Have Car, Will Travel: Eight New Ideas For Summer Road Trips

Since the invention of the automobile, summer would not be summer in America without thousands of families striking out on a road trip.  We’ve all been there, loaded by choice, or under duress, into the back of an alligator green station wagon. The bags are tied on the top with yellow nylon rope and a cooler full of lemonade and warm bologna sandwiches is wedged between cramped siblings who are already fussing over who has more space.

Oh the joy of eight hour drives on dirt roads, counting windmills for “fun,” staying in dodgy motels with half-lit neon signs and those beds that jiggle for a quarter.  It may be torturous, but it’s a tradition we’re sure to perpetuate with the next generation.  Why do we do it?  Because the lure of the open road is romantic and she sings her siren song relentlessly.  We’re drawn to the idea of the unknown, the adventure, the spontaneity of just hopping in the car and driving.  Besides that, it’s cheap.  Of course you’ll take a road trip this summer, it goes without saying, but why not spice it up this year with some new twists on an old favorite?

Retrace a childhood journey

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Half of the romance of a road trip is in the nostalgia for long lost days, folks and journeys past.  Admit it, a road trip is always more fun ten years later in the retelling.  Why not relive one of those epic journeys? It doesn’t even have to be yours.

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Maybe your grandmother, like mine, made an epic drive from California to Lake Erie in the 1940′s.  Retrace her route. Perhaps your parents made a loop of state parks within a three state radius and it is a memory you’d like to recreate for your kids (don’t forget to invite the grandparents).  Or, maybe there’s a character in a book, or movie, who’s road trip inspired you, like Thelma and Louise… but with a different ending, of course!

>> Read about how to prepare your kids for travel

Theme Park odyssey

If your kids are less than enthusiastic about a month-long tour of historic Civil War battle sites, I’ll bet they could be persuaded to pile in the car for a Theme Park Odyssey road trip.  The premise:  visit as many different theme parks and ride as many different roller coasters as possible in the time you have.  Be creative about this! If you live in the north east and have little kids, don’t miss the idyllic Storyland in northern NH.  Cruisin’ through the mid-west?  Holiday World and Indiana Beach are local delights that lack some of the polish of the mass marketed parks but more than make up for it in small town charm.

A quick google search will turn up similar gems across the country, talk about fun dots for the kids to connect on your cross country drive!  Hint: buy a season’s pass to Six Flags and visit all of them for no additional charge.  Sneak in a historical site or two when they’re not looking.

>> Discover the world’s best roller coasters

Rent some wheels

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No one gets that excited about eight hour days crammed in the back of Dad’s Kia Sedona.  Why not rent a convertible T-bird in lipstick red?  Feel the wind in your hair and your cares float away. Hire an open topped jeep, complete with terrible back seats to bump and climb your way over dirt back roads, or the the seriously sketchy loop road around the back side of Maui, now that’s a road trip! Why not a camper? Hit the road in style, save on hotel and meal charges and camp, only with air conditioning!

Hate to drive? You could opt for wheels of a different sort and take the bus, Greyhound offers reduced children’s fares that make for very “family friendly” pricing and allow Mom and Dad to sit back, relax and enjoy the ride.

Local road trip

Among the downsides to a family road trip: long drives, weird food, lumpy beds and packing and unpacking every night. Why not take your week’s vacation and do a series of local road trips?  The idea of a “stay-cation” is becoming more and more popular.  Invest your money in your local economy and take the time to your own neck of the woods.

Pick a new destination within a 200 mile radius each day and enjoy the comforts of home every night.  Suggestions: state parks, museums, amusement parks, bike paths (ride once you get there) beaches, scenic towns, outlet malls, state capitals, quirky restaurants, sporting events or zoos.

>> Check out some great American road trips for a long weekend

The “no highways” road trip

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The name is self explanatory.  Pick a destination and go the long way; the longer, the better.  Avoid highways, but also avoid main roads if you can.  If you’re driving faster than 45 mph it’s too big of a road to qualify.  Take the sorts of roads that beg for windows rolled down, arms and toes out of windows and music turned up loud.  Since we’re avoiding fast driving, let’s avoid fast “everything else” too.  Make it a road trip rule that no food will be purchased from chain restaurants, fast food or otherwise and any grocery store stops, for picnic items, ideally, must be mom and pop joints.

Go on your own hunt for “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” as you celebrate all things small, slow and local.  This, my friends, is the real America.

Take a virtual road trip

Let’s face it: road trips are almost always more fun to dream about than they are to take.  What with pea bladders in the back seat, poor map skills in the front seat, slow traffic, flat tires, and a little too much “family togetherness,” perhaps the best road trip is the one you didn’t take.

Not enough vacation time?  Too little money?  Overcome by the ‘reality check’ look in your teenager’s eyes.  Why not spare everyone have some fun instead.  Take a road trip, every evening for a week:  get in your car, drive around the block, go back in the house and watch a classic road trip movie.  Suggestions:  Rain Man, Tommy Boy, Easy Rider, Thelma & Louise, The Motorcycle Diaries, National Lampoons Vacation, and The Straight Story.  You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll sleep in your own bed, and best of all, no one will ask the inevitable, “Are we there yet?!”

>> Check out these movies than inspire travel

“Russian Roulette” road trip

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I know, I know, just the thought of a road trip makes some of you want to put a gun to your head.  That is not what I meant!  The premise is simple:  Pack for anything and everything, get in the car and drive.  When you come to the first cross roads flip a coin, or take turns deciding, right or left?  Make the turn, drive to the next corner, repeat the process.  I promise the road will take you to unexpected places and you’ll come home with a great story.  The Russian Roulette Road Trip is a guaranteed adventure, no NRA membership required.

Follow the State Fair

If there is anything as all-American as the road trip, it’s the State Fair.  Every state has one, and they’re all unique. July and August are great months to hit the road on a quest for the perfect elephant ear, or fried-dough, or beaver tail (depending on where you live) or the quintessential cotton candy, lemon shake-up or onion blossom.  Visit the animal barns, ride the kitschy rides, attend the concerts, rife with “local color” and savor all things “American.”

If following the state fairs seems like too much driving for one road trip, scale it down and do the county fairs in your state, culminating in just your own state fair.

>> Learn about seven classic summer food festivals

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Photos by: Missus K (Cindy), Caitlinator, Shawn Econo, Dragonleek

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  • Tanya McCready said at 2011-07-13T02:40:22+0000: Some great ideas Jen, told by one of the greatest & brave travellers I know :)