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.

Is the sky falling??

If you were paying attention to those two satellites that came close to colliding somewhere over Pittsburgh yesterday, you might have thought the sky was going to fall indeed.

Looking back at just the past two weeks since my last post, to quote Henry Jones Sr. in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, “Our situation has not improved.”

The World Health Organization has finally declared the Novel Coronavirus as a global health emergency, something that seemed pretty obvious to me, and probably a lot of other people, at least a few days ago. The rapid spread throughout China despite all the containment measures, the fact that the virus may not manifest symptomatically in some people until they’ve already passed from one country to another…these things seemed fairly indicative of a significant problem.

If anything, this situation clearly shows why all travellers should have insurance and access to some back-up cash in case of emergency or a delayed return to your home country. If you have to take medication, always make sure you take extra with you.

For those of us watching the news and waiting to see what the next days will bring, it’s important to maintain our own health and sanity. The world has survived other pandemics, so your job is to keep safe and sound in your corner of the planet. Here are some suggestions:

  • Be kind to yourself and other people — everyone’s under stress, so a generous spirit can help ease tensions
  • Watch happy, fun shows. I guess some people might find grim, dystopian fare cathartic, but in my experience the cumulative effect is depressing
  • Practice some cozy nesting. Cook comfort food, enjoy relaxing downtime, turn your home into a haven against the craziness outside its walls.
  • Eat good quality food. One of your best defenses is to be properly nourished, so: avoid processed food, which is full of empty calories and a lot of not-so-benevolent chemicals (I studied organic chemistry in university, and the lecture on food additives was an eye-opener about the crap that companies put into processed foods!), and eat a well-balanced selection of natural foods.
  • Be proactive in prudent ways. If you have essential medications or supplements, make sure you’re well-stocked. For example, I have chronic acute nerve pain in one thigh, and the only thing that keeps it at bay is regular doses of a Vitamin B complex — I bought an extra bottle this week, because if I were to run out I’d be in deep trouble. Maybe even stock up on some nonperishable food supplies that you’d use anyway should we never end up in a lock down situation ourselves. I keep reading stories of the food shortages for people in locked-down Wuhan. They were caught unawares, but we have the advantage of some advance knowledge. Hopefully, like SARS, the virus is stopped before it gets too much farther, but I always feel that it’s better to be prepared.

In the meantime, like my favourite maxim, keep calm and drink tea with a nice cake to raise your spirits.

We are sorry…

Waiting for a flight, Heathrow

You’ve probably seen the many headlines. With those words, 144-year old travel company Thomas Cook announced abruptly on Sunday that it was closed for business, leaving about 600,000 travellers around the world in the lurch and a lot of employees suddenly looking for work, including airline pilots.

How could such a thing happen to the most veteran travel company in the business? Rumours of sky-high executive salaries are rife, and a gigantic reality show will play out over the next while as investigations get underway and some dirty secrets likely see the light of day.

Along with the vast personal and economic repercussions, it’s a sad time in the travel industry as we watch this once-great company die. Thomas Cook, the founder, led his first escorted tour in 1841 — about 500 temperance campaigners, if you can believe it, to a rally. He continued organizing a variety of tours around the British Isles, and within four years was taking people to Europe.

1922 Thos Cook poster, By 90 years old advert, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32011543

He officially opened shop on Fleet Street in London in 1865 and began making connections abroad that allowed him to, with his son as a partner, form the first commercial touring company. He made tours to exotic lands, like Egypt, accessible to the masses.

In our early days of travel, it was one of our pre-trip rituals to buy some Thomas Cook travellers’ cheques, until better forms of travel money came along.

It’s my feeling that in a situation like this, the travellers already abroad should be taken care of before any other legalities, but until/if that ever happens, here are two things you should always do to prepare for overseas emergencies:

  1. Buy travel insurance, both for trip cancellation and possible medical needs. We were all set to go to Mexico with friends in November a number of years ago, when a hurricane swept through the Gulf in September and took a number of resorts with it, including the one we were booked at. Afterward the clean-up and repairs, the resort was supposed to reopen the day we were due to arrive, but we had our suspicions about how good the facilities were going to be (having seen first-hand how quickly things often got done in the Caribbean back at the time), so we cancelled and in short order got our money back with no difficulties.
  2. Make sure there’s room on your credit card for emergency expenses. Many of the travellers in the current crisis have suddenly found themselves being charged by their hotels just to avoid getting kicked out — although, frankly, if a hotel I was staying at didn’t handle the situation with due tact and consideration, I’d be giving it a very bad review.

In all cases, don’t panic. Contact your travel agent for assistance — they will likely already be aware of your situation and be putting plans into place. You can also check in with your country’s local embassy (find information for Canadians here).

Livingstone airport, Zimbabwe

Beyond that, keep yourself comfortable and safe while you wait to return home. I was leading a trip to Botswana and Zimbabwe when the volcano in Iceland erupted in 2010. We were able to complete our safari as planned (and had a fabulous time), but as we were getting ready to leave Livingstone in Zimbabwe for our flight to Johannesburg on the first leg to return home, we heard that the damn volcano had gone off again and we might not be able to get past South Africa for a few days. My travellers were getting nervous, but I told them, “Look, if we’re stuck in Jo’burg for a night or two, I know a really nice hotel attached to a mall with great shops and restaurants — we’ll just remain comfortable there until we can fly again.”

As it turned out, the volcanic plume drifted eastward out of our flight path and we were able to make it home with little trouble.

So how can you avoid a travel problem like this Thomas Cook fiasco? You can’t, sadly — one of the most established names in the business tanked unexpectedly, at least to the rest of the world. Where there warning signs before that? Apparently not where most of us could see them. The best you can do is, like the old Boy Scout motto, Be Prepared. Don’t let something like this put you off travel — it should always be a great adventure!

Nature’s little surprises when you’re on vacation

It sounded like a heavy truck rolling down the street.

But instead of the truck passing our friends’ house in Santa Monica and the sound receding, the noise got louder and louder and the house began to shake.

The first trip that my hubby and I took together, to visit family friends in California while I was on my university Christmas break, started off benignly enough with nice sunny weather. The scent of eucalyptus from the trees lining the streets filled the hazy air, and for breakfast we enjoyed fresh-picked oranges from the tree in our friends’ back yard. I was so excited to see palm trees and the ocean.

We had an adventurous New Year’s Eve at a club in Santa Monica (too crazy to describe in this article), and then got up early to go to Pasadena for the Rose Parade. After the parade we returned to our friends’ home and everyone else settled down to watch the Rose Bowl on television while I, still recovering from a bout of strep throat, lay down for a while in our bedroom – only to be woken up soon after by the earthquake and everyone running into the room yelling at me to get up.

It wasn’t a major quake – only 4.6 on the Richter scale – but enough to shake us up. It’s very unnerving to have the normally solid earth beneath you start moving around. One of the first things our friends did was run to hold up their china cabinet in the dining room, while my hubby and I wanted to find the first available airplane/helicopter and lift off.

In addition, you don’t know how big the quake will turn out to be. Visions of giant cracks appearing in the streets danced in my head.

Aftershocks can sometimes be worse than the original event. After our brief quake, rumblings and aftershocks continued throughout the rest of the day. I remember sitting, trying to relax, but spotting the ornaments on our friends’ Christmas tree start to swing in my peripheral vision. At one point the entire house shifted with a loud bang, as if a giant had come and kicked it!

Several months later, on our honeymoon in the US Virgin Islands, things went south again in a much larger way with a Category Five hurricane followed closely by a tornado that ripped right by our resort. No one could call us on the island afterward, but we were able to call out and reassure our frantic families that we were safe and healthy. Normally I love storms, but that one was a doozy, and a history-maker. For months after we got home my shoulders tightened every time there was a high wind.

A year after that, when Mount St. Helen’s erupted, friends of my in-laws actually called them to see if my hubby and I were in the vicinity! (absolute truth)

Over the years, with many more occurrences that seem to follow us wherever we go, we’ve become accustomed and have learned to go with the flow. Not everything has been one of Nature’s treats – we had to change a trip completely at the start of the Arab Spring, changing from Egypt to Kenya, and on the very first day we took my mother-in-law to England we were exploring the British Museum when it was suddenly evacuated and we lost my hubby for about half-an-hour (that was the most unusual, but not the only thing, to happen on that trip).

We’ve also found ways to stay prepared.

With the advent of the internet, mobile phones and instant news, there are many ways to cover your bases. I’m not sure my hubby and I are that unusual anymore in unusual vacations – global warming is causing all kinds of changes and surprises in weather patterns, and political tensions can erupt unexpectedly – so it pays everyone to understand their options.

A recent case in point in our lives:

We were on an innocuous trip to Williamsburg, Virginia last fall. The weather was hotter than expected, but manageable. We spent an entire day exploring the superb Colonial Williamsburg, got our creeps on at Busch Gardens’ fantastic Howl-O-Scream event, enjoyed history and the sunset on a schooner cruise on the York River, and bought more sandals at an outlet mall to cope with the intense heat.

Waiting for our carriage ride at Colonial Williamsburg.
Sunset cruise on a 3-masted schooner
Howl-O-Scream is one of the best Halloween theme park events we’ve ever been to

We’d finished a round of golf at an area club on Tuesday, and the staff were helping us pack up our clubs when the ranger asked if we’d be coming back for another round. We said we planned to return on Thursday; he replied, “Well, you’ll have to play that by ear. There’s a hurricane coming our way.”

Someone living along the Fords Colony golf course in Williamsburg has a Halloween-themed sense of humour

There’s a what now? Not that hubby and I aren’t used to hurricanes (this would be our fourth), but Hurricane Michael popped up with almost no warning.

Watching the weather reports in our hotel room

Here’s how we handled it:

  1. Kept an eye on the evolving situation. Hurricanes are notoriously changeable, so if it looks like you’ll be in the path, you can at least keep on top of developments.
  2. The local weather station recommended downloading the Red Cross Hazards app. You can enter your current location and receive any alerts that may come out, as well as look up preparedness info for a variety of different scenarios.
  3. We rejigged our activity plans for that Thursday; it helps to be flexible in these circumstances. The storm was projected to downgrade to Category 3 and reach our area by about 2pm. We had planned to visit the Yorktown Battlefield that day, which is located along the York River, not far from Virginia’s Atlantic shore – not a place we wanted to be when the storm hit due to repeated warnings about storm surges and flash flooding. We were going to be heading towards home the next day, though, so we hit the road early in order to see the Battlefield in the morning and be back in Williamsburg on drier land by lunch.
Storm clouds gathering as we drive to Yorktown

We kept an eye on the skies as we toured the Battlefield. They were darkening and a few drops began to fall as we drove back to town. We had lunch at a Red Lobster restaurant across the street from our hotel (very short travel time if the storm came in during the meal). It started to rain while we ate, intermittently heavy; outside the window, there was a little pebble garden where we watched water gather into a little stream, then a larger stream, then a small pond.

Mortars and cannons from the Battle of Yorktown

From there we picked up a few emergency supplies – battery-operated candles (in case of power outage), extra bottles of water, and snacks – and by 3pm we were safely battened down in our room, watching television and remaining relaxed but alert. I texted my brother about the hurricane, and, having received numerous similar messages from us over the years, his reply was typical: “Gee, what a surprise.”

By dinnertime there’d been spotty rain only, but we made some tea. We had some leftovers in our room fridge from dinner the night before. and our Vanilla Cheesecake at lunch was so delicious that we’d brought two pieces back to our room.

The storm hit in full force after dark, with driving rain and wind rattling the window. The force of the storm actually pushed some rain in along the top corner of our ‘sealed’ window, and we put a towel along the sill to absorb the water. The hotel parking lot and the streets were lightly flooded. We heard reports of tornadoes touching down in several places around the area, and did receive one tornadoes-in-the-area alert from the Red Cross app. The lights flickered a few times but never went completely out.

Hurricane rain driving in sheets outside our hotel room and trees tossing violently

That was the worst of it for us, but our hotel was on a main street, and we’d seen a number of people out driving around during the worst of the storm – I hope it was something urgent to make it worth risking their lives. Sadly, five people who ignored the warnings to stay inside died when they were swept away by flood waters. So preventable.

  • We checked the road reports on Friday morning to see what was open/closed. There were 1,400 road closures in that county alone, but none of them along the route that we would be taking to visit the Luray Caverns that afternoon. The roads that were open were strewn with debris and downed trees.
Slow traffic and lots of debris on the roads that were open the next day

Could we have avoided this scenario entirely by not going south during Hurricane Season (June to November)? Certainly, but we had considered Virginia to be a lower-risk area, and there hadn’t been any intimations of an impending storm. Events like earthquakes can’t be reliably predicted – although, in another absolutely true story, a nun in September of the year we first went to California had predicted that there would be an earthquake around New Year’s Day, and I spent the next three months convincing myself that it was hogwash, so what can one make of that?

You can’t entirely predict what Mother Nature will throw at you, so if you do find yourself in the midst of one of her surprises, follow the local advisories and stay safe. Never  think that ‘it won’t happen to me’ – based on extensive personal experience I can confirm that s*** does happen.

To learn more about how to be prepared in the event of the unexpected, our Canadian government has a useful website for Emergency Preparedness. In particular, check out the sections on Using Technology During a Disaster. The stats also make an interesting read.

A new edition of The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook was released this April, with some updates about things like drone attacks and spotting fake news, but you may find the book’s Travel version more useful. Hopefully you’ll never have to things like Stop a Runaway Passenger Train, but I have personally been on a Runaway Camel! (It ended up stopping by itself after a wild ride down a hill when it got back to its corral and before reaching the river, thank goodness.)

And if you ever experience an earthquake, find a spot with the most structural soundness — doorways are good, and bathrooms are excellent. (If in California, don’t go outside — flying clay roof tiles can be deadly.) And be kind to Mother Nature — there may come a day when you want her on your side 🙂