A road trip with small children may seem like a nightmare in the making, but many of the best family vacations take place on the open road. With the right planning, you and your children can enjoy the wonders of the highway, back road or whatever other path you choose.
Here are some helpful tips for making the most of your time on the road.
Make a Plan
It may sound exciting to jump in the car and just drive, but that doesn’t work when little children are involved. Once you know where you are going, take some time to map out your route, with your children’s help. Think about where you can stop along the way. Try to break up the trip into two- to three-hour chunks to keep kids (and adults) engaged and happy.
“During your trip, give your children a map so they can see where you are and how far you have until you reach your destination. This will help with the ‘Are we there yet?’ question,” says Jennifer Ryan, manager of AAA State Relations. Then let your children take turns as the navigator. Each child can have a turn picking the next stop.
Make the Most of Your Stops
“Plan to stop at a neighborhood park or someplace where the kids can run and blow off steam at least once every two to three hours,” says Mark Sedenquist, editor of Road Trip America, a website that provides a list of fun places to stop along every major interstate. You can also build your stops—and overall journey—around a certain theme, such as animals, the 50 states or geography in general. “Stop at places and pick up a sticker or something small and then scrapbook as you go,” says Sheri Wallace, editor of the Road Trips for Families website. “It unifies everyone and instead of focusing on the getting there, you focus on the now.”
Be Realistic About Distance
Although you may be able to stand 10 hours in the car, your child most likely cannot. Sedenquist believes that children shouldn’t have to spend more than seven hours in a car per day. “This works out to be about 375 miles traveled in a given day, with potty breaks, food breaks, kid breaks and so on,” he says. If you start out on your first road trip asking too much of your children, it will be hard to get them excited for the next one. “Drive and enjoy the journey, especially in the beginning,” Wallace says. “Don’t make your first road trip a 2,000-mile journey. Make it a 500-mile week-long adventure.”
Time Your Trip
You know your family’s schedule better than anyone else, so make a trip that works around naptimes and cranky periods. That could mean leaving at the crack of dawn or just after dinner. Some parents may like to drive at night and let the children sleep, but you need to be careful not to drive while sleepy. AAA recommends driving during the day so you get the most daylight. Just avoid driving under a rising or setting sun, because it decreases visibility.
“Keep children interested and involved in your road trip with a ready selection of cards, maps, family games, sing-along CDs and activity books—especially ones with references to your destination. This will help keep them occupied and create more interaction among family members,” Ryan says. Road Trip America suggests packing those goodies in a fabric lunch bag, or “car kit,” for each child. Just leave room to add little surprises along the way. Each morning your child will be excited to find out what the car kit holds.
As easy as it is to throw a movie into the built-in or portable player, remember that children can entertain themselves and will get more out of the trip if they have a reason to check out the scenery. Encourage your kids to search for certain license plates, animals, road signs or something from your trip’s theme. Younger children can look for pictures or colors.
A great alternative to DVDs are audio books. If you want to shut off all technology, take this time to tell stories about your family history or teach your children songs from your childhood.
Don’t Forget the Food
Whether you want to bring your food or stop at restaurants along the way, make sure your children have plenty of food and water. If you want to avoid a fast-food drive-thru, pack sandwiches, snacks and drinks in a cooler. If you eat while you drive, you’ll save time for stretching your legs and enjoying the scenery at your pit stops. Mix up your eating experiences by finding a local spot that appeals to children.
You can plan when you leave and which route you take, but you can’t do anything about an unexpected traffic jam. To keep up to date on the traffic ahead, consider investing in a CB radio, Sedenquist suggests. Just think how much fun your child will have learning the lingo and listening in to other travelers discussing what’s ahead.
A family road trip is not necessarily about “making good time.” Even if you want to get there as fast as your tires will take you, you don’t want to miss the opportunity for family fun. “On a road trip, two things need to happen: slow down and apply more time towards enjoyment, and/or cut back the scale of the trip so more time is available,” Sedenquist says.
“A road trip is not a car trip. It’s not a trip to soccer practice or ballet school or Mom’s office,” he adds. “There’s an element of adventure in every road trip, and it’s that unknown aspect of what’s about to happen next that can be enhanced and enriched on any family road trip.”