May 25, 2000 -- It's time for the Great American Family Summer Road Trip and even skyrocketing gasoline prices won't discourage a nation addicted to stuffing the car with kids and gear from heading out onto the open road.
Gasoline prices have reached an all-time average high of $1.53 a gallon and experts believe prices could rise another 10 cents per gallon before the height of the summer. But record-low unemployment and rising wages are buoying American spirits. The Travel Industry Association (TIA) says it expects 237 million Americans to travel this summer, up 3 percent from last year. Most Americans surveyed by TIA say they won't be influenced by gasoline prices and the others say they'd skimp on other travel necessities (food and lodging, for example) before curtailing their road trips.
Secure in the knowledge that the Great American Road Trip will continue to be the centerpiece of the family summer, the obvious question arises: How can you make them more fun, less stressful and less likely to dissolve into a screaming match in the parking lot of a fast-food restaurant?
Here are five tips guaranteed to soothe the generations, make your vacation a happy excursion and redefine the entire concept of the family road trip.
1. RENT A BETTER VEHICLE
Let's face it: a mid-sized family sedan isn't exactly the best vehicle for a cross-country jaunt or a long ride to the theme park in the next state. The solution: Rent a bigger, better vehicle. All the major rental firms have increased their supplies of minivans and sport-utility vehicles this summer. Advantage Rent-a-Car, for example, offers seven categories of large-size vehicles, everything from a four-passenger, two-suitcase model to vans that accommodate as many as 15 passengers. Better still, all the rental companies now offer detailed information and photographs on their Web sites. That makes it easier to reserve exactly the size and type of vehicle you need. Best of all, Hertz is offering American Automobile Association members an extra 10 percent off weekly rates on all of its specialty vehicles. (The promotion code is #909521.)
2. GET BETTER DIRECTIONS
Nothing ruins a summer road trip faster than a blockheaded driver or arrogant navigator who can't follow directions, then can't admit he or she made a mistake. May I humbly suggest that Mapquest offers nearly foolproof directions? You can get point-to-point directions to virtually anywhere in the United States, then get printer-friendly maps and turn-by-turn instructions. Do your planning at Mapquest.com before you depart. You'll be surprised how many road trips it can save.
3. GET BETTER KIDS' STUFF
As any experienced summer road warrior knows, kids can't wait to get on the road. Then they can't wait to know when the drive is over. Prepare for the inevitable "Are we there yet?" syndrome by stocking your vehicle with plenty of their favorite toys, games, snacks and other diversions. Can't decide what to bring? Surf to a Web site called Survive the Drive. It rents and sells just about anything your kids' hearts desire: TV/VCR units and movies; coolers filled with beverages and snack food; activity kits; game bags stuffed with travel, electronic and magnetic games; and even Nintendo 64 units.
4. PLAN BETTER DRIVING SHIFTS
Long road trips with kids can be stressful. Long, stressful drives cause fatigue. And fatigued drivers are much more likely to be in car accidents. That's the conclusion of researchers from the Highway Safety Research Center at the University of North Carolina. Symptoms of fatigued drivers: sleeping less than six hours a night and driving from midnight to 6 a.m. How do you avoid road fatigue? Get a solid eight hours of sleep each night--after all, you are on vacation!--and divide the driving among the adults. In fact, try to limit your family's driving to daylight hours and take a break every three or four hours.
5. PLAN BETTER ADULT ACTIVITIES
Even the most patient parents need some time away from the kids on a summer road trip. So plan a few adult-only diversions. Most hotels and motels can arrange for baby-sitting with advance notice. Make arrangements to do so, then use the evening to indulge in a romantic dinner or other grown-up activity. And many resorts offer "kid's clubs" where children will be entertained during the day while you escape for a massage, a round of golf or tennis or even a visit to a museum. And remember: This is your vacation, too. Don't feel guilty when you carve out some time for yourselves.