You’ve no doubt thought of everything. The enormous suitcase that brained you when it slid from the closet is now nestled in the trunk, well-packed with your family’s wardrobe for the week. Your kids have enough snacks to forestall whining for days if necessary. You spent the morning neatly stapling computer-generated directions for each leg of your trip. And if you drive at high speeds — with the flow of traffic, of course — you’ll make the eight-hour drive in excellent time. So what are you missing? Well, for starters, you’ve already made several mistakes that could turn your family car trip into a disaster.
Mistake #1: Packing the wrong bag
When you’re driving, there’s no advantage to consolidating your family’s clothes in that indestructible bag you use for flying. Think nylon or canvas duffel bags — 24 to 30 inches long — one for each person’s things. You’ll be carting more bags around, but you’ll be able to put your hands on everything more quickly. Plus, repacking the trunk will be easier, especially if you’re fitting small bags around a stroller and all those jugs of laundry detergent you bought.
Mistake #2: Altering meal times
A common road-trip blunder is disrupting your family’s normal meal schedule. If you don’t hit the road until late morning, there’s a temptation to drive through lunch and snack your way to dinner. You know your kids will have no restraint when it comes to snacks, and neither will you. Plus, if after hours of gorging you make a spontaneous lunch stop, you’ll be wolfing down food while your kids complain about not being hungry. And if lunch is thrown off, you’ll all be out of synch by dinner. By evening, your kids will be starving after both refusing to eat lunch and losing interest in the car snacks, and if it’s later than you usually eat, dinner will be a miserable whinefest. Solution: Keep it simple and eat all your meals at the usual times.
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Mistake #3: Pacing the day badly
Nothing will sour a car trip faster than hitting the road at the wrong time. It’s all-too-tempting to leave work at 4 or 5 p.m. on a Friday to get on the road for a weekend getaway. The good thing about this is that, regardless of their ages, your kids will immediately slide into comatose naps. The bad thing is that when you pull into your destination at 8 p.m. they’ll be up, all night. A different tactic, hitting the road after 9 p.m. so that your kids will fall asleep and stay asleep works wonderfully — until you stop a few hours later. If they don’t come to immediately, chances are they’ll be wide awake by the time you’ve carried them inside. Best bet: Sacrifice the evening escape and leave the following morning (or early enough the next afternoon so that a nap won’t be disruptive) and ensure you’re off the road for the day by dinnertime.
Mistake #4: Denying you could get lost
Computer-generated directions are nifty, but accurate to a fault; one wrong turn and they’re next to useless. Bring a real road map. Also, invest in a portable GPS device or request one for your rental ($10 or less daily fee) — Hertz and Avis fleets are well-equipped with them. The first time a GPS generates an accurate course correction is the first time it pays for itself. Still, GPS isn’t perfect. Like computer algorithms and your well-meaning friend’s husband, they can overcomplicate directions and, at times, fail to identify streets. So pack the map no matter what.
Mistake #5: Driving like an idiot
We do stupid things on vacation that we don’t do at home: skydiving, paying retail, eating organ meat we can’t identify, and, curiously, driving more cavalierly than we normally do. This is a mistake no matter who’s in the car, but the fact that the stakes are higher when you’re driving with your family can’t be overstated. One of the more perplexing things we do on the road is break traffic laws, making illegal turns or speeding down the highway because we’re keeping up with the flow of traffic. Sure, you can get away with it, and if you’re a good driver you might rationalize the risk to your family. But don’t underestimate the risk of being pulled over. Any leniency you might have been hoping for from that approaching highway patrolman will evaporate when he sees you have kids in the back.
Mistake #6: Not setting a budget for the little things
It’s puzzling that many of us tirelessly research airfares, hotels, car rentals, and online coupon codes with the hope of saving a few dollars, yet when it comes to buying incidentals on the road, we’re essentially careless. You wouldn’t dream of giving your second grader a $50 weekly allowance at home. But for a week on the road, if you dare consider the sum of a pack of sour candies here, a souvenir pen there, a keychain for her BFF over in that store, and the other little things for which you’re constantly breaking $5 bills, giving each kid a $50 allowance with a “once you spend it it’s gone” proviso can end up being a good deal. A debit scenario works equally well for grown-ups, too.
Mistake #7: Forgetting that the journey is the destination
If your goal is to get from point A to point B as quickly as possible, you probably shouldn’t be traveling by car. One of the benefits of road trips is that you can pull over at the farm rather than give the kids a blurry glimpse of a cow; eat the best steak and eggs of your life at that nondescript roadside diner; and take that throwaway snapshot over by the guardrail that ends up being the quintessential photo of you and your daughter. Hundreds of potentially undiscovered moments are around the next corner, which is why treating a drive as a means to an end rather than as part of your journey is the biggest mistake of all.
Paul Eisenberg, a Fodor’s editorial director and father of three, has packed the wrong bag, hit the road at all the wrong times, overspent on needless souvenirs and, certainly, driven like an idiot.