Are we there yet?! It's a question every adult who steps into a car with a child should be prepared to hear ad nauseam. Luckily, a little prep work ahead of time will pay big dividends by helping to keep the kids occupied, happy and (relatively) quiet in the back seat.
This isn't just about saving your sanity, however. Distracted drivers are unsafe drivers; the more time you're spending solving fights, bargaining with your kids to wait a little longer for lunch or looking in the rearview mirror, the less time you're devoting to monitoring traffic. In fact, studies show nearly 25 percent of crashes occur when drivers are dealing with kids in the back seat [source: Car Junky].
So before climbing in for a long haul, take a look at these tips to keep everyone in the family happy during your drive.
It's such a simple concept, you might not think of it -- telling your kids ahead of time how you expect them to behave. It's good to give children boundaries, so share each day's agenda with them and explain the family rules. For example, you might say you'll be driving from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., stopping for a picnic lunch around noon. The kids will each get to bring two of their favorite toys, and you'll supply snacks and water. Each person can choose music for an hour and can't complain about someone else's choice. Everyone must use the restroom during stops, and you'll take away the toys of any child who misbehaves.
What rules you set will depend on your children's ages and temperaments, of course, but it's helpful to everyone if expectations are clearly laid out.
Create a vacation scrapbook as you go.
Everyone likes to reminisce about past trips, but few parents have time to create photo albums and scrapbooks. So enlist the kids to help. One person can be in charge of taking photos, another of recording what you did each day in a journal. A third can collect mementos: souvenirs from various attractions you saw, coasters from restaurants, a feather found on the ground of a wildlife sanctuary.
Pack instant cameras, paper, markers and crayons, glue sticks and tape. Each night before bed, kids can fashion some pages representing the day's activities. Then when you're home, set aside a special family night to look through their special creation [source: Car Junky].
Bring along plenty of toys.
Let's face it -- we all like toys, whether they're traditional items such as a puzzle or a doll, or our favorite book or electronic gadget. Within reason, stash as many of these things in the car as you can. And think outside the box. Handheld games are a great way to keep kids occupied while you're driving, but a Frisbee or soccer ball works wonders during wayside stops, plus gives the kids a fun activity to anticipate. Magazines or novels can make the minutes fly by, as can watching DVDs or listening to audiobooks.
If your kids are young, a quick trip to a dollar store before you head out can yield big dividends. Parcel out a new toy for them to unwrap each day. Even if these inexpensive items won't be around next year (or even next week), they occupy your child for a few hours on the road, and that's a bargain [source: Hatch].
Reward good behavior.
Ah, the power of a bribe. Things not going so well? Give your children an incentive to clean up their act. No complaining for the next hour yields a stop at an ice cream stand. Leaving your sibling alone gets some one-on-one time with Mom or Dad in the pool that night. A whine-free morning means picking where to eat for lunch or which attraction to see first that day [source: Buckworth].
Use this strategy in reverse, too. For example, kicking the back of Dad's seat after being told to stop repeatedly means no trip to the hotel game room that night.
Stop and smell the roses.
It's so easy to set an itinerary and become wedded to it, especially if there are time elements involved, such as the need to check in at a hotel before 5 p.m. or to reach an attraction before it closes. But if you have to drive for long stretches, it's critical to schedule in some fun. If you're motoring through a small town and the kids spy a cool neighborhood park, stop for a bit so they can play. Or if they see a billboard advertising an intriguing attraction, consider hunting it down. And don't limit stops to things the kids want to do. If Mom wants to check out a boutique shop or Dad wants a picture of himself outside the city's historic ballpark, do it. Unplanned stops make the day's drive much more exciting and rewarding [source: Hatch].
Let the kids have a say.
Kids tend to whine and complain about things that are forced on them, like lima beans -- or long car rides. But if you get your children vested in your trip ahead of time, it should lessen the likelihood that they'll revolt. So carve a few days out of your itinerary, or maybe a few hours each day, and hand them over to the kids.
For younger children, a few hours work fine. During their time in charge, let them dictate when and where you stop and for how long. This might mean stopping at each and every one of the next five waysides, but it'll be worth it if they're quiet during the time in between. Let them determine what you do during their hours, too. Maybe one stop will be to see a roadside attraction, another to get a milkshake at a diner. Older kids can map out an entire day, selecting the driving route and planning all the stops and activities. Suggest they adopt a theme for the day or create music playlist you'll listen to as you drive [source: Hatch].
Don't skip the pit stops.
Many people just want to reach their destination for the day, stopping only when necessary for gas or restroom breaks. That may be fine for adults, but it generally makes for unhappy, fidgety kids.
At a minimum, stop every two to three hours so everyone can get out and stretch. No matter how young or old you are, it feels great to stand up, walk around and breathe in some fresh air. It also helps to let your kids run around a bit, especially if they're younger. Not only will it burn off some energy they've been accumulating in their seats, but it might tire them out enough so they'll nap when you're back on the road.
No one likes a growling stomach, especially not a kid on a long car ride. So for starters, time your meals carefully. If you hit the road at 6 a.m., don't wait until noon before you stop for lunch. Heck, even adults would be cranky under that scenario. Aim for reasonably filling meals every four hours or so.
Have plenty of healthy snacks and drinks on hand for the hours in between. You've got a lot of options, such as water, milk, low-sugar juice, cut up veggies and hummus, fresh fruit, string cheese, yogurt and nuts [source: Rogers]. An occasional cookie, piece of candy or scoop of ice cream is fine, but in general, stick with the healthy stuff.
Pack your snacks in a cooler before you leave, or buy them in grocery stores along the way. Don't assume you can purchase items as you go. If you find yourself in a small town, there might not be a supermarket that's easily accessible, and convenience stores usually have limited, often-unhealthy options.
How could you have forgotten your youngest tends to get carsick, or that your oldest often develops headaches if she rides in the car on muggy days? Before you leave, be prepared to deal with these car-related illnesses.
Motion sickness is probably the most common trip-induced ailment. Affecting one out of five children, it causes dizziness, a queasy stomach and, sometimes, vomiting. If one or more of your kids suffers from this, pack plenty of preventive medicine, and remember to have your child take it 30 to 60 minutes before you depart (and don't forget a car sickness bag in case of stomach emergencies.)
It also helps to keep your car well ventilated and free from strong odors. The smell of gasoline can be particularly troublesome to those prone to motion sickness, so fill up when your child isn't in the car. In addition, your child shouldn't eat greasy or spicy food before traveling and should look out the window while in the car, not at books or toys in her lap [sources: Kids Growth, Sokal-Gutierrez].Many kids complain of headaches while driving; this is often a form of motion sickness and should be treated in the same manner.
Timing is everything.
You've been in the car for hours, the kids are sick of all of the games and treats and now you're stuck in rush hour. Before you stash the last suitcase in the trunk and depart, research the traffic patterns for major population centers so you know if you should alter your departure day or time.
Some people prefer to drive through major cities or along congested roads at night, when traffic is minor and kids are likely to nod off. This may work, but think about it a little first. School-age kids tend to fall asleep easily, but toddlers and preschoolers sometimes need help dozing, which could mean more crankiness, not less. And ironically, you -- and any other driver -- may need help to stay awake. Studies suggest driving after you've been awake for 18 hours or longer reduces your skills to those of a driver with a 0.05 blood alcohol content (the legal limit is 0.08) [source: Buckworth, IIHS]. If you're driving at night and suddenly find yourself yawning a lot or weaving, pull over immediately.
Click to the next page for more information about planning road trips and traveling with children.
How does Swindon's Magic Roundabout traffic circle work? Learn more in this HowStuffWorks Now article.
More Great Links
- Airline Credit Cards. "27 Free Games to Keep Your Kids Entertained on a Road Trip." Oct. 19, 2007. (July 4, 2011) http://www.airlinecreditcards.com/travelhacker/27-free-games-to-keep-your-kids-entertained-on-a-road-trip/
- Buckworth, Kathy. "Great Family Road-Trip Tips." Kaboose. (July 4, 2011) http://travel.kaboose.com/road-trip-tips.html
- Car Insurance. "Road Trips and Keeping Kids Occupied in the Car." (July 4, 2011) http://www.carinsurance.org/road-trips/
- Car Junky. "Tips for Keeping Kids Occupied on Road Trips." Feb. 17, 2005. (July 4, 2011) http://news.carjunky.com/keep_kids_occupied_on__road.shtml
- Hatch, Amy. "Surviving a Family Road Trip: Top 5 Tips." Parent Dish. July 1, 2011 (July 4, 2011) http://www.parentdish.com/2011/07/01/surviving-a-family-road-trip/
- Howell, Jessica. "Travel Toys for Kids: Keeping Busy in the Backseat." (July 4, 2011) http://www.roadandtravel.com/autoadvice/2007/kid-friendly-auto-travel.htm
- Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). "DUI/DWI Laws." (July 14, 2011) http://www.iihs.org/laws/dui.aspx
- Kids Growth. "Take Steps to Prevent Carsickness." (July 8, 2011) http://www.kidsgrowth.com/resources/articledetail.cfm?id=208
- Ranard, Michele. "Activities Keep Kids Occupied During Road Trips." Carolina Parent. Dec. 1, 2009. (July 4, 2011) http://www.carolinaparent.com/articlemain.php?Activities-Keep-Kids-Occupied-During-Road-Trips-2392
- Rogers, Erin. "Healthy Road Trip Snacks and Meals." Disney Family. (July 8, 2011) http://family.go.com/food/recipe-sk-19035-healthy-road-trip-snacks-and-meals-t/
- Smith, Laurel. "Car Travel Games for Kids." Moms Minivan. (July 4, 2011) http://www.momsminivan.com/bigkids.html
- Sokal-Gutierrez, Karen. "Are headaches signs of carsickness?" Fischer-Price. (July 8, 2011) http://www.fisher-price.com/fp.aspx?st=665&e=expertadvice&catnamestart=c&ccat=PS_CommonConcerns&content=57312
- Williams, Brenda. "Keeping Kids Occupied During Road Trips." Go Travel Magazine. (July 4, 2011) http://www.gotravelmagazine.com/Art/3259/389/Keeping-Kids-Occupied-During-Road-Trips.html