By Road trips columnist
updated 11/21/2006 8:22:07 PM ET 2006-11-22T01:22:07

The roads are jammed, the kids are squabbling, the weather is sleety and the pumpkin pie is going cold in the trunk. Ah, yes, it’s the annual Thanksgiving road trip. Is there anything you can do to make this pilgrimage more bearable? Yes, there is.

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Over the river and through the woods, To Grandmother’s house we go …

Television commercials do a marvelous job of portraying the ideal road trip. You’re in a fabulous car, alone on a scenic highway, headed for — who cares? You’re free and moving with the wind. Life is perfect.

Now picture this far-more-likely scenario. You’re heading out the day before Thanksgiving to get to your aunt’s house in time for turkey. This is no car ad, even if you’re driving a dream machine. If you or your aunt live in metropolitan areas, you’re going to be seeing a lot more red taillights than magnificent vistas. There’s a very good chance this is not going to be a “speed run.”

In fact, in my experience, those interminable traffic stoppages occur just as your 7-year-old child and your aging cocker spaniel both announce that they need a potty break. You realize that the weather forecasters failed to mention a sudden 20-degree drop in temperature that is transforming your carefully crafted 12-layer salad into frozen compost in the trunk. An impenetrable tule fog has just obliterated the road in front of you, and you are beginning to doubt that you’ll find an exit in time to prevent the double accident building in the back seat.

It can be a challenge to keep a good road trip attitude when you’ve got dinner waiting and you’re traveling with the holiday hordes, but with a little planning, it’s not impossible. These eight tips should help keep a smile on your face, even when you’re stuck between exits on a jammed super-slab full of other turkey-destined travelers.

Don’t follow the crowd
Sometimes the best time to travel is on the holiday itself. Or, if you can take the time, a couple of days before or after the holiday rush. In the case of Thanksgiving, that means hitting the road on Tuesday and/or returning on Monday. I don’t often have that much flexibility, but I’ve found that traveling on Thanksgiving Day is actually a nice experience. The traffic jams are pretty much gone, and even if I arrive at my destination too late for the official feast, my reward is a great selection of tasty leftovers and hosts who have had a chance to relax from their frenzied preparations for the holiday.

Get a CB radio and learn how to use it
There is a tendency these days to think CBs are outmoded, but nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, professional drivers use cell phones and satellite Internet connections, but they still rely on CBs for local information and safety advisories. For car drivers, no other device can provide such instant information on road hazards, tie-ups and alternate routes. Best of all, CBs work even with cell phones don’t.

Keep all your electronic options in play
If you hit one of those interminable delays, you can always turn on your laptop, DVD player, MP3 player or other entertainment device. If you happen to be in an area with good wireless service, you can even log onto the Web and get local traffic information. Worried about depleting the batteries? Then get a power inverter for your electronic gizmos.

Think like a Boy Scout
Around the holidays, you have to be prepared for just about anything, so keep a cache of emergency supplies in your vehicle. Include these items: blanket, flashlight, candle and matches, bandana or tea towel, paper towels, first aid kit, batteries, water and a good adventure novel. Carry emergency food, too. Canned items are best — I carry MREs (meals ready to eat) — but things like Spam and fruit cocktail are fine. If the cans don’t have pull tabs, bring a can opener, and don’t forget some plastic utensils. If you keep emergency provisions in your vehicle all year round, now is a good time to check that they are still functional or edible.

Brush up on your winter driving
Don’t be fooled by all those autumn decorations. Thanksgiving can bring some of the worst winter driving conditions of the year. Snow, sleet and ice are particular worries, so now is the time to check those tires and recall what it means to “steer into the skid.”

Stretch and move whenever you get the chance
If you find yourself trapped on a jammed highway with a few thousand of your closest strangers, do some road-trip calisthenics. I find that isometric exercises like rolling your shoulders and flexing your back and upper arms can be great stress relievers. If possible, get out of your car and perform the “Chicken Dance.” You will entertain your fellow travelers and get your own circulation moving. It may not get the traffic to move any faster, but it will put some of the festivity back into the trip.

Take along audio books and some games
Audio books are great because you can listen to them while you drive, but bring along some other amusements in case your route becomes a parking lot. A deck of cards is the easiest and most portable entertainment, but travel versions of popular board games can also be good choices.

Remember: Any road trip is a good road trip!
It’s the unplanned events that can transform an ordinary car trip into an adventure. A few years ago, I was trapped in an ice storm in north Texas somewhere east of Amarillo on Christmas Eve. It was a dark, frigid night, and it was a little bit scary, but my CB radio made it possible to chat with “Moonrider,” the driver of the 18-wheeler stuck in front of me. Seven years later, we’re still friends, but I would never have met him if it weren’t for that paralyzing storm.

This isn’t to say that I hope you get stuck in an ice storm this holiday season. But if you do find yourself dining on Spam and fruit cocktail instead of turkey and cranberries, it isn’t a tragedy; it’s an adventure. After all, life’s a journey. Be thankful when you find yourself on a scenic route.

Mark Sedenquist is the publisher of RoadTrip America, a Web site providing expert planning, advice and suggested itineraries for road trips. He's spent 30 years and a half-million miles on the road in North America. Email Mark or visit his website.

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