How to have a road trip that doesn’t drive you crazy

I’m sure that, at some point on my childhood travels with my family, I must have annoyed my parents. I remember passing the time by playing road games with my brother in the back seat – things like spotting Volkswagen Beetles (very popular at the time), or all the red cars, or red barns, or any other countable item we could think of.

Midway picnics were a welcome break. I also remember having reluctant naps that interfered with my trying to see everything new and interesting. Nevertheless, no doubt at some point we got impatient to reach the end of the journey. Highway scenery can only amuse so much – and that’ just as true for adults as for children.

A good road trip requires:

  • A road-worthy vehicle
  • Some planning around pit-stops, rest breaks and food, and places to stay overnight on multi-day transitions from your point of origin to your ultimate destination
  • Ways for your travellers to keep occupied on lengthy drives, and to stay comfortable
  • A sense of humour
  • A good navigator who’ll stay calm when something inevitably goes wrong

Road trips are special adventures. They feel so much more relaxed, even if you’re flying to another destination to hit the road. There’s freedom in wandering about a countryside that reminds me of the early explorers – getting your bearings with a map or a GPS instead of a sea chart and astrolabe, eating food at interesting ‘ports of call’. We have a cousin in Tennessee, and every time we drive down for a visit we always stop overnight in Polaris, Ohio so that we can have a cozy, delicious meal at our favourite on-the-road restaurant, the Polaris Grill.

Seeing a place from your road-ship is a much more intimate experience – you get to see everyday life, not just the highlights.

At special sites, like museums and historic places, you can build in time to explore at your leisure. Last year we visited Gettysburg, and spent a day-and-a-half following the battle trail with the aid of a DVD guide that we bought locally. The site is huge and so well-preserved that it was easy to envision the different parts of the battle. We also had time to play a round of golf, have Easter Brunch, see some wildlife and take part in a night-time ghost hunt.

Road prep

  • If driving your own vehicle, unless it’s brand new, check it out thoroughly before you leave. While a breakdown on the road isn’t necessarily the worst thing in the world, it will take up valuable time that’s better spent doing fun things, and will cost you.

    Sometimes accidents just happen, though, and you just have to make the best of them. On a high, narrow mountain road in Ireland another tourist car passing us in the opposite direction cut into our lane, forcing my hubby over onto the rocky shoulder on our side. We bounced off a rock and damaged both the undercarriage and a tire. We tried to limp back down the mountain, but the tire completely flattened out before we got more than a mile or so. We found a safe spot to pull over, and put on the spare. The next morning we were able to get everything repaired, at a reasonable price, and we continued on our way without too much disruption.
  • Depending on the bladder-capacity of your travellers, it’s a good idea to look at your route and plan for stops. In North America there are generally plenty of roadside stops, well-marked in advance. Things can become problematic if any of your party have special requirements like gluten-free meals, but there are ways to accommodate different needs.

    Picnic lunches are really fun to do, but here are some pointers:
    • Buy a nice blanket to sit on. That way, you can find cool places to enjoy your meal, like a big rock under maples and pines in the autumn sun.
    • Make food that will keep well, and is easy to transport and eat without making a mess. I like sandwiches, and they don’t have to be fancy. For one of our fall trips, I made fried egg and bacon on baguettes. Just about anything is delicious in the open air. My indulgence was some rather decadent pumpkin whoopie pies with marshmallow buttercream filling. Together with a thermos of hot tea, it was a perfect fall picnic.
    • Have a secure container to transport everything in, some paper towel for small cleanups, cups and plates, even some nice paper napkins if you want the atmosphere. Personally I prefer to pack food that doesn’t require utensils – remember that everything you use will need to be washed at some point on your journey, so keep the mess to a minimum.
  • Comfort is important on long drives. I like to take a lap blanket and small pillow – my hubby prefers to keep the temperature inside the vehicle on the cooler side, so the blanket is perfect to keep myself warm, and I can take short naps if I get sleepy riding along. (He likes to do the driving – finds it boring to be the passenger, although I can easily take over if he gets tired – and I’m a great navigator.)

    Have a pouch handy with bottled water (the air gets dry inside a vehicle), a couple of rolls of toilet paper (for roadside bathrooms that may have run out), some snacks in case it takes a while to find somewhere to eat, and napkins/paper towels/wet-naps to quickly clean fingers coated in potato chip salt or Cheezies dust.

    Traffic jams or spots of bad weather – I can’t tell you how many times we’ve run into unexpected fogs/rainstorms/short blizzards, and if you’re heading south to Williamsburg VA avoid the vicinity of Washington DC unless you want to be stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic for hours  – can be wearing on the nerves. We’ve found it really helps to distract your mind a little from worrying by listening either to an audio book or a radio play.
  • Common sense prevails – don’t do anything you wouldn’t do at home. Keep your baggage out of sight while you’re stopped, doors locked, don’t flash large amounts of cash, keep an eye on the people around you. One of the last things you want to be is victim of a crime. We’ve always had good encounters on our trips, but that’s at least partly due to not being an easy target.
  • Be a good guest. Don’t litter, be polite and friendly, obey the rules. When we were driving around New Zealand we’d often not see any other vehicle for the better part of an hour, so the radar warnings on the GPS seemed a bit pointless, until we saw someone pulled over for speeding quite literally in the middle of nowhere.
  • Don’t overpack, but do have gear for different types of weather. I know it may be tempting to just throw stuff in the back of your vehicle, but remember that what goes in must be sorted through while on the trip and then taken back out at the end of it. Also, you’ll want to leave some room for whatever you buy on the trip. Do have clothing handy that you can layer in case of a storm or change in temperature. And footwear that will be comfortable during hours seated inside a moving vehicle.
  • If you’re travelling during peak season, book accommodations ahead of time. We’ve seen people show up unannounced at hotels that we already had a room at and watched them panic when there wasn’t any space to be had. After hours of driving, it’s great to know that you have a place to lay your weary head.

A great sense of humour and ability to not panic will be your secret weapons on any road trip, because things rarely go completely according to plan.

Keep an eye on news and weather reports. No matter how much you prepare in advance, Nature can still surprise you.

When we drove down to Virginia a couple of years ago to see explore the area around Williamsburg, we got a real bombshell. As I mentioned in a previous blog post, on our second day there, after we finished our first round of golf we were chatting with one fellow where we turned in our cart and he asked how we liked the course and if we were going to play again. We said we thought we’d do another round in a couple of days, which he advised might not exactly be possible because of the impending hurricane.

The what, now? Usually you start hearing about a hurricane days ahead of time while it’s still a tropical depression, but this one popped up out of nowhere. By the time we returned to our hotel after dinner it was all over the news, already bearing down heavily on Florida and due to head our way in less than two days while still Category Three.

We’ve been in worse, but with more shelter than we had at our hotel in Williamsburg. Luckily we were staying inland as opposed to out along the coast. That evening we did some rejigging to our touring plans for the week and kept an eye on the storm’s progress. Since tornadoes were also in the projected path, I also downloaded the Red Cross app to my phone so we could receive alerts. We made it through safe and sound, and still had an enjoyable trip.

Make a general itinerary but leave room for flexibility

Howl-O-Scream at Busch Gardens

Often the unplanned things you encounter become highlights of your trip. It’s essential to know opening and closing times of the important things you want to see, and then enjoy time in between for impromptu exploring.

We love to go to upstate New York along the Hudson River Valley in the fall, and we’ve had so much fun meandering around small towns and farm markets, where we’ve had amazing chocolate milk, pumpkin butter, baked goods and great ambience on a beautiful fall day. On a golfing road trip through Alabama, we had fabulous barbecue and southern food based on recommendations from golf course staff.

Based on years of our own road trips, those are my tips to make your own version really enjoyable. Beyond that, safety and comfort are the solid underpinnings, and a little research and planning, plus some common sense on the journey, will go a long way. If you have your own tips or insights, please share as well.

Published by

ejurus

I started Lion Tail Magic as a way to help people recapture the adventurous spirit of their childhood -- exploration, curiosity about everything, and a belief that anything is possible if you want it and are willing to work towards it. I am a travel coach, professional speaker, writer and endlessly curious world traveller.

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