Advice for driving your first Road Trip

Learning to Drive in Melbourne

Getting your drivers licence and going on your first road trip is always a very exciting experience for anyone.  However, even the most experienced drivers can run into trouble during long-distance drives and one of the worst things to experience is being stuck in the middle of nowhere between towns.

Planning your trip thoroughly, thinking about what to expect and understanding many factors about long-distance driving will help avoid putting you in a bad situation and ruining your trip.  Read on to find out how you can ensure you keep things going smoothly.

Plan, plan and plan

It goes without saying that a successful road trip is one which has been planned properly.  You’re going from A to B, or sometimes A to D, with B and C along the way.  Many reasons for a road trip it to tour areas of the country you haven’t seen before.  So make sure you check what is nearby where you are travelling so you can add them into your schedule.

Once you have a list of points, you can determine the travelling time and stop times for each, allowing you to calculate the overall time between major points where you might sleep overnight.

Google Maps is the number one free utility for organising your road trip, so make good use of it.

Also plan where you will buy things you need, where you will get more fuel, where to have lunch, and so on.

Plan it well and get familiar with connecting roads and turnoffs and your road trip will go a lot smoother.

Know your destination

Study your destination using Google Maps or a GPS and get to know where things are in relation to where you’re staying, and find things along the way there and back which you can visit so they are not out of your way.  Also note the type of public transport systems present in the area so you can be on the lookout for them (eg. trams).

Some cities, such as Melbourne, have some unique road practices and rules, such as hook turns.  If you think you will have to perform these then it is important to study what to do.  There may also be some signs you don’t normally see in your local area, so note what they mean before you get there.

Ensure your vehicle is ready

You are going to spend long periods driving your vehicle.  The vehicle’s components will run for longer periods than they are normally operated and so must be checked over and serviced if necessary.

It is a good idea to time a regular service a few weeks before a big road trip so that essential components such as engine oil, brake fluid, power steering fluid, coolant, washer fluid, headlight fluid (just joking!) and your brakes can be checked and changed or renewed before your road trip.  Your tyres may also be rotated or need replacing, hoses and/or belts may need replacing and there may be other faults detected which need fixing.

By getting this done some time prior to your road trip you can run the vehicle in with the service work and fixes done to ensure there is no problem resulting from this work.  It would be terrible for newly-replaced hose have a clamp come loose and cause damage some two hours or 150 kms away from your mechanic.

Another thing to check is your air filter.  Ensure it is clean of dust and debris or has been renewed, since your engine breathes through this and having a dirty air filter is like a vacuum cleaner which doesn’t suck so well until its filters are cleaned.

Check your tyres

The tyres are the connection between you and the road.  Always ensure that all tyres (including the spare) are inflated properly and are in good condition.  Consider having them rotated before going on a road trip to keep the wear even between the front and rear tyres.

Inflating them a couple of extra PSI over the recommended pressure can reduce rolling resistance which will help deliver some improved fuel economy over long distances.

When checking your spare tyre, ensure the tyre-changing tools are present and consider carrying an extension bar (also known as a breaker bar) to help with untightening over-tightened wheel nuts.

Carrying your load and roof racks

One of the best things about going on a road trip in your own vehicle is being able to bring as much stuff as you can carry in it, or on it.  When packing your vehicle, consider what you won’t need until you reach your destination and pack it under things you most likely will need during the drive.

If using a roof rack to bring additional items, ensure they are properly packed and secured and won’t come loose during the drive.  This can cause damage to the items, your own vehicle, and other peoples’ property and vehicles.

Towing a trailer or caravan

If you are towing a trailer of cargo and equipment for your road trip or even a caravan, it is important to ensure your vehicle is rated to tow the additional weight and your towbar is in good condition.

On the trailer or caravan itself, ensure the tyres, tail lights and brakes (if fitted) are working and in good condition.  Ensure the cable is properly connected to your vehicle and that the load is secure.

Fill up on fuel

It is important you ensure you have enough fuel for your journey.  Get to know your vehicle’s typical fuel usage.  On the open road with long uninterrupted sections of continuous driving your fuel economy will increase since you won’t be stopping and starting constantly like in an urban environment.  Because of this, your vehicle may surprise you when given the chance to really stretch its legs.  But it is important to know a rough estimate of range of your vehicle so you can plan where you will most likely purchase more fuel.

If you know you are going to require a refill before reaching your destination, completely fill your vehicle’s tank prior to departing.  A trick you can do is to wait for the click of the fuel hose to indicate it has filled your tank.  Allow the fuel to settle for a moment, then rock the vehicle side to side to help remove bubbles of air in the tank, then fill the tank an extra amount until it clicks again.  This will maximise your fuel level.

If there is going to be a long stretch between towns, consider filling up before you enter that long stretch, to save time and stress later on when you arrive at your destination and don’t have to worry about finding fuel for a while.

Clean your windshield and windows

Ensure all the windows and your windshield are freshly cleaned as long-distance driving is notorious for having bugs splattered all over the windscreen and rocks may be thrown up by large trucks which can crack your windscreen.  By having clear visibility before you depart, you can minimise the effects of these things.

Insurance and roadside assistance

Ensure your vehicle is properly insured and paid up to date.  Everyone seems to know someone who has hit an animal while driving, and kangaroos and wombats are probably the most common animals which end up in front of cars on our country highways.

Remember to bring your paperwork with you and store it in a storage compartment.

Bringing pets

If you are bringing a pet along on your road trip, such as a dog, there are some extra things to consider.  Most dogs will curl up and sleep for a long period once they realise they are stuck in a car for a long period.

Ensure you bring bowls for your dog to eat and drink from, as well as extra drinking water for them.  Plastic bags are also ideal for picking up after your dog.  Bring at least two leashes and store them in different easy-to-access locations in the vehicle in case one goes missing.  Remember to bring your dog’s favourite thing to lie on and some toys to keep them occupied.

Many dogs love water, so ensure you being a towel just for your dog in case they find something to jump into so you can keep your car reasonably clean when it’s time to go.

There are a number of pet-friendly accommodations around Australia and it is a common practice to bring dogs on road trips.

Food and water in the car

Ensure you have food and water easily available to reach before you set off for a long drive.  Snack on small, easy to eat food and avoid having a big meal while on the road.  If you have a large meal it can cause some drowsiness afterwards.

Tip: Freeze up bottles of water overnight and bring them on the car to provide an ongoing source of nice cold water.  They can also double as ice blocks to help keep other food cold, such as meat.

Food and crossing a state border

Some state borders require you by law to surrender and bin all fruit due to possible fruit fly contamination.  If you pass such a state border, stop at the appropriate signed quarantine bin facility and put all fruit into the bin.  Alternatively, you can eat it on the go before you get to the border, but you must bin all peelings or scraps.

By following the law and doing this you will avoid an embarrassing and costly random check by border control customs if you are stopped and found to have fruit on board.

Driving with kids

Kids have active, cheeky and curious minds, and can easily get bored if not kept occupied.  This may lead to fighting in the back seat as more than one kid plays with something the other kid wants to have.  The solution is to ensure you bring plenty of things to keep the kids occupied.  Colouring in and drawing paper and pencils, books, portable DVD and movie players, music CDs, toys and puzzles are all good things to bring along on a road trip with kids.

Reduce your workload behind the wheel

Make it easier for yourself when you drive by following a few tips where possible:

  • Use the cruise control where possible
  • Keep a good 2 to 3 second following distance from the vehicle in front
  • If you are behind a slower vehicle and cannot overtake, find an average slower speed which allows you to relax a little more rather than constantly speeding up and slowing down
  • Have your passenger(s) read the maps and navigate for you
  • Keep your accelerations smooth and gentle to save your fuel

By following tips like these you will arrive at your destination feeling a bit more relaxed and less stressed.

Overtaking on the open highway

Sometimes we catch up to slower vehicles and large trucks which will hold us up.  Overtaking can be a risky manoeuvre so keep in mind that many highways have dedicated overtaking lanes which come and go.  Consider making use of the next one rather than spending time on the oncoming lane to overtake a slower vehicle.

If there are none then be careful when overtaking.  Always overtake when your side of the road has broken white lines and all oncoming lanes are clear of traffic for the foreseeable distance you will use when overtaking.

Do not exceed the speed limit but try to spend as little time as possible on the oncoming lane when overtaking.  Use your signals to indicate your intention for 3 seconds before coming out so that the driver of the slower vehicle may slow further to assist you in overtaking them safely.

Renting a vehicle

If renting a vehicle for the road trip, always treat it like it is your own car and do not threat it harshly.  The last thing you want is to deal with a breakdown.

When picking up the vehicle, inspect the suppled damage report and visually check the vehicle for any additional damage.  Take photos of anything of concern and report it to the office before driving away.  They will issue you with an updated damage report.

If there is a mechanical issue while driving the vehicle, report it immediately as soon as possible to avoid being held responsible for any further damage which may result.  As the renter of the vehicle you are responsible for maintaining the serviceable fluids of the vehicle such as windshield washer fluid, coolant and engine oil level.  These should be checked if renting the vehicle for more than a week.

Are you ready?

There is no point in having a properly prepared vehicle if the driver is not ready.  Ensure you are confident of driving the long distances (including the return distance), can share the driving if possible and have a good sleep the night before you start.  Remember to set your alarm if getting up early so you don’t end up rushing the trip and stressing out.

Ensure you have properly secured your home, switched off any unnecessary equipment / appliances, arranged for any pets to be cared for and enabled your alarm if you have one.

Always tell someone you trust that you are going away, including to where you are going and when you will return.

Some extra tips for your road trip

  • Use your high beam lights at night to see further ahead and always remember to switch them off when a vehicle is oncoming.
  • Don’t push yourself to keep going if it doesn’t feel right.
  • If you are going to be very late checking at a hotel / motel, telephone ahead to check if you need to make a special arrangement to enter the car park and / or get the keys to your room.
  • Always carry some cash rather than rely on your bank card to pay for everything.
  • If driving in another country, ensure your bank or credit card will be accepted, especially in remote places which may have unattended petrol stations.
  • Freeze up bottles of water to keep in cooler bags to keep food and meat cold. The bottles will also provide chilled water throughout the day as the ice inside them melts.  You can top them up as you go, always having chilled water on tap.
  • Ensure you display your P plates if you are a P plater.
  • Don’t be intimated by local tailgaters when driving in unfamiliar country areas, they will overtake you when they have the chance. Always stay within the speed limit to avoid being caught by a mobile speed camera.