Ten (and a half) Tips For Road Trips

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So many Americans fly everywhere these days that you might think the classic American road trip is a thing of the past. This is not actually the case. While it does seem that the “On the Road” experience of getting a car and just going for the sake of going is in decline, the statistics (and the number of cars all around you on the roads) prove that more Americans than ever are taking to the roads for vacations; lately the trend is for more frequent but shorter trips. With changing airline restrictions and a troubled economy, many Americans would rather drive these days than fly these days.

There is no denying that the lure of the road is undeniable and probably eternal; it almost seems embedded in our very makeup. This is more true for some folks than others, but there is a richness to traversing the land an inch at a time that is absent from the experience of climbing into a metal canister and climbing out at your destination. If this is what you’re looking for this summer, here are some tips to maintain the romance while minimizing the rigors of the road.

What’s your favorite family road trip? Tell us in our Family Road Trips & Cross-Country Travel Forum!

Clean your car before and during your trip
Go ahead, leave the napkins and gum wrappers under your seat. Leave the receipts from your last business-related drive in the glove box. Don’t sweat the dog hair in the back bed … but you’ll be sorry you did. A few days into your trip, when the old gum wrappers are joined by new fast food wrappers, when the glove box starts overflowing with hotel receipts and local maps, when dog hair starts sticking to your luggage and your gear, you’ll rue the day you failed to pull out the Shop-Vac.

As your trip proceeds, take time every couple of days to purge your car of undesirable flotsam and jetsam. Even if you can tolerate some chaos (as I can), the accumulated junk and minor filth will start to drive you mad in the close quarters that define a road trip.

Have a loose plan
Delays are the one thing that you can count on when driving significant distances. Admittedly, the archetypal “BRIDGE OUT” sign is a rare sighting these days, but the flashing “Road Work Ahead, Merge to One Lane” is not. You don’t have to have seen a lot of Chevy Chase movies to know that things aren’t always going to go your way. If you overschedule your road trip, it is almost a lock that you will find yourself slogging the last few miles long after you had intended to be asleep, trying to cancel one hotel reservation so you can pay for another, well short of your originally planned destination.

On the other hand, having no plan at all is only recommended for the most hardy souls. On a trip through New England a few years ago, our plan was simply to pull over when we got tired to crash in a hotel; after taking three exits without success, we finally stopped at a hotel at which the front desk person asked, “Well, are you staying the whole night?”

Get off the highways — but beware the Blue Highways.
Unless you have a specific destination and a strict schedule, there is little point in hitting the roads to see the country if you don’t spend some time on the back roads. However, some blue highways (as certain back roads were called in the popular book by William Least Heat-Moon) are not much more than endless strip malls. Most U.S. road maps have some indicator of whether a “back road” is an interesting one; the map I use most has small red dots along those roads recommended as scenic routes. I have found these recommendations to be fairly reliable; most have at least a few miles of interesting local scenery, offer driving experiences ranging from a rambling bucolic feel to truly stunning views of America the Beautiful, and pay off handsomely for those with the time, patience and inclination to wander a bit. Howevery glove box. If you are traveling without current documentation of license, registration or insurance, you could be in for a world of hurt if you are pulled over for any reason. Further, you may want to clear up any old traffic and parking tickets before you go; under the right (or perhaps wrong, in this case) circumstances, your car can be impounded for your scofflaw sins.

Know when to hold ’em, and when to fold ’em.
Sorry for the hokey country song phrase, but sometimes on the road you need to play the hand you are dealt, for better or worse. This advice might apply to road trip decisions both small and large. On an eight-week, 15,000-mile circle of the border states of the United States in 1991, we were driving up Route 1 near Big Sur with a mind to staying with friends in Santa Cruz. We pulled over to stretch our legs near a restaurant/hotel, fully intending to get back behind the wheel in short order to continue grinding northward. It took only two or three deep breaths for us to decide we were going no further that day. It ended up being one of the best long afternoons of the trip.

However, later on the same trip, we woke up in a state park in Wisconsin with about a week to go with a plan to linger in Chicago and Detroit, cut across Canada to Buffalo, come down through the Finger Lakes region, and generally finish off our trip at a leisurely pace. As we headed for a gas station to fill up for the day, we turned on the radio to listen to the news from the previous evening that the United States had invaded Iraq to repel their advances into Kuwait. When we arrived at the gas station, we found that gas prices had spiked about 25 percent, and the proprietor told us to expect more increases in the next few days. We quickly made the decision to make a stop in Chicago — we couldn’t blow off one of the country’s greatest cities — and then to bolt eastward to get ourselves home. It turned out that the sight of our front door and our own bed was more welcome than we had anticipated; we weren’t home early, but rather right on time.

Here’s wishing that your road tripping finds you on time and in the right place, even when you least expect it.

What’s your favorite family road trip? Tell us in our Family Road Trips & Cross-Country Travel Forum!

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