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Taking a road trip? Sign at the dotted line

Taking a road trip? Before you load up the family, consider drawing up a contract that all car mates will sign. It may sound silly, but will save headaches when you're on the road.
Duane Hoffmann /

Travelers are finding it more difficult to bag a bargain. Airfares are creeping higher and many airlines have been adding extra surcharges for everything from fuel costs to checked luggage. Delta, for example, recently announced it was joining United and US Airways in hiking fees for excess baggage. And United, Continental, American and Delta are among the U.S. airlines that have starting tacking on fuel surcharges — some up to $40!

Sticking to the roads may not offer much relief: in some communities, the price of gasoline has already topped $4 a gallon.

So will everyone soon decide to just stay home?

Not likely. In 2007, U.S. airlines carried a record 769.4 million passengers on domestic and international flights, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. That's an increase of 25 million passengers from the year before.

Don't expect the numbers to drop off much in 2008, no matter what happens to the price of oil. In fact, many travelers plan to fund part of their 2008 travel with “free” money from the government's economic stimulus plan.

The government has promised those who get it together to file their 2007 federal taxes a “reward” in the form of rebates of up to $600 per individual, up to $1,200 per couple, and $300 for each child under 17 years old. Many citizens will use those rebates to pay bills and buy food. But 10 percent of those who answered a phone survey conducted on behalf of travel insurance provider Access America say they'll use this extra money to travel. That represents about a $10 billion infusion of cash into the travel and tourism industries.

Are we there yet?
A good deal of that money will likely be spent on airplane tickets. But given how fast airfares are rising, it's a fair bet that many folks will try to stretch their travel dollars by piling into the car for a road trip.

That's what I'm planning to do. Having recently swapped a 25-year-old clunker for a super-fuel-efficient red car that has both cup holders and cruise control (whoopee!), I now find myself spending my free time studying road atlases and, of course, brushing up on road-trip etiquette.

What are the rules of the road?
When I was a kid, my dad's rule was that the car radio dial could stay tuned to the cool rock ’n’ roll station only when the Rolling Stones' “19th Nervous Breakdown” was playing. I thought he was being hip. Instead, he was probably bracing himself for being stuck on the road with three truly unruly kids fighting in the backseat.

Back then we had the radio, the scenery and the metal buckles on the seatbelts (unbuckled they became weapons) to keep us amused. Now, of course, kids and adults stay entertained with personal DVD players, iPods and all manner of non-lethal toys equipped with sanity-saving headphone jacks.

That's fine for a trip to the grocery store or across town to grandma's house. But well-mannered travelers setting out for “rebate road trips” might want to make an appointment with their lawyers.

Sign on the dotted line
When a colleague told me he had to rush home for a family meeting about the contract details for their upcoming road trip, I thought he was kidding. Once he explained what that meant, I realized it was a great idea. And not just for families. Whether you're heading out on the road with a carload of kids, a friend or a long time partner, you can avoid all sorts of mishaps by drawing up a contract that outlines the rules of the road long before you leave the driveway.

What goes into the contract?
Everything! Dozens of decisions will get made every day you're on the road — from what highways to take and when to stop for meals to which passenger gets to read the map, ask for directions, choose the radio station and sit in the front seat. So why not let everyone, even young kids, get a say in how some of those decisions are made?

Your travel team might choose, for example, to have one person be the navigator for the entire trip or to pass that assignment around each day or several times a day. Deciding when rest stops are taken may be left entirely up to the driver or enforced whenever someone declares that they really, really, really have to go to the bathroom. Putting details like this in a road-trip contract can help eliminate some of the most common disagreements. An added benefit is making the trip more fun.

What else should go in a road trip contract?
Each trip and every group of travelers will be different, of course, but here are some of the items I'll put in the contract for my next road trip:

  • Who will control the ‘cabin’ temperature?
  • What time will we be ready to hit the road each day and what time will we call it quits?
  • How many miles must we travel each day?
  • Will we take major highways or travel the side roads?
  • Will every passenger get a chance to choose a restaurant, or is it Denny’s and McDonald’s all the way?
  • What will the seating assignments be? If they change, what is the schedule?
  • Who gets to choose the music?
  • Who knows how to change a flat tire?
  • Will eating, smoking, singing, whistling, humming, gum chewing, nail clipping and other potentially distracting and irritating activities be allowed inside the car?

In my colleague's family, every traveler — even the five-year-old — gets a chance to research and choose an “adventure” on the road. It can be a theme park, a roadside distraction, a museum or perhaps a park with a swimming pool or hiking trail. If someone else in the car doesn't like that day’s adventure, too bad. They've signed a contract with a “no whining” clause.

Who keeps the contract?
Everyone! After negotiations are completed, each member of the travel team should sign the contract and get their own copy — in case it needs perusal during timeouts in the backseat.

Put an extra copy in the glove compartment and, just to be safe, leave a copy with your lawyer. If you're somehow left behind at a rest stop or gas station, you'll need to know your rights.

Harriet Baskas writes's popular weekly column, The Well-Mannered Traveler. She is the author of the , a contributor to National Public Radio and a columnist for