Hitting the road? Here’s what you need.

th-1An article in the July issue of Consumer Reports, “How to deal with road emergencies,” includes a sidebar on stuff every driver should keep in the car. While not everyone is going to have everything on the list, the piece will help you think through what you’d do if something went wrong.

Not that I’m wishing bad karma (carma?) on your road trip. But suppose you did have a fender-bender or a flat? Or one of your kids takes a tumble at the rest stop? Or your battery just up and dies when you’re miles from nowhere?

That’s where the Consumer Reports list comes in handy. Best-case scenario: You’ll never need any of it. Worst-case scenario? You’ll need it and not have it.

Since only amateurs pay retail, I’ll suggest some frugal hacks after the list. They won’t all work if your trip is happening tomorrow, but they’ll help you replenish what’s missing for later excursions.

The magazine recommends having:

  • Basic first-aid kit
  • Cell phone and car charger
  • Fire extinguisher (multipurpose, dry-chemical compact unit labeled 1A:10B:C or 2A:10B:C)
  • Warning light, hazard triangles, or flares
  • Jack and lug wrench
  • Nonflammable foam tire sealant (temporary fix for minor punctures)
  • Spare fuses (check owner’s manual)
  • Bright, weatherproof flashlight
  • Gloves, hand cleaner, clean rags
  • Auto-club card or roadside-assistance number
  • Jumper cables or a portable battery booster (eliminates the need for a second vehicle)
  • Pen and paper (to write down accident info, to leave a note on the windshield, to play tic-tac-toe with your kid while you wait for help)
  • Escape device such as the Resqme key chain, which has a blade to slice seatbelts and a spike to shatter windows

You may already own some of these things. Now, before you need them, is the time to get them all together and to make sure you remember how to use them.

And if you don’t? Read on to find out how to pay less – or nothing – for the rest.

Why pay full price?

Use one or more the following money-saving techniques any time you have to buy an item:

Cash-back shopping. Access auto-supply places through one of those portals and earn yourself some rebates.

Discounted gift cards. Save 2% to 30% on retail cards through the secondary market. Compare prices through the Gift Card Granny aggregator site.

The Freecycle Network. You might or might not see what you want – but when you do, it’ll be free.

Price comparison websites. Shop by category or specific product through aggregators like PriceGrabber.com and Nextag.com.

Free gift cards. Get them by taking online surveys or by using programs like Swagbucks and MyPoints.

Drugstore incentive programs. Bandages, disinfectants, hydrocortisone cream and the like will probably be on sale – and after coupons and rebates, they may be free.

Online discount codes. Sites like Retail Me Not and Savings.com will give you e-coupons, sale prices and probably free shipping.

Dollar stores. Cheap gloves live there. So might some of the first-aid kit items.

Yard sales. You never know what you’re going to find.

The rag bag. Cut up old shirts to wipe off that waterless hand cleaner. Put a couple of the least worn-out of the worn-out towels in the trunk, too; if you and your traveling buddy get soaked from changing a tire in the rain, you’ll at least be able to towel-dry your hair. (Best-case scenario: You find a secluded spot to go skinny-dipping.)

A few more suggestions

Keep some cash in the car. In the past, Consumer Reports has suggested at least $20 in small bills and change. I’d up that to $30, kept in a small plastic bag next to the jack.

About that flashlight mentioned above: A headlamp will leave both hands free if you have to change a tire in the dark. I’ve seen incredibly cheap ones at Costco; you’d have to buy five or six at a clip, but that means you can leave them in different places in your house in case of a power failure.

Have you ever actually changed a tire on your current vehicle? If not, practice doing it in your driveway or garage.

Here’s a habit to develop: Once you’ve filled the windshield washer fluid reservoir, store the part-empty jug in the trunk. If you run out of fluid on a rainy (or snowy) highway, with trucks churning muddy muck onto your windshield, you’ll have a sunk-cost refill handy vs. paying an inflated price at the nearest gas station or convenience store.

I’d also suggest keeping bottled water and some durable snacks (dried fruit, granola bars, peanut-butter crackers) in the trunk at all times. Suppose the towing service says it’ll be two hours until help arrives and it’s already close to lunchtime? Two hours feels like an eternity to a kid; if you’re child-free, it’s your own stomach that will be grateful.

Consider giving some of those items as gifts to loved ones. (Among other Christmas gifts for his kids, DF gave flares and orange “caution” triangles.) You can use the frugal hacks noted above to keep the costs down. Or ask for them yourself the next time someone wants to know what you’d like for your birthday; this is especially helpful if you’re one of those hard-to-buy-for folks.

Finally: Keep something to read in the vehicle, in case you get stuck somewhere. When I owned a car I always had a book in the back seat. You’ve got books stored on your iPad? Swell! But if the battery runs out, you’ll get pretty bored playing tic-tac-toe by yourself.

Readers: Got anything to add to this list?

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  1. I would suggest keeping a blanket in the car in case of winter breakdowns. I also make sure that I have a portable air pump (runs off of the cigarette lighter). They aren’t a hugely expensive item, and mine has saved me several times.

    • Donna Freedman

      Guess I was thinking of summer road trips, but any visit into a mountainous (or desert) area can lead to chilly nighttime conditions.
      Maybe this fall I’ll do a “winter emergency road kit” article. Thanks for the tip!

  2. Linda G

    Apparently I am too old for swagbucks – I never qualify for any surveys

  3. enjoythejourney

    All above ideas are helpful and practical, but the last one — the books — is my favorite. I keep a stack of garage sale paperback mysteries by my garage door and grab one on the way out, even for a day of local errands. I know how long that two-hour wait for the tow truck can seem.

  4. Many years ago, we gave DBIL a winter emergency kit for Christmas that included lock de-icer and dry gas, among other things. By the end of that winter, he knew practically everyone in his apartment complex.

    DD and DS also have fold-able snow shovels in their cars, in case they need to shovel themselves out of a parking space. I’d recommend adding those to the winter emergency kit.

  5. Snacks and water: We change it out semi-regularly, if we don’t use it up. When we go on road trips they tend to be very long ones on not entirely populated roads for long stretches so if we broke down, we’d desperately want food and water after a bit.

    • Donna Freedman

      Ha! Thought of that one all by myself. (Look under the “A few more suggestions” section.)
      But you’re right: If you’re in the middle of nowhere, it’s amazing how thirsty you can get. And low blood sugar + powerlessness is never a good combo.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment. And congratulations on winning one of the Amazon GCs at today’s Wise Bread Tweet Chat.


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