Spending long hours driving alone over straight highways with few distractions can be nirvana for a solitary traveler. But for someone who prefers company and dislikes interstate driving, it can be a challenge. Our Empty Nest TravelingMom shares these survival tips learned the hard way, on a solo road trip to visit her daughter at a tiny college in the middle of an Iowa cornfield.
Solo Road Trip Tips
Being an empty nester means lots of great things. Not worrying about teens who missed their curfews, not buying out the snack aisle at Costco and not being made fun of for going to bed at 10 pm, are just a few of them. But, for me, one of the not-so-great things is not always having company on the road.
I can drive for hours in bumper to bumper rush hour traffic in Chicago (something that makes my husband want to pull his hair out). But put me on a straight and narrow highway between Chicago and the middle of Iowa and I zone out. Without the stimulation and challenge of dodging city traffic, I need beautiful scenery and/or stimulating conversation to keep me awake.
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A solo road trip across the flatlands of northern Illinois and the farmlands of eastern Iowa on a gray day at the beginning of winter offers neither. But the powerful draw of a beloved daughter was enough to get me into the car to make the 5-plus hour trek. Having a great car—Toyota loaned me a 2017 Highlander Hybrid for the drive—made a huge difference too.
Here are my 6 survival tips for solo road trips, learned the hard way, on a solo road trip.
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1. Stop Often.
This is a key to a successful road trip even when I’m road tripping with hubby. I actually expected to stop less when I was traveling alone–there would be only one bladder demanding attention. Instead, I found it to be even more important to stop every hour or so on my solo road trip. I never passed a rest stop without pulling over. Even if I didn’t venture inside the building, just parking and getting out of the car for a big stretch and a little walk left me refreshed and refocused for the next leg of the trip.
On my return trip late at night, I learned something about rest stops that I had never noticed when driving with hubby: They can be dark and desolate places after hours.
The first rest stop I pulled into was deserted except for two parked semi trucks. Deciding that it wasn’t optimal for a woman traveling alone to be wandering around there in the dead of night, I kept driving.
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For the rest of the trip, I stopped at truck stops and exits with McDonald’s or other fast food places. They offered clean bathrooms and the promise of at least a few workers inside. (Also a great place to grab those hard-to-resist convenience store snacks!)
2. Drive the Right Car.
Hot car tech and the creature comforts of a well-designed cockpit area turned out to be lifesavers on this solo road trip. The temperature plunged as I made my way west, so it was a treat to climb back into the Toyota Highlander Hybrid after each stop. I would hit the button that would send heat into the steering wheel and warm my chilled hands. Then I would turn to “3” the dial that would heat my seat.
Another big plus: the Toyota Highlander Hybrid Platinum model I was driving has a smart key that I never had to take out of my pocket. When I got out of the car at the rest stop, I just touched a spot on the driver’s door handle to lock the car. When I returned, I touched another spot to open the locked door. (If you saw the big, messy purse I carry, you would understand just how much of a joy it is not to have to find the darned key in there.)
3. Bring Snacks!
All parents know that snacks are the key to road trip happiness when you are road tripping with kids. Turns out they keep us adults pretty happy as well.
Without a co-pilot to supply me with snacks on demand, it was important to keep the red grapes and pretzels (my go-to road trip snacks) handy. I started by putting them in the passenger seat but found they slid just out of reach when I went around a turn. At the next stop, I moved them to the Highlander’s giant center console storage area to ensure they were always within easy reach.
4. Enjoy the View!
This was a bit of challenge since I was driving through north-central Illinois and eastern Iowa in mid-November. Everything on the ground was dying. But the relatively few trees I saw were ablaze with color.
The double long moonroof in the Highlander gave me at least a glimpse of color as I drove under the fall leaves. I didn’t have anyone in the middle row bucket seats, but if I had, they, too, would have had a full view of the sky, thanks to the moonroof that spans the full length of the 7 passenger SUV.
5. Make the Most of the Tech
The Toyota Highlander Entune infotainment system meant that I had access to satellite radio, but I’m a word girl. So I downloaded a couple of books on tape to entertain me across the great wide spaces. I had trouble getting my iPad to talk to the system via Bluetooth, so I listened the old-fashioned way—with my earbuds. It helped pass the time.
I did use (and like) the Highlander nav, which included a large enough display that I didn’t have to work to figure out where I was headed.
But my favorite feature of the display was, by far, the bird’s eye view camera. It worked alongside the rear-view camera to give me a 360-degree view of the car every time I backed out of a rest stop parking space. I also used the camera to check whether I had managed to park between the lines each time I pulled into a spot.
6. Be Safe.
The worst part of a solo road trip is staying alert. That made me really appreciate the Toyota Safety Sense safety package on the Highlander. The adaptive cruise control let me set a speed and forget it. On those rare occasions when traffic started to back up, the cruise control slowed down the car.
One time, as I was too focused on the nav and not enough on the road, the lane departure warning told me I was drifting.
As I headed home well after dark on my solo drive back, the automatic high beam headlights made it easy for me to see the dark and lonely road without worrying that I would accidentally blind the rare driver heading the other way.
The Bottom Line of Solo Road Trips
I still don’t love the idea of a solo road trip. But a few coping mechanisms make it feel more reasonable to take to the road and visit my darling daughter.
What are your tips for solo road trips? Share with us in the comment section below.