With summer vacation season approaching, now's the time to start planning that big cross-country roadtrip you've been thinking about taking. Driving to your favorite theme park or other destinations frees you from having to plan around airline schedules, not to mention providing a much more affordable way to get around the country for families. (Hey, it's the same price to drive the car whether it's got one driver or a full load of riders. But you pay extra for every seat you occupy on that plane.) Yet driving's slower than flying on long hauls, so without some smart planning, you'll find yourself starring in a real-life reboot of National Lampoon's Vacation.
I've taken four coast-to-coast, cross-country roadtrips with my family over the years, in addition to many other long-haul vacations around the western half of the United States. So the advice I'm about to share with you is hard-earned and road-tested.
Start by recognizing that a long family roadtrip won't magically solve any lingering relationship issues in your family, but it will expose every single one of them. You're going to be spending a lot of time together in close quarters, so if you're not used to that, all of you are going to have to learn to set and manage some expectations.
The best way to address problems is to prevent them. So get the entire family involved in planning from the beginning. If you can get everyone excited for the trip, you're investing in the collective goodwill that you'll need out on the road. Invest in an old-fashioned, printed-on-big-sheets-of-paper road atlas that you can all gather around the kitchen table to see. Trace potential routes, then get out your computer or smartphone and start looking up places along the way.
Begin with the big destinations you want to be certain to visit: theme parks, family, national parks, old friends you haven't seen in ages, and whatever destinations you've always wanted to visit in person. Then connect those dots and create a roadtrip route. Go big, then see how many days that trip would take.
I don't trust Google Maps' estimate for travel times on long-haul trips. It doesn't effectively factor times for refueling, meals, and other, uh "rest stops." In my experience, I've made about an average of about 63 miles per hour on long-haul trips with teenagers on highways in the west and about 57 miles per hour with younger kids. (We didn't start long-haul roadtrips until our youngest was eight.) Subtract about five miles per hour for roadtrips in the eastern U.S. where speed limits are lower and traffic heavier. That's just for point-to-point travel, not stopping for anything other than those pit stops for the car and its passengers. Use Google Maps to find the mileage then do the math to determine your own estimated travel time.
Make sure you know specifically where you will be stopping for those breaks, especially if you are traveling across the west, where highway exits with gas stations and restaurants might be dozens, if not more than 100, miles apart. This is where you do need to use an online service such as Google Maps in advance to see if an exit really does have the services you will need.
You always can ditch your planned stops on the road in favor of better options if you find them along the way. But you don't ever want to count on an option that ends up not being there for you. It's better to start with a plan and change it than go on the road with nothing but the hope that it'll all work out for you.
And don't plan to skip breaks by eating in the car. It might sound like a great idea to save time, but after a few days, you'll appreciate riding in the comfort of a vehicle that doesn't smell like a McDonald's bag. When you need to eat, stop. Consume all food outside the car and throw away the trash in a can instead of carrying it with you. It'll take more time than eating on the go, but that's another investment in goodwill that will yield strong returns later in your trip.
Where you can save time on the road is by optimizing bathroom breaks. Now if people have to go, they've got to go. (And guys, remember that at a certain time of the month, mom's going to have to use the facilities a little more often than usual, too.) But make it a habit always to hit the bathroom whenever you stop for food and fuel, if you don't think you have to yet. We usually tried to separate fuel and food stops, too, so that we were stopping for one or the other every couple of hours. That put us into a good rhythm and helped us avoid any "emergency" exits.
We also rotated seats at every stop, too. Let the kids have some time in the front passenger seat, as well as moving around in the back. We were a family of four riding in a Prius, so we didn't have "middle seat" issues, but leg room became an issue as the kids grew older, and our children appreciated that front-seat time.
Recognize that even though a long-haul trip will give the family plenty of time to talk, you'll all need time not to be engaged with each other, too. It's okay to retreat into your phone, book, or tablet when you're spending this much time in a car together. You can't schedule this, so this is one of those situations where you just have to manage your expectations and show the acumen to go with the flow of the group. The best way to develop this is through experience. If you're not certain that your family has the stamina to deal with not just the logistics of a long-haul trip but interpersonal dynamics, too, start with shorter trips and work your way up. We did trips from Los Angeles to the Bay Area and to Denver before trying to go all the way to Florida and back. That experience helped everyone in the family learn how to deal with a day in the car, followed by another and another.
Keep in mind that cell data connections might not be available at some points on the road, too, especially in the west. Turn off data roaming on all devices before leaving to avoid a nasty surprise on your mobile bill when you return and bring stuff you can listen to offline for those hours when you'll be off the grid. ("Mom, what's this shiny round flat thing? What do you mean it has music on it?")
As you plan your route, make excuses to bag as many states as possible along the way. This isn't just for bragging rights, it's a trick to get you to consider sights and destinations that you might not otherwise have considered. Efficiency isn't the point of a long-haul roadtrip. It's the enjoyment of discovering stuff along the way. The drive is a big attraction by itself. Make that little detour through an extra state and see what you find. At this point, I've visited 47 of the "lower" 48 states, my wife and my 19-year-old daughter have been to 45, and my 16-year-old son to 40. (Okay, the bragging rights are nice, too!)
If you are planning to see or stay with family and friends along the way, make sure you plan an adequate amount of time for those visits and that you're not taking advantage by treating them merely as a free hotel room. Again, it's not about ruthless efficiency. Don't plan on a late arrival and early departure the next morning for those stays. But don't expect to stay so long that you become a burden or annoyance, either.
A final thought: For all the driving I've done across the country and back, I've never taken the first draft of any roadtrip I planned. I always start with an ambitious plan, then scale back as I discover what's actually practical and consider what's going to be comfortable. But the stuff I cut from one roadtrip always provides the foundation for the next.
Ultimately, with sound planning and sober mental preparation, you might be surprised at how much of the country you can manage to see in even limited vacation time. If you have doubts about what you can do, ask. Talk with your family and talk with us here. Share your roadtrip plans — and experience — here in the comments or in our Discussion Forum. The road awaits you.Tweet
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