At this exact moment, thousands of parents are thinking about hitting the highway for a family road trip this summer. Destination? Anywhere but here. It’s an exciting prospect for kids, but it’s also fraught with difficulties, including sudden back-seat fights and frequent retreats to the iPod Zone.
Kids think road trips are cool, at least in theory. The mere suggestion that the family might be heading out on a week long odyssey usually ignites serious excitement. As soon as the wheels roll, of course, the anticipation instantly morphs into “Are we there yet?” The challenge parents face is to keep the excitement and sense of wonder alive, even on the long, potentially boring stretches.
Here are 12 tips gleaned from my own childhood memories and from conversations with parents, children and grown-up kids with road-tripping pasts.
Dredge up some family lore. Think of your road trip as a time to share some “family lore.” Every family has its own oral history, and road trips offer lots of together time, making them ideal occasions for storytelling. Dredge up those old favorite songs and games, too. As a child, I was an impatient traveler, and I am sure my folks find it amusing that I now make my living writing about the “magic” of taking road trips, but much of my enthusiasm for the road comes from those early family jaunts. Not only do I love the driving and the scenery, I can also sing dozens of vintage songs, play every car game known to man, and tell all the old stories passed down through generations of my family. I’m sure I whined, “Are we there yet?” often enough to drive my parents nuts, but those aren’t the memories that linger.
Brush up on your history and geology. Another gift you can give your children is a basic appreciation for the history and geology of the areas you travel through. Even if they grumble, squirm and roll their eyes, they’ll listen. I’m not the only one who can attest to the lifelong value of such discussions, including the sense of personal patriotic pride that arises from actually seeing purple mountains majesty, fruited plains and spacious skies. As an adult, I’ve became aware of just how precious this brand of knowledge is, and I now consider those family road trips some of the best education I received during my first 16 years on the planet.
Get low-tech. Which leads me to my next topic: DVD players, iPods and other electronic gadgets Call me a curmudgeon, but if these devices are used too often on a road trip, you might as well stay home. Nothing insulates people from their surroundings better than ear buds and a video screen. Take electronic gear along if you must, but limit its use if you want to create lasting road trip memories.
Hold a family planning session. Get a big map and plenty of highlighter markers, and then talk about the cool places that would appeal to all members of the trip. Gather information about your route from guidebooks and the Web. Discuss the scope of each traveling day, including how much time in the saddle and how much spent sightseeing and hanging out by the pool. Consider making each child responsible for a one day’s stopping places and restaurants. Including everyone in the planning process invests everyone in the trip and helps ensure a fun adventure for all. One of the most important topics to cover in the planning session is how often the kids will be able to rotate into the front seat. Make the right front seat, the “official navigator’s seat” and whoever is sitting there is designated as being “in charge” (at least for a few moments). The real treat is that it is much easier to see from the front seat and gets everyone involved. Of course, very young children should not be in the front seats because of the inherent air-bag dangers.
Make a trip clipboard. I recommend creating a trip clipboard to hold printed directions to the motels where you plan to stay; these are especially handy if you should reach a city after dark. (I use this technique myself on every road trip.) You can also include directions and information about specific sites and restaurants that you’re planning to see.
Check out your vehicle. Make sure your vehicle is reliable and ready to go. Of special importance is a check of the tires, coolant and engine oil.
Pack a “Go Kit.” Include bottles of water, a fire extinguisher, beach towels, personal pillows, maps and atlases. And here are some more suggestions.
Pack a “Car Kit” for each child. Choose age-appropriate items including crayons or markers, pads of paper, bandanas, personal travel pillows, games, small toys, a few treats and the first day’s “travel allowance.” Travel allowances allow kids to shop in gift stores and tourist traps without begging for money at every stop. Maps of your route are also good for children old enough to read them. They can trace their progress, learn to navigate and even stop asking “Are we there yet?” quite as often. Put everything in a bag or other container that the child can also use to hold souvenirs, interesting “finds,” and so on; nylon lunch bags or small daypacks work well. Let the children know that they’ll be getting their Car Kits the day you leave home. That will give them one more thing to look forward to, and you won’t have any trouble at all getting them out of bed. You can add to the Car Kits as the trip progresses, giving the kids a little something to look forward to each morning.
Pack electronic devices. Consider a CB radio, portable DVD player, GPS receiver, audio books and inverters. Electronic entertainment devices can be helpful if you’re stuck in a traffic jam or you’ve exhausted all other options. Audio books are a great way to be entertained and yet remain alert and focused on the tasks of driving. Many companies now offer rental GPS units, which are both useful navigational tools and a source of information about road conditions. Portable CB radios with magnetic mounts allow you to be in touch with other drivers on the road and to get accurate weather reports.
Pack good eats. Though the kids may argue this point, it is not necessary to stop at every fast-food joint along the way. In fact, it is possible to get good nutrition on the road. Make sure everyone drinks twice as much water as they might at home. Take a good cooler along and eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables. Prepare road trip snacks and consider packing a road trip picnic.
Eat and greet. Eat in unusual local restaurants at least sometimes, and make a point of speaking with locals or other travelers.
Keep it fun! Avoid vacationing at the same hectic pace as you live at home. A relaxing pace will be remembered more fondly than an overly ambitious one. Take the advice of a local or get off the highway at an unplanned exit and see what is to be found “around the next bend.” Drive fewer hours and spend more time lounging around the motel pool. By allowing time for serendipity, you will re-capture the wonder of the road trip adventure.
Got toddlers? Roadtrippers who are younger than five years old can sometimes present additional challenges. Consider organizing the traveling day so that you reach the motel after 8:00 pm, when the children are likely to fall asleep more easily. Pool time can be done in the morning. Spend the extra $$ to get as comfortable a car seat as possible. Plan to stop every two hours and let the little guys run, play, and blow off as much energy as possible. For more ideas, MomsMinivan.com has several good tips and suggestions.
As parents, you can design a family road trip that will give both you and your children memories to last a lifetime. Grab those markers and a map and start planning your escape!