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The Long and Whining Road ~ Car Travel With Kids

(July 9, 2002)

Like most parents buckling their kids into the "family truckster" for a long excursion, I had high hopes that this time the kids would not fight and would quietly while away the hours with coloring, Play-Doh, games, and singing while I drove. Well, 25 minutes into a 16-hour drive, I found that I was a spilled box of crayons away from the insane asylum. Instead of worrying about speed traps—I was in the parent trap!


Unlike the game Survivor, we can't vote our kids out…of the car. So, in order to survive the long and whining road, we need to map out a battle plan. Surprisingly, I find that letting the kids help out makes an enormous difference. Let your child help plan the trip by showing them on the map where you are going. Also, let them choose their own entertainment items, such as pencils, paper, crayons, books, toys, etc., to place in their bag or backpack. By having their say, kids feel a sense of inclusion, which makes for a more positive attitude. If your child is old enough, encourage him or her to keep a journal about the trip and even add drawings too.

The Kid Survival Kit

Activities aside, traveling with children can be difficult, but advance planning on what to bring can take the lumps out of travel. A few days before leaving on a car trip, begin packing these essential items that will make the trip easier:

  • Snacks in insulated bags that they can open. (Tip: Put snacks in Ziploc™ bags)
  • Drinks in spill-proof containers.
  • A motion sickness bag and remedies such as crackers or peppermint candies.
  • Inexpensive toys to give out as rewards for good behavior.
  • Pre-moistened cloths (antibacterial towelettes) for when soap and water are not easily available.
  • Plastic bags to put garbage in. (Tip: Save the ones from your grocery shopping.)
  • A first-aid kit with bandages, non-aspirin pain reliever, antibiotic ointment, and medication needed for family members.
  • Bottles, diapers, and wipes for small children.
  • Pillows and throw blankets for extra comfort.
  • An extra change of clothes.
  • An overnight bag for the entire family (if you are staying in hotels along the way to your destination). This way, you can avoid schlepping all the gear in and out of the car.
  • A disposable camera for older kids so they can record parts of the vacation that they want to remember.
  • A map and highlight pen to let the kids trace the route as you drive.
  • A Frisbee or ball to use at rest stops.
  • Story and music tapes or CDs (preferably to use in their own personal players).
  • Sunglasses.
  • Water bottles.

On long rides, conversations have a chance to develop without distractions. Talk about things you loved when you were their age. However, be careful of the information you provide. I made the mistake of telling the kids how Uncle Dennis and I used to play "Punch Buggy" (when you see a Volkswagen Beetle, you punch the other person's arm) in the backseat of our car. Well, with my kids, that turned into a re-match of Tyson vs. Holyfield! Punch Buggy aside, there are some more compelling and less physical games to play such as:

  • Counting cows, horses, etc.: Count the cows on your side of the road. Winner has the highest number when you reach your destination,
  • The Alphabet Game: Find a word on a sign that begins with the letter "A" and work your way through the alphabet, and
  • The License Plate Game: Prepare an alphabetical list of the states so that the kids can check them off as they see them.
For a more complete list of games, visit the Party Game Central website.

Pace Yourselves

While playing games helps pass the time away, one of the keys to a successful trip lies all in the timing. For long rides, leaving early (say around 5:00 a.m.) assures that the kids will still be sleepy. By the time they awaken, it's usually rush hour, which is a good time to stop for a break or even breakfast. Then you can get back on the highway once the worst of the traffic is over.

Taking a breather from driving is essential. Nothing improves car travel like getting out of the car. Children should not be expected to sit in one position hour after hour just because the adults want to get some place in the shortest amount of time possible. Conditions permitting, children need to get out of the car and run around, and a rest stop of only a few minutes will help. Depending on the child's age, a break might be necessary every one to two hours. If you can, plan the trip to take advantage of historic sites or special attractions along the way, which can make travel breaks more fun.

Mother's Little Helper

Okay, I will admit sometimes even the best-laid out plans can go astray. And I admit that on some occasions, Benadryl® and Dramamine® have played a factor on keeping the peace. Nevertheless, there is one thing that I won't leave home without on a long trip with the kids: the TV/VCR.

Last year, I purchased a small nine-inch TV with a built-in VCR that plugged into the lighter of our SUV. It was a sanity saver on that remote drive across I-80 in Pennsylvania in which no amount of games or conversation seemed to work. For around $175, you can buy one that not only works in the car, but can also be used when you get to your destination. Some minivans and SUVs come equipped with these great gadgets, but they are very expensive.

Although TVs may pacify your children while in the car, I stress that they are only good for long-haul excursions. They shouldn't take the place of playing, conversing, and exploring with your children—ultimately, that's what family travel is all about.

Great Drive Resources

Survive The Drive
Traveling With Kids at

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