Family vacations are where memories are made - and sometimes, where patience and sanity are lost. "Yes, you do have to ride in this (fill in the blank) car for another two hours." "No, you may not have that awesomest-ever ten-dollar tchotchke." And our personal favorite: "I thought you had the tickets." It's enough to make you long for the comfort of home. So before we hit the trail this summer, we asked the experts -- our readers -- for a little advice. The pages that follow are neatly packed with their tried-and-true tips for keeping family travel fun.
Sharon Foster of Kennesaw, Georgia, knows how to keep it together. Before a trip, she fills a three-ring binder with driving directions, hotel and campground reservations, coupons and discount offers for restaurants along the route, pictures and fun facts about the destination, pre-purchased tickets, a list of car games, and plastic pages holding entertainment CDs and DVDs. "It helps to have everything in one place for easy reference," says Sharon.
"Every summer our family makes the 17-hour drive from Ohio to New Hampshire," says Cincinnati native Amanda Nobbe, mom of a 3-year-old and a toddler. "We travel with cookie sheets and a plastic tote filled with playthings. Easily held on a lap, a cookie sheet can be used as a surface for coloring, playing with magnets and Bendaroos, or holding a snack. It's an inexpensive alternative to a car-seat lap desk, and when it's not in use, it fits in the back pocket of the seat."
Before starting out on their first major expedition (an 18-hour drive to Florida from their home in Springfield, Ohio) with their 2-year-old and 4-year old, the Larsons hung little numbered tickets above each boy's car seat, one for every hour of the trip. "They were redeemed for wrapped treats they could play with or eat along the journey," says mom Therese. "They loved pulling down the ticket when I asked in my conductor voice: 'Tickets, please!'"
Jennifer Guckiean of Alexandria, Kentucky, tucks treats into paper bags labeled with an activity, like finding a specific landmark or license plate, that kids must do before opening the bag.
To keep her five children occupied on their many family car trips, Rashawnda Kemerling of Platteville, Wisconsin, favors a three-ring binder filled with clear plastic sleeves containing blank sheets of paper and simple games, such as hangman and tic-tac-toe. A three-ring pencil bag holds dry-erase markers. Kids can doodle and play for hours, then wipe the sleeves clean and start again.
Members of the Emerson family of Biloxi, Mississippi, each have a Trip Jar decorated with stickers and pictures from previous travels, to which they add money every month. When vacation time rolls around, they bring along the jars and spend the contents on snacks and souvenirs. This system not only offers everyone a lesson in budgeting, but the jars themselves make fun mementos.
The Roths of Austin, Texas, look for geocaching sites when they travel, while the Mitchell family of Cincinnati, Ohio, favors letterboxing. Both activities involve tracking down small containers hidden in public places, such as parks. Locations are listed online, along with GPS directions (geocaching.com) or clever clues (letterboxing.org) for finding them. The families say it's a great way to break up trips and discover interesting spots they wouldn't otherwise have known about.
Amy Malaise of Petaluma, California, helps her kids explore their vacation destinations with a scavenger hunt prepared in advance. She glues pictures of the items they're looking for onto index cards (one apiece), then laminates the cards, punches a hole in one corner, and hooks them on a ring for portability. Items vary with the destination but might include nature finds, landmarks, public art, or eye-catching buildings. "You can use your own photos if you have visited the spot before," she says, "or look on the Internet for information about the place."
The Brunicardis of Galloway, Ohio, have found a clever way to savor vacation memories: they preserve small mementos from each trip, such as ticket stubs and nature finds, in an inexpensive, clear plastic ornament ball. Each Christmas, they're reminded of all the great places they've been.
The Davidsons of Sugar City, Idaho, travel with rolls of nickels, dimes, and quarters, which they use to reward general good behavior, patience, courtesy to others, and even accomplishments on the road, such as memorizing a poem or reading a book. Whatever the kids earn is their souvenir spending money. Says mom Michelle, "It eliminates debates in the shop and gives them an added incentive to be good citizens throughout our travels."
Whenever they're in need of a travel break, the Viswanathans of Collierville, Tennessee, search out a library. "Besides getting a break along the way, you'll get a nice feel for what's going on in the community simply by talking to the locals and checking out the newspaper and bulletin boards," says mom Meena. "If you're in luck, you may even have an opportunity to meet with an author or take part in a free, hands-on workshop."
Easy Travel Toys
-Pipe cleaners (shape them into toys and sculptures)
-Aluminum foil (ditto)
-Uninflated balloons (to blow up and bat around at airports and rest stops)
-Glow-in-the-dark toys (when traveling at night)
-Simplify hotel stops by packing everyone's overnight gear in one bag.
-Pack a bedtime car kit for days that run late, with jammies, toothbrushes, and blankets for each child.
-Use resealable plastic bags to separate outfits, stash swim gear, and store laundry before washing.
-Print a packing list for each child and put it in her suitcase so that she can use it to pack for the trip home.
-Bring a collapsible cooler to fill with snacks and lunches on day trips.