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.

Children on roadtrip.
Family road trips don't have to be boring.

Photo by Fuse/iStockphoto.

More of us will be traveling this summer, and travelers are increasingly seeking vacations with “substance.” For families, this can mean trading mouse ears for yoga mats, taking history tours, and spotting northern pintails in state and national parks.

There’s another advantage to such vacations with substance, of course: They can be money-savers. With airfares climbing, some airlines charging fees for families to sit together, and gas prices going down, more and more of us will be embarking on these soul-enriching outings in our cars. Unfortunately, for kids, there’s almost nothing meaningful about being strapped into the back of the family van while Missouri and Kansas whiz past. Not only are road trips boring, but they also require kids to sit still for hours on end, half-stoned on the same movies that are used to pacify them at home.

That’s a shame when you consider that most of us remember our pre-kid road trips so fondly. Part of the appeal of piling into a car with a group of buddies was that you’d inevitably get to know your fellow travelers in new, often surprising ways. From the minute you pulled into traffic, everyone tacitly agreed that for the course of the trip, the everyday rules of life would not apply. You’d eat differently, sleep differently, and have different kinds of conversations and experiences. In this liminal state, grown-ups often start to act more like kids: A bag of Twizzlers transforms into a perfectly acceptable breakfast, and acting out scenes from Life of Brian suddenly becomes a completely rational way to get through a two-hour stretch of freeway.

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So now that you have actual kids in the mix, why not include them in road-trip planning and decision-making? That’s what we did when we each asked our own kids—ranging in age from 6 to 14—to help us find a more fun and meaningful way to get from here to there and back. Here’s what they helped us figure out.

Plan together. Not knowing what to expect on a road trip can be stressful for a kid. Have your entire family sit down together with a map (digital or paper) and plot out your route. There are lots of these services available online. AAA’s free Internet TripTik Travel Planner is a solid choice, and members can get a physical TripTik, a detailed flip chart that takes you through every step of your journey. Let each family member decide at least one thing to do along the way. Once you’re on the road, let your kids track your progress with travel and map apps.

Stop. Stop. Stop. And then stop. Nothing ruins a road trip like grown-ups who drive like they’re training for the Dakar Rally. So instead of treating your vacation like it’s a way to blast from point A to point B, make getting there part of the experience, and schedule plenty of time to take breaks and see the sights.

For trips where you are driving a long distance to a place where you’ll spend several days, a good rule of thumb is to split drive time and out-of-car activities 60/40, not counting sleeping or eating breakfast. We’ve found that this ratio allows for plenty of time to take in experiences that are more meaningful than a bathroom stop at the 7-Eleven but also get us where we need to go. (Keep in mind that a GPS won’t factor in time-sucks like Friday afternoon rush hour in Chicago, or even Cleveland.) If you’re going on a classic road trip in which the journey is the destination, then you need to lower that ratio to 50/50—or further—to give your family enough time to check out the places you’ve planned to see and the sites that unexpectedly call to you, from a diner in Pittsburgh to a snorkeling excursion in Key Largo.

Say yes to the Jolly Green Giant. Historic buildings and scenic vistas are terrific, and we rely on Moon travel guides to point us to these attractions. But don’t skip quirky roadside oddities, like the shell-shaped gas station in Winston-Salem, N.C., or the Hat Museum in Portland, Ore., or the Jolly Green Giant statue in Blue Earth, Minn. Roadside America has an great app packed with goofy stops and the local lore that goes with them. Weird U.S. and its companion volumes might lead you down some interesting paths as well.

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