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The Ultimate Guide to Winter Road Trips

Courtesy of COVID-19, airlines had their own unwelcome layover last year. According to data from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the number of U.S. flyers dropped by more than 95% in the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak. And while airline travel restrictions have largely been lifted, the number of people booking a flight is still around 60% lower than this time last year.

But many families aren’t abandoning vacations altogether. Instead, they’re opting for road trips closer to home. If you’re planning a getaway over the next few months, here are some tips to help you make the most of that winter road trip.

Winter road trip ideas

When it comes to winter vacations, it’s common for East Coasters to want an escape from the cold weather. But there are still plenty of ways to take a break from the stress of daily life while staying relatively close to home.

  • Enjoy the scenery. Sometimes the journey can be as enjoyable as the destination. Take advantage of the picturesque winter scenery with a drive in the mountains. The roads running through Great Smoky Mountains National Park and New York’s Hudson Valley, as well as Vermont’s famous Route 100, all offer east-coast drives with picture-perfect views. (Related: How to Keep Your High-Mileage Car Running)
  • Hit the slopes. You don’t need to travel to Colorado or Utah to enjoy a ski vacation with the family. Instead, take advantage of the fresh powder at a resort in New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, or Maine. Not only do these states boast great ski and snowboard slopes within driving distance – but they’ll be easier on your wallet, too. (Related: How to Store Your Outdoor Gear During the Offseason)
  • Take a hike. While many National Parks can get crowded during the summer months, cooler weather results in lower attendance — meaning you’ll have even more room to explore. The parks in Acadia and the Great Smoky Mountains are well-known gems. But the National Parks in Ohio’s Cuyahoga Valley, Virginia’s Shenandoah, and Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave also make for great road trip destinations. Or, check out the newest addition to the National Parks system: New River Gorge in West Virginia. Stay in a nearby lodge or plan a winter camping excursion to complete your trip.
  • Get away from it all. If you’re not much of a hiker but are still looking for a quiet escape, consider booking a stay in a cabin. Through sites like VRBO and Airbnb, there are options available to plan a socially distant cabin getaway that’s right for you – whether you prefer remote and rustic or luxurious “glamping.”
  • Celebrate the season. Take your cold-weather vacation to the next level by incorporating a winter festival. Visit the ice palace during the Saranac Lake Winter Carnival in New York. Or play in the snow volleyball tournament at the Stowe Winter Carnival in Vermont. Just be sure to do your research in advance, as COVID-19 precautions may change some of the available activities.

How to pack for a winter road trip

In many ways, preparing for your winter vacation will be similar to packing for a summer road trip. However, there are a few extra tips you should keep in mind.

  • Winterize your emergency kit. A well-stocked emergency kit can help you get back on the road quickly and safely if you find yourself stranded. Pre-assembled kits are available to purchase, or you can use this guide to assemble your own emergency kit. When traveling during the winter months, consider adding extra items such as warm blankets, hats, and gloves.
  • Improve traction. Driving through a snowy mountain pass? Your car will need as much grip as possible. Consider packing a set of tire chains for added traction, if needed. A bag of sand or cat litter can also help if you get stuck in the snow. And if you’re really concerned about winter traction, you may want to consider mounting a set of snow tires. Read more in our snow tire buying guide.
  • Use your roof rack. If you’re going on a ski trip, avoid filling the inside of your vehicle sky high with gear. This obstructs the view from your rearview mirror and severely limits your visibility. Instead, consider a rooftop ski or snowboard rack to free up storage space inside your vehicle.
  • Maximize visibility. Driving through sleet and snow can make a real mess of your windshield. Be sure to carry a snow brush, ice scraper, and extra windshield washer fluid so you’ll always have a clear view of the road ahead. (Related: Why It’s Worth Getting All the Snow and Ice Off Your Car)
  • Rely on mobile GPS. During severe winter weather, it’s not uncommon for mountain roads to be closed. And if there’s an accident on a narrow highway, traffic can get backed up for hours. To avoid delays, use a mobile navigation app when you’re driving. Most apps will give you live updates on travel times and reroute your path in the event of a road closure.
  • Prep your playlist. Mixtape nostalgia, anyone? Every good road trip needs a soundtrack. Whether it’s on your smartphone, CDs, or the good ol’ fashioned radio – pick your tunes ahead of time so you can keep your eyes on the road and hands on the wheel.

Planning a Road Trip During COVID-19

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, your winter road trip may require a little more planning than usual. Before you go, review the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guide to domestic travel during COVID-19.

Spoiler alert: Staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others from COVID-19. If you do decide to travel, there are ways to reduce the risk.

Here are some tips to help you ensure everything goes according to plan.

  • Make advance reservations. These days, you’ll likely need reservations for more than just your hotel. Due to COVID-19, many restaurants and attractions are limiting the number of visitors they let in to reduce capacity. So reserve as many things as possible in advance – from dinner tables to ski lift tickets.
  • Understand local health guidelines. When traveling outside your home state, the guidelines related to COVID-19 precautions may change. For the states you’re traveling through, check the health department’s website for instructions on topics such as mask usage, test requirements, and social distancing. You should also know your home state’s guidelines regarding possible quarantine times if you travel to a high-risk area.
  • Reduce your exposure. Generally speaking, you’ll have a lower exposure risk to the coronavirus when traveling by car, compared to taking a train or airplane. However, you’ll still be stopping to eat and fuel up your vehicle. During these stops, be sure to practice good hygiene by thoroughly washing your hands and using sanitizer. Health experts also recommend wearing a mask when indoors (and when social distancing outdoors isn’t possible).

Prepare your vehicle

When taking a winter road trip, it’s important to make sure your car, truck, or SUV can safely carry you to your destination. Here are some tips to get your vehicle road-trip-ready.

  • Schedule a multi-point inspection. This type of inspection, usually done at a dealership or independent auto shop, is a great way to get a snapshot of your vehicle’s overall condition. A trained mechanic can let you know of any maintenance issues to fix before they get worse (or more expensive).
  • Check your tires. When driving in winter weather, the condition of your tires is an important factor. Before you leave home, inspect each tire’s tread depth and inflate it to the pressure recommended by your vehicle manufacturer. If you’re low on tread, replace your tires before you hit the road. You can check by using “the penny test.” Just insert a penny upside down into a tread groove. If you can see the top of Lincoln’s head, it’s time for new tires.
  • Change your oil. Road trips can rack up the miles on your car in the span of just a few days. Look ahead to preventative maintenance, like oil changes, that may come due while you’re traveling. Taking care of it before you leave is not only good for your car — it’s good for peace-of-mind, too.
  • Top off fluids. Don’t wait until your windshield is covered with snow and ice to realize you need washer fluid. Before your road trip, check all of your vehicle’s fluid levels. That includes windshield washer fluid, antifreeze, brake fluid, oil, and power steering fluid. Top them all off as needed.

Winter driving tips

Over the years, our team of experts at Erie Insurance has provided plenty of tips and tricks for safely navigating winter weather. Before your next road trip, educate yourself with these quick reads:

We’ve got you covered

There’s a lot to think about when planning a road trip. At ERIE, we don’t think your auto insurance should be one of them. That’s why our promise is simple: to be there when you need us. Whether taking the road less traveled or on your daily commute, you can count on us. Talk to a local agent to learn more about auto insurance from ERIE.

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