family travel

On road trips with my children, I usually stop at the same old fast food places.  I know good stopping places in Cambridge, Zanesville and Columbus, Ohio.  On the Indiana-to-home run, I tend to stop in Morgantown (voted #1 party university location again this year) and in Cambridge, Maryland.

This trip, we actually tried something new.  Our Indiana friend, Shawn, worked at Steak & Shake during his college years.  He took my son to a Steak & Shake, and now we’re hooked.  The shakes involve real ice cream and real maraschino cherries – worth big points, if you ask my children. Steak & Shake offers chicken sandwiches, even a chicken melt, which helps the Anti-Beef Parental Units (that’s me).  Kids’ meals involve food, not silly toys.  I’m onboard.

When we drive on weekdays, we also enjoy sampling lunch buffets – nearly every strip mall has a Chinese restaurant, and there’s always Pizza Hut – instead of relying on All Things Clown and King.  We can eat endless pizza for the same price as a clowny drive-through meal.  We sit together and stretch our legs.  It’s time well spent, and money well invested.

I’m not much of a picnic person (my ideal picnic involves my personal baguette, knife and jar of Nutella), but picnics can create great road trip memories.  I’ll never forget the leftover lamb spiedini sandwiches my daughter’s godfather, Gene, slapped together, complete with Greek yogurt sauce, on the side of an Italian state road.  We ate alongside a sparkling stream, then tossed our trash into a bag (no trash can…we were in Italy) and watched the children run around on the grass. 

It’s always good to try new road food.  I’m sure I’ll be back at Steak & Shake, come November.  Meanwhile, I’ll dream of lamb cubes and Italian riverside parks.

If you’re planning a trip to Baltimore, check out my newest Hub:  Baltimore’s Best Kid-Friendly Attractions.


I returned home a couple of hours ago.  The children and I drove to Indiana a week ago to visit our dear friends.  It was a fabulous road trip, right up until about 4:00 p. m. today, when I hit the Wall of Rain.  I’m an experienced foul weather driver, but it’s still nerve-wracking to drive through fog and downpours.  My nerves are a bit frazzled, but all’s well.

I’ll post more about our driving experiences in a day or two.

As a child, I was allergic to dairy products.  Some treats were just off-limits.  Among them was my all-time favorite, ice cream.  Even now, although I love ice cream, I don’t buy it often.  (I can eat it without having an allergic reaction, but I have a Tonnage Reaction instead.  Not so good.)

My husband, on the other hand, will go into Seek-And-Destroy mode if someone even mentions the words “ice cream”.  (Or “ice”. Or “food”.  You get the idea.)  He’s never admitted it, but I believe he’s memorized the location of every East Coast franchise of his favorite roadside stop…

Dairy Queen.

I had never heard of a Blizzard before I met my husband.  We just didn’t do road trip desserts.  These days, on long road trips, gas station stops miraculously coincide with DQ locations.  My children know every DQ exit between our home and Indianapolis.  They pace their Blizzard consumption based on our next mealtime.

I have willingly fallen into this trap.  When I’m in the car with the kids, I can easily be persuaded to veer off the interstate and into the DQ drive-thru lane. 

Mocha MooLattes, anyone?

I lived with my family in Virginia Beach for nearly seven years.  My husband also lived in Chesapeake for nearly a year, and we took turns driving between Maryland and Chesapeake to visit each other.  As a result, I know my way around Interstate 64 between Richmond’s I-295 and the Carolina border pretty darn well.  This time of year, the drive from D. C. south to Hampton Roads can be excruciating.  One accident can cause miles and miles of traffic problems.  The scenery is monotonous.  There aren’t any traffic reports on the radio.

And then there’s the infamous Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel.  On a normal summer afternoon (that means between 10:00 A. M. and 2:00 P. M., not Friday, and definitely not a weekend), the delay at the tunnel crossing can be half an hour long.  Taking the Monitor-Merrimac Tunnel doesn’t always help, as you have to drive miles out of your way.

There are a few ways to minimize your stress on I-64.  They’re not foolproof, and there’s no way to avoid those tunnels, but these tips are definitely road-tested.  Here are some of my suggestions for I-64 driving:

Leave early.  This only makes sense.  First, it’s not hideously hot outside, and second, there won’t be as much traffic.  If you leave the D. C. area around 6:30 or 7:00 A. M., you’ll hit the tunnels at a low-volume time.

Don’t travel on Friday afternoon or Saturday morning.  By noon on Fridays, both the D. C. roadways and I-64 in Hampton are clogged.  Things just get worse from there.  Saturdays during the summer are also high traffic days because Outer Banks beach house rentals begin and end on Saturdays.  If you must travel on Saturday, get up early and get to the beach while everyone else is still drinking lattes.

Bring an emergency kit and plenty of water.  Some days, your best laid plans aren’t enough.  You or someone else might need those jumper cables or bottles of Aquafina.  A map might come in handy, too.

Consider alternate routes.  We often drive down Maryland Route 301, cross the Nice Bridge, and head south on Virginia Route 17 through Gloucester.  You’ll pay some tolls and hit big traffic in Waldorf, Md., but the rest of the road is wide open.  Don’t speed, though.  Both highways are heavily speedtrapped.

You can also take I-295 south from Richmond around Petersburg, then take Virginia Route 460 in to Suffolk and the Hampton Roads area, but I’d save this route for emergencies only.  It takes a very long time to go that far west and south, then come east again.  However, if I-64 is closed by an accident, Route 460 is a decent alternative.  (Insider tip: Avoid I-95 through Richmond.  It’s another traffic nightmare these days.)

Plan ahead for peaceful family travel.  Bring spare batteries or car chargers for the portable DVD player and the Game Boys.  Pack a picnic unless you know where you’d like to eat; some of the “nearby fast food” off of I-295 and I-64 isn’t nearby at all, but several miles down the road.  Toss in a favorite pillow or stuffed animal if you’ll be driving during nap time.  Try to change diapers when you stop to eat, because there’s only one rest area on I-64 between I-295 and the Atlantic Ocean.

I hope VDOT widens I-64 some day, but I’m not holding my breath.  In the meantime, the best any of us can do is plan ahead, bring along some Gaelic Storm CDs, and think about the fun waiting at the end of the road.

This morning I reserved a rental car for my next weekend road trip.  Next, I’ll need to make a list of items to pack for myself and my kids.

Of course, everyone has favorite items to take on a trip.  Here are my Five Road Trip Essentials:

Diet Coke

If I forget my 12-pack of Diet Coke, the trip won’t be much fun.  I confess to a Diet Coke addiction.  This drink has no nutritional value whatsoever.  In fact, I just read that drinking diet sodas can lead to heart problems, strokes and other health disasters.  Too bad; I’m packing it anyway.

100-Calorie Packs

This clever invention, small packages of crackers or cookies that contain exactly 100 calories’ worth of food, is my kid snack food of choice when I’m on the road.  I know how much junk my kids are eating, and they know I’m not going to stop at a Kwik-E Mart and buy them jelly doughnuts.

Irish Music

It’s impossible to be depressed when those crazed Gaelic Storm guys are pounding the drums and belting out my favorite Irish tunes.  The tedious trip down I-64 goes much faster when I’m listening to Dramtreeo, Scruffy Murphy or Great Big Sea.

Emergency Kit

I’m married to an Eagle Scout, so we take emergency prep pretty seriously.  In winter months we drive with a candle, blankets and matches in the car.  We always carry water, an emergency triangle and spare headlight lamps.  So far, we’ve been fortunate; we’ve only needed to use the blankets to cover sleepy children, not freezing ones.


My car is littered with old Mapquest printouts.  I own an ADC map book of every county in the Baltimore area.  I’ve been a member of AAA since I learned to drive.  There’s good reason for this.  I can’t navigate my way out of a paper bag.  I even plan extra driving time for getting lost and finding the correct road.

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