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Family Road Trips - Avoiding the Nightmares

Updated on October 30, 2008
Four Kids, Two Parents, Three Dogs - pack for the road!
Four Kids, Two Parents, Three Dogs - pack for the road!
Are We There Yet?
Are We There Yet?
Our Road Trip to a Family Reunion in Arkansas
Our Road Trip to a Family Reunion in Arkansas
Another Road Trip Got Us to Destin, FL from Michigan
Another Road Trip Got Us to Destin, FL from Michigan

Family Vacation Tips


A long family road trip to Grandma's can range anywhere from fun to tolerable to a nightmare. Planning and a good attitude go a long way in making a long drive more enjoyable. Why not fly? Well, sometimes a flight from Detroit to Chicago and actually take longer than driving. I know it sounds improbable, but we live two hours from a major airport, flights take off and land when they're good and ready and if there's a storm or flight delays that can add another hour or more, then of course you're supposed to arrive at least an hour early. So, you'll pay more and go through more hassle than making the six-hour drive. And it could take longer in the end. So, consider that when planning a trip.

Start planning as far ahead as possible. Figure out about how far you want to drive per day and make reservations at a motel or hotel for an hour or two less than that. We never had a problem getting a room the same evening we needed one in years past, but lately it seems the hotels are booked up far in advance. We learned the hard way that a yearly convention can fill every hotel/motel/B&B and yurt for a hundred miles in any direction of the event. We once tried to find a room near a mid-sized city that was hosting a Southern Baptist convention and drove until our eyeballs fell out before we found a room, five hours past where we'd planned on spending the night. Also, weather conditions can take a turn for the worse causing people to stay in a motel when they normally would keep driving. Traffic jams and construction can make what you thought would be a six hour drive last for eight or ten. So, reserve a room and take a lot of stress out of the trip. Most large motel chains only require a few hours advance cancellation notice, but check that out ahead of time as well. Also, make sure the hotel will hold your room - sometimes they will only hold a room until ten at night.

Pack snacks and water. There's just something about a road trip that seems to give people the munchies. Maybe it's part hunger and part boredom, but it happens. Try to avoid salty or very sweet snacks. Auto travel can cause you to retain water, even if you normally don't have that problem. This can cause your clothes to become uncomfortably tight and give you headaches or just make you feel plain yucky. Sweet snacks can cause you to have sugar highs and lows and end up making you sleepy, not a good thing when driving a long distance. A sealed container of fresh veggies cut in bite sized pieces (celery stuffed with peanut butter, carrots, sweet peppers, cucumber slices and broccoli bites are perfect). You can buy a container of them already cut up for you or take a package of baby carrots. The chewing will help keep you awake and make you more alert and the fiber will help you avoid the constipation that can result from travel. Another container with fresh apple, pear or orange sections will give you a bit of natural sugar for a boost and also help with the digestion. Water is the best beverage. I usually pack a cooler with these items, and also add some cheese and crackers or a couple of hard-boiled eggs for an inexpensive picnic lunch. Many small towns have parks that are great for a picnic, especially if you're traveling with kids, as this will give them some time to run off some of that

Have your vehicle checked out before the trip. Perhaps have the oil changed and the tires rotated while your at it. Always check the tire pressure as many accidents are caused by improper tire pressure. Keep a few emergency supplies like a battery operated tire pump, a flash light, reflective road warning signs and most importantly, a cell phone and charger. I also have a rain poncho in case we have a flat in a heavy downpour, which seems happen more than you'd think.

Be sure your license plates, drivers license and insurance are all up to date and that you have your registration as well. Some states really pound you with heavy fines if you are pulled over and do not have this documentation with you. Watch out for speed traps as well. There's a section of I-75 in Georgia where we always see several police cars that have pulled people over on both sides of the highway. Obey all of the laws, of course, but when you're in a state that's not your own, be particularly careful.

Recorded books are a good idea. When our kids were young, we'd often borrow books on ‘tape' from the library and listen to them together. Humorous stories are usually the best to keep everyone in a good mood. One of our favorite's was Patrick McManus, a funny guy with great nature and animal stories to tell. We made the mistake one year of listening to a Stephen King book - we all slept with the lights on in the motel that night. Classics are good too - like Mark Twain or Jack London, as they're entertaining as well as educational. Sometimes you can find recorded books about the area you're visiting, which can make the trip more interesting.

Relax. When I was a kid, my Dad felt that road trips were all about ‘beating his best time'. I swear he would have made us eat drive-through food and wear catheters if we'd let him. I remember his biggest concern was getting ‘Stuck in St. Louis.' One year, recently, my daughter and I drove from Michigan to Oklahoma to visit him. On the way home we ended up in downtown St. Louis during rush hour on Friday night- my Dad's worst nightmare. However, we enjoyed the view of the arch and the magnificent old buildings and churches and just went with the flow. It wasn't exactly enjoyable, but we made the best of it and actually got a chuckle out of Dad's reaction when we told him about it. Stuff happens on a road trip, some is great, some not so great - try relax and make the best of difficult situations.

Try to avoid ‘exit food' as we call it. Every major highway now has exits with every kind of fast food joint imaginable. We've learned about small towns along the way that have real restaurants with a bit of atmosphere and much better food. We also like the idea of supporting local businesses instead of corporations set on taking our money and our arteries. Of course we've had our share of ‘dives' but not often. Every town of any size has at least one or two restaurants where the locals eat. Check out the population of the town if possible. If it's less than five hundred people, chances are you're not going to find much in the way good eats, or any eats for that matter. One place we get a kick out of is Bucksnort, TN. Gotta' love it. The restaurant is a little questionable in the cleanliness department, but the food is good and ‘real' and you can buy hand-crocheted kitchen towels and

Play music you all enjoy and sing along. One of our family traditions when driving to "Grandma's" house for Thanksgiving was singing along to Arlo Guthrie's "Alice's Restaurant'. Golden oldies, Country Western and Blues are all great to sing along with. Who cares if you don't know the words make up your own, this sometime can lead to a lot of laughs - or a time out.

Stop and enjoy a couple of the sights. A scenic overlook or the world's biggest ball of string won't take much time, but it will be a nicer way to stretch your legs than dodging semi's at a truck stop.

Starting your trip on Friday afternoon or evening may sound like a way to get there faster, but consider the cities you'll encounter on a Friday during rush hour. You may be better off leaving very early on Saturday instead. We've learned that driving on weekends is much less stressful than during the week when the big rigs outnumber passenger vehicles ten to one.

Try to stick to a schedule and a budget, but don't become a slave to them. Go with the flow, have fun and create pleasant memories, or at least avoid the travel nightmares.

Final Tips:

Remember food and water, ID, leads for pets (and poop bags)

First Aid Kit and a Cell Phone

An individual toy/treat bag for each child.

Maps or GPS


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