My family loves car trips. Sure, we're trapped in a moving box, but we see it as a chance to be alone together. I take along more food, toys, and tapes than we could ever need -- and we use them all. By the end of the vacation, the car looks like a New Year's Eve party the morning after, but I feel that getting there and back has to be as much fun as the destination.
To make road trips come together, you've got to plan well and keep your expectations in check. One rule always holds true: Be realistic about how much ground you can comfortably cover. In my experience, children do best when you don't disturb their sleep schedules and you limit each day's driving time to four hours for babies and no more than eight -- or better, six -- for older kids.
Aside from that, the best way to structure your journey depends on several things, including your kids' ages and personalities and your past road-trip experiences. So where do you start? Right here: Our guide will help you plan your best, most stress-free excursion ever.
Begin by getting the big picture of your trip. Consult a road atlas or a Web-based map service like www.mapquest.com, and plot your route door-to-door. Once you know which roads, interstates, and highways you'll be using, pinpoint places to stop for breaks. To find parks and open spaces along the way, search the National Park Service's Website, www.nps.gov, and try www.parkmaps.com for state and regional parks. Scout out some locations where you can get a meal or a good night's rest at www.exitsource.com. It has an exhaustive list of restaurants, motels, services, and attractions organized by state and highway. Travel books like Fodor's new Road Guide USA series describe the cities and towns you'll pass as well as lodging and dining options, attractions, and maps. (Make reservations at motels and campgrounds, especially in summer).
Though you should plan the big elements of your trip down to the details, leave a little extra time in your schedule for lingering at a spectacular park or checking out a fun roadside attraction. "And keep bathing suits and towels handy in the car," advises Eileen Ogintz, a mother and author of a nationally syndicated family-travel column called Taking the Kids. "You might pass a good place to swim, and you'll be ready to head right to the motel pool at the end of the day."
Pack a cooler with healthy food for the road. Many families make a picnic lunch for the first day. Not only do you save money, but picnicking gives your kids the chance to run around and blow off some steam. "We tank up on gas just before lunch and ask the station attendant to suggest a local park or playground," says Kate Day, of Seattle.Don't forget finger foods, either -- they provide lots of distraction and stave off hunger pangs. "I have four children who need constant feeding," says Shannon Cuda, of Bluffton, SouthCarolina. "Their must-haves for car trips are cheese-flavored crackers, fruit leather, apple slices, and peanut- butter-and-graham-cracker sandwiches." Other good snack choices for the road include Cheerios, animal crackers, snack-size boxes of raisins or pretzels, and string cheese.
Some families give their children only water to drink to cut down on bathroom stops, believing that the less tasty the beverage, the less a child will consume. Others take only clear drinks so spills won't stain. (Taking bibs for babies, toddlers, and preschoolers will cut down on laundry stops; keep a stain-remover stick handy so you can attack spills before they have a chance to set in.) Leslie Weseman, of Santa Cruz, California, relies on an assortment of frozen water bottles and juice boxes. "They help keep the cooler cold and, as they thaw, provide a treat for the children," she says.
Special treats can delight the troops and should definitely be part of your bag of tricks. Ogintz never leaves home without lollipops and packages of bubble gum "to lighten the mood." But, she warns, "stay away from chocolate. It quickly melts into a gooey mess." Other sweet favorites for kids older than 4 years are Life Savers, lemon drops, and tiny tins of fruit-flavored candy -- all goodies that children don't often get at home.
If you want to keep kids happy on the road, entertainment is everything. Buy toys and games, wrap them up, and save them for the car, distributing them as your children's squirminess warrants. Some tried-and-true kid pleasers:
For infants, tie a short ribbon across the backseat of the car, and hang brightly colored soft toys as well as pictures and family photos for your baby to admire. (Just make sure that they're safely out of reach so they don't pose a choking hazard).
Toddlers enjoy stickers as well as those paint-with-water books that are activated with moistened cotton swabs. (Pack some in a resealable plastic bag.) Music's a hit, too -- try The Book of KidsSongs (Klutz, $11.95 for a book and cassette; $14.95 for a book and CD) or Jim Marshall's CD Little Jimmy's Favorites (www.harbor-records.com; $14.95).
Preschoolers to preteens are amused by Magic Pen Books (www.leemagicpen.com) printed with invisible ink that can be revealed with a stroke of a special marker, as well as Auto Bingo and Mad Libs. Other favorites include Etch-a-Sketch, pipe cleaners, stickers, and magnetic picture boards. Recently, our family tried a Drawbreakers coloring book, which lets you finish a partially drawn picture ($10.95, Klutz), and StickyCheckers and Sticky-Chess -- the pieces fasten to the board with Velcro, so you can take a break and not lose your place ($12.95 each at www.stickygames.com). Handheld electronic games and puzzles can keep kids busy for hours, and the games you played when you were a kid, such as license-plate hunts and 20 Questions, are still winners.
As kids get older, nothing makes time pass better than books on tape. Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland has taken us through Utah and Colorado, and Fudge-a-Mania, by Judy Blume, kept us laughing through British Columbia. Listening Library (800-726-0600) has a good selection of audiotapes for all ages. If your kids are too far apart in age to enjoy the same stories, get each of them an individual tape player with a set of headphones, and take along extra batteries.
Of course, these days, you can look as well as listen. Car-entertainment systems have advanced far beyond cassette and CD players and now include DVDs, TV/VCRs, and video-game systems. Check out (www.carlovershop.com) to see the variety of systems that can be adapted for use in any vehicle. Or rent a TV/ VCR unit for your trip from www.survive-the-drive.com (800-573-6018; $99 for ten days, plus total round-trip postage fee of $15).
Don't skip this section because you think you've heard it all before. Nothing is more important than your family's safety. So brush up on the basic rules: Everyone in the family must wear a seat belt, and babies and young children must travel in an approved car seat or booster seat. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the backseat of a car is the safest place for kids under the age of 12.
Babies under 20 pounds and 1 year of age must always sit in a rear-facing seat. Children over the age of 1 and weighing 20 to 40 pounds may sit in a forward-facing car seat; check the instruction manual to make sure it's properly installed. Depending on the state you're in, kids from 40 to 80 pounds must use a booster seat. (Check the NHTSA's Website, www.nhtsa.dot.gov, for state-by-state regulations for children with its State Legislative Tracking Application.) If the seat belt lies across your child's face or throat, he needs to sit in a higher booster seat or a forward-facing car seat to ensure a safe ride.
Take along pillows and lap blankets so that your children can nap comfortably, but don't allow them to recline their seats; seat belts work properly only when automobile passengers are upright. Children (as well as adults) have been killed in car accidents when they slipped out of the seat belt in a reclined bucket or bench seat.
Before you leave home, have the car tuned up, check your tires, and make sure your spare is in good shape. Keep your windshield-wiper fluid filled, and carry a good first-aid kit, flares and matches, a flashlight, emergency contact numbers, and medical-insurance information. Joining an organization like the American Automobile Association (800-JOIN-AAA) means you can get emergency road service almost anywhere in the U.S., plus discounts on lodging and attractions and free travel information and maps.
Car travel makes some children motion sick. If your child often gets nauseated or vomits in the car, try seating her in the middle of the backseat so that she has a clear view through the windshield (provided she's old enough to face that way). Don't let her look down at books or toys or out the side windows at the passing scenery -- some parents even install dark shades that they roll over side windows.
Light, low-fat meals and snacks are best for children prone to car sickness, and fresh air through an open window plus ginger ale or other carbonated drinks can help them feel better. In particularly bad cases, you may have to take frequent breaks from driving so that your child can stretch a bit. Ask your pediatrician to recommend an over-the-counter anti-motion-sickness drug. In most cases, the problem will resolve itself as the child grows older.
Plan to break every two hours, unless your kids are super-squirmy and need to stop more often. To really get your circulation going, take along some inflatable balls, jump ropes, and Frisbees, and play tag and chase games. Fast-food chains often have indoor or outdoor play areas with slides and ball pits -- wonderful places for the kids to recharge. In bad weather, you can stop at shopping malls or even supermarkets and walk around. Many interstate highways have attractive rest stops every few hundred miles, with rest rooms and grassy lawns. But the cleanliness of these facilities can vary; bring your own tissues and hand cleaners just in case.
Though most rest areas are perfectly safe, be careful. Always lock your car and accompany your children into the rest rooms. Avoid stopping at rest areas after dark; instead, choose a fast-food restaurant or a gas-station bathroom. If you'll be traveling in any of the 11 states from the Rockies to the Pacific, you can purchase volumes of Rest Area Review (vols. 1 and 2, $14.95, Bremo Press; vol. 3, $19.95, Newjoy Press). Each book covers several states and critiques every highway rest area located within them -- all of which have been personally visited by the guide's authors.