“Everybody in the car. Boat leaves in two minutes… or perhaps you don’t want to the see the second largest ball of twine on the face of the earth, which is only four, short hours away.” – CLARK GRISWOLD
Planning a getaway this year? You’re not alone.
According to AAA, an estimated 90 million Americans plan to take a family vacation, with more than half opting to hit the highways in the time-honored road trip.
Whether you love or hate ’em, their convenience and affordability make road trips the No. 1 choice for family vacations. And summer is far and away the most popular time to go.
If your summer plans include packing the car and heading to Walley World, you might want to keep these tips in mind so your next road trip doesn’t turn into a Griswold family vacation.
Road Trip Readiness Adventure and spontaneity play a big part in any classic road trip, but unforeseen mishaps like breakdowns and accidents can, and often do, ruin vacations.
To help prevent and deal with the unexpected, Amy Parmenter, Greater Hartford AAA’s public and government affairs manager, recommends being prepared.
“Nobody plans to break down, yet every summer AAA responds to tens of thousands of members who are stranded by the side of the road,” she said.
Though mechanical issues can’t always be prevented, Parmenter suggests that before embarking on a long-distance trip, ensure that your vehicle is road-ready.
“Basic maintenance, like having tires, battery, oil checked before you hit the road would certainly be in everyone’s best interest.”
She also recommends packing a summer emergency kit to have on hand in the event of an unanticipated incident. “If you’re stranded by the side of the road — especially if you’ve run out of gas, or something where you can’t run the air conditioner — you’re really putting everyone at risk.”
The kit should include a fully charged cellphone and charger, flashlight with extra batteries, flare or other emergency beacon, as well as food and water in case assistance isn’t readily available or you’re traveling with children or seniors. Packing an extra block charger for cellphones also can be useful, so you can call for help in any emergency situation.
Mindful planning is also essential to a successful road trip, and setting a budget is the best place to start. “Figure out, what are my boundaries, what are my parameters, and then see how you can make the most of that budget,” said Parmenter.
With gas prices expected to rise to their highest rates since 2014, a helpful tool in budgeting how much fuel you’ll likely use during your trip is the AAA Gas Cost Calculator (gasprices.aaa.com/aaa-gas-cost-calculator).
Not only does the tool offer information on fuel consumption based on distance and current prices, but it also takes into account the make, model and year of your vehicle in estimating the overall cost of fuel; one of the biggest expenses of the trip.
It’s Supposed To Be Fun
One of the most common mistakes roadtrippers make is trying to cram too much into a short amount of time, said Mark Sedenquist, editor and publisher of the website RoadTrip America (roadtripamerica.com).
“The thing that’s really important with family road trips is to realize that it’s supposed to be a vacation. It’s not supposed to be a job; it’s not a marathon.”
With limited time to get to your destination and fit everything in that you want to do, it’s easy to get caught up in the urgency of getting there (cough, men), instead of slowing down to enjoy the process of getting there, which can often be the best part of the trip.
“If you do a cruise or Disneyland, there’s different excitement in those. It’s pretty controlled, you know what’s going to happen,” Sedenquist said. “But on a road trip, you never actually know. Things happen. So there’s a sense of adventure and a willingness to embrace whatever comes.”
To make the most of it, he recommends getting everyone on the trip involved in the planning and execution. And to keep the kids engaged, Sedenquist suggests assigning them navigation duties, so that each day a different family member sits in front with the driver and is allowed to call the shots based on the established plan and route.
“It’s really important that kids feel like they’re involved in the process,” he said, adding that the more their ideas and wishes are incorporated into the trip, the more enjoyable it will be for everyone.
He also recommends taking frequent breaks, including stops at local parks to let kids blow off steam on a playground, as well as leaving the hotel or campground later in the morning instead of hitting the road at the crack of dawn.
“Let the kids sleep in, let them go to the pool for a couple hours,” said Sedenquist. “It’s supposed to be fun.”
Finally, he suggests using the hours spent on the road to connect as a family.
“One of the best parts about being on a road trip is that you have an enforced way of the family being together that you don’t have when you live at home,” he said. “It gives us great time to introduce family lore, teach your kids songs that you grew up with and have people sing, tell jokes and that sort of stuff that isn’t a part of life as much as it used to be.”
Going to a national park? Of course you are. In the last couple of years, more than 331 million people have visited America’s 417 national parks (including monuments and historical sites), according to National Park Service spokesperson Kathy Kupper.
“They are an extremely popular destination and that’s great; we want everybody to come out and experience our national parks,” she said.
But as the popularity of national parks continues to increase, so do crowds, traffic and competition for places to stay. If your goal is to stay at a lodge within one of the most visited parks like the Grand Canyon or Yosemite, Kupper recommends making reservations up to 12 months in advance, depending on the park (nationalparkreservations.com).
Even if the place where you hope to stay is fully booked, she suggests continuing to check, because there are occasional last-minute cancellations. If you are can’t find lodging in the heart of the park you plan to visit, Kupper suggests trying other, less-frequented areas.
“When you go to one of the large destination parks, oftentimes there might be another section of the park that isn’t as highly visited where you can get lodging, and then go back and forth from there.”
Gateway communities offer additional lodging as well, she added. “Some of them are literally right at the doorstep, and others you have to enter the park and then drive a little bit.”
For road trips that include stops at several parks, an America the Beautiful Annual Pass can be a worthwhile investment.
At $80, the pass admits up to four adults (in a non-commercial vehicle) into more than 2,000 federal recreation sites where admission is charged (children 15 and under are free), and they are good for a full year.
The passes can be purchased online (store.usgs.gov/pass/index.html), as well as at many of the recreational sites and national parks, and participating REI stores (call or order ahead to ensure availability).
An added perk available through the National Park Service is the Junior Ranger Program (nps.gov/kids/jrRangers.cfm).
Available at most of the parks, the program provides free booklets to kids that are filled with activities to complete in that specific park.
“At the end the child gets a free badge and usually is sworn in by the ranger,” Kupper said.
To avoid heavy crowds at the most popular national parks, she recommends visiting during the shoulder seasons when possible, or choosing to explore some of the lesser known parks and destinations.
“Every national park was set aside either by the president or Congress for either its history or its beauty , and they are all well worth a visit,” Kupper said.
“And you’ll still stand in awe at the features of the park.”