Top Tips for the Thanksgiving Drive

Most years, my husband and I leap into the car at about 1:30PM on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving with our snacks and saddle up for the epic sojourn 400 miles to my family’s house. Unlike the usual trip which logs in at 5.5 to 6 hours, depending on the wait time at McDonald’s and the frequency of my pee breaks, our day-before-Thanksgiving trip is a minimum of 7 hours, and has topped out at 8 hours. That was a special case, though. The City of LA decided it would be a good idea to close a major street near a freeway for an afternoon concert. That idiot moved resulted in a one-hour trek along the one-mile from our apartment to the freeway.

But that’s a rant for another day. Here are my top tips for turkey day:

Leave Early
The earlier the better. If you have a long drive (more than six hours), aim to leave no later than 1 PM. If you have a shorter drive, you could leave as late as six and actually miss some of the major backup. Even better, leave Monday or Tuesday, but not all of us can take that much time off.

Work from Home that Day
Most offices take a half-day for Thanksgiving. If your office is one of them and your standard commute is more than 15-20 minutes, ask if you can telecommute the day before Thanksgiving. Otherwise, you’ll have a longer commute to work, and then face a longer commute home before you can leave. You could wind up spending more time commuting than you do working.

Research Backroads
This weekend, get out your map and study potential backroads. My husband and I discovered one shortcut by listening to the traffic radio, but we found others by simply studying our map. Note that the online mapping systems usually won’t tell you about these routes. You need to actually look at a map with detailed roads so you can see whether that road you think you might take actually goes through. My husband and I discovered the hazards of off-the-cuff shortcuts when we tried to go around a serious truck accident, but the road we chose dead-ended. We had to turn around and go back to where we started.

Your best bet to find backroads is to look for roads that run parallel major interstates. In California, our urban freeways were built beside major surface thruways. It might not be quite as direct as the freeway, but there won’t be as many people on it. You won’t find these roads in the middle of nowhere (but that’s not usually where the backup is.) Save your search for the urban sections where more people join the trek.

Pack Snacks
To reduce your number of stops, fortify yourself with healthy snacks. Since I’m gluten-free, my favorites are Trader Joe’s mini rice crackers. They taste almost like corn nuts and we scarf them down every time I bring a bag. I also pack bottles of water, a bag of nuts, and fruit that can be eaten in small bites, like grapes or orange sections.

Don’t Drink Too Much
Drink enough water that you won’t get a headache from dehydration, but don’t drink so much that you need to stop every half hour. There will be lines for all those bathrooms. Since you’ll be sitting, you don’t need to drink a whole liter of water on the trip. Small sips will keep you hydrated and on the road.

Plan Lunch
If at all possible, pack your lunch and find a rest stop where you can eat. You’ll probably need to eat in the car, but it won’t be too bad if you eat quick. If you can’t pack a lunch, then avoid stopping at lunchtime or dinnertime. Stops between 2:30 and 5 and after 7:30 will help you avoid the long lines.

Bring Games for the Kids
At least part of your drive will be during daylight hours, so bring a car game or craft that the kids can do. If they’re readers and don’t get motion sickness, books are great distraction. Handheld games (with the sound off) are good, too. After dark, consider bringing a pack of trivia cards and a flashlight so you can quiz each other. If you have an in-car DVD player, by all means use it, but I survived 18 years without watching DVDs on long drives, your kids can, too.

Find Traffic Stations
A quick internet search will give you a list of all the traffic radio stations along your route. As you enter each new radio station’s area, tune in to check on upcoming closures. That way you can make any bathroom or meal stops before you find yourself in an hour-long backup with nowhere to stop.

Need more advice? Check out my previous posts on long holiday drives and the Thanksgiving drive specifically. AAA estimates that 1.4% more people will be on the roads this year. I’ve made holiday drives 46 times. Please learn from my hard-won experience.

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