The Family Road Trip — Make Getting There More than Half the Fun!

Road trips with children can be a unifying family experience with lots of adventure along the way. Cooped up together in the family vehicle can have its advantages: For one thing, it creates private family time without interruptions. The key to avoiding cabin-fever meltdown is preparation and customizing the trip to your family’s particular interests and needs. Follow this road survival guide and find out how life on the road can be a picnic.


Your children’s ages and personalities, as well as your family’s previous on-the-road experiences, should determine the overall structure of your trip, advises Laura Sutherland, author of The Best Bargain Family Vacations in the U.S.A. and other travel books. A mother of two who has traveled the world for weeks at a time, Sutherland begins by recommending sticking to your children’s normal sleep schedules as much as possible.

• Mapping it – After picking your destination, use your favorite Internet map service to plot your exact route.

• Drive time – Experts suggest limiting your driving to four hours a day if you have a baby on board and not more than six to eight hours a day with older children. Some families like stopping every two hours to stretch.

• Sleep stops – If you plan to spend a few nights in motels or campgrounds, make your reservations in advance, especially in summer.

• Staying flexible – While you should plan the big elements of your road trip – your route, food, accommodations and gear – it’s important to be flexible once you hit the road. Your family might want to linger at a park or stop to enjoy a spectacular view.

• Souvenir savvy – Now might be the time to encourage your children to start a collection, says Eileen Ogintz, author of the nationally syndicated “Taking the Kids” column. Pins, decals, patches, pencils and small candles are all inexpensive items easily found at gift shops and are an effective way to manage the souvenir issue.

• Packing – Temporarily convert your vehicle into a family room on wheels and bring along plenty of food, clothes and entertainment. Organize your supplies into easily accessible boxes and tote bags.

• Keep spare T-shirts and fleece sweatshirts within reach so you don’t have to go digging through four large suitcases when you need them.

• Stow bathing suits and towels in bags under a car seat in case you pass a place to swim that’s worth a stop. Plus, you’ll also be ready to head right to the hotel pool at the end of the day.

• Make the most out of rest stops by bringing a Frisbee™ or soccer ball so your children can burn off some steam before getting back in the car.

• Add to your checklist these basic-but-necessary items:
– first aid kit
– extra batteries
– camera and film
– flashlights
– tissues, paper towels and wipes
– waterless hand sanitizers
– pillows and blankets
– plastic bags for wet clothes or trash.

• Allow each child to bring a backpack with personal items, such as small toys, CDs, books and journals. You might consider giving each child a one-use camera so he can record his special memories.

Sutherland keeps a hinged-top plastic box filled with supplies in the back of her car year-round, so her family is prepared for just about any spontaneous adventure. She fills it with scissors, tape, tea, coffee, coffee filters, hot chocolate mix, apple cider mix, a can opener, bowls, packets of mayonnaise and ketchup, utensils and a bottle of hand sanitizer.

Ogintz secretly packs a bag of small wrapped gifts for her children that she distributes when the mood needs elevating.

Food to Go

Just like food can make a party, it can also make or break a road trip.

• Pack a cooler with lunch items, drinks and water.

• Bring a bag filled with bread, utensils for making sandwiches, chips, crackers, fruit and healthy snacks. Stock up on finger foods such as cereal, animal crackers, raisins, pretzels and small bags of fruit snacks.

Entertainment in the Car

Boredom busters help keep peace in the car.

• Travel experts rate books on tape as their number-one choice for entertaining the troops on long drives. Now, you can use CDs or iPods to hold

Stock up from the library before your trip or purchase or download music or audio stories to make the drive more enjoyable for the driver, as well as the passengers.

If your children are too far apart in age to enjoy the same stories, get each an individual player with headphones.

• Keep babies content with cloth books and soft toys. Sutherland recommends tying a frozen bagel to a baby’s carseat so she can nibble (good for teething, too). For toddlers, try colorful bandages to pull apart and stick on everything or paint-with-water books (all you need are moistened cotton swabs packed in plastic bags).

• Preschoolers to preteens are easily entertained with magnetic travel games, “Magic Pen” books, Mad Libs, music and handheld electronic games. Bring an assortment of travel toys and games; try classics like travel bingo. Pack a plastic box with markers, crayons, paper and coloring books. Youngsters can dig through these goodies while listening to music or a story (also consider math and language audio programs).

• Older children may like following the trip on a map so they can see the progress you’re making. Laminate the maps so they’ll survive the sticky fingers. Encourage your child to keep a travel journal. Young children can draw in the pages.

• Some families are convinced that car entertainment systems are the way to go. TV/VCR and TV/DVD units, video-game systems and cordless headphones can be adapted to most vehicles.

Health and Safety Issues

Don’t let the bliss or distraction of vacation relax your car safety rules.

• Everyone should always wear a seat belt or sit in an approved carseat or booster seat. Never drive with your vehicle’s seats in a reclined position.

• The backseat of the car is the safest place for a child under age 12, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Children weighing less than 60 pounds are required to use safety seats in the backseat of cars.

• If your child experiences motion sickness in the car, try seating him in the middle of the backseat so he has a clear view through the front windshield. Make sure he doesn’t read or look out the side window, but allow fresh air into the car. Before your trip, ask your pediatrician about over-the-counter motion sickness medication.

Mimi Slawoff is a freelance writer and the mother of three. From L.A. Parent, a Dominion Parenting Media Publication.