Travel Tips: In The Car With Kids


With four children ages 5 to 13, we have traveled thousands of miles over the last 13 years with children in tow.  All of our children have traveled since they were babies and have learned to enjoy the journey, for the most part.  As summer begins and families make plans to go on trips, here are some tips and tricks that have worked for our family.  Feel free to share additional tips in the comment section too!

1.  Pack plenty of snacks and drinks.  Offer small snacks frequently to keep kids from getting grumpy from hunger.  We usually mix in special treats along with healthy fruits and veggies.  We only offer water to drink.  Caffeinated beverages for children or adults can lead to more frequent bathroom breaks.

2.  Plan and bring a variety of activity choices.  As our children get older they are able to help plan and bring items that will keep them occupied.  If your children can read and don't get carsick doing that, bring books, Kindles, etc. to enjoy.  For younger children, board books like this one can be enjoyable for them to look through as well as books like this where they have to try to spot certain items on each page.  Other activity choices include coloring, drawing, writing, playing with a couple favorite action figures or cheap dollar store toys, making things with craft items like pipe cleaners, playing travel games, singing, listening to audiobooks or music, video games and movies.  By varying activities throughout the trip, it helps to break up the monotony and make time feel like it is moving.

3.  Schedule frequent stops.  I could travel from college to home (6 hours) without stopping.  That was before kids.  Whether it's bathroom breaks, fuel or food stops, or just needing to get out of that small space, plan to stop every couple hours.  It doesn't have to be long, but it's good for our bodies and our sanity. This also fits nicely with #2.

4.  Allow rest/quiet time.  When our children napped every day, we tried to stick to that schedule while traveling in our vehicle.  When it was nap time, we would put away other activities, make sure they had their blanket, stuffed animal and neck pillow and declare it was nap time and ignore them.  Okay, maybe we didn't exactly ignore them.  But we did try to limit our interactions with them and just continue to remind them it was time for them to sleep.  They were not always willing participants in this activity, but the more we did it, the easier it got for everyone.  Now that they are older, we institute our normal quiet time and that means they can read, look at books, draw or do calm, quiet activities by themselves for a period of time.  This gives them a break from electronics and a break from talking or interacting with others.  It's not a you-cannot-open-your-mouth-at-all quiet time, but just a time to enjoy an individual activity while Dad and Mom get to, hopefully, carry on a conversation with less interruptions.  If this sounds daunting, start small and set a timer.

5.  Plan fun "interruptions."  On one cross-country trip my husband downloaded a song for each state.  Example, "Sweet Home Alabama" for, you guessed it, Alabama.  When we crossed the state line, he would interrupt whatever we were doing to play crank the song and we would celebrate our progress.  Be creative and plan something fun to do at unexpected points in the journey.  Maybe it's singing a favorite song on the hour to help your little ones understand time IS passing.  Or have everyone answer a silly question at each 100 miles of the journey.  Remember, variety is the spice of life!

6.  Schedule learning time.  This may be easier for my children because not only am I their Mom, but I am also their teacher.  However, I think you can make it part of your normal travel experience as well.  Whether it is workbooks, educational CDs (I love this history series), puzzle books, or a travel book you made, providing an educational activity is just good for their developing minds.  Our children have colored pictures of the states that included the state's bird, flower, and flag.

7.  Debrief.  I love taking informal surveys of my family and others, so I will often ask everyone to share what they liked best from the day, what their favorite activity was, two things they learned at the last stop, or anything to get them to think over the day and share about their experience.  There are no wrong answers in this activity and if it turns out they despised everything about the day then you can address that as well.

8.  Play games.  I will give more ideas in another post, but the point is to interact with each other and have fun.  It may mean buying a travel bingo game and marking off things they see or using the alphabet to remember all the crazy things you will take on a trip.  These games should need minimal preparation and provide another break from electronics.

9.  Enjoy 21st century electronics.  I love technology and think that it can have its place on a trip without taking over.  The big thing is setting boundaries ahead of time.  I have also found that it is better to use movies, video games, tablets, etc. less at the beginning of a trip when everyone is excited, so that as you near the end of the journey and everyone is sick of riding, you can pop in a movie or hand out the Kindle Fires, iPads or phone and not feel guilty.  Also, with Redbox locations throughout the U.S. you can mix up by renting a DVD at one and dropping it off later down the road.

10.  "Deputize" your older children.  No, they do not need to put the younger ones in jail when they cry or whine, but they can be your backseat helpers and be enlisted to help entertain, feed and communicate for their younger siblings. Being able to give a baby a bottle so you can keep driving can be a huge blessing and make your oldest feel like a valuable part of the family.  They can also hand toys to your little ones and let you know if the baby is crying because they just spit up or because their stuffed animal fell on the floor.  Make a big deal about them being your helper and "pay" them with accolades, high fives, stickers, etc. for a job well done.

11.  Stimulate their brains.  This applies to the kids and the driver, but keeping the brain stimulated will keep the driver awake and keep boredom at bay.  Besides the other things mentioned, we have found bringing quiz books, cards from Trivial Pursuit games (buy cheap at a local thrift store), or an atlas can get people thinking and guessing. (I realize most people don't buy paper road atlases anymore, but they can be very interesting and helpful for showing kids where you are and where you are going.)  Grab cheap cards from a teacher supply store or even Target and hand the card to the one who guesses correctly. Award the winner with choosing the next movie, song or place to eat. 

12.  Adjust your attitude.  This may seem silly or unimportant, but it is crucial to a successful car ride.  If the adults in the vehicle are positive and excited, it will rub off on the children.  We joke that I love to rope my husband, children, friends and strangers into things by simply convincing them that "it will be fun and they will like it."  Conversely, if you are grumpy or dreading the journey, you may create a carload of grumpy people before you leave your driveway.  So, check your attitude and prepare to see even the travel as part of the grand adventure!

Whether you are looking forward to traveling this summer or dreading it, be encouraged.  You don't have to be an expert or have all the latest gadgets, games or toys.  Spending concentrated time with your family outside of your normal routine is good for all of you.  Every trip is an opportunity to grow and learn, through the good and the bad.  So, take a deep breath, put in as much preparation as fits your personality and then GO!

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