Summer road trip season is almost upon us, bringing with it many long hours in the car with your kids. As a veteran of numerous road trips over the past decade (I once drove nearly 3,000 miles over an 18-day period with two school-age boys), I understand the perils of road trip travel with kids. These range from seemingly endless rounds of the infamous he-poked-me-now-I’ll-shriek game to unexpected detours caused by massive traffic delays.
Happily there are lots of tips for road trips with kids that can make your journey not just easier but fun. So just what can you do to prepare for this great summer tradition?
Pull out the maps. Even if you’ll be using a GPS to navigate during your trip, it’s a good idea to have a back-up paper map or atlas just in case of technical difficulties. And since maps are great learning tools, why not sit down with your kids and show them the route you’ll be taking? Talk about what roads you’ll be on and explore the towns you’ll be passing through. You might even create a list of names to be on the lookout for – your own personalized “I Spy” game for the road.
Stock up on boredom busters. Smartphone and tablet apps and games are staples for most modern family road trips, as are DVDs. But if you’re like me and want to limit how much time your children spend on screens, you’ll need some other things for them to do. I’m lucky in that my kids are big readers; it’s never a bad idea to have a big stack of books (or, once your child reads books without pictures, an e-reader). We also like to read aloud in my family and usually bring some chapter books for that purpose, although you might choose to bring audiobooks instead.
Other activities you might want to include:
- Portable games like car bingo
- Sketchbooks, coloring books, and colored pencils (crayons, which will melt in the heat, are not the best choice for summer road trips)
- A small dry erase board and markers
- An Etch-a-Sketch
- Removable decals that can be stuck on the windows
You don’t necessarily have to purchase new books or art supplies either; I keep a hidden stack of partially used coloring books in a closet. When it’s time to pack for a trip, I pull them out and sharpen a bunch of colored pencils so they look appealing. Add a stack of library books, and your kids will have plenty of “new” entertainment.
It’s wise to keep a couple of tricks up your sleeve in case you get caught in traffic or it takes longer to get to your destination than you planned. I generally stock the front seat with a couple of new comic or activity books to pull out in a pinch.
Make your own soundtrack. My husband and I have a tradition before any long road trips: We sit down together and create a playlist that will serve as our background music. Past themes have included songs with lyrics about driving or cars, Motown, the 1980s, and an A to Z list of performers (all the way from ABBA to Warren Zevon). We usually buy some new songs and mix them in with music we already own.
A nice side effect is that you then have an audio souvenir of your trip that will remind you of how much fun you had every time you listen to it.
Get ready to chow down. Upfront admission here: I don’t like to eat at chain fast food restaurants, which are the simplest and most ubiquitous options on road trips with kids. Happily, there are a number of things you can do to keep your kids fed on the road without resorting to yet another cheeseburger.
Start with snacks: Pack a mix of healthy and less nutritious choices, including some special treats that you don’t routinely offer at home.
On long drives, I’ve never regretted packing lunch in a small cooler. Yes, it’s one more thing to take care of before you leave, but this really gives you maximum flexibility (in an absolute pinch you can eat in the car) and is the most economical and healthy thing to do.
But assuming that you won’t be able to bring along all the food you need to eat, another tip is to do a little online research before your trip. Figure out where you’re most likely to be when you want to stop for a meal – I usually pick a few different places – and search for local favorite restaurants that are close to the highway. Often there are multiple options, and this will give you the chance to sample specialties of the region that your traveling through – or just eat some great pizza.
I also have a water bottle on hand for each member of the family, which we refill at rest stop water fountains. It’s the healthiest and most environmentally friendly way to stay hydrated.
Plan your pit stops. It’s simply a fact that when you travel with kids you need to stop more often, which means that trips take longer. Why not embrace this fact and make the journey part of the fun? Use the internet to look for local attractions like museums, nature centers, and playgrounds and add some generous stops into your traveling timeline.
And should the fact that you are stopping more often necessitate more overnights on the road, I suggest choosing lodging options with a pool. Nothing washes off an entire day on the road like a refreshing swim.
Road trips with kids offer enforced family time with no interruptions. You’ll have the chance to talk to your kids and to create some traditions and shared jokes and stories. Before you know it, you may actually be looking forward to that special time in the car with your family.