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How to Pick the Right Car for Your Next Family Road Trip

A travel writer weighs in on how to survive—and enjoy—the family road trip experience.

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Before I had children, I hadn’t the slightest glimmer of FOMO in passing up the opportunity to rent a vintage sports car for a road trip from Florence to Milan. I mused, “What’s the big deal with cars?” And I happily opted for an unmemorable rental sedan at a much more reasonable price point, albeit one that broke down on the French/Italian border and resulted in being towed away while my husband and I were in the vehicle. It was a very romantic baby moon, indeed!

Related: This Gear Makes Traveling With Kids a Breeze

Needless to say, I have never been a car enthusiast. Fast-forward three years, two children (a toddler and four-month-old), and one global pandemic later, and I have suddenly become a car person. Over the last few months, I’ve abruptly and unexpectedly seen the light on the value certain vehicular conveniences and features. The "why" isn’t so hard to divine: with air travel the equivalent of COVID Russian roulette, four-wheeled transit is frequently the only game in town; and, as any parent can attest, there is no putting a price on maintaining sanity on long car trips. My education: A couple of wallops of my two-and-half-year-old, who asks “mommy, are we there yet” on a long loop of repeat, and my four-month-old, who has started making shrieking sounds that sound like they are straight out of a horror movie.

While I haven’t subscribed to Car and Driver and would certainly come off as a neophyte to most automotive aficionados, over the last few months I’ve spent enough hours in the car with my family in a variety of vehicles to have gained some insight into how to survive a summer road trip—from how to rent one in a pandemic-friendly way to the most comfortable model in which to sit wedged between two car seats for ten hours (Hello, Range Rover Velar SV Autobiography Dynamic Edition).

So if you are like the 100 million Americans taking road trips with their families this summer as many of us are still wary of air travel, here are some tips about how not to just survive but actually, as they say, enjoy the journey.

Have the car come to you. This is something that I wouldn’t have considered, or even needed, pre-COVID. But times have changed. Like 56 percent of New Yorkers, we don’t own a car, and at least at the height of the coronavirus crisis we balked at taking public transportation or an Uber to get the car. So I found RealCar. They will do door-to-door delivery and are flexible about drop-off and return times. For instance, we had our car dropped off on Friday morning and could return Monday midday without having to pay for an extra day. This is a super-luxury fleet—think: BMW X5, Jaguar F Pace, Mercedes Benz G550, and Range Rovers (Evoque, Sport, and Velar). With a first time 20% discount, the rental for three full days for a BMW X5, which seats five people, was $560. (RealCar recommends the Range Rover Velar for a longer trip if there are three people seated in the back.)

When you consider that The New York Times recently ran a piece with a headline: “$279 A Day: Good Luck Finding a Cheap Rental Car in N.Y.C” for car rentals that don’t offer the concierge pick up and drop off service, RealCar’s price tag looks like a steal. Plus, eliminating one extra step of logistics with kids in tow can feel priceless.

SilverCar by Audi also offers a similar drop-off and pickup service but it wasn’t available in the New York City area when we rented an Audi Q7 at the end of June. SilverCar, Audi’s rental program, also gives a 20% discount to first-time renters. The Q7 has three rows of seats and enough room in the back for two car seats and a smaller adult or child. We picked up our Q7 from Newark and it was still less expensive to take an Uber from Manhattan to the Newark location than it was to rent a much more basic car from a New York City-based agency.

Related: The DEPARTURES Guide to Family Vacations

Make sure there is enough room in the back. I can’t emphasize this enough in terms of survival, particularly if you are planning on long days in the car. Driving towards Cape Cod on the 4thof July weekend entailed close to 10 hours of my being wedged between two car seats. Both the Q7 and the Velar delivered on the comfort factor. They are comparable in size, although the Q7 has a third row that collapses into trunk space for the 99.8% of travelers with children who, like us, need all the trunk space we could get. The Range Rover Velar SV Autiobiography Dynamic Edition, which is the company’s crème da la crème model (e.g. the most special and exclusive), does not have a third row but was able a absorb a quantity of stuff so massive that we fielded questions from strangers about whether we were moving. (No, we were just taking a two-and-half-week vacation with two kids.) While a car like an Escalade, which is a full-size luxury SUV, offers more cargo space and a third row of seats, it feels like you’re driving a tank because it’s as big as one. Plus, the gas mileage on the Escalade is 14 mpg for city driving vs. 21 mpg for the Velar.

Rent something you want to drive. Growing up, I had a minivan fantasy—I wanted my family to drive one, just like everyone else in suburban America in the 1980s. Instead, my parents had zippy sports cars. The apple doesn’t fall from the tree and over the years my minivan fantasy has morphed into a minivan aversion. I’ve come to see a minivan as a symbol of middle-aged parenthood: a life stage that I’m in the thick of and totally in denial about. I realized I want to feel like I have some super power behind the wheel, or at least like the car can handle whatever I throw at it—certainly a welcome sensation in the midst of a global pandemic when so much feels out of our control.

And there’s little that projects ‘control’ like high-perched four-wheel drive on top of a V6 engine. Over the course of our recent road trip, I drove a Range Rover Velar Dynamic Edition through a puddle the size of a lake, many miles down a sandy road, without skidding, and powered down a cobblestone street that I normally avoid because the bumps have literally sent me through the roof. (Or maybe that free, in-control feeling was just because on those jaunts I had left my children behind?)

Related: Travel-Inspired Activities for a Day at Home With the Kids

Look for the right bells and whistles. There are so many features now on new car models—from screens that stream every Disney movie to 17-speaker Meridian Sound Systems to massaging front seats—that one can endlessly mix and match accoutrements and fall victim to the paradox of choice. My travels, however, made me realize that some bells and whistles are more important than others. When we rented the Audi A7, I couldn’t even figure out how to use the built-in navigation system—which says more about my ability to use technology than it does about the car—but we had good cell service on that trip and the Google map app on our phones totally sufficed. But on our most recent trip, the cell phone service on many parts of the island we were visiting was non-existent. The Velar’s built in GPS has two features that were life-savers: a solid-state hard drive that ensures route guidance regardless of cell service and a feature that told me to “turn now.” On the former, even when I had no bars and no idea how to get to my destination, the Velar’s GPS worked. On most GPS systems the nice lady tells you to “turn in 450 feet,” but who can really pay attention to exact distances amidst a cacophony of shrieking children? It turns out next-generation GPS can be the key to preservation of sanity. Because what’s worse driving with screaming children? Missing your turn and being lost with screaming children.

Another invaluable feature on this model is the remote-start capability that allows the car to be heated or cooled in advance. In fact, I wish I used it more, for example, on beach trips. while still packing up the towels and folding chairs, start the car via your phone and have it cooled down by the time you’re ready to go. I’ll call this a whining mitigation feature. Another important component of surviving a road trip with your children is not losing your car key. Land Rover has a waterproof Activity Key that you can wear on your wrist—which even, I, a professional misplacer of car keys, could keep track of.


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