Why Road Trips are Better Now Than When You Were a Kid


Road tripping, then and now. (Illustration: Erik Mace)

I’ve recently become obsessed with road trips. Face it — with low gas prices and astronomical airplane costs, road trips are the way to go. Except that every mom I know dreads them. Because we remember road trips in the 70s, in the way back of a Buick station wagon. Yes, as a kid growing up in Texas, at least once a year I suffered with my two siblings as we crossed the state that never ended. Now, as the mother of two teens, I’m the one in the driver’s seat, and I realize how much my parents suffered.

These days, on road trips, kids in the backseat play on iPads, trying to kill birds or flying pigs. Back then, kids played games like I Spy.

Now, parents hit a button to pull up GPS directions or OnStar assistance. Back then, parents hit the glove box for a map folded 16 ways from Sunday and argued about which route to take.

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The author’s teeny weeny trailer, hooked up to the Yukon. (Photo: Lisa McElroy)

I recently drove my 16-year-old daughter and her best friend from Philadelphia to Huntsville, Alabama, and back. Talk about a road trip — and yes, I’m a brave mom, and yes, I’m still here to tell the tale. But here’s what I learned: these days, road trips rock, especially when you’re in a GMC Yukon Denali, the 2015 version of my family’s three-row, wood-paneled, Buick station wagon. At the end of a modern-day road trip, you will still like your kids, and they will still like you. It’s a family travel miracle.

Considering a road trip, but too traumatized by your childhood experiences to want to take the plunge? Well, I’m here to tell you that we’re living in a whole new world of road tripping.

Here’s why.

1. The kids truly have a separate space.

I can still remember fighting with my siblings — not to mention my parents — over who got to spin the dial on the radio, who got to adjust the air. My father would make John Denver’s voice come out of the single car speaker, and we’d all have to listen to “Country Roads” for the 97th time. Parents conducted. Kids sang along. Parents got the cool air. Kids sweated their butts off. Those were the road trip rules.


The spacious backseat of the Yukon. (Photo: GMC)

Nowadays, in a truck like the Yukon, the kids can stream their own audio in the back, and you can listen to “Country Roads” in the front (come on, you know it’s a road trip must). You can activate the cooled seats in the front, and the kids can blast air at 60 degrees in the back. It’s like two separate road trips in one.

2. You can still “make good time.”

Remember your parents dragging you out of bed at 4 a.m. to pile into the car? They told you to pee now or forever hold your peace. That was back when motors weren’t as powerful, rest stops were well off the highway, and the oil crisis forced states to reduce speed limits to 55 mph. If you wanted to make good time to the Grand Canyon, a la the Brady Bunch, you had to drive, and drive, and drive, and stop only when the car’s tank was bone dry.

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What’s that in the rear-view mirror? (Photo: Lisa McElroy)

Nowadays, you can practically fly down the road, even in a giant truck like the Yukon, even pulling a trailer like I was. More than 400 horses are powering that engine. That’s a heck of a lot more than what my mom’s Buick wagon had in 1975. Still, a cautionary tale: Alabama po-po are looking for you. I was pulled over for going 70 in a 50 mph zone near Huntsville. It felt like 30. Keep your eye on the speedometer — as much as you like flying, you won’t like returning to Alabama to appear in court.

3. No child today will ever learn to fold a map.

I look back at my 1970s parents, and I marvel at their ingenuity. Getting the map refolded just so was a game for us. First kid to get all the creases right? She got a Coke (no cupholder to put it in, but that’s what your little sister was for). Same thing with reading road signs — from the time I was 3 or 4, I could look for the letter “H” for “Houston” or “O” for “Oklahoma.”

And spotting the golden arches? You got the golden ticket. In 2015, all you need is OnStar. Seriously. I am now an OnStar addict. Available on all GM cars, pressing a handy blue button will get you turn-by-turn directions (yes, even for an 800-mile road trip), the location of the next Chipotle along your route, a coupon for the local crafts store, or a recommendation for a motel or campground for the night. All you have to do is ask. On our two week-road trip, I asked about 79 times. On every single button press, I was greeted politely by a friendly, helpful representative. That’s service.

4. An accident may be inconvenient, but there’s help available.

I still remember being stranded around 1974 in some town where tumbleweeds still rolled down the street, all because my dad had hit a pole or something and now steam was coming out of the hood of the car (and no, my dad wasn’t sure which button to push to open the hood, so we kids counted tumbleweeds for a few hours until a stranger drove by).

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The author, in an old station wagon and feeling like her mom did in the 70s. (Photo: Lisa McElroy)

Today, pretty much every car brand offers 24-hour roadside assistance. If your car doesn’t offer the service, sign up for AAA. Seriously. It’s the best hundred or so bucks you can ever spend. Or (the addict speaks again), get a car with OnStar. Even if you’re in a coma in your car, the OnStar folks know where you are, know whether your airbags deployed, even, and can send help right to you. I was so fascinated by this possibility that, yes (the travel writer geek in me comes out), I went to OnStar headquarters in Detroit to see their spaceship-like control room. There are maps that light up for every single button push. Mind-blowing.

5. Your gas efficiency is out of this world.

Sure, that early 70s oil crisis imprinted itself on my brain. Still, I remember stopping what seemed like every two hours to fill up the GM Buick’s tank. In the 2015 GM? We barely stopped at all. The girls got to be afraid I was going to make them try to pee in a Pepsi bottle. And at the end of a 1,600-mile, two-week adventure, I’d spent under $300 on gas. That’s about half of what one round-trip airline ticket between Huntsville and Philadelphia would cost.

6. Your family will bond, not break.


Teen road trippers. (Photo: Lisa McElroy)

You know the lie that the Brady Bunch told? You can pack mom and dad and six kids and Tiger and Alice, all into a vehicle. You can drive 500 miles and sing show tunes. You can camp along the way. And you can come out liking each other in the end. No way. If you cram a bunch of people into a car and make them drive and sweat and burp and play license plate games for days together, they are going to hate each other at the end of the trip. I don’t care how nice they are. Road trips — at least in their 1970s carnation — were a form of torture. I’m a firm believer that space brings a family together, it doesn’t push people apart.

So in a large, comfortable, zoned vehicle like the Yukon? Everyone can spread out, everyone can bring 32 stuffed animals, everyone can listen to her own music, everyone can burp in peace, and everyone will be alive when you get home.

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