A road trip can kill a relationship. Some couples simply can’t travel together. It means giving each other undivided attention. It means talking about completely inane topics for much longer than usual. It means noticing each other’s worst habits, amplified tenfold by the confined space. It means sharing the same air and not being able to get away from each other for a minute. It means smelling your partner for hours on end.
I’m proud of the fact that my husband and I are good travelers together. In fact, we love road trips and prefer them to flying. This is partially a side-effect of our love of camping and canoeing, which requires us to bring lots of equipment with us that’s unsuitable for air travel. And it’s partially because I was afraid to fly until 2007. But it’s also because we’re simply good at it as a couple. We may do other things poorly, but we have a great travel rhythm that makes us feel more connected than during our day-to-day married life.
Our first few trips as a couple were relatively short – up to Northern areas of Michigan where we could camp or canoe. At most, our trips were around six hours one way, eight if you count when we drove to Pictured Rocks in the Upper Penninsula. Nothing earth shattering, but enough to know we could tolerate each other in the car. Eventually, we would cover most of the United States together.
On our honeymoon, we drove down to Key West, Florida. (Driving to Florida is no big deal – but driving through the keys at 35 miles an hour the whole way is something else altogether.) For our second anniversary, we drove from our home in Michigan to Maine, visiting most of the northern eastern coasts states in the same trip. Our third anniversary, we’ve drove to New Orleans, LA. Sometime between our fourth and sixth anniversaries, we also found time to drive to the east coast again, as well as to West Virginia. Last June, we both took a month long sabbatical from our jobs, flew to Las Vegas, NV, and then rented a car to drive home, enjoying as many states and landmarks as possible on the way. Together, we’ve visited 39 states!
Recently, I started to think about our travel relationship and what makes it so different from our usual life and why we seem to be so good at it. Here’s what I see as our road trip secrets:
- We avoid arguing. Seems simple, but both of us bite our tongues when it comes to a quick retort or a needling comment when on a road trip. At home, you can walk away and cool off, but there’s none of that in the car and we both respect that.
- We take turns. Sure, I’m a girl. But that doesn’t mean my husband has to drive all the time. We know too many older couples where the man is the master of the automobile! One tired driver and one hyper-awake passenger doesn’t make for a nice night in the hotel, so each morning, we figure out how long we’ll be driving that day and then figure out how many hours that means for each of us and how many shifts.
- We take turns OFTEN. We used to take longer driving shifts – four hours each before we traded off. We found that 4 hours of driving is simply too long. It’s too long for the driver to drive, and too long for the rider to sleep or be bored. Now we do 2 hour shifts. It does mean we stop more often, but it also means we are less cramped and sore when we finally reach our destination. Being somewhat refreshed and less achy means we can enjoy a little time when we arrive, rather than just collapsing at the hotel.
- We plan for each other's weaknesses. I don’t like to drive in the dark. My hubby doesn’t like to drive after lunch. (He gets sleepy and likes his nap.) I can’t drive over bridges. Knowing these things about each other, and planning for them as if they are given facts and nothing to debate, relieves unnecessary road stress. As a loose rule, I usually take the first morning shift. Hubby takes the second. We stop for lunch. Then it’s my turn while hubby naps. And then it’s his turn while I nap. If I take the first shift, it means I usually don’t end up being the last shift (i.e., driving at night). If we know a big bridge is in our future, we’ll swap shifts if necessary.
- We try not to overdo. It does depend on where we are going and how long we have to get there, but when possible, we try not to drive more than eight hours in a day. And if we’re doing eight hours, we make sure we have plenty of stops that involve a little walking. We love pretty rest stops with picnic tables and places to shake out our legs a little.
- We know our roles. The co-pilot is the driver’s bitch. It’s a rule. If we’re eating lunch while driving, the co-pilot unwraps the driver’s food, worries about handing napkins and drinks, adjusts the radio station to the driver’s liking (we LOVE satellite radio, especially in the mountains and rural areas), finds CDs the driver wants to listen to, reads maps, programs the GPS, finds points of interest in the little rest stop travel books and reads interesting tidbits to the driver, gives awkward shoulder massages and good hand massages, fetches sweatshirts for the driver when he or she gets cold, and whatever else necessary to keep the driver focused and pampered. The driver’s role is to not get lost, make stop decisions related to gas and potty breaks, and keeps an eye on the time. The only exceptions to these roles are during naptime. Naptime is necessary for a peaceful ride, and both passengers get one.
- We don't overplan. Sounds like we do, but we really don’t. We usually know where we are going and have a check-in time at a hotel for our final destination. So, if we’re driving to California, we have a check-in time and aim to get there by that date and time. But we usually don’t book hotels on the way there. And we don’t book hotels on the way back, unless we are taking a side trip on the way home and wish to stop somewhere special. For example, on the way home from Las Vegas, we knew we wanted to stay in Yellowstone, and so made arrangements at the Old Faithful Inn because accommodations in Yellowstone National Park fill up in advance. Generally, we try to enjoy as much as possible wherever we’re going, so we always stop at the Welcome Centers and tourist bureaus when we enter a new state and really depend on travel guides we pick up at them to find hotel coupons and points of interest.
- We don't underplan. We do have lives, and we have to return to them by a certain date. So we can’t be completely free-spirited when traveling. We have to allow enough time to get home so we’re not rushing and breaking rule #5. Also, if there are certain things we want to accomplish, we do plan for them. For example, in driving to Maine, we knew we wanted to take a side trip and spend a few days in Salem, MA for Halloween. So we did book hotels in ME and MA.
- We avoid road games. My hubby HATES road games, like “I Spy” and silly license plate games. He especially hates the “I’m going to the grocery store to buy…” game and the other one where you have to come up with a word that starts with the letter the last word ended with. For a long time, he played these games because I liked them and they passed the time. Eventually, I learned that I wasn’t doing myself any favors in the long run. I might have the momentary pleasure of the game, but he’d hold it against me for the rest of the trip.
- We bring food. We eat better on a road trip than at any other time. Road trips are not the time for dieting. At the same time, they’re not the time to load up on potato chips and soft drinks. So we plan ahead. We like to make our own homemade jerky and trail mixes. We often bring a cooler with us filled with bottled water, juice, and meats and cheeses. Sometimes, we wait until we get where we’re going and then do a little shopping to stock the car. Either way, we don’t rely on fast food places and restaurants. They are hard to find when you’re two-tracking without a map or when you’re driving through Alabama hoping for a gas station close to the highway.
- We avoid serious topics. The road trip is not the time to bring up something that has been bothering you or to point out something you hate about your partner that you’ve never noticed until just that moment. We avoid talking about our families or about our jobs. Vacation is all about us. We talk about the trip itself and keep ourselves in the moment.
- We are considerate. We watch each other for tiredness. We take turns picking what we’ll do that day. We’ll change things up if something isn’t working. For example, if I’m super tired one morning, hubby will go to the hotel’s continental breakfast and bring something back for me. He’s not one to insist that if I want breakfast, I’ll get my butt out of bed. If I feel like taking a swim in the lake or the hotel pool and hubby doesn’t feel like it, I’ll go by myself. Neither of us deny ourselves what we feel like doing and we don’t guilt the other person into doing our thing in the spirit of being on vacation.
- We know what we like. When camping, we know we like two-tracking. My hubby loves to find trails with the jeep and to kick it into 4-wheel drive whenever he can. He adores mud puddles. When staying at a hotel, we know a pool is one of my requirements! When we get where we’re going, we know we both like lighthouses and aquariums. Conversely, we also know what we don’t like. Hubby hates guided tours, especially the really touristy ones. (Salem, MA is full of these around Halloween). I hate campgrounds without outhouses. We both hate old hotels with radiators for heat, so avoid places that advertise themselves with words like “quaint”.
- We treat ourselves. If it’s an interesting place, or a place we’ve never been, we usually get souvenirs for family. But we always make sure to get something for ourselves to remember the trip. We consider souvenirs part of the trip’s expense, and plan to buy them. That way, there isn’t a lot of complaining about spending too much money on the actual trip. We also try not to get touristy crap. Touristy crap includes shot glasses, postcards, spoons, or random things that contain the visiting location’s name. We prefer random items that speak to us, that will remind us of the specific trip, and are something we’ll want to display. Favorite artifacts from our trips include the wall sconces from the roadside in Key Largo, the horse hair vase from Arizona, and seashells from each beach we’ve visited.
- We keep track. We don’t really keep track of expenses as we go, unless we’re on a tight budget. However, we do save receipts (as well as brochures and maps) to compile and calculate when we get home. As a result, we have a general idea of how much each road trip has cost us and know what places to avoid returning to in the future. (San Diego is a good example. We spent more there than any other destination, so if we ever return, we know now to set a budget before we go and stick to it!)
- We Recap. On the way home, we always talk about each place we've been on the trip and ask each other our favorite parts. Sometimes we use the brochures and travel guides we've collected to spark our memories. The recap helps us retain what we did and also helps us to plan future trips!
There you have it. Our road trip rules and secrets. Most of it is probably pretty self-explanatory and intuitive when on a road trip. And yet, somehow, I often hear friends tell me they don’t know how we do it and how they can’t stand being in the car with their spouses for longer than a trip out for dinner. So maybe these really are secrets. I hope the sharing will make your next road trip be that rhythmic, wonderful dance I know it can be!