If you’re using an electric car for a road trip, the reality is that there are some extra things to consider and plan for. Luckily, we’re here to help guide you through those challenges (many of which become a distant memory after you’ve logged a couple trips), plus offer some tips and tricks to make the most of your EV adventures!
Driving an EV is simple: get in, push the start button (or in a Tesla, just get in), select “D” on the gearshift and go. Most of us EV drivers start our day with a full charge, since we plug in at home overnight, so we don’t think about the nuances of planning a road trip.
Until, of course, we need to plan a road trip! And that is one of the most daunting and anxiety-producing aspects of EV ownership (or prospective ownership, at least). What happens when I need to charge? Where do I charge? How much will it cost? Will charging stops double my trip time? What if the charger isn't working or is unavailable? What if there isn't a charger at my destination? Man, that’s a lot of questions!. You’ll find, though, that most of them are easy to answer. Let's plan your trip.
The essential elements of EV trip planning are your destination and how long you want the trip to take. Since your EV has its own unique limitations, you need to know what its exact capabilities are before you can know if your car will make it the required distance in the required time, right? Nobody wants to spend half of a family vacation sitting in a Target parking lot next to a giant humming box.
So for the technically challenged among us, those of us whose eyes glaze over as soon as the conversation turns to kilowatt hours, wind resistance and elevation changes, either turn over the planning to someone who can think about this stuff without wanting to scream, or just dip out and book a flight.
Still here? Great! First things first: the concept of efficiency. In EV-land, that's the measure of how many miles you get out of each kilowatt hour (the cool kids write it “kWh”) of energy stored in your car's battery. If it sounds nerdy and arcane, it is, but it's also analogous to miles per gallon. It can be expressed in a few different ways, depending on your make and model; US brands usually display “miles per kWh,” while Tesla might show it as “kWh per 100 miles (or kilometers).” It’s more important to understand your car’s efficiency, rather than just its range or charge time, because it can be greatly affected by the factors we mentioned above. Just because someone you know went 300 miles with their car, yours might not be able to because your car, route, weather and driving style are all different.
Your car, like all EVs, has a handy display that estimates how far you can go based on your driving speed, style and history. But it isn’t called a “guessometer” for nothing; not only do car manufacturers like to be conservative in their estimates, they can’t guess what conditions will be like a few hours down the road (although Tesla and other premium manufacturers do use weather reports and route planning to fine-tune the guesses).
That’s where being familiar with your car’s efficiency comes in handy. Just like you knew your mom’s old minivan would get about 25 mpg on the open road and 15 around town, pay attention to your car’s efficiency at different speeds and times of year. This info is often buried in menus, but you can usually find a “histogram” showing electricity consumption over the last 5, 10 or 30 minutes as well as current odometer trip and lifetime average.
For example: if you learn your car will go about 3.7 miles/kWh, and you know your car has a 66 kWh battery, your car will go at least 230 miles total on a full charge. Now you’ll have a good idea of how far your make and model of car will go at the speed you want to drive and in the terrain and weather condition you'll be driving.
This is important, because the EPA range estimates, like the Fast and the Furious movies, are loosely based on reality, and the looseness depends on what car it is, who's driving it, how it's loaded, what kind of tires it has, the weather and terrain. What we're saying is: take your car's range estimate and give yourself plenty of wiggle room, more than you need at first until you really know how far you can push it.
Now that you know your car's range, watch some YouTube videos to get an idea of charging time. Search “EV charging times in cold weather” and related terms to find tons of content on this topic. You want to understand the conditions you'll be charging in, because weather affects charging times, too. (Our previous blog posts on EVs in the winter and EVs in the summer can help you understand the impact of weather on EV driving, charging and more.)
Once you have these two key factors—real range and real charge time—you can go to the next step: planning a route.
It wasn't that long ago that a gasoline-fueled car trip held much more uncertainty than your average EV road trip does in 2023. If you're old enough, you may remember your parents planning road trips armed with reading glasses, Ticonderoga #2 pencils, armloads of dog-eared maps and spiral-bound travel guides they'd order from AAA.
Today though, we have apps, the little programs on your phone and in your car's infotainment display that take 95 percent of the uncertainty out of everything travel-related, including vehicle charging. It's dizzying what they can do, all linked into data networks and knowing exactly where you are and how fast you're going. Here are a few of our faves and what they do:
Plugshare: Plugshare is the oldest of the EV apps, so it looks a bit old-timey and isn't the slickest interface, but it does have a huge, huge history of user experiences at tens of thousands of charge stations going back all the way to the RAV-4 EV days. It's very handy for letting you know how long a charger has been broken and the odds of it being fixed in a month or a week from now.
It has a trip-planning function and you can filter all kinds of plugs and networks; you can even find private citizens willing to share their plugs (hence the name, Plugshare). The app is very usable and the reviews for the stations, ability to plan trips, and filtering options by station company and type are invaluable. When it comes to having a one-stop EV charging app, this is the one to have. It has both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay versions, and it's free.
Chargeway: We think Chargeway is notable not for what it does—which is to help you plan trips and find charging stations—but for how it does it. Chargeway classifies the stations that work with your car, giving them simple color/numeric codes that can help you quickly find the right charging solution. It also has a trip planning function with a twist: it lets you customize for your expected speed, starting state of charge and even the outside temperatures. The app will then tell you where you should charge and for how long, making it easy to plan your stops.
Honestly, we can't say enough about Chargeway, and here's why: you can fiddle with your projected speed to figure the fastest trip time. For instance, an all-electric Hyundai Ioniq 5 driving 70 mph from Oakland to Los Angeles will spend 20 minutes charging and 6 hours and 15 minutes driving, but if you slow down to 65 you'll only save five minutes of charge time and you'll spend 29 more minutes driving. This shows the value of aerodynamics and 350 kW fast charging. It's endlessly fascinating, right?!
EV Hotel: EV Hotel is your basic route-planner with another cool feature: it finds hotels with destination (overnight) chargers. That makes it easier to plan that last stop of the day and ensures you'll start the next day with a fully charged battery. You'll save money with the Level 2 chargers at hotels and in downtown parking garages, as they’re not only cheaper than fast chargers, they’re generally only priced at the local utility rate, if not free! And as they say, the best things in life are free.
When you pack for a trip, it can be stressful packing stuff for everybody in the car, including all the camping and recreational equipment, food and whatever else you're bringing. When driving an EV, there are key items your car can't live without on a trip:
Charging equipment and adapters: Duh, right? And yet, we've gone on long EV trips forgetting the charging equipment merrily hanging in the garage with nothing to do. Sure, public Level-2 and DC fast-charge stations have the equipment you need, but having your own with you will let you take advantage of plugs in campsites, the electricity at friends’ houses and other charging opportunities.
Spare tire or plug/patch/inflator kit: Most EVs lack spare tires (as do many modern cars), so you should consider having a plug kit in your car at all times. You’ll want an inflator, too, but there’s probably already one in your car. It's a silly little air compressor that makes an annoying whirring sound and seemingly takes forever to inflate a tire, but you know what really takes forever? Waiting for a tow truck.
Chains/Socks: These fit over your driven wheels if you think you'll be meeting some snow. They go on the fronts for front-wheel drive EVs like a Bolt or Leaf, rear wheels for rear-wheel drive cars like a Tesla, or all of them for all-wheel drive cars (which also still often require chains, believe it or not). Check your manufacturer's and local authorities' recommendations if you don't know, and practice putting these on when it isn't 40 below and you can't feel your fingers.
The necessities and a first aid kit: We're not a Prepper blog (though we hear there's good money in that), but if you're going off the beaten path a bit you should be...prepped...with a few of the basics. Head to one of those aforementioned blogs or websites for ideas about the minimum survival gear you should keep in your car, especially if you’re traveling in, to or through extreme temperatures.
There's a lot to planning a road trip, but we put this guide together to help you feel better about taking your first one in an EV specifically. Plan your trip, be safe and let us know how it went; we love selfies and feedback.