This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series Travels with social media

Dear Ridejoy,

Thank you for allowing us to undertake a 2,000-mile road trip with two young kids at a relaxing pace.

When we first decided to road trip to San Francisco as our family vacation, we thought we’d visit the coastal redwoods and Yosemite on the way down, and take the interstate on the way back. Then we realized that doing that much driving with two young kids — even kids equipped with iPads — would take all 16 days of our vacation, and leave us virtually no time to explore or to stay in San Francisco itself. We trimmed our itinerary aggressively, consulting our Facebook friends on the relative merits of Yosemite and California coast in July. (The consensus was all in favour of coast.) But even that route would take at least 4 days — and would be possible only if we did long stretches of driving each day, leaving us little chance to actually explore. The only way to have more time on the coast would be to trim the time we spent in San Francisco — but it seemed like a very long drive to undertake for just a few days in the city.

Out of curiosity, I looked into the possibility of Amtrak. The famous Coast Starlight route, running from L.A. to Seattle, could get us back from San Francisco to Vancouver in just about 24 hours. (Unlike Mum and Dad, Amtrak doesn’t have to stop just because the kids need to pee or run around.) Taking Amtrak back would allow us much more time for the drive down, because we’d only need one (fun!) day for the return trip, instead of three or four (hellish) driving days.

There was just one problem: how would we get our car back to Vancouver?

The obvious answer was to book a rental car for a one-way trip to the Bay area, and then leave the car there. But a one-way, 14-day minivan rental would cost at least $1,000.

In the course of looking for one-way car rentals, I came across the phenomenon of “drive away” services, which could provide a driver to take our car back to Seattle while we took Amtrak. Cost: $500.

I decided to check for independent drive-away offers on Craigslist. Mixed in with the “ride wanted” and “ride offered” ads on Craigslist, I saw the occasional request for one-way drivers. And appended to one ad, I saw the intriguing line, “contact me on Ridejoy”.

That’s how I discovered Ridejoy, a ride-sharing site that matches drivers and riders in 790 cities across North America. Ridejoy cross-posts to Craigslist, so you still get the benefit of Craigslist’s rideshare board, but you get a much better search and matching tool.

Here’s how it works: you post the dates (or date range) when you want to travel, and the start and end points. If you are a driver, Rideshare can match you with riders who are looking for rides along all or part of your itinerary (so if you’re traveling from San Francisco to Seattle, it can suggest riders who are traveling from Oakland to Portland). If you’re a rider, it suggests potential drivers. Drivers can specify how much they want passengers to contribute to travel costs, and both riders and drivers can specify their ride preferences or perks they are offering (like AAA membership or wifi tethering).

I used Ridejoy to post an ad asking for someone to drive our minivan back to Seattle while we took the train. I noticed that Ridejoy’s would-be passengers ranged from advance planners (“I’m a teacher taking a bicycle trip up the coast in 2 months, need to get a lift back down to the Bay”) to relaxed itinerants (“been in the Bay a while, feel like it’s time to move on, looking for a ride heading somewhere in Washington in the next few days”). Since we were planning to hand over our car full of possessions, we wanted to find one of the advance planners, who we thought would likely be older, more experienced drivers.

Our ridejoy adI posted our ad on June 12, looking for a driver for the weekend of August 4. Within a couple of days, I had heard from several people, including a couple of “advanced planners”. One of these had put Ridejoy’s Facebook integration to good use: she had noticed that we had a Facebook friend in common — someone we both knew from our nonprofit work. That made me feel a lot more comfortable about the idea of handing over our car.

I looked up E. on Google and LinkedIn and confirmed that yes, she was a responsible adult with a regular job — not a permanent traveler with no fixed address. I made a phone date to talk with her about driving our car from the Bay up to Seattle, and to discuss potential timing. She sounded very responsible, and happily sent me a reference (her boss) and a copy of her driver’s license.

I checked with our insurance company (ICBC) to make sure that that our insurance would cover an American driving our car in the US; no problem, as long as it was legal in the US. I checked with US border services — it was fine with them. (Note that the reverse is not true: it’s illegal for a Canadian to drive a US-plated car in Canada, a measure that prevents Canadians from buying cars more cheaply in the US.) Then, just to be on the safe side, I increased our liability coverage to $5 million, something our insurance broker recommended for anyone driving in the US (even us!) because it’s more litigious and accidents can lead to much higher claims.

We agreed to a driving schedule in which E. would leave the Bay area the morning of August 4th; we were scheduled to take the Amtrak train that night. Since E. was driving without kids, she figured she could easily drive up to Seattle in 2 days (it’s a 15-hour drive, roughly.) We paid for the gas so that E. wouldn’t need to find additional passengers; we were more comfortable handing our car over to one person, rather than a group of people, as long as she felt comfortable doing that much driving.

I met E. at her office the day before she was scheduled to start driving, so that we could make eye contact and ensure we both felt comfortable with the arrangement. She turned out to be a totally lovely person who reminded me of a lot of our friends — someone I had no worries about giving our car to. I showed her the car’s various quirks and we went for a short drive so she could get a sense of the vehicle. Since she’s used to driving a (smaller) Honda, our Honda minivan felt very familiar to her and easy to drive.

That night, we packed up our minivan with all the luggage and detritus of our trip, except for a couple of bags we needed for our last day in the Bay and our night on the train; we also packed an extra night’s worth of clothes in case E. was delayed or some other hitch kept us from re-uniting with the car on schedule. The next morning, I drove to E.’s house in our car, and picked her up with her baggage. She dropped me back at our hotel, and headed on our way.

We had planned to rent a car for our last day in the city, but it turned out that the car rental offices near the Amtrak station weren’t open after 1 pm on Saturdays, so there was no way to drive to the train and leave a rental car there. So we went carless for the day, and some kind friends took us to the station that night.

We had kept the train trip a secret from the kids, partly because we didn’t want to disappoint them if it turned out E. couldn’t do the drive, and partly because we thought it would make a fun surprise and a great finale for our vacation. I was intrigued that our kids didn’t ask about how we were getting back from our time in the Bay; perhaps they assumed they had another long drive ahead of them. They did ask some questions about where the car was on Saturday (we told them it was getting a pre-departure tune-up) but were amazingly uninquisitive when our friends dropped us at the train station at 9 pm on a Saturday night. After all, there were vending machines! and the job of getting change so that they could buy Skittles was much more interesting than wondering where we were.

Eventually, our daughter stopped to ask what we were doing. We encouraged her to look around, and she noticed we were in a train station. Her eyes widened: “Are we taking a train home?” Yes, indeed, we told her — complete with sleeper car. She burst into tears of joy. Her brother was somewhat less excited, mainly because he was almost asleep.

Our trip home was a wonderful 24 hours of exploring the train, enjoying the scenery and eating a virtually non-stop series of meals and snacks. Thanks to the sleeping compartment, we got a decent night’s sleep, which left us ready for the late-night drive home to Vancouver. While our train was a little late to depart, we made up time en route, and we kept in touch with E. via text message and cel phone. When we got to Seattle, she was waiting at the station with our car!

We got back in our minivan at 9 pm on Sunday night, and were back in Vancouver by midnight. The trip that had taken us eight leisurely days on the way down took us only 24 hours on the way back. Thanks to Ridejoy’s help in matching us with a responsible, efficient driver, we were able to organize our vacation around a slow-paced drive down the coast, stopping two nights in each spot along the way, while still enjoying a full week in the Bay area.

Ridejoy has opened up a whole new horizon for family vacations. Now that we know it’s possible to do a one-way drive, I can see us organizing future vacations throughout Western Canada and the U.S., or even across the continent.

Thanks, E., for helping us enjoy the best road trip ever. And thank you Ridejoy, for making it possible!

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