The road trip: How to enjoy your family adventure without needing a vacation once you get home
More of us will be traveling this summer, and travelers are increasingly seeking vacations with "substance." For families, this can mean trading mouse ears for yoga mats, taking history tours, and spotting northern pintails in state and national parks.
There's another advantage to such vacations with substance, of course: They can be money-savers, so more and more of us will be embarking on these soul-enriching outings in our cars.
Unfortunately, for kids, there's almost nothing meaningful about being strapped into the back of the family van while Missouri and Kansas whiz past. That's a shame when you consider that most of us remember our pre-kid road trips so fondly. Part of the appeal of piling into a car with a group of buddies was that you'd inevitably get to know your fellow travelers in new, often surprising ways. You'd eat differently, sleep differently, and have different kinds of conversations and experiences. In this liminal state, grown-ups often start to act more like kids: A bag of Twizzlers transforms into a perfectly acceptable breakfast, and acting out scenes from "Life of Brian" suddenly becomes a completely rational way to get through a two-hour stretch of freeway.
So now that you have actual kids in the mix, why not include them in road-trip planning and decision-making? That's what we did when we each asked our own kids -- ranging in age from 6 to 14 -- to help us find a more fun and meaningful way to get from here to there and back. Here's what they helped us figure out.
Not knowing what to expect on a road trip can be stressful for a kid. Have your entire family sit down together with a map (digital or paper) and plot out your route. There are lots of these services available online. AAA's free Internet TripTik Travel Planner is a solid choice, and members can get a physical TripTik, a detailed flip chart that takes you through every step of your journey. Let each family member decide at least one thing to do along the way. Once you're on the road, let your kids track your progress with travel and map apps.
Nothing ruins a road trip like grown-ups who drive like they're training for the Dakar Rally. So instead of treating your vacation like it's a way to blast from point A to point B, make getting there part of the experience, and schedule plenty of time to take breaks and see the sights.
Historic buildings and scenic vistas are terrific, and we rely on Moon travel guides to point us to these attractions. But don't skip quirky roadside oddities, like the shell-shaped gas station in Winston-Salem, N.C., or the Hat Museum in Portland, Ore., or the Jolly Green Giant statue in Blue Earth, Minn. Roadside America has a great app packed with goofy stops and the local lore that goes with them.
Factory tours of companies that manufacture anything from candy to cars are often free; some even include museums dedicated to the history of the company or industry. At the Anheuser-Busch factory in St. Louis, you can see the Clydesdales' stables; at Harley-Davidson you can check out the assembly line. Our favorite resource is the book "Watch It Made in the U.S.A." by Karen Axelrod and Bruce Brumberg.
Driving even a few miles into the center of a town will not only introduce your family to a place you've never seen (and one that might have other attractions) but also to weird, delectable regional foods. How about a shredded turkey sandwich at the White Turkey Drive-In in Conneaut, Ohio? Jane and Michael Stern's "Roadfood" books are the classic references, and their website includes "Roadfood Insider," a fee-based premium service that includes maps, reviews and a mobile-phone version.
Even if it's just a game of Frisbee in a local park, make sure that at least one of your stops each day gives you time to run around outside. Check out natural attractions, from state and national parks to scenic overlooks. And if you have a little extra time, try geocaching to discover hidden treasures.
Play car games, listen to audiobooks and music mixes, and talk to each other.
Seeing each other in new ways is one of the primary benefits of a road trip. So try to say yes to your kids' unexpected requests.
First Published July 8, 2012 12:00 am