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Take Your Kid To A Truck Stop This Thanksgiving

Cheap, pungent food, a laundry room, a shower, and a lounge where you can watch TV. What's not to love?

Thanksgiving is the busiest travel day of the year. For the average joe this means traffic, coffee spills, and a GPS system that continues to demand increasingly impossible U-turns in a polite British accent. For dads, it means all of those things plus a back seat full of antsy children. Every few hours — between driving games, iPhone charges, and petty arguments — you’re going to need a rest area.

And not just any rest area. You need a truck stop.

I know, I know. Truck stops sound seedy. What with all the rumors of drinking, gambling, and lot lizards (if you don’t know what that means, don’t Google it). But I motion that truckers and their unique rest areas get a bad rap, and it’s high-time savvy dad drivers claim them for their families.

Truck stops originated in the U.S. in the 1940s, because truckers wanted to pull over knowing that they’d be able to get diesel fuel and a parking space large enough to accommodate their payloads. Distinct from rest areas, which cater to cars (and chump dads who don’t know any better), truck stops are generally run by TravelCenters of America. When you see a “Travel Center” or a “Flying J” or a “T/A”, you’re almost always looking at a truck stop, as opposed to a normal rest area.

When I drive my family from upstate New York to Manhattan (a frequent route for us), I keep a weather eye on road signs along I-81 S. I’m looking for the telltale signs of a Travel Center and, maybe an hour or two into our excursion, I turn off the highway to investigate a promising T/A. There’s a place to park my car, and fuel aplenty. There’s all of the usual suspects — cheap, pungent fast food inexplicably buried in cheese; a rack of candy bars and chips, at which my child will balefully swat; a wall of sodas and energy drinks; a bored cashier snapping her bubble gum and standing sentry in front of a display of cigarettes and Five Hour Energy drinks.

But at a truck stop, especially one of the good ones, there’s also a laundry room. And a large lounge styled like a living room, with comfy chairs and Law & Order playing on a television screen. Hardened trucker types sit around, watching the show and mumbling to one another. They’re waiting for an automated overhead system to call their numbers, indicating that a washer or dryer is now available, or that a shower stall has opened up (they have showers too). In some states, such as Louisiana, there are on-site casinos at certified truck stops. There are occasionally beds (but I strongly suggest you leave those rare sleeping quarters for the truckers who need them)

For a parent, it’s mecca. Dinner for the kids, and a place to relax and watch TV between legs of a long journey. A shower and laundry room, because we all know what happens to toddlers in car seats. And the opportunity to meet some truly interesting people over truly soggy fast food.

Now, that doesn’t mean every truck stop is safe or that every Flying J is a beacon for road-weary parents. Rural truck stops are almost always homey, but as you get closer to cities they can be hit or miss, especially late at night. Seasoned truckers who pick up or deliver in the New York metro area will tell you to avoid the Vince Lombardi service plaza at all costs. So shopping for truck stops requires some experience and a little common sense. But it’s certainly worth a shot this Thanksgiving, especially when you’re about to snap (and desperately need a laundry machine).

You can search for truck stops along your route here.