American families have been taking road trips for as long as we’ve had automobiles. Some result in cherished, lifelong memories, while others are more like the cross-country escapades chronicled in “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” minus, it’s hoped, the dead aunt on the station wagon.
But traveling with your parents as an adult can be a much different and, often, rewarding experience. Each year, my dad joins me for a road-trip adventure. Together, we’ve experienced destinations as varied as the Rocky Mountains and Mt. Rushmore and seemingly every quirky roadside attraction along the way.
We’ve also learned more about each other and grown closer, all thanks to hours on the road, being curious tourists, and of course, the occasional sing-a-long song that pops up on the radio.
Here is some advice gleaned from our experiences:
Talk is cheap. Hit the road already
Time slips away quickly, and odds are you only have a short window to make some lasting road-trip memories. Travel tends to become tougher on aging parents the longer you wait. Sometimes you wait too long.
A woman once pulled me aside in Cooperstown, N.Y, and told me, “You are so smart to travel with your dad.” Holding back tears, she continued, “I always talked about bringing my dad here to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, and he passed away last year.”
Ticktock. Stop talking and start traveling.
One of the most important things you can do when traveling with a parent is just listen. There is no telling what stories and tucked-away musings might be unveiled while you’re driving.
I’ve heard some hilarious stories about my dad’s childhood and some touching memories about his raising two boys as a single parent with little money.
It’s a great opportunity to share some stories of your own, even if they’re about how you secretly misbehaved when you were a kid. Just be sure to do it while you’re in the driver’s seat or you may find yourself stranded on the side of the road.
Some of the most amusing aspects of traveling with my dad come down to technology. At 67, he is just now starting to embrace and understand such things as smartphones and GPS. (He still ends his text messages with “Love, Dad.”)
There are lots of teachable moments when you can help a not-so-tech-savvy parent. For the longest time, my dad would put his thumb in front of the camera when he took a photo or hold that white button and snap 300 images of the same thing.
Instead of getting annoyed, I decided to take the time to teach him how to properly frame and shoot photos. It took a couple of road trips to complete the mission, but now he understands and takes great pictures.
Everything has to be 50-50
Whether you’re traveling with one parent or two, you have to plan, pay for and execute a road trip as a 50-50 proposition. When I’m traveling with my dad, we split the cost of gas and compromise on dinner plans, including how much we want to spend.
And, of course, we take turns driving. (Plus, the person behind the wheel gets to control the radio.) It’s important that neither of you feels as though you’re always in command or just a passenger along for the ride.
Slow down a bit
This is one I constantly struggle with because I’m used to moving at a fast pace when I’m traveling alone. As a travel writer, I’m usually trying to see as many things as I can in a short period of time. Of course, that’s not how most people travel, including our parents.
Little things like walking slower and trying not to rush make everyone more at ease, although I admit I curse a little under my breath each time I try to lock the car doors from 30 feet away and somehow my Dad still hasn’t exited the vehicle.
It’s perfectly OK to ride along in silence for a while. It’s also a good idea to take a walk or enjoy some alone time in between your traveling and sightseeing. Making sure you give each other some space here and there will go a long way to preventing an expensive solo Uber ride all the way home.
When I travel with my dad, we laugh a lot, often at each other’s expense. One of the funniest moments from our travels happened in Billings, Mont. We stayed at a decidedly unglamorous motel for two nights while exploring Beartooth Highway, which is a National Scenic Byway.
My dad has an old, clunky, laptop that constantly causes him grief, yet he refuses to buy a new one. During our stay in Billings, our cheap motel room was broken into. As we surveyed the damage, I glanced at the desk in the room and noticed my Dad’s laptop was still there.
What should have been a sour moment ended in laughter as I asked him the obvious question, “Do you understand now what a piece of junk that is? Someone broke into our room looking for valuables, saw your computer and left it here.”
Clevlen is the author of “Driving Across America” and “100 Things to Do in America Before You Die.” He is host of the podcast “Rediscover America.”