I think anyone would agree that spending a couple of weeks on the Mother Road hardly makes one an expert. It is also true, however, that even a short trip can grant experiences that some—especially those who have never visited Route 66 before—might find helpful. Therefore, in this article I would like to offer a few tips and tricks that I learned while on the road. My guide is by no means a complete one—it might not even be that good—but I hope it will provide a good starting point for at least some of you wanting to explore America’s Highway.
Understanding Route 66
This section may be superfluous for some readers. But, considering that many people around the world have archetypal—and often false—ideas about the Mother Road, I think it is necessary to clarify what Route 66 is before I begin.
Though some might argue with the following, I believe that Route 66—despite popular perception—holds little touristic value in itself. Aside from a few restored sections, nowadays the Mother Road and its successors are modern interstate highways with very little to offer for sightseers. There are obvious exceptions of course—Seligman, Arizona, would be one—but, in general, the glory days of America’s Highway are long gone. This does not mean, however, that Route 66 has become insignificant. On the contrary! Even today, Route 66 is important because it acts as a hub, connecting hundreds, if not thousands, of attractions in its close and not-so-close vicinity. The power of the Mother Road lies in its central location. As a result, somewhat ironically, if you want to make your Route 66 trip worthwhile, you can expect to spend most of your time away from the highway, exploring the adjacent regions.
How should I prepare for my trip?
In terms of preparations, Route 66 is not much different than any other popular tourist destination. One thing should be made clear from the beginning though: considering the vast number of attractions along the road, it is virtually impossible to see everything in one trip. The most important part of the preparation process, therefore, is to become familiar with the available attractions and to narrow them down to those we do not want to miss.
The most obvious way to do this is to buy a Route 66 Guide, which should not be a problem as there are quite a few on the market. The problem with this is that these books tend to focus too narrowly on Route 66, meaning that if an attraction lies farther away from the main highway, it will likely be left out. For that reason, I think it is vital to check out maps, websites, message boards, and virtually every resource possible before coming up with the final plan, thereby ensuring that nothing important will be overlooked.
How should I travel?
In my opinion, the most efficient way to explore Route 66 is with a camper. A camper allows you to sleep almost anywhere, not only saving money on hotel bills but also providing the kind of flexibility that such a trip requires. Touring America’s Highway is an adventure, and it is hard to enjoy its many wonders if you are constantly on a schedule to make your next hotel reservation.
Although the preferred type and size of the camper changes with each person, I would generally recommend smaller models; large, bus-sized RVs will likely limit the driver’s movements. Travelers need to keep in mind that they will likely be moving around quite a bit, during which they can expect some rough terrain that will be difficult—or even impossible—to traverse with a large RV. Of course, if you are planning to stay on Route 66, which as I mentioned before is for the most part a modern interstate, then you should be fine. But, if you are set on spending some time in the surrounding area—which I highly recommend—then you will seriously limit yourself with a large vehicle. Also, you need to keep in mind that you will likely be outside most of the time—this is why you came, after all—so all you really need is a bed and a bathroom.
Having said all that, I suggest campers that attach to a pickup’s bed. These usually provide sufficient living space and basic commodities for two or even three people, while remaining mobile enough to handle basically any terrain.
What is the best time to travel?
Without a doubt, the best time to travel is either the spring or the fall. I know for fact that many of the attractions along Route 66 are closed during the winter, and in the summer, you will have to deal with not only the constant heat but the endless crowds of tourists. Furthermore, the spring and the fall tend to be cheaper than other seasons, making a trip more economically viable—especially for those who arrive from outside of the United States.
Much of Route 66 and its modern-day successors, such as Interstate 40, are heavily traveled—especially in the summer months. Most people I encountered during my trip were extremely friendly and helpful. If you read my journal, you know I spent many of my nights in rest stops, lying in my sleeping bag in the bed of my truck, and never encountered anything hostile. Nevertheless, as a general rule, you should always keep your valuables hidden in a safe place. Overall, however, if you exercise general caution and common sense, you should be just fine and have a wonderful time.
Interstate or smaller roads?
You will often have the option to choose between smaller roads and the interstate to reach a certain location. My advice in that situation is to go with the smaller roads whenever possible. Though the interstate provides faster travel, you will see significantly less while on it; not to mention, it is much easier to stop on smaller roads should you run into something interesting. I cannot even count how many times I came across a particularly nice rock formation or other roadside attraction that I wanted to take a photograph of, but was prevented from doing so because I could not pull over on the interstate.
Anytime you take a long road trip, proper vehicle maintenance is a must—unless you plan to rent, in which case a good insurance/roadside assistance package is recommended! There are steps you should follow prior to and during the trip, and this section provides a brief explanation of these.
The first item on your list should be to take your vehicle to a certified mechanic for a thorough checkup. Besides an oil change and other customary procedures, special attention should be given to the alignment. Proper alignment helps keep the fuel economy at an optimum level and protects the tires, especially during the summer months when the hot asphalt tends to eat up improperly aligned tires very quickly.
Before departure, you should check your spare tire and make sure you have at least a quart of motor oil and at least one gallon of engine coolant that you can use in an emergency situation. Extra motor oil comes in handy when you cover great distances, as the oil level in most vehicles tends to decrease slightly with heavy use. Engine coolant is important in the summer months and/or if you plan to cross desert terrain. It is crucial, for instance, to make sure your coolant level is optimal before crossing a hot zone such as the Mojave Desert or Death Valley. For the type of liquids you need, check your owner’s manual or consult your mechanic. It would also be a good idea to bring along a couple of gallons of water in the event your vehicle overheats.
Despite my limited experiences, I hope I made this guide at least somewhat helpful for future visitors. If you have a comment or would like to add something, please feel free to do so in the comment section!