Recently, I participated in the Turtle Wax #FreeTheSoul challenge. To participate, you were encouraged to snap a photo of an automotive moment and submit it on Twitter or Instagram to the contest with the hashtag, #FreeTheSoul. The mission behind the campaign was to encourage enthusiasts to get out and drive their car while exploring the world around them, presumably after they protected the car with Turtle Wax products.
The grand prize? Nearly $5,000 toward the ultimate road trip of your choosing.
I began tagging photos on Instagram with the hashtag, but didn’t think anything would come from it. I mean really, who actually wins these types of things?
Well, I did.
I’d pretty much forgotten about the contest but was still using the hashtag and was shocked when I was selected as one of 10 finalists, and then, in a vote on social media, as the overall winner.
Selecting the route for my trip was easy. I own a 2005 Ford Mustang with more than 230,000 miles on its odometer. I bought the car when I was going to school at the University of Arizona. “Marilyn,” that’s what I call her, was in California. My dad went to inspect the car for me and for several days teased me with photos and notes that he’d be back with her but that he was busy “cruising the coast.”
After winning the contest, my ultimate road trip had to be doing my own cruising the coast drive. So I drove from Phoenix to San Francisco, and then headed south on the Pacific Coast Highway with overnight stops in Monterey, Pismo Beach, Santa Monica, and a stop at Disneyland before returning home.
Here are four things I learned on my #FreeTheSoul ultimate road trip:
Stick to a semi-flexible budget
I received $4,999.99 to spend on the trip. When I won, the amount seemed almost obnoxious because I felt like it was a lot for a simple road trip. However, I learned things add up very quickly. For example, I spent nearly $1,000 on maintenance work needed for Marilyn to do the drive.
When looking at hotels, I thought to myself, “I want to experience the best of the best along the PCH because this is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Let’s splurge!”
I soon discovered the best of the best could max out the entire amount I was given. When I began looking at more reasonably priced hotels I was stunned to see that some cities, like San Francisco, had $300 a night rates for a room at Motel 6 in a sketchy looking neighborhood, in addition to insane overnight parking fees that still warned “don’t leave any valuables in your car.”
The solution? I booked a hotel 20 minutes outside of San Francisco that not only was located in a safe area, but offered free parking and breakfast in addition to a more reasonable rate. As an added bonus, being just outside of San Francisco was great because it gave me the opportunity to cross the Golden Gate Bridge multiple times.
Being an Arizona native, parking is never an issue unless you go to downtown Phoenix and even then, it doesn’t take long to find a decent parking space and the rates are like $12 for a full day. In the planning stages of the trip, it did not even occur to me that I would need to pay for parking garages or meters, thus I did not budget in parking costs.
I also have never driven on a toll road, let alone know how much they cost, so those fees were not budgeted. Needless to say, I shocked with $10 toll road fees to cross some bridges in San Francisco, $50 parking fees for a few hours, and numerous meter fees as well as some hotel parking fees. All in all, the only time I parked for free was overnight at a few of the hotels that offered it.
I knew of a few things I really wanted to do and was able to look up rates online so those were accounted for, but you don’t want to get locked into such a tight budget where you aren’t able to do something random. Keep in mind, you are on the road and on the move for however many days, eating out can get expensive and I don’t think anyone really wants to live off fast food for a few days. I took advantage of the free breakfasts at the hotels that offered them and stuck to moderately priced restaurants where I could enjoy local sea food, clam chowder and local brews.
For me, winning the trip really provided a seemingly once in a lifetime opportunity. Not everyone can win a trip when they want to go on vacation, but I encourage everyone to try. However, with savings, perhaps even a sponsor or two, and budgeting you can go on one of your own.
Maintenance and friendly people
I decided to have the car looked over as if it was being judged in a concours. Oil was changed, transmission fluid was changed, a new set of Nitto tires went on as well as a new radiator. I had added some extra support rivets to my obnoxiously heavy front lip spoiler as an extra precaution as well. Lately I have been encountering issues with the thermostat housing so it was tightened and checked.
Marilyn and I like to drag race so I don’t like to keep a lot of stuff in the car because weight reduction, but as an automotive journalist I have reported on several cross-country cruises with classics and one of the things I have heard is to bring tools and extra parts because you never know what could happen.
Recently, my car overheated in the middle of the desert in Nevada due to the thermostat housing and I did not have anything with me to resolve the issue. This caused a lot of problems, stress, and delays in that trip. This time, I made sure to bring extra tools, sealant, coolant, and water in case it gave me any more issues this time around.
During the trip I discovered more issues with the thermostat housing causing it to leak water. The leak wasn’t too bad and I was able to keep on the road by adding water and coolant every time I stopped.
Of course, this meant opening the hood and it seemed like every time I opened it, dozens of people came running up with some variation of “are you ok/ what’s wrong with your car?”
With good intentions, I got a lot of interesting theories as to why my 10-year-old, 230,000-mile car was so thirsty — none of which were correct.
My advice: No one knows your car better then you and very few will be able to actually help you or properly diagnose an issue, let alone preform any roadside assistance. If you are mechanically inclined or have a great relationship with your mechanic, you’re in luck,;otherwise leave the work to those you trust or professionals. You don’t want a quick fix to turn into an irreversible and expensive issue later.
Don’t get too comfortable
Never having been on a road trip like this, I did not know what to expect and slightly modeled mine after some cross-country road trips I had worked with – lunch here, sleep there, and a different city each night. I enjoyed the rapid pace and the full days of driving, but my travel companion hated it. However we did agree that the only place we ever felt settled into was the car. Because we were only at the hotel to sleep, we also learned not to fully unpack or to have any suitcase explosions that required repacking everything.
My advice: Put the things you need to access frequently to the top of the suitcase, like hair bush, toothbrush and toothpaste, sandals, favorite pants, whatever, so you aren’t rummaging around and pulling everything out.
I also found myself wearing boots and jeans as I left San Fransisco, only to pull out everything in my suitcase to get to my shorts and change in the car so I could play on the beach, leaving the suitcase explosion in the trunk. I struggled to cram the clothes and shoes back into the suitcase as the mandatory hotel valet waited around. In my rushing, I also forgot a few of my necessities in the trunk and didn’t have courage to ask the valet bring the car around just so I could get my make up out of the car.
Stick to a schedule, but leave room to improvise
When I planned the trip I looked at miles per day and travel times and my goal was to take my time road tripping with the flexibility to stop and enjoy things I see along the way while not stretching out the trip too long because of work and responsibilities at home.
On my second day on the PCH, I went from Monterey to Pismo Beach. It was the segment I was most looking forward to because I wanted to see the Monterey Aquarium and go on the scenic 17-Mile Drive on the Monterey Peninsula as well to enjoy Big Sur, Bixby Bridge and other sites.
The Hearst castle was also along the way and that required a scheduled tour time, with the latest being 3:30 in the afternoon. And this segment of the trip was the most amount of miles driven in a day on the PCH.
The aquarium was fantastic and we spent a little longer then planed there, meaning I could not do the scenic drive and ultimately got stuck rushing to make a tour time, having to reschedule, and then missed that and barely made last tour of the day. The aquarium wasn’t the only thing to blame, I encountered a thousand bicyclists on the PCH, taking up the entire road and causing traffic to back up for miles with no way to pass them.
The day was stressful and rushed and I wasn’t able to enjoy a lot of the things I wanted to.
If I was able to do it over again, I would have broken that segment into two days. Putting aside the tours and bicyclists, it really is one of the most beautiful places along the PCH and I wanted to stop and take photos around every corner.
I also budgeted in two days at Disneyland, because I had never been before. While it was fun, it was also another thing I would have done differently. Instead of two days, one would have been enough.
Take turns driving
If you bring a travel companion on the trip, I suggest taking turns driving if possible. While I only had two big days of intense driving to and from Arizona, the PCH is so beautiful and packed with crazy curves and elevation changes, it makes for a fun and entertaining drive, however, you need to be focused and can’t really pay attention to anything other than the road and because of that, you don’t get to see a lot of the views.
Taking turns allows for some time in the passenger’s seat so you can relax, enjoy looking at the ocean, take photos, and really enjoy the experience.
Additionally, driving can also be very tiring and it’s better to be safe and take turns then try to drive the entire distance while half falling asleep.
My #FreeTheSoul ultimate road trip was truly a dream come true and I am exceptionally glad I had the opportunity. I highly recommend the PCH to anyone looking for a phenominal road trip.