The 6 Biggest Winter Road Trip Mistakes You Can Make

Traveling is a time-honored, if not necessarily beloved, holiday tradition. Every year, millions of Americans venture off to visit distant relatives or indulge in a much-needed getaway during the six-week stretch between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. And though long lines at the airport suggest otherwise, the majority of people aren’t flying to their destinations.

“Most [people] will travel on the tried and true holiday road trip, thanks to gas prices that are holding at close to $2 per gallon,” AAA President and CEO Marshall Doney said in a press release. This year, 43.5 million Americans planned a Thanksgiving road trip, AAA estimates, compared to 3.69 million who planned to fly. Another 91 million drive to visit friends and family around Christmas, Hanukkah, and New Year’s — not to mention the plenty of road trips that happen any time during the frigid months.

If you’re one of the many people who will be on the road this winter, you can make the experience more bearable with proper planning. Whether your winter road trip is a 100-mile jaunt to Grandma’s house or a 500-mile trip to your favorite ski resort, you’ll want to avoid these six road trip mistakes.

1. Neglecting to check the weather report

snowy road

A traffic jam on a snowy road | JEAN PIERRE CLATOT/AFP/Getty Images

You want to get to a warm fire at your destination as quickly as possible, but hitting the road without checking the weather first is a big mistake. A snow or ice storm not only means it will take longer to get to where you’re going, but it also makes travel more hazardous. If the weather is supposed to be really bad, you may want to nix the trip entirely.

To see what the weather might be like for your winter road trip, use this tool from the National Weather Service. Just click the “Travel Hazard Forecast” icon in the upper-right corner, enter your departure city, destination, and the time you plan to leave, and you can find out whether or not you’re likely to get stuck outside of Omaha in a snowstorm.

2. Not getting a tune up before you depart

antifreeze for sale

Antifreeze and snow shovels for sale | JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

A pre-trip tune up is a smart idea whenever you’re planning a road trip, but it’s doubly important during the winter. Before you leave, visit your mechanic for an inspection and take care of any issues. You want your brakes and tires in impeccable shape and to top off your wiper fluid and anti-freeze. Replace your wiper blades if necessary, check your lights and your battery, make sure your defroster works, and consider putting winter tires on your vehicle. Prepping your car for winter weather will keep you safe on the road and avoid an annoying breakdown that makes you late to your family dinner.

3. Ignoring the road conditions

winter driving

Winter driving | Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Reckless winter drivers put everyone at risk. If you’re going to be driving in snowy, icy, or rainy conditions, you need to know how to handle your vehicle (like what to do if you spin out on an icy road, which you can read about on The Allstate Blog) and avoid driving too fast or too close to other cars. You can’t count on your fancy car to make up for your winter driving mistakes.

“People drive too fast for the conditions because they have this superior all wheel drive and traction control systems; they feel invincible,” Richard Reina, product training director at carid.com, told The Weather Channel. “Let’s be realistic: these systems make a huge difference in your ability to get out of deep snow, but they do little or nothing to improve your handling, your steering, or your braking. When you hit that patch of black ice on the Jersey Turnpike, the laws of physics still apply — you’re still going to spin.”

4. Relying on GPS

gps in car

A GPS in a car | PHILIPPE HUGUEN/AFP/Getty Images

Your GPS is a wonderful tool, but relying on it to get your destination can be a mistake. Not only does always looking to your smartphone to find out where to go hurt your natural navigational abilities, but GPS directions also aren’t foolproof.

Occasionally, stories of drivers led astray by their GPS are funny, like one The Telegraph shared about a truck driver who wedged his vehicle into a narrow lane after his GPS led him to Gibralter Point in England when he was really trying to get to Gibralter on the Spanish coast. But sometimes, a GPS error ends in tragedy. The Stir by CafeMom reports a woman died after her husband drove off the end of a demolished bridge because he was following his car’s navigation device. If your GPS is suggesting an unfamiliar route, especially in a lightly populated area, double-check the directions on an actual map.

5. Driving while you’re tired — or worse

holiday party

Drinking at a holiday party | iStock.com

A long day of celebrating can leave you exhausted. If you’re feeling beat, it’s better to not get behind the wheel for your trip home. As many as 6,000 deadly accidents may be caused by drowsy driving, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Rather than putting yourself or other drivers at risk, it’s better to spend the night where you are or find a hotel if you’re already on the road.

Drinking and driving may be an even bigger issue around the holidays. Picking up your car keys after one too many eggnogs is a recipe for disaster, but it’s a mistake all too many people make. Drunk driving accidents spike during the stretch between Thanksgiving and New Years. To stay safe, make sure someone in your family is a designated driver, or make plans to spend the night on a family member’s couch if you can’t resist the temptation to indulge.

6. Forgetting to plan for an emergency

stranded car

A car stranded in the snow | Rolf Hojer/AFP/Getty Images

Despite your best efforts, a winter road trip disaster might still strike. Before you leave for your journey, make sure you’re prepared for the worst. Pack blankets as well as extra food and water in case you get stuck. That’s a wise move even if you plan to stick to heavily trafficked interstates, since it’s not unheard of to get stuck on a major highway if the weather turns nasty.

AAA also suggests always having at least half a tank of gas in your car and keeping your cellphone fully charged. “If you become snow-bound, stay with your vehicle,” AAA advises. “It provides temporary shelter and makes it easier for rescuers to locate you. Don’t try to walk in a severe storm. It’s easy to lose sight of your vehicle in blowing snow and become lost.”

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