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Tips for Traveling with Kids: The Car

Updated on July 12, 2015

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Our family loves car trips. A lot. In some quarters, this would make us either martyrs or candidates for psychiatric intervention. (As proof, remind me to tell you about the time we drove from Florida to California with a 6 year old and a 3 year old). But for those of you brave enough to attempt a car trip with children, you know how rewarding it can be. Hitting the road with your family in tow can be a true bonding experience and create a lifetime of memories. It can also make you want to pull your hair out and run screaming in the other direction. In order to help your journey contain more of the former and less of the latter, I've compiled some of my favorite tips for traveling with kids.

Photo courtesy of Hugo 90 on Flickr .

Plan Ahead

One of the best things you can do to save your sanity while traveling with kids in a car is to make sure you know where you're headed, any interesting stops along the way and how long it's going to take you to get there. This goes beyond deciding Point A and Point B, especially if your trip is going to last several days.

A great first step is to use one of the online trip planners. You can use AAA's TripTik Planner or download their Mobile App. The Rand McNally Trip Planner is another great online option.

After we've decided where we want to go, we figure out how long we want to drive each day and the best places to spend the night along the way. It's generally a good idea to vary the length of your driving days so that neither boredom nor driver fatigue sets in, but you can be more strategic about it. If we think it would be cool to stop in Chicago, we may only plan a 3 hour driving day, so we can arrive during daylight hours and still see some of the city. Another day may find us in the car for 8 hours.

Some more spontaneous types may prefer to wait until they are ready stop for the night to find a hotel, but I don't recommend that with children. The quality of accommodations can vary widely and, after a long day in the car, a clean and comfortable place to rest your head isn't something you want to leave to chance. I've also found that knowing details about the hotel (e.g. if it has a pool, room service, walking distance to a favorite chain restaurant) can be an enticement to the backseat denizens and keep their energy up as the day winds down.

Frommer's and Fodor's are good resources to help in finding things to do on your trip. They have decades worth of experience and their guides cover the entire world. They offer suggestions based on the type of trip you'd like to take (e.g. Adventure, Beach, etc.) and often tell you if places are appropriate for children. Frommers and Fodors also offer suggestions about where to stay, but my favorite hotel research tool is TripAdvisor. It has reviews from people who have actually stayed there, and lets you search by location, price and rating. They also have a section on Attractions broken down by type of activity.

Be Spontaneous

Planning is important, but leave some room in your travels for unscheduled stops. After all, part of the reason for taking the car instead of a plane is to slow down a little and see things you'd ordinarily miss. Some of our favorite memories were those impromptu side trips, like our visit to the Spam Museum in Austin, MN. We saw a flyer for it during a rest stop layover, and said "Why not?" It wasn't too far out of our way and we weren't in a hurry. It turned out to be a really well done museum with a great sense of fun. We got Spam samples and also learned a lot. (Did you know that Spam helped feed the British and Russian soldiers during World War II? You would if you visited the Spam Museum!)

We've also had fun detours at the World's Largest Blueberry in Maine, the Potato World Museum in New Brunswick, Canada and the huge Abraham Lincoln head in Wyoming.

Entertainment is King

If you don't want a steady chorus of "Are we there yet?" you will weigh your children's car entertainment options very carefully. The advent of portable and built-in DVD players has made this much easier than it once was, especially if headphones come with them. You can have each kid pick a movie or two to bring, and you can slip in a couple of new ones for variety's sake.

It goes without saying that most kids now have some kind of handheld device, another godsend for long car rides. If you're like us, however, and don't like your kids to spend all their time looking at screens, get a portable lap desk and try packing a few old school items like paper, pens, crayons and puzzle books. Help stimulate their imagination by asking them to draw a picture of what they think your next stop will look like, or what they'd like to do when they get there.

Small palm-sized toys work well, too, but leave anything that makes noise or has small interchangeable parts at home. You'll thank me later. Keep in mind your child will be playing with these toys in the hotel, too, so variety and something that keeps their attention is key.

Bring Your Game Face

I'll admit it - car games are part of what I look forward to on our trips. It's a good way to stimulate the brain and also interact with your fellow passengers. Twenty Questions, Would You Rather, I Spy, Add the Next Line (story creation game) and Geography are some of our standards. We've adapted them over the years to keep them interesting and also to reflect where the children are developmentally. For example, when they were little Twenty Questions was called I'm Thinking of a Person and they could keep asking questions until somebody got the right answer.

We've now integrated technology into the games. There are some great apps available that make game play easier over a long period of time. One we really like is for the old license plate game. You plug in where you're starting and how long you want to play, and it awards points based on how many license plates each player finds and how likely they are to be seen (e.g. score big with Alaska and Hawaii).

The Science of Snacks

Anyone who has traveled more than 3 blocks with a child understands the importance of snacks. Multiply that by 10,000 and you'll see that good road trip snack selection is paramount. While small, easy-to-grab snacks (raisins, goldfish, granola bars) are generally a good idea here are some other things to keep in mind:

  1. How often you're planning to stop

    If you're planning to do long hauls with only intermittent potty breaks, you'll want more filling, meal-worthy snacks.

  2. The snack-to-thirst ratio.

    Salty snacks make you thirsty, this is a fact. Drinking a lot to alleviate thirst makes you have to go to the bathroom, this is also a fact. Consider both in terms of the overall momentum of your road trip.

  3. How you want your car to look at the end of the day.

    Kids aren't known for being neat, especially when confined to a small space. Unless you want to vacuum your car at the end of each day, limit snacks that create lots of crumbs. Excessive packaging can also become an issue, so make sure you bring some trash bags.

  4. Whining

    Throwing in some treats or regularly off-limits foods will go a long way to curtailing whining. You can surprise the kids with it for maximum effect. To make it even more fun, let them pick their own at a truck stop: it is an adventure they will not soon forget. I mean, who wouldn't enjoy shopping in a store that carries Twinkies, decorative candles and steering wheel covers?

Be Prepared

A road trip must is a well stocked and updated first aid kit. Make sure you're prepared with items such as bandages, cotton balls, pain reliever, antibiotic ointment, hydrocortisone, and antiseptic wipes.

Baby wipes and plenty of paper towels are also good to keep on hand in case of spills (and there will be some).

If you have a GPS system in your car, make sure it's updated with the latest version. Believe it or not, roads and access points can change. We learned this the hard way when our GPS tried steering us into a lake, thinking a ferry still ran there. (It didn't.) It also doesn't hurt to have a couple of paper maps for back-up and so the navigator (whichever adult isn't driving) can look to see what might be coming up later in the day.

Take a Few Breaks

So now you have them entertained, fed and mentally stimulated. What's left? A rest! Every kid has energy to burn and will need to run around after sitting in a car for awhile. You can almost always find a park or grassy rest stop along the route and let them get the wiggles out. It doesn't have to be a long stop - 15 minutes does wonders. Let them play tag, run or take a little walk. Our family always travelled with some kind of a ball that we could toss around for a quick game of catch.

Part of the reason I love road trips with my kids is because of the great road trip memories I have from growing up. We took it one step further, hauling a trailer and staying at campgrounds much of the time.

Take a moment and tell me about some your favorite road trips, either when you were a kid or with kids of your own.

© 2013 ThatsYourPeople

Tell us about some of your favorite road trips!

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    • Winston1 LM profile image

      Winston1 LM 4 years ago

      I like the bit about bringing you game face on it not only keeps the kids entertained but I get some joy out of it too. Great lens with some good tips.

    • WriterJanis2 profile image

      WriterJanis2 4 years ago

      It can be very challenging taking young kids on a long car ride. Great idaes.

    • ThatsYourPeople profile image
      Author

      ThatsYourPeople 4 years ago

      @baseballchris46: Thanks so much for stopping by and for the helpful advice. I've changed those module names. I can see I'm going to have to fire my editor!

    • profile image

      baseballchris46 4 years ago

      Hey loved the lens. I am a traveler myself and love a good road trip. Just a lens Tip, you may want to change a few of the names of the different modules so they are all unique and none are the default name but great job. :)

      btw found you on the squidoo forum. Great idea posting this lens there