'Tis the season...road trip season, that is! Once school lets out, families all across the U.S. can be found loading up their minivans and embarking on multi-state treks to escape the daily grind on vacation or visit long-distance friends and relatives.
Now, any parent with a Pinterest account can "hack" a family road trip to make things go more smoothly (you gotta be smart about the snacks and busy bags, especially if you have little kids), but what about making your road trip something to really remember? What if your road trip could be just as much fun as the actual destination?
"Exploring the world together, discovering new places and people that you love, and making them a part of your family's history and heart is not only 'doable,' but one of the best things you can do," she says.
Here are eight ways to pump up your family's road trip that will leave your kids saying "Are we there already?" instead of the dreaded "Are we there yet?!"
1. Play games that keep you on your toes
We're all familiar with the classic road trip game of license plate bingo, but younger children may not be able to play as easily as older kids and attention spans can wander pretty quickly. Instead, try a game that rewards kids for their on-the-spot detecting skills. The Banana Game invites players to spot anything that's yellow (with higher points for harder-to-find objects) and Counting Cows is a deceptively simple spotting game that can turn surprisingly competitive. Your kids will have so much fun, you won't even have to bribe them to look up from their screens once in a while.
2. Make themed pit stops
Sure, you could plan all your pit stops around the most convenient gas stations located along the highway, but where's the fun in that? Instead, choose a common location (think playgrounds, state parks, lakes/beaches) and designate them as your official pit stop locations. If you're traveling by highway, this means doing a little pre-trip research or keeping Google Maps on hand, since these places may not be visible or advertised from the road. Set a limit for how long you'll spend in each place so you don't get too distracted, but otherwise embrace the breaks—your kids need ample opportunities to stretch their legs during road trips, and it's a lot more fun to let them do it on a playground than a mini-mart.
3. Pack snacks, lots of them
There's nothing worse than a hungry, cranky child in the back seat. So stock up on plenty to eat and drink by keeping two small cooler bags on hand. In one, pack an ice pack and refillable water bottles. The bottles will stay cold between sips and you can fill them up at pit stops. In the other bag, keep self-serve fruits, like bananas and clementines, and no-mess snacks, like trail mix and fruit snacks—just nothing sticky, gooey, or crumbly that will end up all over the back seat. You can even surprise your kids with travel packs of dry cereal in their cup holders—kids of every age will agree that Cinnamon Toast Crunch, coated in real cinnamon, makes the perfect sweet yet crunchy kid-friendly snack for the road.
4. Visually Track Your Progress
Create an interactive tool that tracks your progress so everyone—even little kids—can understand where you are. Hang a string horizontally across your car, behind the front seats, and set a 3D "car" on the string, moving it along as you go. (There're lots of ways to do this...try this visual or this countdown, too.) Anything that keeps your kids in the loop about where you are in your journey will work.
"If your kids are old enough to read or are just beginning to read, print out a map for them of the trip's itinerary, add some stickers and markers, and they'll be their own little road trip detective," says Reid.
5. Flex your storytelling muscles
Have each member take turns telling a "tall tale" about something they've spotted outside their window—the more creative and outlandish, the higher the score. If a backseat passenger falls asleep, all the remaining passengers can play While You Were Sleeping, conspiring to make up a crazy story that's eventually told to the sleeping person when they wake up (bonus points for making it super convincing). Or, tell a story together—with a hilarious twist—by playing the improv game, Fortunately, Unfortunately.
If your kids are having trouble warming up to the art of storytelling, break the ice with a family-friendly podcast; Reid recommends "This Podcast Has Fleas," which features the hilarious drama between a pet dog and cat.
6. Stop at all roadside attractions—no matter how weird or lame they sound
Life is all about surprises, right? And sometimes the best surprises come from the strangest places—like a drive-thru museum of oddities, a faux-Stonehenge made entirely of old cars, or a rescue home for alligators that actually lets you hold a baby alligator (for free!). You might roll your eyes at that tacky sign on the side of the highway, but who knows what you'll find once you get there.
"Those unplanned detours and wrong turns down dusty roads so often end up being the moments you remember most of all," says Reid.
For tech-friendly families, RoadsideAmerica.com offers an app that can alert you to upcoming attractions ($2.99 for one of seven national regions, $5.99 for access to the entire U.S./Canada).
7. Unleash your inner disc jockey
What's a road trip without a killer soundtrack, right? Pass around an iPod or smartphone and play Name That Tune, letting whoever correctly guesses the song first take the next turn. Or, if your family thrives on competition, engage in a modified Battle of the Bands: pick a category of music (i.e. 80s hair bands), give two family members one minute to choose a favorite song from that category, and then play each song for the other passengers. If you win the most rounds, you get to brag about your taste in music for the duration of the road trip.
8. Get creative with photography
Chances are, if you're putting in all this effort to enjoy your road trip, you're going to want a way to document the memories. Give each of your kids a disposable camera and a road trip photography checklist, offering a prize to whoever collects all his or her photos first. Consider buying a kid-friendly Polaroid camera, so kids can pose for silly photos at pit stops, then pass them around and laugh about them all the way to the next pit stop. Or consider downloading an app like Postagram or Postsnap, which turns your digital pics into postcards you can "send" back home to Grandma and Grandpa via email (most apps charge anywhere from $2-4 for individual postcards).
9. Don't think straight
The fastest way to get from point A to point B is usually a straight line, but that's not always the most exciting way. Rather than plot the quickest or easiest route to your destination, chart a course that takes you to all the cool things in between point A and point B: national parks, landmarks or monuments, zoos, and museums. If you're a foodie family, follow the trail from one locally-renowned eatery to another. If you're a bunch of thrill-seekers, go amusement park-hopping. Your route might look more like an EKG than a straight line by the time you're done, but you'll have had a lot of fun.