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We’ve given up road trips — and lost a whole lot more

We’ve given up road trips — and loWe’ve given up road trips — and lost a whole lot morest a whole lot more

The times were indeed a-changin’ as the ’70s gave way to the ’80s. The feeling was palpable. It wasn’t just the music. It was a cultural mindset. America had a new president in Ronald Reagan, a new sense of optimism and, within a very short time, new confidence in its rebounding economy. Americans were ready to dump the anxiety and malaise of the recent past and embrace a prosperous and exciting new future — one that included cheaper air travel made possible by airline deregulation.
Between 1980 and 2000, the number of flights booked by Americans more than doubled. As early as 1990, just 12 years after President Jimmy Carter signed the Airline Deregulation Act and turned the commercial airline industry into a free market, more adult Americans had flown than owned a car. In the blink of an eye, the world had changed.
As the typical American family’s choice of travel mode shifted, so did the vacation experience. Trips that once took days suddenly took hours. Parents no longer had to plan and prepare to keep the kids fed and satisfied on the road. Bags of cold sandwiches, Thermoses of hot coffee, road atlases, tool kits bulging with replacement fuses and belts, planning for gas and potty stops and the art of trunk packing all became relics of the past. Kids no longer had to steel themselves for endless hours in the back seat. Secret stashes of candy, portable electronic games, stacks of magazines and comics, invisible ink puzzles, magnetic board games and other diversions suddenly didn’t hold nearly the same importance.
Instead, everyone focused on the destination, wondering what the weather would feel like, planning what they’d do the moment they arrived. The journey became inconsequential, a brief nuisance to be endured until the fun could start. Where once a family trip began when the car pulled out of the driveway, now a vacation didn’t really begin until the jet’s wheels touched down on some distant runway. In fact, many travelers began thinking so little of the actual journey that they dressed for their destination before ever leaving home. In the middle of December in Wisconsin, families like mine could be seen dragging luggage into the airport wearing nothing but shorts and T-shirts, their warm winter jackets left in their cars in the parking lot. It was as though they were already in Florida.
But we were leaving behind much more than our bulky winter clothing. We were also leaving behind a quintessential American family experience. We were leaving behind all the curious sights and amazing views, the unexpected delights and unanticipated dangers, the colorful characters and unforgettable people who could only be encountered when traveling the highways of America. We were leaving behind so many of the ingredients that made family vacations truly memorable.
That’s not to say that the family road trip has entirely gone the way of the eight-track player or the fake-wood-paneled station wagon. Road trips enjoyed a brief but robust renaissance in the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. While the threat of additional hijackings caused flights to be grounded across the nation for weeks, the attacks instilled a fear of flying in Americans that lasted far longer. What’s more, the tragedy forced workaholic parents to take stock of their overscheduled lives. Many questioned why they were running themselves ragged to provide better lives for their kids when the extra income came at the expense of having no quality time to spend with them. Rather than canceling vacations, many families planned new ones. Only instead of taking to the skies, families once again took to the highways. For a while, many American families reacquainted themselves with the simple joys of heading out together on the open road.
In an article published in The New York Times on Nov. 11, 2001 — just two months after the 9/11 attacks — writer Julia Chaplin deftly captured the country’s mood: For years now, the pleasures of the road trip have palled. Driving long distances became a time-guzzling burden, and interstates seemed more often linked with road rage and bad french fries. But then came an overnight fear of air travel and a yearning for escape from new urban anxieties, especially in New York. Suddenly, the open road holds a fresh appeal for those who have single-mindedly pursued big-city lives and ambitions.
The revival would be short-lived. By 2004, the cost of oil had surged, boosting prices at the pump. At the same time, the absence of further hijackings reassured Americans that it was once again safe to fly. Gradually American families returned to parking their cars and booking flights. By 2007, more Americans were flying than ever before. After a sharp decline due to the recession that began in 2008, the number of Americans traveling by air continues to rise steadily. Today, more than 750 million airline tickets are sold each year.
Of course, the decision to drive rather than fly to distant destinations will likely always make sense financially, especially for larger families. As of this writing, the cost of a round-trip coach airline ticket from Milwaukee to Fort Lauderdale during spring break costs $342. For a family of six, like mine when I was growing up, that comes to $2,052. Include a midsize rental car for an eight-day stay, and the cost swells another $750. That’s $2,800 for transportation before laying out a single dollar for hotel, food, attractions or other expenses. Now consider the cost to drive the same 2,902-mile distance in a minivan, which, when packed with six passengers and luggage, can struggle to achieve 22 miles per gallon. Using the current average gas price of $2.25 per gallon, that same trip would cost around $297. That’s a difference of almost $2,500 in favor of driving versus flying. Without any pressure applied by my mom, I know what decision my dad would have made.
Yet many families today choose otherwise. The reason is simple: The world has sped up since the 1970s. We live in an era of instant gratification — of instant text messaging, overnight package delivery and movies on demand. When we want something, we want it now. At the same time, we spend our lives rushing to meet impossible deadlines, making ourselves available by phone and e-mail around the clock and putting in extra hours to get ahead in our careers. When we manage to work in a getaway, we want to make the most of it. For many of us, time has become far more precious than money, a priceless commodity not to be squandered lumbering along endless miles of highway and waiting in drive-through lines. We want to be there now, wherever the there is we’re headed. We want to be on a beach under a hot sun, enjoying the view from the top of the Washington Monument or taking smartphone snapshots of our kids with Mickey in front of the Princess Castle, right now. And the quickest way to do that is by boarding an airplane.
For those of us who do decide to drive, the experience of taking a long family road trip together isn’t the same now. For one thing, families no longer really experience a long car ride “together.” In fact, for people sitting so close to one another, we’ve never been further apart. In the back seats, where we as kids once sprawled out across our siblings or constantly changed seat positions depending on who was annoying whom, today each child must be rigidly buckled into his or her own child seat. Securely strapped into their padded cocoons, our kids can barely lift a sippy cup to their mouths, much less exchange noogies with their siblings. To keep them entertained, we put headphones on their ears and place tablet screens in front of their eyes and allow each child to enjoy his or her own movie or game without even having to debate the choice with siblings. Meanwhile, in the front seat, Mom slips on her own headphones to retreat into her audiobook or podcast.
Behind the wheel, Dad turns up the satellite radio and drifts off into his own private world, singing along to his favorite songs — perhaps even the same ’70s and ’80s tunes he sang when he cruised the interstates with his parents. Largely gone are the days of family sing-alongs, playing the license plate game, or — God forbid — just talking to one another.
At the same time, the country we live in has become far smaller. On today’s interstates, it’s difficult to travel more than a few dozen miles without passing an exit with a gas station and fast-food restaurant, usually in the same building. Apps on our smartphones keep us updated regarding detours and traffic alerts and ensure that roadside assistance is always just a phone call away. Today’s cars have also become so reliable and worry-free that few of us even check our oil, much less pack a tool kit before departing on a long trip. Even if things do go wrong, safety features like advance warning alerts and run-flat tires allow drivers to travel for miles to find help.
Yet those of us a certain age will recall that it wasn’t so long ago that beginning a family road trip felt a lot like setting off into the wild frontier. True, the roads were paved and the route was marked, but the journey ahead was still fraught with unknown perils. Before us lay hundreds of miles of open road, and anything could happen. We might run out of gas along a lonely stretch of interstate on a rainy night in Arkansas. We might take a shortcut only to find ourselves being chased by a pack of wild dogs on a back road in Louisiana. Or we could be turned away from a full motel after a long day’s drive, the next motel with vacancy still hours of dark highway down the road. And when things did go wrong, we’d be on our own.
On our own but together.
As a family. Ready to face whatever the coming miles and passing hours brought our way. More than anything else, that’s what made a family road trip so special: the feeling of being inextricably bound together in a great adventure. An adventure based less on where we were headed and more in the moments we shared along the way.
In the end, it never really mattered where we traveled in our car on all those great family road trips. In simply making the drive together, we were already in the best place of all.

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