Long road trips with children, particularly young ones, can be challenging. But some of the best, most memorable family vacations happen on the open road.
We asked Eagle readers to share their tips for surviving road trips with kids. Here’s their advice:
Well before travel time, research the route and look for interesting things along the way – restaurants to check out, roadside attractions to visit or just unusual places to get out and stretch your legs. Talk to your kids about what’s going to happen and what to expect. If they’re old enough, have them help plan the trip.
Tracy Callard, a Wichita teacher and mother of two, said she used to buy each of her sons a giant Rand McNally highway atlas and let them keep track of exits, towns they passed and highways crossed over, using a highlighter to mark the route. “We started doing this when the boys were 4 or 5,” Callard said. “Now they have a great sense of and interest in U.S. geography.”
Sheri Brookins said she let her kids help decide what towns to stop in, research and book hotel rooms and find restaurants. “No one complained because they got to help,” she said. “We just gave them a dollar amount and let them loose.”
Several readers suggested checking out www.roadsideamerica.com for quirky, off-the-beaten path places to stop along your route. (Cadillac Ranch, anyone?) And if your family enjoys treasure-hunt quests, check out www.letterboxing.org; “letterboxers” hide small, weatherproof boxes in publicly-accessible places, such as parks, and post online clues for finding the box.
The best way to ensure a peaceful trip, several readers said, is to drive while the kids sleep. Some parents like to drive at night, but be careful not to drive while sleepy.
At the very least, plan your route with your children’s nap times in mind, and stash pillows in the back seat. Even older children and teenagers tend to doze off amid the gentle hum of the road.
Tap into technology
Sure, road trips are great family bonding experiences. But there’s no shame in taking advantage of portable game systems, iPods, tablets or DVD players to help bored kids burn some time between rounds of License Plate Bingo. Just remember to pack headphones or earbuds to keep noise to a minimum, and bring a power strip for charging multiple devices.
Consider game apps such as Heads Up or Trivia Crack, which kids and parents can play together. Before the trip, download audio books or interesting podcasts that everyone can enjoy.
Several readers suggested setting time limits on electronic devices, such as unplugging for 30 minutes after every hour, just to make sure you don’t spend your entire trip staring at screens.
Food and drink
If you want to avoid fast-food drive-throughs or convenience store prices, pack plenty of sandwiches, snacks and drinks in a cooler and keep it accessible during the trip. Opt for bottled water over sodas or juices so that if it spills, you won’t have a sticky mess.
Think about variety and include healthy options – fruit, cheese sticks, popcorn, granola bars. (My niece, Allison, swears that Chex Mix – and plenty of it – is the secret to a great road trip. We all have our requirements.) And don’t forget plenty of napkins, paper towels and/or wet wipes.
Zip-lock bags are your friends
Ernestine Krehbiel suggests packing individual changes of clothes – shirt, shorts, underwear, socks – in zip-lock bags and storing all the bags in an easily accessible part of the trunk. In case of a spill or other accident, you can reach into the trunk for one bag rather than having to rifle through suitcases.
Goddard mom Liz Hamor said her family doesn’t embark on any road trip without gallon-sized zip-lock bags tucked around the car for use as emergency barf bags. “One time is all it takes to learn this lesson,” Hamor said. “It’s easier to be prepared for anything.”
Looking for ways to pass the time? Several websites offer road trip games and printable activities, such as Road Trip Bingo. Do a Google search ahead of time, and arm yourself with ideas.
Play “What if?” (“What if you could eat lunch with any famous person?” “What if you won a million dollars?”), or bring along books such as “The Kids’ Book of Questions” to prompt interesting discussions.
Wichita mom Gigi Phares suggests making paper chains to represent the miles you’ll travel – in five-, 10- or 50-mile increments, depending on the length of your trip – and letting the kids tear off links as you go. It gives them a tangible way to gauge the number of miles left.
Store some surprises
Before your trip, buy several dollar-store toys, party favors, inexpensive games or snacks and haul one out every so often. It’s a great distraction for cranky kids.
A few options: Mad Libs, puppets, action figures, coloring books, puzzle books, dry-erase boards and markers, magnetic puzzles, joke books, card games, Colorforms play sets and travel versions of classic games such as Battleship or Scrabble.
Give toddlers and preschoolers a piece of string licorice and a baggie of Cheerios or Froot Loops and let them make edible necklaces. And here’s a quick trick for calming – or at least momentarily distracting – a cranky baby: Have someone in the back seat blow soap bubbles into the air. Small bubble bottles, such as those from wedding receptions, are great for this.
Bridgette Dozal said old-style metal cake pans with slide-on lids make great “road kits” for kids. Use them to store coloring books, small toys, electronic devices, headphones and more. They usually fit well under seats, and they don’t get smashed if they get stepped on. They also double as lap desks for coloring and writing activities.
Several readers suggested reward systems that use tickets, tokens or play money to encourage good behavior.
“Bribe them with cash,” said Sarah Meitner, a mother of four.
For long road trips, Meitner assigns each of her children a clothespin that she clips to the visor. If their pin is still on the visor at the top of each hour, they earn a dollar. If they kick, fight, yell, whine or cause other problems, she removes the clip without explanation, they lose their dollar for that hour. At the top of the next hour, they get the clip back and try again.
“I pass out fake money on the trip but swap it out for the real deal at our destination,” Meitner said. “That money is their souvenir money. Extra bonus: They aren’t begging for knick-knacks at every stop.”
Rest stop ahead
Don’t think of highway rest stops as places to rest. Rather, think of them as roadside workout areas where you and the kids can expend some energy after being cooped up in the car.
Pack a few things kids can play with in rest areas, such as a jump rope, hacky sack, Frisbee or beach ball. Or, direct everyone to jog or speed-walk around the perimeter of the rest area. Several readers said they prefer to eat in the car and spend their break times doing laps in rest areas or playing in small-town playgrounds.
Heading west? Consider stopping in Burlington, Colo., to see the historic Kit Carson County Carousel, right off I-70 en route to Denver.
Attitude is everything
The key to any road trip is keeping your expectations and attitude in check. Sometimes you just have to get through it, so don’t be afraid to break or at least flex the rules.
Let them watch videos or listen to hours of music, even if you wouldn’t normally do that at home. Give them M&Ms. Slap a pull-up diaper onto your potty-training child. Take a deep breath. Keep your sense of humor. Do whatever it takes to survive, protect your sanity and make it to your destination.