Hum Along the Highway

Rules for a Hassle-Free California Road Trip with Kids

I’ve been crisscrossing the great state of California in a car since I can remember. I was the kid in the backseat contorted and cramped around my mother’s vanity cases piled high at my feet. The air conditioning never quite reached me, and my Walkman strained to drown out the static of my parents’ AM radio.

Today, it’s my kids in the backseat, only now they enjoy personal climate controls, on-demand entertainment and captain’s chairs with lumbar support. The dog snoozes in a plush bed, and my husband and I listen to a riveting podcast.

For the moment, all is calm as we hum along the highway. But like those who’ve traveled before us, we know it’s just a matter of time before something goes horribly wrong: an overturned tomato truck, someone can’t hold it any longer, the dog starts dry heaving.

Each time we make our annual summer pilgrimage to San Diego, we vow to learn from the mistakes of the past. Whether you have infants or teenagers, there’s a lot to consider when traveling by car. It’s bittersweet to reflect on how family circumstances and challenges on the road have evolved over the years. But there’s one rule that remains constant: bring towels. Lots of towels.

Choose Your Own Adventure

Any trip from the Bay Area to Southern California starts with deciding whether to take U.S. Highway 101, Highway 1 or Interstate 5. The differences between the coastal and inland routes are stark. 

Taking Highway 101, Highway 1 or a mix of the two underscores the reasons why parents often demand their kids put down their devices and look out the window. Traveling these roads highlights the beauty and personality of California. Stopping for lunch means slurping ice cream sundaes from glass goblets at the Madonna Inn  in San Luis Obispo. These routes may offer delightful diversions and easy access to supplies, but it also takes at least 1½ hours longer. 

Interstate 5, on the other hand, is for hardened travelers who want to rip off the Band-Aid and get the trip over with as fast as possible. They’re willing to risk an emergency diaper change on the side of a hot and bothered freeway. Lunch options include greasy fast food, candy bars or a  restaurant in Buttonwillow that I’m too scared to try. (Let’s not trash it by name if you’ve never tried it.) Interstate 5 may take less time, but it’s also lonely, desolate and monotonous, punctuated only by the foul stench of cow manure near Coalinga.

SUB: Outsmarting Traffic

Of course, everyone’s goal during the peak of summer travel is to avoid all forms of traffic. This is virtually impossible. Going south, all bets are off once you get to Los Angeles. After all, southbound I-5 from Interstate 10 to Interstate 605 is ranked the second most-congested corridor in the nation. Likewise going north, you may avoid LA traffic by leaving at the crack of dawn, but you’ll likely end up in heavy East Bay traffic later on. 

Research has shown that some days are better than others for travel. Thursday is considered the nation’s worst traffic day, while Monday is the best, according to INRIX, a traffic analytics company. The most congested time of day is from 3pm to 7pm, which makes for an ideal time to break for a leisurely dinner.

Predicting traffic patterns may be difficult, but it’s not impossible. Apps like Google Maps allow you to pick different departure times and routes to design a trip in advance and make adjustments along the way. 

Traffic Predict is another great resource for planning. Plug in the day and time you plan to travel, and it will show historical traffic patterns for San Francisco, Silicon Valley, Los Angeles and San Diego.

Like my family, you may be tempted to ditch traffic patterns altogether and risk driving in the middle of the night. This is a dangerous and unpredictable proposition. Even if you don’t fall asleep at the wheel, consider all the other drivers around you who might. Take a moment to visualize dealing with an accident at 3 am. It’s just not worth it.

Calling It a Night

When done right, breaking up a trip over two days can alleviate travel stress, keep you fresh and allow you to explore California’s exquisite beauty. Stopovers tend to work best when everyone gets a little space and time from each other, which is especially true for teenagers.

For me, that means finding a hotel that provides easy freeway access, a comfortable bed and a pool. Bonus points if it’s close to a fun family activity and provides a hearty breakfast in the morning. A recent stopover at the Cambria Hotel in Calabasas  ticked all these boxes and even included a dog-friendly trail just off the parking lot.

Whatever your layover destination, it’s important to keep your ambitions in check and not go too far afield. A quick trip to Disneyland is rarely that, so if that’s your intention, make sure you’re allowing enough time to do it right.

SUB: It Pays to Be Prepared

As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. That’s why the success of a trip always starts with the safety of your car. This means checking wiper blades, batteries, tires, seat belts, air conditioning, oil and fluids, lights, fan belts, hoses and even properly installed floor mats

Consider checking on potential recall issues by entering your car’s vehicle identification number (VIN) on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s recall website. Make sure your license, registration and auto insurance are up to date and that you have physical copies of each. Double check your insurance policy’s roadside assistance benefits and consider supplementing with an additional plan.

While you’re at it, assemble a small box of emergency supplies and keep it in your car year-round. You may never need them, but you never know when you’ll encounter another weary traveler who does. Consider it travel karma. Supplies for your kit can include: 

  • Cell phone charger or battery
  • First aid kit
  • Flashlight
  • Jumper cables
  • Work gloves
  • Maps
  • Basic tools, duct tape and rope
  • Paper or cloth towels
  • Drinking water and nonperishable food
  • Medicines and sanitary supplies
  • Diapers, wipes and formula
  • Extra clothes

 Set Your Mindset to Fun

As my husband is fond of saying, happiness equals expectation minus reality, which is a mathematical way of saying expect – and accept – the unexpected. Don’t forget that you’re going on vacation to unwind and connect with your family. Your ability to roll with the punches sets a powerful example for your children.

Having a flexible mindset allows you to accept the fact that you’ll likely leave later than intended. There will be an unscheduled potty break. That said, a travel mindset is only as good as the preparation put into a trip. (See sidebar.) With a little foresight and planning, you can anticipate the needs of your family and adapt to the unexpected.

No one wants to be stuck in a car for hours, especially an energetic toddler. You’re all in this together, so take it one step at a time and ease off that gas pedal. 

Remember, don’t let the drive drive you crazy. 

 Millicent Skiles is a freelance writer in Marin County. She loves to travel with her husband, three kids and Baxter, the family’s beloved Boston Terrier. 


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