When your Car Breaks Down on a Road Trip: Some Helpful Tips

When your Car Breaks Down on a Road Trip: Some Helpful TipsWe returned earlier this week from our second big road trip of the summer. The trip went well. We had a great time visiting my extended family. We celebrated my brother’s marriage with his fabulous wedding party. It was a good trip.

We drove home and made it from Southern California through Nevada, Arizona, Utah, and through part of Colorado. We were making it home in record time. My boys were doing pretty well in the car. We were all singing along to our road trip favorites (this big hit with my boys on this trip was Polisar’s “All I Want is You”). Everything was going smoothly.

And then it wasn’t. Coming through a tunnel just east of Glenwood Springs, our car started making a horrible sputtering noise and vibrating rather intensely. Thankfully my husband was driving at the time. He limped the car to the next exit, which happened to one of Colorado’s abundant rest stops.

As my husband looked under the hood, he realized that our engine had shot out one of its spark plugs (there’s actually a dent coming up from the underside where the spark plug hit the hood). It took a few hours, but we eventually found a tow truck that could carry all four of us, a repair shop that could fix our car, and a hotel that actually had a vacancy for the night (none of these were as simple as they could have been, but were far easier than if our car had broken down in the middle of Utah where the exits are very sparse, and towns with services even more so).

Everything worked out well. We were all safe. The repair shop was able to fix our car. We ended up being able to make the delay into a fun day in Glenwood Springs. That said, some things definitely made this inconvenience easier to abide.

Here are some things that made this unexpected car breakdown easier for us:

1. We always travel with lots of food. My husband jokes that we carry enough food to feed an army. There are times when this is especially helpful, and this was one of them. We had lots of snacks on hand. So when we were stuck for three hours waiting at the rest stop, we had food to keep us nourished. With two young boys around dinner time – or any time, this is especially important.

2. We carry a 3-gallon water bottle that we fill before each trip. While our big water bottle was no longer full by this point in the day (we had used it to refill our personal water bottles throughout the day), it was nice not to have to worry about where we were going to find drinks as we waited.

3. We had lots of things to entertain our boys. My boys had plenty of things to keep them occupied (though they ended up not working with these things at that particular time – instead they mostly watched another stranded motorist trying to repair his motorcycle).

4. We had a working cell phone. I had just replaced my cell phone (a vintage flip phone that could no longer hold a charge for more than an hour or two reliably) with a new one. When we got stuck, my husband’s cell phone had no service, but mine did. And my new phone held its charge while we were making all sorts of phone calls as well as sitting through several extremely long holds as we tried to arrange assistance.

5. We have an AAA membership. We keep an AAA membership because my husband commutes back and forth from Colorado to Texas in a 1992 Corolla with over 250,000 miles. One of these days, that car will have problems and he’ll get stuck. But this time it was our newest car, a 2000 Camry, which had the trouble. In any case, it was nice to be able to contact AAA and have their assistance in arranging a tow vehicle as well as finding potential repair shops. It was also nice to know that the first 100 miles of our tow were covered. There are other companies that provide this service, and some auto insurance providers do as well, this just happens to be the one that makes sense for us.

6. My husband was there. I know this doesn’t help any of the rest of you, unless you happen to be traveling with us, but my sweetie is amazing. He stays calm. He has phenomenal trouble shooting capabilities. He thinks through all sorts of possibilities. He makes sure our boys and I are taken care of. He kindly helps other people (e.g., loaning tools and assistance to the stranded motor cycle rider we met at the rest stop). I’m so glad I get to share my life’s adventures with him.

While all of the above were wonderful helps, there are two things I wish we had with us:

1. A packed hotel bag. When we pack for our road trips, I generally pack a single bag in case we need to stop at a hotel for the night. It generally contains a change of clothes for everyone as well as our toiletry bags and pajamas. I didn’t pack one for this trip home. We were leaving early enough that we were confident that we would make the 18-hour drive back to our house. While we threw a bag together in the parking lot of the auto repair shop, it would have been easier not to dig through each of our four individual suitcases in order to find what we needed. Lesson learned, next time I’ll take a minute to throw together a bag as we’re packing up. It takes very little time, and it’s nice to know it’s there if we need it.

2. Insect Deterrent. Our road trip destinations lay in parts of Southern California where there are very few mosquitos. I didn’t think about packing our Homemade Insect Deterrent, but the mosquitos were eating us alive while we waited at the rest area for a tow truck. I ended up with over 20 bites. Ouch! Next time I’m tossing our mix into my bag no matter where we’re heading. You never know when it may come in handy, especially if you’re prone to insect bites.

Overall, our break down went as smoothly as such things can go. I’m grateful for that. And I’m thankful for all of the things we had in place that made it an easier process. Hopefully some of these suggestions will help you, too.


Have you ever had your car break down unexpectedly? What things were helpful to you? What do you wish you would have had with you?

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