What I Learned After Totaling My Car 450 Miles from Home

United States map

This past May, I took a road trip from Rhode Island to West Virginia to attend a friend’s wedding. Despite the impressive sight of New York City and the beautiful landscape of rural Maryland, a constant thought kept swirling through my head as I drove: “I should’ve flown.”

But a road trip was far more economical for me compared to the cost of a flight. Having just started my own business, every dollar counted and driving would get me more bang for my buck—especially when my car averaged 40 highway miles per gallon.

When Car Meets Guardrail

As luck would have it, my return trip home turned into unexpected disaster: my car hit a patch of gravel on an exit ramp juuuust right and smashed head-on into a guardrail. Totaled? You bet.

With my driver’s side door pinned against a steel signpost and the hood peeled back like the lid of a soup can, I was forced to crawl across the center console and out of the passenger side to land in some mud (awesome!).

Thankfully, a passerby in a pickup stopped to slow traffic and shield me from speeding cars while I collected myself and realized what, exactly, had just happened. While he dialed 911, I pillaged my car of my few valuables before snapping a few photos to file a claim through my insurance company’s phone app.

I totaled my car 450 miles from home, which is much different than getting into an accident a few minutes from home. I learned some valuable road trip lessons while staring at my wreck, watching the signpost overhead teetering back and forth, ripped from its moorings by my Kia careening into the side of it.

While I didn’t learn how to rewind time to save my car, I did discover some advice to spare others some sanity, energy, and cash after a crash.

Make a Plan B…and C

My plan A was to drive to and from West Virginia without issue. Boarding a plane the next day looking as if I lost a fight with Conor McGregor? Definitely not my plan B.

No one expects to wreck their car on a road trip—I certainly didn’t. Standing in the middle of a highway wondering how to get home isn’t my idea of a fun time. It helps to have a backup plan in mind, especially if your car decides to realize its destiny as a tuna can.

After my accident, a couple of friends helped me compare the cost and timeframe of getting home via a rental (no thanks, I wasn’t driving again so soon), a bus, train, or plane. After we each researched for a few hours, an overnight stay in a local hotel and a flight back home turned out to be the most cost-effective and timely way for me to get back to RI.

man driving into sunset

Before leaving on a road trip, figure out some loose ballpark plans for getting home in case of an emergency. Have a rough idea of how much money you’d need to spend to get home, which method fits your schedule, and the general location of major transport hubs.

Swing by the Bank Before You Leave

My “economical” road trip turned out not to be so economical after all.

The additional and unexpected cost of hiring an Uber, renting a hotel room, and buying a next-day plane ticket cost a little over $400. I was also hit with an additional $150 citation for “reckless driving leading to destruction of state property” for the damage done to the signpost and the guardrail.

In hindsight, I should have never ventured out on a road trip without first establishing a small emergency fund. Having a safety net of savings would have spared me from borrowing money from a friend to get home.

Get the Junk out of Your Trunk

If you’re like me, your car trunk is probably loaded with stuff you’ll take out “eventually” or that you “might need.” Before doing any long-distance driving, get the junk out of your trunk.

Some of my belongings—like a ceramic space heater I never brought into my house after moving—had to be left behind in my car after the wreck. Other things, like a toolbox full of heavy tools, had to be carried through an airport and checked into luggage—with an additional fee—on my flight home.

Chances are you won’t need a toolbox, space heater, and set of pots and pans at any point during your road trip, but you probably don’t want to leave them behind—or check them in as luggage—if you get into a car accident. Clean your car out before you leave home; you can always load your crap back into it as soon as you pull into your own driveway once again.

smashed car

What You Should Know About Your Car Insurance Before a Road Trip

When I spoke to an insurance agent the day after my crash, I was told that my coverage included personal injury protection, which meant a visit to the hospital would have been covered by my car insurance even though I lacked health insurance.

This little nugget of knowledge made me wonder what other lesser-known benefits car insurance offers relevant to road trips, so I asked Ava Lynch, a licensed insurance agent at The Zebra, what drivers should know about their insurance coverage before heading off on a road trip.

Car insurance follows your car, not you

Driving from Rhode Island to West Virginia took 12 hours, which was the farthest I’d feel comfortable driving by myself in one go. If you’ve planned a road trip of a similar length or longer, chances are you’ll be switching off driving duties with a partner (or stopping somewhere to rest).

Car insurance follows the car, not the driver, so as long as you’ve given consent for a buddy to get behind the wheel while you catch a few Z’s, your car insurance would cover an accident or crash.

Call your agent before crossing international borders

Ava recommends contacting your insurance company about your coverage options before crossing any international borders. Your coverage may not be as extensive in Mexico as it is stateside, though your normal coverage should apply if you were to hop on into Canada for a bit.

Rental insurance: do you need it?

Rental car insurance may be costly if purchased from the rental car company, but your own car insurance—or credit card—may provide some rental coverage. Ava recommends contacting your insurance agent to understand which coverage—specifically comprehensive and collision coverage, if any—extends to rental cars and if your deductibles will still apply.

How to Deal with the Aftermath

If your car’s become an accordion and you (and any passengers) are safe and whole, you may want to stick around for another day to collect any belongings from your car that you didn’t retrieve at the scene of the crash.

If your license plates are intact, be sure to take them with you or arrange for them to be shipped home. You’ll need your plates to cancel your registration or transfer it to a new vehicle. If they’re destroyed or lost, you’ll have to report your plates as lost or damaged to the DMV.

Knowledge is Power

It’s not fun trying to figure out what to do after a crash while standing in the median of a busy highway hundreds of miles from home. (Trust me.) Having a backup plan and knowledge of your options will spare you from the worst of post-accident anxiety.