Taking A Family Road Trip That Won't Make You Crazy

Jun 13 2014, 11:00am CDT | by

While America was originally traversed via stagecoach, covered wagon and on horseback, the advent of the automobile made the hallowed tradition of the recreational road trip a reality. Henry Ford’s Model T began rolling off the assembly line in 1913, and Americans never looked back. Whether headed to the lake for a picnic or to another city to visit relatives or see the sights, we’ve indulged our inner explorers ever since.

Anyone else old enough to remember playing “Auto Bingo” and/or counting down the mile markers on the Interstate to the next Stuckey’s (and their famous Pecan Log Roll) while packed into the back of Dad’s spacious 1960’s-era domestic sedan or station wagon?

Okay, so  maybe most families are now traversing the nation in SUVs, with the kids busying themselves with a Nintendo DS or an iPad, but the concept remains the same and it’s just as popular – not to mention stressful – as it ever was. A recent survey conducted by tire maker Bridgestone Americas determined that (of 2,000 adults queried) 83 percent of them would be taking the family on at least one getaway by car this year.

Not only is it usually cheaper for a family to drive to most domestic destinations rather than fly – even with gas prices again flirting with the $4.00/gallon mark – 58 percent of respondents said they choose to take the car because it gives them added travel flexibility. One might encounter traffic jams and tollbooths along the way, but there’s little worry about getting to the airport in enough time to get through security, having a flight canceled or losing one’s luggage.

“Our research confirms flexibility is king – it allows summer travelers to stay in control of their busy lives, even when they’re on vacation,” says Erik Seidel, vice president of branding for Bridgestone Americas. “In the land of Route 66, the Ventura Highway and Florida’s scenic route US 1, we know consumers enjoy the experience only car travel can provide, and we expect this trend to continue.”

Now some families may be comfortable with jumping into a car and hitting the road with little more than a destination in mind, but this is not typically the most prudent way to go. Taking a family road trip not only means having one’s sanity tested by being confined in a car with bored children trapped in the back seat for extended periods, there’s always the possibility of becoming lost or – worse – stranded at the side of the road with a flat tire or other mechanical malady, so it pays to be prepared before hitting the highway.

To that end, here are our top tips to keep the kids happy, parents sane and to ensure the next family road trip will prove to be memorable – and this time for all the right reasons. They’re culled from multiple sources including Consumer Reports, the AAA and our own experiences as the long-suffering family chauffeur:

  • For starters, get the whole family involved in planning the trip – especially the kids – so everyone has a say in the itinerary and they know what to expect.
  • Reserve all lodging accommodations in advance.
  • Plot a course ahead of time and bring along both a GPS or smartphone and a printed map to help stay the course. Try to drive during off-peak hours to avoid traffic or other delays, and don’t be afraid to leave the Interstate and explore some hidden treasures in smaller towns and along secondary routes. In the words of Yogi Berra, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
  • Estimate your travel times and don’t try to drive too far in too short a period, which can both be dangerous and have the potential to turn fellow travelers into raging psychopaths. Plan where to make fuel stops in advance, and don’t let your vehicle’s fuel level get below one-quarter of a tank to avoid inadvertently running out.
  • Get the family car checked out by a trusted mechanic before leaving home to ensure it’s up to the task. At the least have fluids changed or topped off, check the charge on the battery and have the tires checked to ensure they have sufficient tread to make the trip and are properly inflated for the sake of both safety and fuel economy – under-inflated tires can lower gas mileage by 0.3% for every 1 psi drop in pressure according to the Department of Energy.
  • Set aside sufficient time to pack your clothes, load your vehicle and get a full night’s sleep so you can start your trip refreshed.
  • Pack appropriately. Secure luggage in the trunk and keep toys and other objects in the passenger compartment to a minimum – these could become dangerous projectiles in a crash. Bring along a pillow or two so passengers can sleep.
  • Keep an emergency kit in the trunk that includes a flashlight and extra batteries, a portable radio, jumper cables, leather gloves, roadside flares or reflective warning triangles, duct tape, a roll of paper towels, can of “Fix-a-Flat” tire sealant, a rudimentary first aid kit, sunscreen and so on.
  • Don’t forget the necessities. Though it may be possible to stop along the way to replenish your stock, pack enough drinks and snacks to cover both travel time and for any delays that might incur. Don’t forget to bring any applicable prescription or over-the-counter medications, and be sure to carry garbage bags, paper towels, tissues, an extra roll of toilet paper, baby wipes, etc.
  • Pack the kids appropriately. Buckle all children ages 12 and under in the back seat. Make sure child safety seats for smaller kids are both properly installed and are age and weight appropriate. Have kids’ seats inspected before departing to make sure they’re safe; find a location near you at seatcheck.org or www.nhtsa.dot.gov.
  • Keep the kids busy. This can be just as much a challenge with toddlers as teenagers. Tablet or laptop computers, portable DVD players and portable board games can be invaluable here, though perhaps this would be a good time to introduce the family to good old fashioned low-tech options like playing I-Spy or 20 questions that might help actually create civil interaction among family members. Anyone up for singing a few verses of “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall?”
  • Check smartphones and in-car navigation systems for information on restaurants and places of interest at which to stop along the way. Also use Web-based services to check for the lowest gas prices and to check weather and traffic conditions along the way.
  • Play a strong “zone defense” while en route, by having the front passenger manage both the kids and the cell phone to minimize both the driver’s mental wear and tear and what could be potentially hazardous (“don’t make me come back there…”) distractions.
  • Don’t be in too much of a hurry. Stop every two hours for a bathroom break and to stretch your legs. Have lunch or snacks at a park or highway rest area to let the kids run off some steam. The AAA suggests road trippers plan on taking a rest stop every two hours or 100 miles.
  • Brush up on the law. Traffic laws vary by state, so read up on local traffic rules, especially those regarding right turns on a red light and speed limits.
  • Lock the vehicle when parked and keep all valuables out of sight.

Unfortunately, while following these tips will go a long way toward making any road trip more pleasant, the aforementioned Bridgestone travel survey determined that even the most thoughtful preparations may not be enough to ensure that one’s children are contented over the long haul. Nearly three-quarters of parents who take a summer road trip with their kids say it’s nearly impossible to drive for an extended period without hearing either, “I have to go to the bathroom” (74 percent), “I’m hungry” (73 percent) or “Are we there yet” (72 percent) coming from the back seat.

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