Before there was Game Boy or LeapFrog there was Auto Bingo and billboard ABCs. Back when air travel was exotic, the family vacation meant a summer car trip with diversions all along the way -- none of them electronic.
With gas prices expected to behave this summer and the inconvenience of air travel weighing on more vacationers, the old-fashioned road trip is back in vogue. It's part nostalgic and part economic, as baby boomers seek to re-create childhood experiences and save money at the same time.
"The car trip does have a different dynamic, even nowadays with the DVDs and other distractions," said Darcy Jacobs, the executive editor of Family Circle magazine and a mother of two. "You really can create memorable experiences.
"People feel even if it takes them longer, it feels right. It's simpler; it reminds them of their childhood, and we crave that now. We'll drive; we'll be together. That's something in this day and age, when we're usually all going different directions."
As a bonus, the extended car trip provides fertile ground for strengthening family bonds, teaching personal-finance lessons and learning something about America along the way.
"It gives you more opportunity to talk with your kids in general, and it gives you a chance to talk to them about things they see along the way, like a store closing with a going-out-of-business sale," Jacobs said. "It's a chance to talk to them about what's going on in the world."
Money lessons are everywhere on the road, from gas fill-ups to hotel and restaurant choices to souvenir buying. Whether parents set a budget and involve kids in the decisions or give children a set amount of money and let them spend it as they choose, an extended road trip means dealing constantly with financial realities.
Amy Graff, a travel expert who has written for AAA and now works for Best Western International, took her children, then 3 and 5, and husband on a car trip along old Route 66 last year, setting a budget of $250 a day. Even though her kids were young, they got a taste of financial discipline.
"My daughter wanted an American Girl doll (the American Girl Store in Chicago was the final destination on the route), and at all the stops where she could get other souvenirs, we would tell her, 'You can buy that now or get the doll at the end.' She saved her money. Instead, the kids started a rock collection, and we kept a postcard collection and a notebook diary" -- things that cost little or nothing but provided memories of the trip.
Driving through historyThe lessons children learn on the road could be lifelong ones. For Tim Massie, an adjunct professor of history at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., his love of history was kindled by his car trips as a boy.
"My parents did not graduate from high school, but they had a tremendous appreciation for learning, with our day trips and, eventually, our vacations focused on history. Whether it was a simple day trip to Saratoga Battlefield or Fort Ticonderoga in New York state, or a weekend to the whaling museum in New Bedford and Plimouth Plantation, or a week to Norfolk, Williamsburg and Gettysburg, our travel revolved around the fun of learning," he said.
That's a familiar refrain for many baby boomers.
"My dad didn't earn a lot of money, and Mother was a stay-at-home mom, but they saved all year long so we could take a car trip vacation each summer. It was important to my father that we see the country and experience history by visiting important sites," said Joy T. Sutherland, the manager of public relations and publications at UT Medical Group in Memphis, Tenn.
"The trips were not only a bonding experience; they were a wonderful way to learn. Watching our father carefully develop each year's vacation months in advance, we learned the value of planning. As we grew older, we learned how to read a map, calculate miles per gallon and compare restaurant prices," Sutherland said.
"We also faced the real-life dilemma of making hard choices about money. For instance, we often had to stay at a motel without a pool (which we desperately wanted) because it cost too much. And yet we made wonderful memories on those budget-minded trips."