Your knuckles are white, gripping the wheel so tightly you feel you’re about to rip it off. You don’t see the traffic in front of you. All you see is red, not a cheery, festive hue: the color of pure rage. And you’re screaming at the top of your lungs, “If I have to tell you one more time to stop bickering, I swear by all the gods I am going to pull this car over right here, right now, and throw out every last present! Don’t make me do it!”

Oh, the joy of a holiday road trip with the family.

Thanks to the pandemic, you’ve spent almost two years in sometimes too-close-for-comfort quarters with the ones you love. Now it’s the holiday season, and you plan to drive somewhere to celebrate, meaning even more time with your loved ones in even closer quarters.

Even before covid, these annual car trips were often the most stressful travel of the year. All is not calm; all is not bright for that time on the road. So, how do you avoid ruining your holidays before the festivities even begin?

After wrecking a few of these trips myself, I’ve come up with a multi-point strategy to minimize anxiety, frustration and conflict for my wife, 8-year-old son and me, while ensuring the mood is right, the spirit’s up.

The work begins a week before departure. I take the car in for an oil change, fluids top off, and once-over. A thorough cleaning is in order — no one wants crushed Goldfish crackers or stray leaves mucking up their artfully wrapped presents or holiday outfits. Finally, I double-check our AAA membership will be valid for the duration of our vacation and make sure our spare tire is in good working order.

Entertainment on long treks is essential. During the holiday season, that means downloading festive, family-friendly books and podcasts. I’m queuing up J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Letters From Father Christmas” and “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” by Barbara Robinson, as well as episodes of “Season’s Eatings” (a podcast delving into the history of festive foods) and a few of “This American Life’s” year-end shows. Composing a spirited playlist is a must. I don’t believe it’s a Yuletide road trip until we’ve listened to “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” and “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” at least half a dozen times each.

I research new games to play in the car. As we head up to see our families in Central New York this December, we’re tackling a book full of “Would you rather” quandaries and the cards from a family edition of Trivial Pursuit.

No one can be happy on a long car trip if they’re hangry. Packing good snacks and drinks (and don’t forget a bag for trash) can mean the difference between everyone acting naughty or nice. I research potential restaurants and coffee shops along the route. That way, we don’t have to bring along meals and there are natural breaks built into the journey. Good resources for discovering primo pit stops are the indispensable “Roadfood” by Jane and Michael Stern, and the “Great American Eating Experiences” guide put together by National Geographic.

If you have a pet, make sure they don’t get hangry either. Pack a travel bag with collapsible bowls, water, food and treats. Other good additions: favored toys, a leash for potty breaks, and a stain-and-odor-eliminating spray to deal with accidents.

Finally, it’s departure day. Check the weather and see if there are any significant delays or detours. Often, I route our trip along country roads rather than interstates. The scenery is nicer, there are usually no tolls, drivers are far less intense, and oftentimes it doesn’t add too much time to the itinerary. Remember: The journey can be just as pleasant as the destination. Consider leaving early in the day to build in time for unforeseen circumstances, but don’t become so fixated on a departure time that you blow a gasket when you inevitably miss it.

As a preemptive thank-you for enduring the epic ride, I give our son a couple of small gifts, such as Pokémon cards or Lego Minifigures. The gesture fosters goodwill and provides a bit of entertainment during the trip. Sometimes, I’ll hold one back to blatantly use as a bribe if tensions rise or blood sugar dips.

Once we’re out on the road, our son follows a different set of screen time rules than at home. It’s not limitless, but it is much more laissez faire than usual. After all, if I could be cozied up in the back seat watching movies while being chauffeured around, I would opt for that setup without thinking twice. So why be a Grinch by denying your child a few extra episodes of “A Series of Unfortunate Events” or some time playing Minecraft?

No matter what happens once you leave the house, stay flexible. If there is a detour or delay, roll with it. Maybe work in an extra stop for doughnuts or other treats to keep everyone’s spirits bright (we’re also more lax about our son’s daily sugar consumption when we’re on the road). Problems happen, that’s life. How big they become is often up to you. Always keep in mind that your mood can set the mood for the entire family, so be good for goodness’ sake.

Find yourself getting aggravated or frustrated? Take a few deep breaths (but please don’t close your eyes). If that doesn’t work, pull over and take a quick walk alone. When you get back on the road, your hands will rest easy on the wheel, you’ll get into the joy of spotting holiday decor, and the only time you’ll raise your voice is when you’re singing along to the music.

Martell is a writer based in Silver Spring, Md. Find him on Instagram: @nevinmartell.

Please Note

Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC's travel health notice webpage.

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