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10 tips to survive the Florida drive

It's a long way, but it doesn't have to be a dangerous chore. Here's how to enjoy the U.S. interstate during March break.
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Next week, families across Ontario will be making the most of the March break and driving down to Florida.

It’s 2,000 kilometres and pretty much 24 hours of driving to Orlando,  four hours more to Miami and maybe an hour less to Panama City.

Planning to drive to the sun? Here’s some advice:

1. Plan ahead, within reason

How long do you want the drive to take? One, two or three days?

If it’s one day, to spend as long in Florida as possible, arrange to split the driving and make sure the person who drives at night gets some sleep beforehand during the day. If you leave in the morning, take earplugs and eyeshades to let that passenger get some sleep. It’s safest to leave in the evening, so the first driver can sleep at home before taking the wheel.

If it’s two days, make sure to book a place to stay halfway down. Most motels and hotels sell out on a weekend soon after it gets dark, or only have their most expensive rooms still available. The halfway point on the 2,000 km trip from Toronto to Orlando is mid-West Virginia.

Three days (or more) is best, because it allows a far more pleasant drive and lets you avoid travelling by night. As well, you can leave after breakfast at 9 or 10 a.m., make stops as you wish, and find accommodations around 6 p.m. when there’s still lots of choice.

For the return drive, plan to arrive home an extra day before you have to be back at work or the kids need to be in school. You’ll appreciate time for relaxing, and you’ll have spare time if you hit bad weather.

2. Which route?

If the weather’s good and you live in the GTA, take the most direct route south, which is to cross at Buffalo, head west to Erie, Penn., then south on I-79 past Pittsburgh and into West Virginia. Leave the interstate at Sutton and cut across to I-77 on Highway 19  a four-laner with a 65 mph speed limit that will save an hour of driving. It meets the interstate at Beckley, W. Va., which is a good place to stay with many hotels and should take about 12 hours to reach. (The Country Inn and Suites there has a great swimming pool.) Exit I-77 onto I-26 and drive down to I-95 and into Florida.

If the weather’s threatening, head to Detroit and drive the less-mountainous I-75 all the way down. This is an additional 150 km and much less scenic, but less prone to snowstorms.

Check the weather for your exact route at the Travel Smart section of www.weather.com.

3. Buy the book

If you drive down on I-75, be sure to carry a copy of Along Interstate 75 by Dave Hunter. It’s packed with entertaining information about the highway all the way to the Florida border, and will let you know what to expect at every intersection. Plus, if you feel like a break, it’ll guide you on some scenic detours that take very little time. And whatever route you take, buy a decent road atlas. Truck stops are the best places to buy the best road maps.

4. Prepare the vehicle

Make sure your vehicle is in good repair and the tires inflated to their correct pressures. And join the Canadian Automobile Association if you’re not already a member. The CAA offers tremendous peace of mind if your vehicle breaks down it partners with the AAA to rescue Canadians.

It also provides trip planning and route advice through its website, www.caa.ca, though you don’t need to be a member to access much of it.

5. Know where the coffee is

If, like many Canadians, you plan trips around the nearest Tim Hortons, go to www.timhortons.com and print out the American locations.

If there are no Hortons, and if, like many Canadians, you appreciate a decent cup of coffee for the drive, check the website of your favourite U.S. coffee shop to find it beside the road and not rely on interstate signs.

On road trips in the States, I check the Web every morning (the motel will have a computer if I don’t) and look for Starbucks along the way. It has a handy locator for stores within 50 miles of wherever I think I’ll want a decent coffee.

6. Use gas stations wisely

Pay for your gas with a credit card at the pump. There’s no greater mark for unscrupulous gas station attendants than an out-of-town credit card. Make a point of paying at the pump and your information is most likely to remain secure.

Many stations, though, especially large chains in the South, now require you to type in your zip code as a security measure, but of course, Canadians don’t have zip codes. If this happens, just try another station, but remember which chains require this for next time.

As well, most American service centres now demand that you prepay for your gas. A credit card is the simplest method. Go inside if you have to and use the card to pay for a fixed amount of gas that will be less than you need and get a receipt.

The cheapest gas is in Kentucky, Tennessee and Georgia (it’s averaging around $3.40 per gallon today). Keep a better check of current gas prices along the route at www.gasbuddy.com.

7. Keep your cards safe

Keep a spare credit card separate from your wallet or purse, and if you leave the wallet/purse in the vehicle, carry a spare card or plenty of cash in your pocket.

It’s one thing to replace a stolen credit card, but quite another to live or drive without one while you’re waiting to receive the replacement.

Also, advise your primary credit card company beforehand that you’ll be making this trip. If they see a suspicious change of your habits in the card’s spending – 11 months of use in Toronto, then suddenly a long road trip – they might assume the card’s been stolen and cancel it without telling you. This has happened to me twice. One time it was suspended and reinstated, but the other time it was just cancelled outright and a new card sent to my home address, where it was useless to me until I returned home.

8. Enjoy some DVDs

If you’re driving with kids, take a DVD player. Children just are not as interested in the scenery as you might want them to be.

And if you have fond memories of looking out the windows on long drives as a kid, remember that you probably weren’t strapped into the back seat as immobile as your kids are today.

We limit our boys (13 and 10) to two movies a day on a long drive and it breaks the tedium of the journey. As well, it lets us listen to our own music and talk all we like in the front seat, with as much bad language as we care to use because they can’t hear us.

Donâ’t own a vehicle with a DVD player? You can buy one at Wal-Mart or Canadian Tire for less than $100 (or a little more than $100 for a deluxe model) with two headrest-mounted screens that also doubles as a DVD player for your motel television.

Mine was made by a company called Venturer and sold at Wal-Mart and is still going strong.

Don’t use individual DVD players or computers that sit on the lap – the screen should be mounted high and forward to avoid neck stiffness and headaches.

9. Don’t speed!

It’s not worth it, and it’ll exhaust you watching out for cops over the long haul.

Most of the way, the limit is 65 mph or 70 mph (105 and 115 km/h), and you’ll probably be okay if you keep to the speed of other traffic.

I leave the cruise at 120 km/h and no longer get tickets. Remember the miles-per-hour dictum of the Florida state trooper: “Eight is great, nine you’re mine.”

State troopers patrol the interstate highways and don’t care who you are or where you’re from. If they pull you over for an offence, you’ll get a ticket. Municipal officers patrol the secondary roads and they love to give expensive tickets to out-of-towners.

If you take that short cut on Highway 19 through West Virginia, remember to slow down through the few towns along the way: Summersville has an enthusiastic police department that’s especially well funded by out-of-towners who don’t notice the speed limit through town dropping from 65 m.p.h. to 50 m.p.h.

You can read about its speed traps, and plenty of others, at www.speedtrap.org.

If you do get a ticket, pay it promptly, and unless it’s in New York or Michigan, which have automatic reciprocity with Ontario you probably won’t get demerit points applied to your Ontario driver’s licence.

10. Relax

Remember to take plenty of water and snacks, and don’t even think about pressing on if you feel drowsy.

Like it or not, the trip there and back is part of your vacation, so sit back and make the most of the drive.

Mark Richardson is the editor of Wheels. mrichardson@thestar.ca

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