It’s looking like this year is shaping up to be another summer of road trips for most people as international travel restrictions make it too much of a hassle for most to bother with.
If you’re planning on hitting the road, then it’s time to accessorize your vehicle to help make your life easier. One of those accessories that will change your life are in-car trays that act as flat surfaces where you can eat or get work done instead of doing everything in your lap.
Without further ado, here are my recommendations for some highly-rated products you didn’t know you needed for your next automotive journey.
BLOW THE BUDGET
Cup Holder Tray for Car
In the olden days, your dashboard might have been flat enough to park your meal or anything else you didn’t want to hold in your lap, but today’s curved surfaces make it difficult. Fortunately, the invention of the cup holder helps because it becomes a space where you can insert one of these sturdy 9-inch trays that can be used by the driver, side passenger and even folks in the back seat.
Five-star review:“My Boyfriend is a truck driver and he loves it, helps him save time by being able to eat on the road (having a place to put his food) has an area to work off of when he’s stopped and filling out his log books. He likes it a lot. Also the customer service is commendable seeing as I bought the product a month ago and they checked in to see if I have any questions or concerns about the product after giving us time to test it out and such. Overall I think this is a very good product, very sturdy and suits any cupholder I think. (Fits in our pick up and big rig)”
This spacious tray attaches to your steering wheel for the driver to use or to the headrest for passengers in the backseat. When you don’t need it, it’s a cinch to fold up and store for the next time. Use it for meals or as a workspace to park your laptop or notebook.
Five-star review:This tray is perfect for my 15″ Dell laptop, functionally works very well, no issues highly recommend for laptop or tablet users, it has a slide out small tray for a mouse, however my mouse didn’t work well with the black surface didn’t pickup the sensor. Would recommend this product.
Simple, but effective, this desk is specifically designed to slip onto your steering wheel. It has a space to hold a drink without spilling and an expansive flat surface for food or work. Easy to clean and easy to store. It’s perfect for anyone who spends a lot of time in a car. Just don’t forget to remove it before you drive anywhere.
Five-star review:“Covid-19 got you eating your fancy restaurant food under some tent in the blistering summer heat instead of a cozy climate controlled building? Eat in your cozy climate controlled car instead!”
I’m more of a You Gotta Eat Here guy, but I have probably watched more Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives episodes than I care to admit. That’s why I’ve got lists of restaurants featured on both shows programmed into my GPS for when I’m on road trips in Canada and the United States.
Both shows are Food Network staples and feature amiable hosts discovering local eateries across the continent. On their recommendation, I’ve eaten at some holes in the wall that I never would have known about and they are among some of my most memorable dining experiences.
TV Food Maps is a website that helps you pinpoint restaurants spotlighted not in those two shows, but in dozens of others. It has an extensive searchable database that helps you locate some amazing dining establishments. There’s even a road trip tool to help you plot places to visit while enroute from Point A to Point B. There are also some pre-populated itineraries such as a map of the best restos along Interstate 95, for example.
If you like food, travel and road tripping, then TV Food Maps is worth a stop.
Road trips are in vogue again thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. Domestic destinations have become a lot more attractive as international travel has been severely curtailed to many locations thanks and they are a lot more affordable, especially with so many people taking pay cuts, being furloughed or simply laid off. Who knows, people may just discover that they enjoy road tripping. I know I do.
Personally, I grew up on epic road trips, My parents schlepped us to every corner of North America. We drove from Montreal to Mexico in a Ford Falcon, then continued our journeys in a Ford Pinto and eventually started camping in a GMC Econoline van which took us across the continent more than once. I guess we were living the #vanlife even before it had a hashtag.
I’ve driven across Canada and the United States with my own family in tow and have explored many obscure corners by car so consider myself something of a veteran roadtripper. If you’re new at it, here are some tools and gadgets that you might considering getting to make your life on the road just a little bit easer:
Stay on track with a dedicated GPS
Yes, you can mount your smartphone and use any number of free, GPS apps to help you navigate while you’re driving, but keeping your phone charged and having to unmount it when you need to use it for something else can be a chore. That’s why I still prefer a dedicated GPS unit and have always been a fan of TomTom’s devices. Their TomTom Go 520 is a nice choice. It connects to wi-fi so it’s easy to keep the maps up-to-date and can be paired with your phone for hands-free calling and integrates with Siri or Google Now for internet searching on the go.
Speaking of navigating, there’s something to be said for having an analog backup when your technology fails as it did to me years ago when my GPS unit died outside of Chicago. I had no data on my phone, no map and had a lot of fun finding my hotel without my electronic helper. That’s why I like to plan my itinerary on a map first so that I can still get to where I’m going when things go wrong and can double-check that my computer isn’t navigating me into a field or off of a bridge. Road Atlases exist for individual states and provinces, for national parks or scenic drives, but I’ve also been a fan of the Rand McNally Road Atlas which covers virtually all of Canada and the United States.
Too busy driving to enjoy the scenery or simply don’t want to stop every two minutes to take a photo? Get a dashcam to capture video of the roads you travel. Easy to install and remarkably inexpensive, these little cameras can capture incredible detail. Ostensibly, they are for recording traffic accidents, but the footage is nice enough that you’ll want to splice together the best scenes to make a video to relive the highlights of your road trip. There are a million makes and models, some with cameras that record the passengers, the rear view and the scene ahead, but I like mine simple like this one that’s a bestseller on Amazon.
Every time gas prices rise, people predict how it will scare people away from travelling by car, but the reality is that gasoline is one of the cheapest expenses on a family road trip. The biggest costs are food and lodging and if you’re travelling with teenagers, it’s definitely food. For that reason, avoiding restaurants when you can is definitely a bonus. Eat the free hotel breakfast, then equip yourself with an electric cooler that you can plug into your cigarette lighter to preserve food you buy at the local supermarket. You’ll be able to move it into your hotel room and prepare meals in the microwave or make yourself picnic lunches by the sea. My go-to cooler for years has been the Koolatron 36-quart Kool Kaddy cooler. Mine has lasted for ages with no fuss or muss and can store a surprisingly large amount of food. You can leave it running in your car for three or four hours without it running down your car battery.
Keeping all of your in-car electronics powered with just a single lighter socket is an impossible task, but this splitter makes it a cinch. It turns one socket into three so you can have your GPS, cooler and dashcam always plugged in and the three built-in USB outlets means you can power up your smartphones, tablets and any other gadgets you’ve packed. There’s even a LED reading that shows you the power it’s pulling, has individual switches to turn on and off each socket and is designed to fit snugly into one of your cup holders. It’s a must-have even when you’re travelling around town.
Give your eyes a break with a good pair of sunglasses
Long hours at the wheel can be tiring on the eyes, especially in the early morning or late afternoon when the sun is low in the sky. A good pair of sunglasses are a must when you drive and it never hurts to have multiple pairs in case you break or lose a set. These polarized glasses from Duco with their carbon-fibre arms are nice because their design is timeless and they are lightweight enough that you won’t mind wearing them for hours at a time.
Can’t find a hotel? Sleep in your car, but do it in style
Want to avoid the high price of hotels or simply want to avoid them because you’re worried about the ‘rona? Camping is an option, but not everybody wants to drive an RV, pull a trailer or even pitch a tent. Why not sleep in your car? If you’ve got an SUV, stow your luggage in the front seat, recline the back seat and cover it with an inflatable, two-person mattress especially designed for sleeping in your vehicle.
Having to fix a flat tire by the side of the road is never fun. Paying for roadside assistance can be worth it when things go wrong, but maybe you’d rather roll the dice and save a few bucks. Use the money you saved to buy a portable air compressor which will let you fill a flat tire sufficiently to get you to a service station or a safer place than a highway to install your spare tire. It won’t work for blowouts, but is ideal for slow leaks and small punctures. On the plus side, you can also use it to inflate bicycle tires, air mattresses, balls and other recreation items you may be packing with you on your trip or back at home.
Mount the screen in the backseat where everyone can see it
Never mind those expensive backseat entertainment systems. A cheap tablet or smartphone will keep the little ones entertained in between games of eye-spy and punch buggy. The trick is finding the right mount to keep the device suspended for two or more backseat passengers to watch movies at the same time. This mount is kid-tested and parented approved. It can be placed behind one seat for a single passenger or put in the middle for multiple viewers and is designed to fit devices ranging in width from 4.5” to 10”.
Get a pet hammock when you’re travelling with furry friends
Maybe you’re travelling with a fur baby in your car instead of an actual baby. In that case, you might think of one of these handy pet hammocks. They can be used to line the back of your vehicle, placed on top of your rear seat or configured as a hammock that protects the entire back-seat area and provides your pet with a comfortable living space while you drive away the miles between pit stops.
Spend enough time in your car and it can quickly turn into a trash can as wrappers, cups and other detritus start to pile up. Tame the trash with an in-car garbage can. This dedicated refuse receptacle is designed for cars and a lot tidier than a plastic shopping bag.
Your kids will likely anesthetize themselves with the video games on their phones, but get them to interact with the rest of the family with some old-fashioned, analog games. Our family has invented a few over the years, but there are books, board games and card games available to keep everyone entertained when the data signal cuts out. Games on the Go! promises 50 games to keep everyone amused on long car trips.
Hours locked up with children in a car on a long road trip may sound like one of the seven levels of hell, but there are ways to help the miles fly by that don’t involve electronics.
Sure, you could tranquilize your kids with video games and movies, and there are times you need to, but there are good, old-fashioned car games that have stood the test of time and are still fun to play even in our always-plugged-in society. Here are 10 of them that have been play-tested in my car on many a road trip:
1. License plate phrases Most state and province license plates on North American roads are a combination of letters and numbers. When a car drives by, each person in the car has to create a funny phrase using the letters on the license plate. For example, if it’s AJG 224, you yell out Archie Juggles Girls. Things can get goofy very quickly.
2. Last letter, first letter This is a word game where one person starts with a word then the next person has to call out a word that starts with the last letter of the previous word. The first person to break the chain, loses. The words should be part of a theme. In our car, we use place names like cities, countries and states.
3. 20 Questions This venerable guessing game is always a hit. One person thinks up a person, place or thing and everyone else has to guess what it is in fewer than 20 questions, which can only be of the yes-no variety. My oldest son memorized a long list of the names of the solar system’s minor planets like Make Make and Sedna to make sure we’d never guess.
4. Alphabet game Find something in the car or in the passing scenery that starts with each letter of the alphabet. The first person starts with A, the next with B and so on until you can’t continue. Unless you’re driving in Quebec, have an X-ray in your pocket or are passing a zoo, letters like Q, X and Z can be a challenge so you may add a rule to skip them.
5. I Spy I spy with my little eye, something that is orange. What is it? Everyone has to guess quickly, because things disappear in the blink of a little eye when you’re in a car.
6. Collect license plates Travelling on interstate highways means you see license plates from many states and provinces. Keep a running list to see how many you can spot during your trip. Alaska or the Northwest Territories can be a difficult find and Hawaii is pretty much impossible.
7. Car bingo This takes a bit of advance preparation. Create bingo sheets with a grid of commonly seen items along the road like a gas station, police car or billboard. The first person to get five down, across or diagonally is the winner. You can create your own grids or find printable templates online.
8. Restaurant race Each person selects a restaurant chain like McDonald’s or Subways. Every time you see the restaurant by the side of the road, on a billboard or on an exit sign, you collect a point. The person who gets the most points after a set time is the winner. Play it before lunch time and the winner can choose where to stop to eat.
9. Counting Cows In rural areas, cows are a common sight in passing fields. Kids in the back seat look out their side of the car and count cows that they pass. The goal is to count the most, but if you pass a cemetery, your cows die and you have to start over.
10. Find 100 Pick an object and be the first person to spot 100 of them. Can Dad spot 100 flags before Mom finds 100 billboards? It’s cheating if you pick something too plentiful like blades of grass or car tires.
What games do you play in your car? Let us know in the comments.
Armchair travel has taken on a whole, new meaning in the age of first-person video. This website offers POV videos of all sorts of places taken from cars, planes, trains and many other modes of transportation. It’s the next best thing to being there.