Monday, March 12, 2012

Road Trip Planning - Step 3 - Traveling With Children

Spring between Island Park and Yellowstone National Park

Before I give you my road trip tips, let me give you my credentials.  My husband and I once took a two-week, two thousand five hundred mile road trip with 3 children (ages 3 to 12) crammed in the backseat of a Toyota Corolla.  It is still one of my favorite trip memories.  We have also flown to Connecticut and then driven to Niagara Falls in a rental vehicle.  We have driven from Utah to Yellowstone National Park, southern and northern California, Montana, Illinois, and more. I love hitting the road with my children in tow, and they have become veteran travelers. 

Successful road trips with children involve three things:  entertainment, food, and clothes.  If you cover those areas, you will have a great time!  I will also talk about basic car supplies and motion sickness.  If you are prepared, things will go smoothly.

Winkolina explores the museum at Fremont State Park.

1)  Entertainment
I find it is helpful to have a mixture of both familiar, favorite toys and new ones.  Opening a new toy during a long road trip can instantly alleviate boredom and fatigue in a child.  If you are going on a long trip, consider having some inexpensive toys to dole out along the way.

Have a "car bag" for each child, and fill it with age-appropriate activities.  For babies, this will be a variety of toys, soft books, and a pacifier if your child uses one.  Tethers to attach toys to car seats are invaluable and make toy retrieval simple.  For older children, I like coloring books, small puzzles, books, stuffed animals, and simple games like "Rush Hour." Older children should help pack their own bags so they know where everything is.  Keep baby's bag with you so you can give your baby new toys at appropriate intervals.

Tour at the Grandin Print Shop.  Stop at interesting places along the way.

I am not a big fan of dvd players in the car.  Car travel is a great time for family interaction, and also an opportunity for children to learn to entertain themselves. Never underestimate the power of imagination to keep your child entertained!  To read more about technology and trips, or electronics and family interaction, check out my other blog posts.  So, what do you do in the car with your children instead?

Games like Rush Hour are great for the road.
  • Sing.  Simple songs like "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" are fun, and you can teach your family to sing in a round.   Our children once serenaded us with  "Are we lost?  Are we lost?  Yes, we are!  Yes, we are!  Someone get the map out, someone get the map out.  Find the way, find the way" (to the tune of Frere Jacques) when we missed a crucial turn-off and were lost in northern California.
  • Play games involving looking out the window (particularly good if anyone is prone to motion sickness). I like having kids take turns finding the next letter of the alphabet off of road signs, billboards, and license plates.  Speaking of license plates, keep track of how many different states you see on your trip.  Can you find all fifty?  My kids still notice out-of-state plates in parking lots at home.  I also like to play "I Spy."  Can your family guess what you are looking at before you pass it?
  • Play interactive games like 20 Questions.  Or try a memory game by starting a sentence, and then having the next person repeat it and add to it.  For example:  "I went on a trip, and in my suitcase I took a book."  Then the next person says "I went on a trip, and in my suitcase I took a book, and a swimsuit."  See how long you can keep going!
  • Have conversations!  Tell stories about your family, tell about the area you are driving through, and more importantly, LISTEN to your children.  They are pretty interesting people.
  • Listen to music in the car.  My favorite time is when everyone is occupied, and I drive, soak up the scenery, and listen to some great music.  Pack a variety so everyone has something they like.  MP3 players are great for having a mix available, but bringing a bunch of CDs works well, too. Have the person in the passenger seat take care of changing the music.
  • Books on tape.  It is possible to find books that both adults and kids will enjoy.  We took Harry Potter audio books on a few trips and enjoyed them immensely.
  • If you must bring a dvd player, consider having rules about when and how it will be used.  Maybe you pull it out in the evening when everyone is tired, or after lunch if you are hoping kids will nap.

Take a ball or frisbee to use at rest stops.
  • Stop frequently.  For kids, I recommend stopping every 1-1/2 to 2 hours.  I know, it will slow down your drive time, but it will also keep the trip more pleasant.  At stops, EVERYONE goes to the bathroom, no exceptions.  This can prevent unplanned emergency stops by the side of the road.  These breaks are a great opportunity to let kids run around and stretch their legs.  Kicking or tossing a ball, throwing a frisbee, or playing tag is refreshing for everyone.  If you can find a park with a playground, all the better.  Refill water bottles, get snacks, change diapers, switch drivers, and tidy up the car during these stops. 

2)  Food
My mother taught me if I always had something for my kids to eat and something for them to drink, I could save myself many tantrums, and she was right!  If your children are old enough, make sure they have their own water bottle and a couple of snacks with them.  I recommend only having one or two snacks at a time, as you want them to eat regular meals on the road.  Keep in mind the "mess" level when choosing snacks.  It is easier to brush cracker crumbs out of the car than clean up something that melts or soaks into your upholstery.  Save messier food for lunch or for your rest stops where they can eat outside of the car.  Give small children a sippy cup to control spills.  Restock snacks on your breaks.  I will deal with food in more detail in my final road trip post.

Unexpected find at a stop!  We had fun watching this little toad.

3)  Clothes
If you are traveling with small children, keep a change of clothes handy...not buried in a suitcase in the back of the car, but easily accessible.  If someone gets muddy at a rest stop, has an accident, spills juice all over their shirt, or is car sick, it will make dealing with the situation easier.  If you keep a change of clothes in a plastic grocery bag, you have a bag to put soiled clothing in until you can deal with it.  Keeping a rag or some wet-wipes handy is useful as well.  It is helpful to have a sweatshirts or light blankets handy as well. Sometimes it is chilly traveling early in the morning, or in the evening after a long day in the sun.  A blanket or sweatshirt can be used to block the sun coming in a car window in a pinch, although I recommend traveling with window screens.  Once we stopped to view a waterfall, and although it was a sunny day, when we left the car we nearly froze in the cold wind!  I was happy to have a sweatshirt.

Aquarium at Niagara Falls - we hadn't planned on this, but it was a fun stop!

4)  Car Supplies
Keep the following in your car:  first aid kit with bandaids, wipes, and antiseptic.  Rag, or something with which to mop up spills.  Window shades.  A positive attitude.  Some flexibility.

5)  Motion Sickness
If you are fortunate and your kids don't get motion sick you can skip this part.  We have had some motion sickness, so I am including some tips here. On really curvy roads (mountain switchbacks, for example)  motion sickness can set in quickly.  Have everyone look up out of the windows and look forward when possible as a preventative measure on winding roads.  Children's Chewable Dramamine has helped us out on many an occasion.  It must be taken well before your child gets motion sick. I recommend checking with your pediatrician before using medication.  If you have a child who becomes nauseous during the trip, find a place to stop, and spend some time walking around in the fresh air until they feel better.  When you are back in the car, keep them facing forward and looking out in the distance...not directly at the road.  This is a good time to try those "out the window" games I talked about above.  In an emergency, have a bag or something they can use if they need to.

Gift shops provide a few minutes of play!

What are your best tips for traveling with children?  I'd love to see your ideas!

See my other posts for more about road trips:
Road Trip Planning - Step 1 - Routes and Accommodations
Road Trip Planning - Step 2 - Enjoying the Road
Road Trip Planning - Step 4 - Food for the Trip


  1. Awesome information. No wonder road trips are so much fun with great planning and tips like these!

    1. I'm going to have to remember this post. Awesome information!

    2. Thanks, Canessa! You'll be needing this info before you know it!

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    4. Greg, you've gotten so good at packing everything into the car!

  2. Amy, SO many wonderful suggestions. Where were you when my kids were small? I've sent this on to my kids. Nowadays, they stick a DVD into a player and call it good. Sometimes that may be ones last resort, but your way is so much more fun and interactive AND memory-making.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Kim. I agree there are many memory-making moments during road trips! If I had been watching a DVD, I would not have seen a bald eagle flying parallel to our car in a canyon one day. That is a sight I will never forget. Let's hear it for looking out the window!

  3. I love road trips for the interaction also with the family and love all your tips you have here. I make sure I leave plenty of time for stops along the way because the scenery is the best part of taking a road trip and not flying. I do however also have my iPad with me for the times when the kids are hopefully going to take a nap or we need quiet time. I know everyone needs quiet time at some point in the day. A co-worker at DISH told me I could use my streaming service I have with the Blockbuster@Home pass on my iPad. The kids love it because they have several movies or TV shows to choose from. I give them a time limit and it gives me and the kids enough quiet time.