The Family Road Trip Doesn’t Have To Be Awful

Snapshots of life at home.
June 27 2012 6:45 AM

Do Family Road Trips Have To Be Horrible?

Once upon a time, road trips were awesome. How to recapture that spirit when caravanning with kids.

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Tour factories. Some kids don’t get the concept that a lot of the things we use every day are made here and not in China. Factory tours of companies that manufacture anything from candy to cars are often free; some even include museums dedicated to the history of the company or industry. At the Anheuser-Busch factory in St. Louis, you can see the Clydesdales’ stables; at Harley-Davidson you can check out the assembly line. Our favorite resource is the book Watch It Made in the U.S.A. by Karen Axelrod and Bruce Brumberg. A word of advice: Some “factory” tours are nothing more than a boring spin around a warehouse, so call ahead to ask whether you’ll truly be allowed to peek behind the scenes. (We’re talking about you, Jelly Belly Center in Pleasant Prairie, Wis.!)

In fact, call first every time you plan to get off the interstate. Reading about Liberace’s birthplace in a guidebook, driving 20 miles off course, and finding out it’s closed is a surefire way to torpedo family harmony. Restaurants, museums, and other attractions change their hours and even go out of business, so it’s always best to confirm.

Eat beyond the interstate. Driving even a few miles into the center of a town will not only introduce your family to a place you’ve never seen (and one that might have other attractions) but also to weird, delectable regional foods. How about a shredded turkey sandwich at the White Turkey Drive-In in Conneaut, Ohio? Or hoppel poppel (scrambled eggs mixed up with potatoes and fried salami) at Benjy’s in Milwaukee? Jane and Michael Stern’s Roadfood books are the classic references, and their website includes Roadfood Insider, a fee-based premium service that includes maps, reviews, and a mobile-phone version.

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When you stop at convenience stores and gas stations, look carefully in the snack aisles: America isn’t as homogenous as you think, at least not in its preferences for regional candies, chips, and sodas. If you are driving through Minnesota, be sure to try a Pearson’s Salted Nut Roll—creamy nougat surrounded by caramel and roasted peanuts. In northern New England, treat yourself to an orange can of Moxie—a strangely musty “tonic,” as New Englanders call soda pop, that was one of the first mass-produced soft drinks. Canadian stores stock all kinds of British candy classics, including Maynard’s wine gums and Maltesers.

Take nature breaks. Even if it’s just a game of Frisbee in a local park, make sure that at least one of your stops each day gives you time to run around outside. Check out natural attractions, from state and national parks to scenic overlooks. And if you have a little extra time, try geocaching to discover hidden treasures. Go to geocaching.com, enter a ZIP code, and you’ll be given the latitude and longitude of nearby caches—containers (often quite small) that are hidden from sight and contain a visitors’ log that you sign. The fun is in the hunt, although some also contain trinkets. Your kids can take one, but remember that it’s customary to bring new trinkets to leave in caches that are large enough to hold them. There are geocaching apps (both free and for sale) for all models of smartphones.

Make car time more interesting. Play car games, listen to audiobooks and music mixes, and talk to each other. Kids care passionately about fairness and are therefore surprisingly open to talking about almost any social-justice issue—especially when they’ve got nothing else to do. Take your cues from what you see out the window. An Army base, run-down neighborhood, chain store, corporate farm—all are entrees to hours of conversations that you don’t have when you’re rushing past the same old sights on the way to soccer practice.

Let them navigate. Seeing each other in new ways is one of the primary benefits of a road trip. So try to say yes to your kids’ unexpected requests. Recently Elizabeth was with her kids in the Everglades when a thunderstorm blew in. Her 10-year-old son grabbed her phone, found a museum of World War II planes just 23 minutes away, and volunteered to work the GPS from the back seat. That she said yes to this sudden change in plans made him realize she’s not just a no factory. That he actually got them there made her think differently about his abilities, realizing he’s not as young as she thought he was. Now that was a journey well worth taking.

Joshua Glenn and Elizabeth Foy Larsen are the co-authors of Unbored: The Essential Field Guide to Serious Fun.