How to avoid a (nervous) breakdown on the highways this Thanksgiving

Hitting the road to Grandma Etta’s or Cousin Eddie’s house for Thanksgiving? Plan on a few extra travel companions this year.

According to the travel forecast released by the American Automobile Association (AAA) today, 43.5 million travelers are expected to drive 50 miles or farther en route to their destinations this holiday weekend. That’s a 1.9 percent increase over 2015. Without some smart preparation, the journey may feel more akin to “Mad Max: Fury Road” than a carefree cruise of family sing-alongs and “The Alphabet Game.”

Here are a few tips to keep you from blowing a gasket on the roadways this holiday weekend.

Roll out of bed and onto the road. The peak road travel times during Thanksgiving week are Tuesday and Wednesday between 3 and 7 p.m. Seems a lot of folks get home from work and immediately set out on the road. Don’t join them, beat them. Set your alarm clock, down a quick cup of joe and head out before dawn. This is especially important if you live near — or will be traveling through — big cities, where traffic can get heavily backed up during the morning rush.

Leave stormchasing to those guys on TV. Driving towards tornadoes and blizzards is great for ratings, not so good for arriving at your destination in a timely manner. Keep a close eye on the weather during the days leading up to your trip. If possible, leave a day early or day later than planned to avoid even weak-looking storms. Conditions can change in a hurry. It could mean the difference between spending Thanksgiving in a ditch or rest area instead of around the table at Grandma’s.

Heed the sage advice of Led Zeppelin. Whether you’re on the Stairway to Heaven or I-95 South toward Fayetteville, “Yes, there are two paths you can by. But in the long run, there’s still time to change the road you’re on.” Monitor traffic ahead using apps such as Sigalert.com, Waze and INRIX Traffic. Know potential alternative routes in advance. And keep a printed Road Atlas in the car at all times. Especially in outlying areas where cellphone coverage can be spotty, Siri is no match for a good road map and a trusty navigator in the passenger seat.

Life on the road isn’t all fun and games. At least, not if you don’t bring them along. Stock your travel bag with plenty of ways to keep the kids entertained. Instead of relying solely on iPads and movies, consider more interactive diversions that can involve the whole family. Check out Yes & Know Invisible Ink games and the Travel Games offered at melissaanddoug.com. In my experience, nothing gets a family chuckling and chortling together like a rousing session of “Mad Libs” (www.madlibs.com). And while road trip staples like “The License Plate Game,” “20 Questions” and “I Spy” can seem corny to us adults, they only got that way because we played them for hours on end as kids.

Tune up your vehicle. With good tunes, we mean. Talk radio and sports broadcasts have their place. That place is not on a long road trip with kids. Instead, crank up the tunes and sing along — if your kids see you singing, it won’t be long before they join in too. Heck, by the end of one of my family’s recent road trips, my 10-year-old was warbling right along with The Carpenters and April Wine. To make things even more fun, create a playlist specifically for the trip — all 70’s music, all 80’s, disco, whatever. Or only include songs about roads and travel: “Life Is A Highway” by Tom Cochrane, “Everyday Is A Winding Road” by Sheryl Crow, “Cars” by Gary Numan, “Deadman’s Curve” by Jan and Dean. It’s a guaranteed way to get your kicks on Route 66. Or I-94.

Don’t let the gas tank — or stomachs — go empty. The candy bar commercials are right — people are different when they’re hungry. Like Lon Chaney in the light of a full moon, a family traveling without food too long can turn into snarling, malevolent beasts hell-bent for blood or sandwiches. Even if a huge feast is waiting at the end of the road, be sure to keep an ample supply of healthy snacks handy — apples, bananas, string cheese, juice boxes, even Clif Bars are all good choices. Offer them early and often — before your travel companions begin to transform into something unspeakable.

It’s okay to eat and run. In fact, it’s downright smart. We already covered the busiest travel times during Thanksgiving week. We didn’t mention the single busiest travel day. By a wide margin, it’s Sunday. It seems everyone wants to take the entire weekend to recover from their tryptophan-induced food coma, then set off for home at exactly the same time. If you learn nothing else from this article, remember this: If you wait until Sunday afternoon to head for home, you will rue the day you were born. Instead, beat the rush by leaving on Friday (the best day to travel on the holiday weekend, so long as you avoid shopping malls). Or, if you’re able, delay your return an extra day and take Monday off. In fact, take every Monday off.

Enjoy the ride. Road trips, especially with kids, can be frustrating, challenging and draining. They can also be some of the most fun and memorable times you will ever share with each other. Many parents lament not having enough time to spend with their kids. A long road trip offers hours of uninterrupted free time and open highway. Make the most of every mile.

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