Trip’s logistics, car-buying plan both ‘go south’

HIGHWAY VETERAN: Mrs. G’s Solara has made three round-trips to Florida. It doesn’t look bad from a distance, from where you can’t see the peeling paint on the fender. –Bill Griffith

Back in the day, after relatives or friends went on a trip, there often was a follow-up social occasion.

You’d be invited over for dinner and a slide show, allowing them to relive their experiences. Usually, though not always, it would be a toss-up as to which was worse: the photos or the narrative.

An exception, of course, is when you are the host. Then the evening is all about your trip. Thus we embark on a tale from this year’s Snowbird journey from New England to Southwest Florida.

As usual, my wife and I didn’t get around to updating our fleet beforehand, so the journey was made in Mrs. G’s 2004 Toyota Solara, which now is pushing 80,000 miles. It has never failed to start, had so much as a flat tire, major maintenance issue, or broken down either at home or on the road.

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We did make a couple of auto-related plans before embarking on the 1,600-mile trip.

The first was our departure date. It seemed natural to leave the Sunday after Christmas. The thinking was that a weekend day would be a good time to get past the New York and Washington, D.C., areas and beat some of the traffic headed south.

There was only one problem with that theory: Thousands of other Snowbirds had the same idea, combined with all the folks headed home from their Christmas travels.

Suffice it to say that Rte. 95 was a parking lot from southern New Jersey—where the lanes merge—across the Delaware Memorial Bridge, through Baltimore, around D.C., and continuing past Quantico, Virginia, almost all the way to Richmond.

We got off 95 just before Baltimore and cut down to Rte. 301, hoping for a smoother ride around D.C. Instead, we found ourselves in a sea of slow-moving traffic, almost all with Maryland and Virginia license plates trying the same alternate route.

All in all, what we hoped would be an eight-hour first day on the road turned into nearly a 12-hour slog. Even then, when we pulled into our hotel in Ashland, Virginia, the parking lot was full.

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Our detour also put a dent in the License Plate Game. Even though our eyes aren’t what they once were, we always make a game of seeing how many out-of-state plates we can spot along the way.

One of the prime hunting grounds is Rte. 95 between D.C. and Quantico. In past years, we’ve nabbed hard-to-get states such as Idaho, Utah, Hawaii, Alaska, Kansas, and the Dakotas while moving slowly in that seemingly always-under-construction stretch.

Day 2 seemed like a reprieve. It was a breeze continuing through Virginia and North Carolina. Then came South Carolina, where Rte. 95 drops to two lanes.

After a couple of for-no-apparent-reason screeching halts from 70 mph to 0 mph set the tone for the day, we again tried some alternate routes that kept us moving but didn’t really save any time.

It was well after dark when we reached our destination just past Savannah, Georgia.

For Day 3, the strategy changed. We were up and on the road before dawn, hoping to get across Florida to the Gulf Coast with less congestion. That was the most successful part of the trip.

Memo to self: Wait until New Year’s (or later) to depart on these winter trips.

Part 2 of the plan (and please don’t tell this to the Solara) was to perhaps buy a new snowbird sleigh in Florida.

The thinking was that snowbirds don’t necessarily need all-wheel-drive and that two-wheel-drives were the vehicle of choice down south. The extra tint on the rear windows also would be welcome. That part was correct.

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If we were to buy new, some of the latest technologies such as autonomous braking and lane-keeping assist would be musts, especially considering some of those unexpected highway stops on Rte. 95.

On the other hand, if we were to find a low-mileage used local vehicle, that would be a consideration, too. That’s what almost happened when we came across a low mileage (12,850) 2012 Honda Crosstour that clearly had been babied and garaged all its life. We thought about it for two days and lost out on the purchase.

So, after perusing the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s (IIHS) Top Safety Picks+ list, checking local dealers’ inventory, and sending out some emails, we realized that many dealers’ internet folks are a lot like telemarketers (except, in this case, we’re making the initial call). Their job is to pressure you relentlessly into making an appointment with a salesperson.

Besides the Accord and Civic, which offer Honda’s SENS safety system on the mid-level EX, we learned that we were generally facing a high-end trim level to get our desired safety technology.

So far, the turn-off with the Hondas is the no-knobs audio system. It gives a sleek design look but somehow makes it tougher to toggle among several stations when we want to mix music, talk, traffic reports, and news.

As for several other vehicles, notably at the local Toyota dealer, the telephone pressure was so intense, I finally said, “If you’re giving me such a hard sell on the phone, why would I ever want to come into your showroom?’’

So we still have a Solara and no more room to bore you with our tale.

To be continued, perhaps ad infinitum.

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