The Rise and Fall of the Family-Vacation Road Trip

Richard Ratay, the author of Don’t Make Me Pull Over!: An Informal History of the Family Road Trip, discusses the factors that turned road trips from an individual adventurer’s pursuit into a family activity—and those that led to their decline.

A family sits in a white convertible
Steven Gottlieb / Getty

The writer Richard Ratay was on the beach in the Dominican Republic several years ago, watching his kids play in the surf, when he started thinking about just how different vacations were for his kids than they had been for him when he was their age.* Why? Chiefly because, unlike the vacations he’d taken as a kid growing up in Wisconsin, this vacation hadn’t required its participants to spend multiple days squeezed into a car. Instead, they’d flown.

In his new book, Don’t Make Me Pull Over!: An Informal History of the Family Road Trip, Ratay writes that throughout the 1960s and ’70s, America was at Peak Family Road Trip. The interstate-highway system was materializing from coast to coast at the same time automobiles were becoming a fixture parked in front of family homes; add a generation of dads who’d returned home from war bitten by the travel bug and a new, still-unreliable, prohibitively expensive air-travel industry, and you suddenly had a country full of families packing up their station wagons to go on vacation.

Among them was Ratay’s own family, and in Don’t Make Me Pull Over!, Ratay weaves in the history of American vacation culture with memories of the childhood years he spent traveling with his efficiency-minded dad, his beleaguered mom, his two teenage brothers, and a sister perpetually on the brink of puking all over the car. Ratay spoke to The Atlantic about the origins of the road trip, parenting on the interstate, and why the golden age of family road-tripping was a distinctly American phenomenon. An edited and condensed transcript of our conversation is below.

Ashley Fetters: In the book, you explain that road trips started out as an individual adventurer’s pursuit, at the dawn of the automobile age. But pretty quickly they became a family activity. What would you say were the key factors in making road trips a staple of family life?

Richard Ratay: The impetus behind road trips, in so many ways, really was World War II. The draft and enlistment swept young men off their farms and out of their urban neighborhoods and sent them off to distant areas of the country to train and prepare for combat, and then they were sent off to fight in far-flung areas of the world. For many of these young men, it was their first taste of seeing the world beyond their familiar surroundings. When they came back to America, they had this travel bug, and, of course, they also were in the time of their lives where they were starting families. That’s when you had the Baby Boom. They had all these kids because of the postwar economic prosperity that America was going through at that time.

They had disposable money and time, and American factories became better than ever at producing vast numbers of automobiles because they improved their production techniques during the war to produce as many airplanes and tanks and jeeps as possible. America all of a sudden had young men who were interested in travel with new families, lots of money, lots of time, lots of cars—and that was really what spurred the travel boom.

There was also the defense aspect as well, that President Dwight Eisenhower recognized. He wanted the ability for the U.S. military to be able to move about the country freely and of course defend all its many coasts and borders. Then there was, of course, the looming threat of atomic war in the background as well, and he wanted to provide a means for urban dwellers to be able escape cities in the event of an atomic attack.

Fetters: The development of the interstate-highway system seems to have played a crucial role in the rise of family road trips, and your book lays out the history of the highway system really engagingly. What surprised you most when you were researching?

Ratay: First and foremost, how incredibly young America’s interstate-highway system really is. Legislation was passed to start funding construction of the interstate, of course, in 1956, but it really took America 25 years to build those interstates. Just a few of the things that have been around longer that our interstates are things like barcodes, microwave ovens, color TV. Queen Elizabeth II of England has been queen longer than America has had its interstate highways. David Hasselhoff has been around longer than America has had its interstate highways. That’s mind-blowing, especially when you consider the transformative impact that the interstate highways had on our country. It’s crazy to think that they’re less than an average life span old. When you’re a kid traveling the highways with your parents, you don’t think anything of it. You just think, Well, these highways have always been here. But they were still building the interstates at the same time I was traveling them.

Fetters: One thing I found so relatable about your book was the descriptions of your parents disagreeing about how to manage time and manage kids on the road. I especially loved the part about your dad driving right up to the brink of running out of gas. Somehow family road-trip vacations, to me, are where you really see reinforcement of certain, stereotypical parental roles: this idea that dads are risk takers and moms are voices of reason.

Ratay: It bridges generations, right? I mean, this book is very much a love letter to my parents, and a thank-you to them for the opportunities they provided us to visit different areas of the country and enjoy all those experiences together. We still take a lot of road trips in my family, in my present family, and there are times where I feel myself assuming the role of my own father. Saying things like Don’t make me pull over! and kind of becoming him in a way.

I also wrote the book because my parents passed away at a very young age, and my children never had a chance to meet them. Very few of my nieces did as well. I wrote the book to capture that experience, so that they would be able to get to know their grandparents a little bit, and also get to know what it was like for us; to give them a taste of what our life was like when we were their same ages.

Fetters: You gesture a lot in the book at the fact that, before there was cheap airfare [in part due to the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978], the journey itself was a bigger part of the family vacation. You mention how driving through parts of the country that you don’t live in exposes you to people living in different ways from you; you describe driving past kids working in the field with their parents. What was the most surprising thing you learned in your own family vacations about how other people lived?

Ratay: Oh, boy. There were so many things. Food was so different in different parts of the country, and people spoke so differently. We’d make it down into New Orleans and the Deep South oftentimes, so to eat things like fried catfish and okra and po’boys and gumbo. Those were very different dishes from what we had in Wisconsin in the 1970s. And the way people talked! I could barely understand some of the people in the South, with their thick southern drawls.

Fetters: You seem a little bit sad at the end of the book about some of the ways in which vacations have evolved since your childhood. Is there anything you’ve made a point to do or emphasize on your own family vacations now, to preserve the ethos of the vacations you went on as a kid?

Ratay: Yes. Yes. I’m very conscious about making the journey part of the destination and its own reward, and so my wife and I are very conscious about picking out great places for us to stop along the way. We went out to Mount Rushmore a few years ago, but we took kind of a meandering route and went through Iowa and we stopped off at the Field of Dreams, where they shot the movie. We were just there for an hour, but it was a great stop.

I think parents can keep finding ways to keep that shared travel experience alive, but it takes a little bit of extra effort: doing some research to find those interesting stops, creating things like playlists to make it real for kids, and being very conscious about limiting electronics usage by the kids while on the vacation, and trying to keep more interactive things like playing games. You know, I still think Mad Libs is a fantastic thing for families to do.

Fetters: I agree! I still think that’s the best car game.

Ratay: It still cracks me up as an adult.

Fetters: Are there ways road trips have changed that you’d consider improvements?

Ratay: Certainly our smartphone maps program and apps. It makes sure we’re all headed in the right direction. Obviously I write pretty fondly of AAA TripTiks in my book, but if you actually want to get where you’re going in a timely manner, it’s sure nice to have those navigation apps. [laughs]

Certainly the reliability of today’s automobiles, too. I remember my dad packing up all sorts of tools and extra belts and fuses, because you didn’t know when you were going to break down on a family vacation. It wasn’t a question of if you were going to break down—it was almost a given that you were. Luckily my brother was kind of a gearhead, even before he was old enough to drive. He knew a ton about cars and he bailed us out on many occasions. My dad bought high-end automobiles, too; Cadillacs and Lincolns, quality automobiles. But it was just an era when automotive quality was not great.

It sure felt back then a lot more like when you went on a family vacation, you were setting off into the wild frontier on a great adventure together. You as a family were going to have to overcome these challenges and find ways to deal with them. I don’t think it feels that way anymore. If something does happen, help is only a call on your cell phone or mobile phone away.

Fetters: It seems like a less stressful endeavor, but also maybe less of an adventure, too.

Ratay: Part of that stress helped families bond together because when something did happen, you were going to have to overcome it as a family. You were going to have to have patience and get through it together.

*This article originally stated that Ratay had been vacationing in Mexico when he thought about road trips. We regret the error.