Start with an amazing teenager.
I know yours is perfect and wonderful – but can he handle six hours in a car with a toddler begging for his attention? I’m talking a level of amazing here that you just don’t see in most 17-year-olds.
It helps to have the perfect road-trip baby. At least, I assume it would, but I’ve never met the perfect road-trip baby. Trev came pretty close: His first big trip was across country by rail – he was 4 months old. We could toss him in the car and go anywhere, but we were 17 years younger then, so we did a lot of our driving at night, when he was sleeping, because we didn’t need sleep.
Jilly’s not really a road-trip natural. She likes to have a schedule and she hates to be tied down, as in a stroller or a car seat.
We did road-trip training with her (and thus was born my Walk in the Park series) so she’d get more comfortable on longer drives and so we could learn the rhythm of what she could handle.
- Arrange a late checkout so we could have a leisurely breakfast and she could run around in the room or at the pool.
- Hit the road at noon – nap time. Boot it. Nap time was when we could cover the most ground.
- Stop for something – anything – a little while after she woke up. Roadside attractions were best, but rest areas were great for running around.
- Boot it some more. With Jilly awake, we had more freedom to pull over places, wander around attractions, peruse a thrift shop or whatever. Depending on the stops, the second two-hour burst could last three or four hours.
- Supper. Could be in a restaurant, or stopping to get groceries, or a few bites on the go while we checked out something neat. The point was to stop, get out, work off a little energy and – if we didn’t have a destination planned – figure out how much father we could go.
- The last stretch was often the hardest, when I was tired of driving and Jilly was tired of being in the car and Trev was tired of retrieving toys she threw into awkward places. She’d nap off and on and we’d generally get to a hotel by 10.
Follow up with the perfect spouse.
Just because you love them, just because they’re your best friend, just because you’ve been together blahblah years and have raised children together doesn’t mean you’ll be compatible on the road. Six hours a day or more in very tight quarters, then sharing a room with the kids, wrangling everyone at supper – if you’ve even managed to find a restaurant you all agree on – can break a relationship.
If you haven’t done a long trip together (I don’t mean 10 days at a resort somewhere – I mean hard-core travelling, either camping or road-tripping), consider vacation training like we did with the baby. You need to learn each other’s travel rhythms and figure out when and what you’re willing to make concessions on. You need to understand that there will come a time when you’re snipping at each other and that time might lead to all-out yelling at each other in the car, where the acoustics are great. It might mean pulling over to cry at a rest stop.
It’s okay to take time apart on a family vacation. This year, I sipped whisky in Deadwood while the others scattered. Last year I toured a Dukes of Hazzard museum while Mel and the kids went to a Ripley’s museum. Not every adventure has to be experienced by the entire family. You’ll have more fun together if you take time to have fun alone. Trust me on this one.
Know your partner and know yourself and decide what you want to do together, what things are important to you, what things you don’t mind skipping and what you will absolutely not do. Melani was determined to go The Badlands even though I didn’t really care about it – it was one of the highlights of our trip. It was important to Trev to see the Matthew Sheppard memorial in Laramie and we hunted it down even though it was getting late in the day, he had a horrible toothache, and someone else might have thought “it’s just a park bench.” I refused to drive in the Idaho mountains at night, even though it meant sitting outside a motel for several hours with a busted credit card, waiting for Mel’s sister to deposit funds into our account (thanks, Lin!).
So. Have awesome kids and a spectacular spouse. Then recognize if you’re not the type of family that can roadtrip. It’s not for everyone.