We all remember our family road trips as youngsters, with sweet nostalgia and absolutely no concept of how annoying we were. But now it's our turn to load the family in the minivan and hit the highway, hoping to recreate the same adventures we had when we were kids. But, what's that? You've just cleared the city-limit sign with nothing but open road in front and you've already heard that familiar refrain from the back seat: "Are we there yet?" If that sounds all too familiar, here are a few suggestions to help things go more smoothly:
Tip 1: Count Red Cows with Funny License Plates.
Remember what your parents did to keep you quiet and content, or at least close to a Zen state? We counted cows, an obvious choice in Indiana. Later, my sister and I tried to see who could identify car makes and models first. Okay, we were a little odd and probably not right very often, but we were occupied and that's the key. There's also license plate bingo, car colors or makes can be substituted for cows, coloring books or puzzles work as long as the car sickness isn't a factor, rotating word games, all of this works to keep your child's brain engaged. And if you run out of ideas, when you get the "Are we there yet?" question, hand the kid a map and tell him to figure out the route. Just unfolding the thing should keep little Mr. Impatient busy for a good half-hour. (Be sure you've got a back-up map for your own use.)
Depending on their age, your kids may be happy as little clams with electronic toys grafted onto their hands or stuck in their ears. Challenge them to make their own family road trip memories based on actual interaction and the scenery rather than gadgets. The caveat is that if for some reason you have to do a marathon trip with few breaks, load up on as many electronics as you can afford. Enduring seven hours in a car with grumpy, iPod-deprived children is not the time to stand on principle. In other words, pre-planning imperative.
Tip 2: Don't Forget the House and the Car.
Prepare both your vehicle and house. This is a must whether you've got kids on the trip or not. Get the family car into the garage for an oil change and tune-up if necessary. Let the mechanic know you've planned a road trip and ask that hoses, belts, etc. be checked.
While he's tuning up the car, don't forget to get your abode ready for departure as well. Check the timers for the lights and lawn watering, have post office hold your mail, and make feeding and care arrangements for all pets being left. If you don't already, enter your neighbors' phone numbers in your mobile phone.
Tip 3: Beat the Traffic or Become a Part of It.
Leave early in the morning, before breakfast. It's cool, it's quiet, the kids will probably doze through the first leg of the trip then perk up after the treat of breakfast on the road. But try to keep them away from the donuts and chocolate-coated sugar-bomb cereal. Fresh fruit and high-protein snacks will help them avoid bouncing off the door pillars and getting the grumpies later on.
Tip 4: Prepare Thyself for Kid-Catastrophes.
Pack an emergency kit for your kids (and you). Include anti-bacterial wipes, plastic bags, aspirin, bandages, paper towels, Lifesavers, 7-Up, a bucket. A bucket? Contents should be age-related. You know from past experiences the messes and mini-disasters you're likely to encounter. If not, trust us: Based on personal experience, you might want to bring along a bucket or a large plastic pitcher. Sometimes kids and car trips don't mix and—before they can tell you they're about to be sick—they're sick all over—the car. You can rinse out a container, but it's not so easy getting certain memories out of the carpet.
Tip 5: Surprise!
Let's face it, you can only play road games for so long before everybody gets bored and starts to go batty. Bring along some surprises for each kid (crayons, toys, books, handheld games, etc.) and dole them out over the length of the trip when all other options have been exhausted.
Tip 6: Give Us a Break.
Give them and take them. As adults we want to get to our destination as efficiently as possible. Kids are anything but efficient. They need breaks, and every two hours is a reasonable plan. Even if you have to re-route the trip off superhighways, identify rest stops where the kids can go to the bathroom and have a chance to play (brings Frisbees, balls, whatever will get the kids moving).
Tip 7: Hey, Boo Boo.
How about a picnic basket? Try picnics rather than fast-food joints. If packing lunches is more than you can handle, succumb to the lure of fast-food but take the burgers and fries to a local park and turn it into a picnic. There's method to this madness: you won't have to deal with fidgety kids in a restaurant or the mess of burgers and fries all over the car. The best-case scenario: the kids run, play, eat, hit the john, get back in the car and fall asleep.
Tip 8: Avoid the Snack Attack.
Bring snacks and drinks, but choose wisely. The purpose is to satisfy child-size hunger and thirst. Consider the sugar content and potential mess (apple slices require a lot less clean-up than a peach or orange wedges). Remember to avoid mini-foods that can fall through the cracks between the seats.
Tip 9: Abide the Sleeping Angels.
Bring pillows and blankets. On road trips, sleeping children are good, and pillows are a lot more comfortable than armrests.
Tip 10: Relax and Enjoy Yourself.
Your kids will take their cue from you. If you get lost, end up in rush-hour traffic in a strange city, miss your turn off, or worse—take it in stride. It's all part of your kid's family road-trip memories. Do your best to make them positive.