Oh….the highway rest stop. We've all been there. Just when we're thinking “Hey, this road trip isn't so bad, we're making excellent time!” one of the kids asks to stop.
Unfortunately “Hold it in for three more hours!” is not a realistic solution. As a general rule, I really try to avoid rest stops on drives of three hours or less. I always make sure to pack enough snacks for the road and just enough liquids to get me where I need to go without stopping.
Of course, once you add kids into the equation, all bets are off.
On a recent trip to Washington, D.C. we made an unplanned stop at a rest stop in southern New Jersey on Interstate 95.
We pulled up around 8:30 in the evening, as one of the kids had to “go.” We had been hoping to get quickly through Delaware and into Maryland, where we've learned in the past about a cluster of decent restaurants just over the border. Since we were all headed in for a bathroom break, we decided to make this our dinner stop as well. We waited on a parking spot as close as possible to the doors, as we saw some sketchy activity taking place in the lot.
Once inside, the bathroom was just… let's just say, probably not cleaned since 1987.
This was especially fun when my six-year-old decided that this would be the perfect time to tell me that we weren't going to make this a quick bathroom stop. I searched all 20 or so stalls and found the “cleanest” one I could.
Once done, we met up with my wife and three-year-old (How lucky we are that he's still in diapers!) and decided that the Roy Rogers would be our best bet. The kids could get chicken tenders, and my wife and I burgers. This particular one was cafeteria style, though, we still had to wait about 10 minutes for the items we wanted to be made. We assumed they would be fresh.
We assumed wrong.
The kids refused to eat their chicken after two bites, and we refused to continue eating our burgers after one bite. It was clear something was terribly wrong with the food. Normally in a restaurant we'd make an issue, but we'd already lost almost a half hour of driving, and just wanted to sprint out of there. We made our way to the convenience store attached to the gas station and bought drinks, cookies, pretzels, and chips (Don't judge, we've all been there). Within a few minutes, we were delightfully back on the road.
Now to be fair, not all rest stops are the worst places on Earth. This one just happened to be particularly gross, run down, and disgusting.
There are many that have been recently renovated and are actually pleasant to be at. All three or four of the stops on 95, between Delaware and Baltimore in Maryland, have all been redone recently, and yes, even a few on the Jersey Turnpike have been redone. What we've learned, though, is that the very first rest stop in each state also contains the State Welcome Center. No state wants a bad impression, so if you do have to stop, THIS is the one to stop at. The first stops in Pennsylvania also happen to be immaculate: stainless steel and modern architecture included.
Here are some other things we've learned along the way.
- Stay with the travel potty as long as you can! Until our first was about four, (he was potty trained at just over two), we always brought a travel potty with us on road trips. They are fairly cheap on Amazon, and most come with liners that make cleanup a cinch. Obviously, weather plays a huge factor in this, but at most rest stops, you can park pretty far away from the crowds if you so desire, and by not pulling all the way into the spot, you can create a sense of privacy for your child. Just make sure you are near a garbage can for disposal. The liners tie up and seal, so really, not much different of a disposal than you would have with a pet. Yes, I just went there with that comparison! This saved us many trips into gross bathrooms at the time with a three-year-old, who seemed to make touching every disgusting surface his mission in life.
- If you are travelling at night, park in well lit areas, as close to the front door of your stop as possible. Not a bad idea during the day, either. I spoke to a friend of mine who travels often about what we thought we saw in the lot, and he confirmed that highway rest stops are often hot beds for drug deals. Police usually do not patrol those rest stops and with a ton of people going in and out, blending into the crowds is relatively easy.
- Park in the designated car areas, not the truck areas. Most truckers are friendly. Some are not, and do not want to deal with your car in the way when maneuvering a tractor trailer in or out of the lot.
- Try to stick with food that looks fresh. This is not always easy, as we assumed the food delay for us was from food being made fresh, but rather, it was old food being warmed up. You are better off eating snacks from the store then getting sick on a road trip.
- Rest stops usually are within a few miles of major exits off interstates, which can sometimes have 20-30 miles or more between exits. While the food options at the next exit may still be a chain restaurant or fast food, those locations are usually better maintained and are much cleaner than the overcrowded rest stop. Use your judgement, and take note of the signs on the side of the road that show you what options you have. If you see a large town coming up, it's also a good bet there is a supermarket in that town. If time permits, you can always stop for some guaranteed fresh food, and find a place to picnic.
- Do not wait until the last minute when you are starving or desperate. This always makes the rest stop experience much worse, as at that point you'll eat anything you can find.
- Do not sleep at a rest stop. There are usually signs telling you this, but safety should always be your number one concern. In many places, you can be fined for sleeping overnight in the lot.
Of course, some rest stops are also scenic vista points, and great places to stretch, let the kids run around a little, and find a few moments of relaxation in the middle of a long drive. If possible, try to plan ahead.
And always make rest stop fast food your last option.
To help with some of your planning, you can check out this neat site I found…. http://restareas.appspot.com/ which will show you the locations of each rest stop along the US Interstate Hwy System, and what facilities they have, including picnic tables, gas, pet areas, etc.