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How to know if a road trip is right for your family

Road trip photo

Road trip photo (Credit: Newsday photo / Valerie Kellogg)

My husband and I just returned from taking our 9-year-old son on a 4,200-mile road trip.

And a good time was had by all -- really.

The round-trip trek to Dallas, where my in-laws live, is just the latest cross-country excursion we’ve taken by car over the years. We got married on a 28-day road trip to California at an Elvis chapel in Vegas. The very first family road trip took us to Chicago when Harrison was 2. Although he was not yet talking, we know he had a wonderful time, not in spite of but because of the 12 hours it took to get there and the 12 hours it took to get back.

I am proud to have driven through 44 states. For me, it’s a badge of honor. Around nearly every turn of highway or byway, this country offers surprises I feel blessed to have discovered on my own or as a family.

Harrison really has the bug now. He wants to see Mount Rushmore, take in the Colorado Rockies and visit a border town in Texas, among many other things. He is a little jealous that my husband and I have been so many places already, realizing he has a lot of catching up to do.

When we regale friends, family and acquaintances with stories about our trips — looking for alligators in the South Carolina Bayou, escaping tornadoes in the Nebraska plains, stopping to see the world’s largest rocking chair in Missouri — even those who cringe at the idea of being in the car longer than a ride to the supermarket get inspired at least for a second. I always encourage them to try it, believing it’s something every American should do at least once.

To that end, here is this road warrior’s take on how to tell whether you and your family have the right constitution for the ultimate American family vacation:

-If you can see yourself eating fast food three times a day for several days in a row, that’s a positive. It’s only temporary, you must remember. It is very hard outside America’s cities to find healthy food, let alone vegetables. It was most stark for me when we drove through the Midwest’s miles and miles of corn fields but when we stopped to eat at sit-down restaurants could find canned corn at best. Try to make the healthiest choices when you can (a salad at McDonald’s as opposed to the Big Mac), and incorporate greens and fruit at fast food eateries, hotel breakfasts and truck stops whenever they are available. If there’s room in the car, pack snacks. If you have the energy, wherewithal and time, shop at supermarkets along the way and book efficiencies so that you can cook the food yourself or choose overnight stops based on where restaurants are located that serve wholesome food.

-If you like each other’s company, you’ll likely enjoy the ride. My husband and I still enjoy one another’s wicked sense of humor, and our son is a chromosomal testament to that chemistry. Laughter really does help to make a trip easier, period. Roadside signs make great fodder, as do customs that seem outrageously foreign to us. This is not to say fighting won’t occur. Ask my husband about what happens when we take mountain roads somewhere and he’s behind the wheel.

-If you have stamina, this is good. You won’t get the sleep or rest you might otherwise require, and there’s a lot of packing and unpacking of the car to be done, as well as cleaning out of trash like coffee cups and food tins each time you make a stop. But for those who love road trips, the trade-off is worth it. Again, it’s temporary.

-If you are flexible, this is very, very good. Bad weather, roadwork, traffic, car problems and added or longer-than-expected stops are par for the course. Being able to access the Web anywhere on your smartphone makes it easier to adjust to some of those delays (think Priceline or Yelp when you need to find a decent hotel or a good restaurant in a place you hadn’t expected to stay that night).

-If your child cannot entertain herself, this is a great opportunity for her to learn. I often observe families that limit their activities because they don’t think their kids can handle it. To me, it robs the children of the opportunity to grow as people. If you don’t take them to a grown-up restaurant when they are young, how are they to learn how to behave properly? Likewise, if a child needs an iPad to entertain himself in the car when the world is unfolding outside his backseat window, what’s the point? Take it away from him until later, even if he whines. You’re helping him enjoy the journey — and teaching him important life lessons along the way.

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