Yesterday, an old friend of mine, one that I’ve known for more than 20 years and talk to online regularly but rarely get to see face to face, came through my area in the midst of a long road trip with his family. We were both excited that our paths were going to cross and we made plans to meet up.
Ordinarily, one might expect that we’d just identify a restaurant somewhere and meet for lunch there. It’d be convenient, right? Well, after some back and forth, we came up with a different plan.
First of all, we decided to meet at a park instead of a restaurant. There were several reasons for this. One, it settled the issue of figuring out a restaurant that everyone would like and that would meet all dietary requirements. Two, it put us in a position where we’d arrive with food already in hand so that we wouldn’t waste our window of time together ordering food and reading menus.
For me, however, the biggest advantage here was that I could just bring a meal made at home. I assembled a sack lunch meal in the morning with stuff I already had on hand and just took that with me. I just made a simple sandwich, took some sliced vegetables and fruit out of the fridge, and grabbed a full water bottle. It was simple, tasty, and incredibly cheap.
That’s really the other advantage of not eating at a restaurant: by not choosing a restaurant, it allowed everyone to choose how expensive they wanted lunch to be beyond the mere choice of what kind of food to eat. I wanted a cheap lunch. Another friend in the area who joined us brought a rather expensive takeout meal, one that probably cost 10 times what my lunch did. Our mutual friends had a meal that was likely somewhere in the middle.
It also allowed individual people to consider their own dietary needs and food allergy concerns. This can sometimes be an issue if someone’s on a particular diet and can only eat certain foods or only eat at certain places. This wasn’t a real issue yesterday, but it certainly has been in the past.
Second, it provided a setting to move around. After eating, we went on a short walk together while their child played on the playground. Since they were in the midst of a road trip, it gave everyone in their family a chance to stretch their legs and move around, which felt good.
This was particularly useful for their young child. He seemed to truly enjoy being able to run around in the fresh air for a while and he took full advantage of the playground. (He even convinced the adults to join him on the playground for a while.)
This was the exact reason that we would often stop at parks when our children were younger. It gave them a chance to run around and burn off excess energy from being in the car. They’d run to the playground and wear themselves out with vigorous play while Sarah and I would usually clean up lunch and then take a walk around the park. It gave all of us an excuse to stretch out our bodies after a long car ride and get ready for another leg of the trip.
Third, we could linger for as long as we wanted. At a restaurant, you’re often nudged out the door after a certain length of time, especially if the restaurant is busy at all. At the park, we were free to stay all day if we wished. My sole restriction was needing to get home before my children got off the bus; their restriction was to get back on the road so they could make it to their destination by dark. We were free to hang out on our terms and free to depart on our terms.
We ended up talking for far longer than I expected; I figured they’d want to get on the road quickly, but instead they lingered for quite a while, enjoying the conversation and the nice weather. That probably wouldn’t have happened at a restaurant.
Another big advantage of being in a park is that we could spread out as much as we liked. With a restaurant, you might have a large group jammed into a small booth together or at a small table. At a park, there was no such issue. We spread out a giant blanket near a tree and spread out, with everyone having plenty of elbow room and space.
Finally, stopping at a park gives one an opportunity to enjoy local flavor and roadside curiosities. While this particular meeting didn’t really allow for such events, I have often stopped at great points of interest on road trips, often meeting friends at such places. It can be a great way to add to someone’s road trip while also giving them the freedom to get out and exercise.
Consider what free points of interest are in your area that out-of-towners who are just driving through might enjoy seeing, then plan to meet friends who are stopping by at those places. They get the joy of seeing you and visiting for a while and also enjoying a low cost meal along with the added attraction of seeing something interesting on their trip for free.
In the past, I’ve done this with things like the world’s largest twine ball in Arthur, MN and the statue of Superman in Metropolis, IL. Both of those involved stops in the middle of road trips that added something special to the trip. In both cases, I enjoyed a picnic lunch there, along with time with friends and loved ones. It really added to the trip.
Unfortunately, there aren’t many such places of interest near me, but there are certainly some parks and stops that are more interesting than others. Taking the time to identify a few can be worthwhile for people passing near you, and researching areas where you might stop to visit friends might give you a very interesting place to stop for such a meetup.
So, what can you take out of all of this?
If you’re on a road trip and thinking of stopping for a break at meal time, consider stopping at a park rather than a restaurant. It gives you the opportunity to get some fresh air and go for a walk as well, and if you have children, they can burn off some of that pent-up energy on the playground. You’ll also be far less restricted on the time for the stop – if you want to make it quick, you can just eat and run rather than having to wait for your food and for the waitstaff, but if you want to linger, you can linger for as long as you want to.
If you have friends stopping by as they go through town, consider suggesting a meetup at a park rather than at a restaurant. Again, this eliminates the need to negotiate what restaurant to choose and saves everyone involved money if they so choose. If people prefer food from a restaurant, they can get takeout from any number of fast food and fast casual restaurants. If people prefer food from home, they can bring food from home. You can even bring food for your friends if you so wish.
Look for interesting parks or free roadside attractions as part of the meetup plans. When considering where to meet, consider things in your area that might be interesting for the out-of-towner to see as part of a quick stop and meet there. If you’re going to meet someone as part of a road trip (or just need a place to stop for lunch), research a good stopping point and look for things of interest in that area. Sites like Roadside America and Atlas Obscura are great tools for this type of planning.
If parks are your game plan, come prepared with food in a cooler. Prepare some meals and beverages the night before your departure and stock up your cooler before you leave. Yes, you can always stop at a fast casual restaurant for takeout or a fast food restaurant or even call for something to be delivered, but that adds a lot of expense to the stop. Instead, aim to include the elements of an inexpensive meal or two in your packing and fill up a cooler with cold items just before you leave.
Together, these strategies will save you some money on your road trip while also giving you ample opportunity to stretch your legs and refresh yourself after part of a day of driving (and potentially get ready for another partial day of driving).