Whether it was the hilarious antics of the Griswolds as they took their vacation in the family station wagon or the Brady Bunch getting stranded in a ghost town on their way to the Grand Canyon, the legend of the family road trip is forever emblazoned on the psyche of many Americans of a certain age.
See the country! Experience the open road! Get to know your sister better! Wear the same pants for four days!
But whether your motivation for driving across these great states is nostalgic, romantic, or strictly utilitarian, there are some things to consider that will make the trip go much more smoothly — especially if you’re traveling with those people you love the most. Or your family, for that matter.
1. Know what you’re getting into
By agreeing to a road trip, you are buckling in to an experience you’ll remember forever. Only you can decide whether it will be a fond memory or the nightmare story you tell at parties for years to come.
Part of that choice is knowing exactly who you’re locking yourself into a metal box with. Don’t travel with anyone you can’t confidently live with, because that car is your home for the next 12, 18, 48 hours. Ask yourself: Could I move back in with my parents for a week? Could I stay in my sister-in-law’s guest room for 10 days? Really, has nothing changed between us since I lived with my college roommate?
If the reaction to any of these questions is “No.”, then you might be setting yourself up for disaster before you ever get into the driver’s seat.
2. Don’t get lost
Invest in a GPS system, use your smartphone, or buy a really, REALLY good map. You think it frustrates you to get lost. Just wait until you have two kids asking over and over if you’re there yet (and why is that water buffalo getting progressively closer to the car?).
The open road adventure is fine when you’re by yourself, but throw more than two or three people together, and you’re going to find someone who needs a little more planning in their life. Identify that person right away. You then have two choices: let them do the hard work of organizing your trip (some people live for the opportunity to plan!) or make sure you do a good enough job at it to ensure their complicity.
The last thing you want is a mid-trip coup or freak-out.
3. Pace yourself
Don’t try to go too long without stopping to eat or sightsee. Road trips are not a sprint. They’re a marathon, run by real people who have legs to stretch and bladders to empty. Rather than becoming frustrated that you’re not making “goal” on miles traveled in a day, set expectations at a reasonable level and allow for a bit of the adventure to creep into your journey.
Keep your eyes open for rest stops on the interstate if you want to keep distractions like local shopping to a minimum and have a passion for nature housed adjacent to six-lanes of high-quality asphalt. But if you really want to be a road trip super-star, do a little Internet research ahead of departure to find the craziest attractions you can imagine. Why not visit the world’s largest ball of twine on your way to Grandma’s house? She’d love to see pictures.
4. Keep the troops fed
Nothing incites mutiny among the troops like hunger. A rumbling tummy will quickly turn the most patient passenger (child OR adult) into a gremlin climbing the sidewall of your mini-van.
Load a restaurant locator app onto your phone or bookmark the mobile site of your favorite dining program to identify prime spots for food (not to mention, bathroom facilities). Even if you don’t know exactly where you are, just click the “Use Current Location” button and you’ll find all the spots near you where you can grab a bite and earn rewards for your next trip out of town.
And if you think all there is to discover on the road is some stale doughnuts and five flavors of beef jerky, think again. Amazing, buzzworthy restaurants pepper the entire landscape of the United States. If you’re driving up the Pacific Coast Highway from Los Angeles to Wine Country, stop at Apple Farm in San Luis Obispo. Or if you’re taking the kids to Walt Disney World® from the Midwest, take a break in Atlanta for burgers and shakes at Grindhouse Killer Burgers.
5. Clean it up
Driving on the interstate, I once handed my niece a package of Cheez-Its because she was complaining that her stomach was turning inside out from hunger. Luxurious quiet then ensued. At the next pit stop, I opened the door to let her out and it became clear only one or two of those crackers ever made it into her mouth.
Unless you want to spend half your road trip twisting around in the passenger seat, placing one cracker at a time on your child’s tongue, an alternate plan might be in order. Purchase a battery-powered, handheld vacuum cleaner and stash it in the trunk of your car (or on the floor just below your short-legged passenger’s seat). And for stickier messes, keep a package (or two-gallon tub) of pre-moistened hand wipes at the ready. You’ll thank me later.
After all is said and done, however, having some snacks on hand is worth the mess. People with food in their mouth talk (and scream) less. That baggie full of Cheerios might be your personal savior 200 miles down the road.
6. Make a game of it
Particularly when traveling with younglings (or the blissfully young-at-heart), keeping passengers occupied may make the time pass more pleasantly — and remind you just how fun these people can be!
Classic games like I-Spy or 20 Questions don’t require any extra packing or maneuvering in your vehicle — all the fun is stored in your imagination. Just try not to giggle (and then blanch in realization) the first time you play the Alphabet Game with your kids and one of them says “poop” for the letter P.
Singalongs can also be fun, with everything from Raffi to Lady GaGa inspiring the craziest seat-belted dance moves in your rear view mirror. And trust me, you don’t need to have kids to enjoy this one. The infectiousness of the latest Katy Perry song doesn’t discriminate.
But when enough is enough: headphones.
7. Be the Boy Scout
Always be prepared for the worst.
Have a spare tire, a jack, jumper cables, and flares. Know how to use each item before getting behind that wheel. You think you’d never need to know how to change a tire (heck, that’s what AAA is for!) until you’re in the Badlands hundreds of miles from the nearest repair shop. Tire plug kits have become very popular recently for a reason: a patched tire can get you just far enough to get help.
It’s great to have a smartphone, but believe it or not, there are still pockets of the United States where reception is nil. You do not want to break down in these areas without a strong alternate plan. Keep extra blankets, hats, and gloves in your car trunk just in case someone needs to spend some time outside the car — or inside a car with malfunctioning heat.
It’s always better to be safe than sorry, especially in protecting the ones you love. I mean, they’re the very reason you embarked on this grand adventure, no?
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