A driving partner, a couple of kids, the family car, and an endless stream of road ahead of you: It’s either Dante’s Inferno or the best thing ever.
Me? I love a road trip. Where we are going never matters; and the longer it takes to get there the better. As a kid my brothers and I (and sometimes a gaggle of cousins, too) were piled into cars and vans to see Canada and the United States. In university, I’d escape Ottawa winters with trips to Florida or Georgia knowing I could rent a car for a few days and see a new-to-me part of the world. It’s a love affair I’m happily passing down to my two boys, but I know not all families feel the same way.
I’ve heard the horror stories: Hours on end spent in a stuffy car desperately trying to get to some specific event (a wedding, a theme park) on time with a constant chorus of “Are we there yet?” emanating from the backseat.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
There are some key things you can do to make your next family road trip your best ever. Here are five to get you started:
1. Give yourself time: Need to get somewhere in a hurry? Take a plane. The very act of driving means you have to slow down–and that’s a good thing. Road trips are like a good book; if ever the journey was more important than the destination, this is it. Take the time you need to enjoy it.
2. Let your kids see the trip through their own eyes: One of the things I remember most about the family road trips of my youth is my parents constantly telling us to look out the window. “Are you kids seeing this?!” I didn’t make much of it until I caught myself doing the same thing as we made our way across the constantly changing landscape of New Zealand a few summers ago. The déjà vu moment caused a light bulb to go off: Kids don’t appreciate the same things as adults (nor should they). Their focus, as mine once was, is likely to center on what’s happening inside the car. I can’t remember the route we took on a Connecticut vacation when I was a kid, but I remember how happy and relaxed my parents seemed, the way my dad seemed to control the traffic lights (a trick I play with my own kids), and my parents grooving along to Earth Wind and Fire in the front seat. Your kids will have plenty of time to admire the scenery; let them make their own memories.
3. Embrace the chance to share: My favorite thing about a family road trip is all the together time. Unlike a plane or train, a car is like a traveling cocoon, creating the opportunity for families to bond in a way we rarely do in our everyday lives. There’s more hand-holding, more story-telling, more mid-day naps. There’s something about all that time in an enclosed space that gets kids to open up, too. Even when we aren’t traveling, some of our best parent-kid conversations happen in the car. A road trip allows those exchanges to turn into run-on conversations that can go from happy and light to deep and dark and back again between rest stops. Weeks ago as we drove to Myrtle Beach, passing cotton fields led to a discussion about slavery in the U.S. On that same trip we shared knock-knock jokes and favorite memories from past trips. Big, important conversations and silly, giggly, trite ones–way too much for the five-minute drive to music lessons at home.
4. Embrace the chance to eavesdrop: Drive far enough and long enough and the kids run out of superficial things to say. We learned about a bully at school–and how the boys were handling it–as they talked amongst themselves in the backseat. We keep up with their latest interests (information that will help us plan more road trips!) thanks to those overheard conversations, too. As minutes turn into hours in the car, our kids casually share things that they weren’t necessarily hiding from us but simply hadn’t thought to say. Up in front, my husband Ish and I have learned to keep our mouths shut and our ears open as we drive, exchanging knowing looks and raised eyebrows while making mental notes for later discussions.
And make no mistake: The kids are listening, too. They’re back there figuring out who their parents are and how we got that way. Stories you overhear as a kid shape your understanding of your family history, and your sense of self. It’s why my kids, the same ones who are often too bogged down with schoolwork or desperate to play with their pals to give me a full report of their day, were fighting off the urge to nap on our most recent adventure until Ish and I promised we wouldn’t say too much until they woke up.
5. Find your road-trip groove: Each journey offers an opportunity to define and refine your family’s road-trip personality. For example, I love to drive, but on road trips I act as chief navigator and radio-station finder. The control freak in me makes it difficult to follow Ish’s directions, so we limit the possibility of an argument (and a left turn into a river) by assuming roles that play to our strengths in a group setting. We’ve also learned to recognize each other’s needs–and limits. Car picking up speed? The driver probably needs a break. Backseat giggling at fever pitch? Kids are punch drunk and a stop to stretch the legs is in order.
Road trips are where you learn that a McDonald’s bathroom is better than a gas station one even if you can’t get out without purchasing fries, that having a bag of coins in the local currency is always a good decision, and that, no matter how crazy they might make you, you want to get in the car with your family members for another adventure as soon as humanly possible.
Heather Greenwood Davis, husband Ish, and sons Ethan and Cameron were recognized as Travelers of the Year by Traveler magazine in 2012. Find highlights from their adventures on globetrottingmama.com. Follow Heather on Twitter @GreenwoodDavis.