trip, having logged 6,500 miles so far, and we’ve yet to turn back home to Atlanta. We think it’s safe to say we’re road trip experts.

That means we have a few “road trip essentials” that we can recommend as great gear to load into your car before you head out on your own road trip. We’ll skip the basics, like a first aid kit (though it’s worth mentioning that, as we were going to be spending a lot of summer time in the deserts of Western America, we added a case of bottled water to our “first aid” provisions), and an emergency kit (jumper cables, lights, and the like), and instead focus on some of the things you might not have thought of.

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Our Trusty Nissan Rogue
Our Trusty Roadtrip Steed, “Rogue”


Audio Books – listening to a good audio book can make a 10-hour drive way more bearable. We’ve listened to a couple of fantastic books this summer while cruising America’s interstate highways, including “The Martian”, by Andy Weir (we’re really looking forward to the movie edition with Matt Damon coming in a few weeks). We love, a subscription service with a great mobile app that you can connect to your car stereo via BlueTooth, USB cable, or audio input (whichever your car stereo allows). runs $15 a month, and you get 1 book each month.

Powered Ice Chest – unless you plan to eat out every meal of your trip, you’ll want to bring an ice chest along. Not only is it cost effective, but there’s also something wonderfully nostalgic about stopping at a rest area for a picnic. The conventional way to manage your ice chest is to regularly load it with ice until you’ve arrived where you’re going (pour out melted ice and repeat). But with an ice chest that you can plug into your car’s power adapter (aka cigarette lighter), your ice will last indefinitely, or you might even be able to skip the ice altogether. The Wagan brand model we have doesn’t appear to be available anymore, but this one is similar and costs just under $200. Buy a compatible power adapter, and you can plug it in in your hotel room to keep your food cold overnight.

Windshield Sun Screen – particularly if you’re going somewhere sunny and hot, this can be a critical thing to have (and why would you be road-tripping to somewhere dreary and cold?). We spent much of the summer in the desert, and a good sun screen really can keep the car interior bearable, especially for hot vinyl seats against bare legs. Even if you splurge on this, you’re only spending a few bucks, like with this one or this one (both less than $15), though folding it up neatly into its original shape can take some practice.

Plastic Bins – one of the great advantages of taking a road trip is that you don’t have to pack everything you own into airline-limited luggage. But that doesn’t mean you just throw anything and everything willy-nilly into your car. We have a few plastic bins we use to keep things organized. Since our current road trip stretched from summer into fall, and from desert to northern rainforest, we took along a couple of seasons of clothes. Our bins—nothing fancier than the kind you can pick up at your favorite discount or home store for $5 apiece—have proven super-useful.

Bins in the back of our car


Clothes Rack – with either bins or luggage, folding clothes means wrinkles. That’s all well and fine for socks, undies, and undershirts, but not for dresses, nice shirts, and jackets. The solution? Get an automobile clothes rack like you might’ve had in college, like this one for about $20.

Rooftop Luggage Bag or Carrier – if your luggage exceeds your trunk space, don’t fret: there are a couple of options. If you have a car with a rooftop luggage rack, get a cargo bag like this one for around $50. Ours has lasted a couple of years now, but if we were worried about its durability, we could consider a more durable one like this one for about $200.

Tow Hitch Platform – if you have a trailer hitch (or can add one, as we did), then you can also consider a tow hitch cargo platform. Ours is this Highland carrier for less than $60. Carting around all that extra ski gear, we really needed it for our New England trip back in February.

Streaming TV Device – we’ve been binge watching TV shows on Netflix and Amazon Prime (Breaking Bad last year, Downton Abbey, Mad Men, and House of Cards this year…so far). If you’re like us and don’t want to forego your binge-tv, you can take your Netflix and Amazon Prime with you. We love our Roku 3 ($89) for its portability and ease of connecting to local Wifi once we get settled in somewhere. Don’t forget an HDMI cable.

AAA Membership – not only does AAA membership give you some peace of mind with roadside assistance services should you have a flat or run out of gas, but it usually also gets you the best possible prices for your hotel. It’s true you can get away with it about half the time by lying and simply claiming you have AAA membership, but more and more hotels are requiring you present your current membership card (and not just have your AAA number). For all those hotels and the real value of AAA, if you’re going to be a serious road-tripper, just bite the bullet and pay the very reasonable $68 per year membership (it actually goes down to $58 in subsequent years).

Cigarette Lighter USB Charger – spending hours on end in your car, and with all of your electronic devices being charged nowadays on USB power, this might just be the most bang-for-your-road-trip-essentials-buck that you can spend. You can pick up cheap ones in the checkout line for a couple of bucks, but they’ll burn up in a snap of your finger, so “splurge” and spend $13 on this one.

Plastic Eating Utensils – nothing is more frustrating than sitting down for a picnic and realizing you forgot the knives, forks, and spoons. You don’t even have to throw them away if you don’t like the idea of non-reusable utensils: wash them and stow them back after each use. That way if you lose them along the way, you won’t feel so bad about it. We could provide a link to buy some on Amazon, but you know, of course, that you could just keep the ones they give you at McDonald’s.

Wine & Bottle Opener – for road-tripping wine lovers like us, this is probably the most critical piece of gear we carry. Get a couple of these at $10 each and keep one in the food bag and a spare one in your luggage in case you lose the first one.

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