How to make a road stop with your family like a pro

Road stops provide a fun distraction on long road trips.

There’s a lost art to doing a road stop. And that’s a shame since road trips are a time-honored American tradition. Shouldn’t road stops get a little respect too?

But they are not. People don’t plan their road stops like they should, they show little or no discrimination about where they pull over, and it ends up being all about the destination, not the journey. It doesn’t have to be that way.

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A recent survey by Pilot Flying J found that more than half of parents (57 percent) hit the road feeling “stressed” about where they are going to stop along the way. Presumably, the answer to their problem is a stop at Pilot Flying J, an operator of service centers, and it might be. But road stops are about so much more than filling the gas tank and grabbing a soda — so, so much more.

Road trip fun with the Elliotts
Erysse and Aren Elliott at the Mendenhall Museum in Buellton, Calif.

No matter where you’re going, there’s something along the road

Roadside attractions are everywhere. You just have to do a little research to find them — and carve out enough time to visit them. Take the Mendenhall Museum in Buellton, Calif., a collection of antique gas pumps, cars, and road signs. This is one of the coolest road stops, but you wouldn’t know it’s just two blocks off the 101 Freeway unless you did a little research before you start your California road trip.

My favorite part of Mendenhall’s is a wall of California license plates that goes back to the start of the automobile — a reminder that cars are a fairly recent addition to the Golden State’s landscape.

If you fail to do your research, you’ll miss places like the Mendenhall. And that would be a shame. So the first order of business when you’re planning a trip is to dig around to find some roadside attractions. I found out about the Mendenhall on the Discover Buellton site. Most cities have tourism sites with a list of local attractions.

Lunch at In-N-Out Burger in 2016.
Lunch at In-N-Out Burger in 2016.

Don’t just stop anywhere

How else do you execute a road trip like a pro? Choose your stops carefully. If you live in a Western state, you probably know that almost everyone stops at In-N-Out at some point on their road trips. When I was in college in the ’80s, In-N-Outs were rare, and now they’re everywhere. But seriously, an In ‘N Out is not a legitimate road stop. It’s lunch.

A road stop is an opportunity to learn something about a place that you didn’t know. A good road stop will make you want to return on your way back, which many travelers do. A fast-food restaurant is just there, and at best, it’s just a diversion.

For example, if you want to stop for food, you can find a special and unique place along the way — and you should try. Our alternative to In-N-Out was a little place called Lulu Belle’s in Ash Fork, Ariz., just up the road from where we live in Prescott. Best darned brisket this side of the Rockies. (But two of our family members are now vegan, so it’s off our list. But that was a road stop.)

Here's another Elliott family road trip.
Erysse and Iden in a Tesla Model X in 2018. Alas, they didn’t drive this car.

What’s your hurry? Slow down and make a road stop

The way to make a road stop like a pro is to slow down. Everyone’s in such a hurry to get to their vacation destination that they whiz right past some of the most interesting parts — the unique gift shops, museums and restaurants along the road.

I’m guilty of doing that. Usually, my family gets a late start when we take a long road trip, so we end up hurrying to get back on track. That’s a mistake because you’ll never have enough time to enjoy the roadside attractions. Even In-N-Out takes at least 15 minutes. Oh, and if you think you can do the drive-through, just try eating a burger in a car. (Mind if I take pictures?)

My recommendation: Give yourself at least an hour for meals and another hour for a special roadside attraction. Looking for a quirky roadside attraction? Check out Roadside America, a directory of unusual road stops in the United States, or an app called Next Exit History. You might want to go through it slowly before your next driving vacation.

You know what they say — it’s about the journey, not the destination. If you slow down, select your roadside attraction carefully and plan ahead, you’ll make every road stop like a pro.

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