How to Survive a Family Road Trip

Planning to hit the road in search of spring or summer adventure? You’re not alone. The family road trip is a cherished tradition – 95 percent of vacationers reach their destination by car, according to American Automobile Association (AAA).

But the thought of spending hours in the car with antsy kids isn’t always appealing. Long hours on the road can spark complaints from even the most agreeable kids, from “Are we there yet?” to “He’s looking at me, mom!” Short of barricading the backseat with a wall of DVDs and video games, is there anything parents can do to make road trips more pleasant?

Absolutely, says Tom R. Crosby, vice president of communication with AAA. Road trips should be enjoyed, not endured. “Parents should consider the trip a part of their vacation, and not just an ordeal between point A and point B,” he says.

Toddler/Preschool Years: Schedule Sync

When traveling with babies, tots and preschoolers, keeping everyone happy is all about timing. Amanda and Michael Riley have logged countless miles on the road with their 1-year-old daughter Stella in the backseat; they plan most road trips during Stella’s naptime to help keep trips peaceful.

For preschoolers who no longer nap, traveling during nighttime hours lets kids snooze while parents focus on the road. If traveling during naptimes or at night isn’t feasible, keep little ones entertained with the element of surprise: fill a bag with inexpensive treasures (like stickers, a drawing pad, cardboard books, small stuffed toys or a small dry erase board with markers) and let kids choose a new “surprise” every 20 to 30 minutes. Plan a little extra travel time, because driving with young children means frequent stops. Take a break every one to two hours so kids can use the bathroom, stretch and grab a snack.

Elementary Years: Fun and Games

School-age kids are excellent travel companions, young enough to appreciate the wonder of a trip and old enough to appreciate landmarks and fresh scenery. But don’t be too quick to pull out the games, because kids can easily while away hours daydreaming, talking together and entertaining themselves. “We usually don’t offer games until kids ask or complain,” says Lyn Clark, mom of a 7-year-old and a 5-year-old. “We want them to have time to look out the window, talk and doodle.” Once kids tire of the landscape, parents can turn a car trip into a fun learning opportunity by playing Travel Bingo: make a list or grid of geographical markers, landmarks and historical attractions along your route that kids can mark off as you go (check out for printable travel bingo cards, tic-tac-toe boards and other free travel games). Head off “Where are we, anyway?” queries by giving kids a map of your travel route so they can chart your progress. To fire up kids’ imaginations, bring along Story Starters in a Jar cards (Free Spirit Publishing); let family members take turns pulling out the cards and spinning tall tales.

Teen Years: Connections to Go

By paving the way for questions and dialogue, car trips present an opportunity for parents to bond with tweens and teens. Before pulling out of the driveway, let older kids know that you’re expecting some family chat during the trip; set media limits so teens aren’t texting or zoning out in front of a screen for miles on end. Equip teen shutterbugs with a camera to document the trip (added bonus: you may end up with some unique, frame-worthy shots).

Tweens and teens can join in more intellectual travel games like “Dictionary” in which each player says a word and others have to guess if it’s real or made-up, or “Who’s In the Next Car?,” when travelers invent life stories for the people in neighboring cars. Question-and-answer books like If…Questions for Teens by Evelyn McFarlane and James Saywell can help get the car-chatter rolling.

Malia Jacobson is an award-winning health and parenting journalist and mom of three.


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