Pitfalls or advice for a family of 4 driving a rental car from upstate NY to FL right before X-mas?
August 20, 2012 6:05 AM   Subscribe

Got any advice or pitfall warnings for a family of 4 who may be driving a rental car from upstate NY to St. Augustine, FL, on December 22-23 (weekend)?

This plan for getting to Florida makes sense (to us) when compared with the headaches & hassle of multi-hop air travel (especially since we have had lousy recent experiences with cancelled flights, etc.) or the unreliability of going by train. Looking for advice on things like:
- do we really need to avoid DC for traffic concerns if it's Saturday?
- where is a good halfway motel stopping point?

(Getting to family in FL is the goal - we don't need road trip sightseeing advice.)
posted by chr1sb0y to Travel & Transportation (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Have you driven that far before? It's long and exhausting in a way that was surprising to me. Another thing to consider: that's winter and it could snow, and that could make travel difficult (and it will be dark a lot).

Re: motel stopping point, on long cross country drives like that, I like to drive until it feels like stopping time and then find somewhere, as there are usually places with vacancy all over the place, and I suspect that will be true even at Christmas.
posted by J. Wilson at 6:11 AM on August 20, 2012

Response by poster: Extra information:
- we and the kids have lots of experience with full-day driving
- I have seen travel advice that claims that motels around the halfway point (Dunn, NC) between NY and FL are booked up weeks in advance near the holidays
posted by chr1sb0y at 6:19 AM on August 20, 2012

If you have any sort of status with hotel programs (Hilton or Marriott, for example), now is the time to leverage them to get into hotels that are otherwise said to be full. Depending on which card you hold, American Express can also be of some assistance here.

I'd also expect to see a lot of police presence on the interstates as this is the weekend right before Christmas and there are probably going to be a lot of other folks hitting the road about this same time.
posted by jquinby at 6:24 AM on August 20, 2012

I've seen aggressive traffic enforcement (motorcycle cops pulling over whole lines of cars, that sort of thing) around that time of year in South Carolina, which I think you will be passing through.
posted by thelonius at 6:32 AM on August 20, 2012

I'd say don't stop near Dunn, then, maybe find a place further away. I've done FLA up to the NE and I don't remember where we stopped, but it was in NC, and it was snowing; what I did was basically navigate, and when we were getting tired, I'd watch the road for hotel signs, then call to see if they had a room before we got off. Managed to not get turned down (we had small kids, so we took three days).

Forgot to pack an ice scraper but since you're going north to south, I'm sure you'll remember. :)

I did up the Amtrak and that's pretty interesting, $700 for two adults and kids (guessing your crew). But I've also been on the "oh, well, it's delayed three hours" go-round as well. :)

From what I understand from local friends, DC traffic is somewhat mitigated by the fact that the House and Senate are likely to be on holiday break.
posted by tilde at 6:35 AM on August 20, 2012

Boston is a nightmare before Thanksgiving and Christmas, regardless of the time of day or day of the week. For that reason I suspect DC will be the same way, and I would avoid it if possible.
posted by J. Wilson at 6:35 AM on August 20, 2012

I've not done that route at that specific time of year, but I have routinely done car trips from DC to the midwest right before Thanksgiving and right before Christmas, and the one thing I can tell you is that even outside of rush hour, traffic is extremely heavy on the interstates around the major eastern cities, and for a much larger radius that you get with normal rush hour (like, you can expect slowdowns for a 50-100 mile radius). So on your trajectory I'd definitely take the I-81 alternative rather than I-95.
posted by drlith at 6:36 AM on August 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh oh ... make sure your rental agreement will let you take a car to Florida - If you're one-waying it there it's implicit. We were going to do a rental car but most places wouldn't let us leave the state without paying a huge amount more. We debated flying to some place cheap and driving from there but ultimately just took the family car.

And since you will be driving a rental, make sure you're comfortable with it; I've been in rental cars I hate and wouldn't want to drive them in inclement weather.

Consider taking space bags - we used those to compress our winter clothes until it got too cold to go without, and then compressed them on the trip back (just used heater and blankets since we weren't skiing on the way home). Space bags went in the trunk with the spare tire, we also layered cold weather jackets on the floor, laid blankets atop them, and then a "picnic" blanket (absorbent side up, liquid-resistant side down) atop that to pick up slush and protect the blankets and jackets.
posted by tilde at 6:44 AM on August 20, 2012

Best answer: It's dicey to plan this trip for only two days. Weather in NY/PA can be treacherous in December -- ice storms and heavy snows are not uncommon, and can slow the freeway down to stop-and-start. It's also a given that traffic will be very heavy, since everybody else in the world is going to be traveling that weekend, too. Any chance you can leave on Friday after work/school, or at least keep that possibility open until you've had a chance to see the weather forecast? That'll give you much more margin for error, and a scenario that looks something like this:
- Friday: 4 hours driving, stop near Harrisburg, PA
- Saturday: 7.5 hours driving, stop near Fayetteville, NC
- Sunday: 7.5 hours driving, reach St. Augustine

I-95 will be crawling with cops looking for people with out-of-state plates, so be aware that you'll always need to be going slower than your nearest out-of-state fellow-traveler. It could just be confirmation bias, but I've always found enforcement to be quite unfair -- local drivers will be whizzing by you at 90 mph, while cars with NY plates get pulled over for going 7 miles over the limit. I-81 isn't as bad, but I have occasionally seen some heavy patrolling just over the NY/PA border, on the PA side.

Avoid the Beltway at all costs. The detour adds only 7 additional map-minutes, and it could save you 2 actual driving-hours.

If you have a smartphone (or a AAA guide), it's probably best not to make reservations, since you can just look up the nearest place while you're on the road and call them to make sure they've got a room. I've found this tends to work better, especially when travel conditions are in question -- it's never good to push yourself past the point of exhaustion in order to make it to the hotel where you made your reservation.

This is going to be the ideal weekend to introduce your kids to The Lord of the Rings or some other age-appropriate multi-book epic fantasy. Also: having headphones and/or earplugs available for all non-drivers will save your sanity. Also: Cheez-its. Also: four-part Christmas carol harmonies. Fun times for all!
posted by ourobouros at 7:01 AM on August 20, 2012

How old are the kids in question? Toddlers will need frequent bathroom breaks, etc. Older kids are probably easier to manage on a long car trip like this.
posted by dfriedman at 7:03 AM on August 20, 2012

Lifelong DC-area resident here. While Saturday traffic is not as ugly as weekday rush hour, it is by no means pleasant. This is particularly true during tourist-heavy times, which the weekend before Christmas definitely qualifies as (every relative in town for a visit wants to hit the museums). If it's feasible for you to go around us, I would recommend it.

I can't speak for the stretch south of DC, but I've made the DC-to-NY drive a few times, and toll roads are your friends there. The base cost of the trip does go up, but the traffic congestion is lower, as most people will avoid tolls if possible for shorter (local) trips. The time and stress saved are totally worth the cost of the tolls, in my experience (especially on a traffic-heavy holiday weekend). I would assume the same holds true as you go further south.
posted by RealBorg at 7:06 AM on August 20, 2012

So on your trajectory I'd definitely take the I-81 alternative rather than I-95.

The traditional snowbird advice is to take the 'inside' route rather than the I-95, to avoid bad weather. The I-81 may not be that much more inside, but if the focus is just getting there, I'd lean that way, myself.
posted by Capt. Renault at 7:09 AM on August 20, 2012

My family used to make yearly drives down the coast for vacations. The things that caused the most stress were getting lost, finding open hotels to stay over in, and me and my sister fighting.

I would recommend avoiding I-95 at all costs. It's just too congested and the potential for major delays is huge.

If you have an iPhone, I would recommend downloading the app AroundMe. I use it all the time to find restaurants, gas stations, and hotels. The hotels now show price and availability, which is super helpful.

Depending on how old your kids are, you could do what my mom used to do. She would start off the trip with an envelope full of 1 dollar bills - one each for me and my sister. Each time she had to yell at us, she would take a dollar out of the envelope, and the total left at the end of the trip was all we had to spend on toys/souvenirs when we got to our vacation. It was pretty effective.
posted by elvissa at 8:57 AM on August 20, 2012

If you're taking I-95 south to Florida, no matter how many signs you see and how attractive and/or kitschy it may look, do not stop at South of the Border. It will waste your time, you'll spend money needlessly, and you'll question your sanity as you leave.
posted by thanotopsis at 11:09 AM on August 20, 2012

Sounds like you're experienced, but ... check your insurance. If you decline the rental company's, be sure your own covers you. I won't belabor it, except to note that negligence on this point can have serious consequences.

As for South of the Border, I won't advise or discourage a stop there, but DO enjoy the advertising. "Keep screaming, kids -- they'll stop!"
posted by LonnieK at 5:33 PM on August 20, 2012

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