Roadtrip Tips for Kids in Cars

“The whole idea of a family vacation is to spend time together as a family. You get on an airplane, you put on your earphones and you’re lost in your own world. I’m looking forward to an awfully long ride together. After all, half the fun is getting there.”

– Clark Griswold, National Lampoon’s Vacation


Page’s youngest, strapped into the backseat and looking like one rough rider.


If you honestly think “getting there is half the fun,” you’ve obviously never spent a lot of time in the car with children. For the most part, the only fun is finally reaching your destination. As a veteran road trip mom, I can tell you that hitting the road with the children can be a daunting task. However, a little advance planning can make the difference between the nightmare from hell or a tolerable situation. Here are some things to think about.


Before You Leave

Plan Your Itinerary
Clean the Car
Pack the Essentials
Diversions
Infants/Toddlers
Terrible Two’s


Preschoolers
Grade School & Up
Desperation
“Are We There Yet??”

Snacks
Diversions Along the Way
Last Words


Before You Leave


Plan Your Itinerary

This may seem obvious, but many parents skip this key step. Plan your days in the car with potty breaks at specific rest stops, targeted towns for the lunch hour and hotel reservations where you plan to stay overnight. Otherwise, you’ll miss lunch because you’re two hours away from the nearest town while your kids turn grouchy from low blood sugar. Then you’ll find a small town with nothing but “no vacancy” signs at the end of a rough day on the road. Spontaneity with kids is fine, but always have a back-up plan in place.

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Clean the Car

Before you leave, CLEAN YOUR CAR!! This seems counter-intuitive, I’ll admit. Why clean your car before you leave, when it will only get trashed on the road? The answer is that humans are much less likely to mess up a clean space than an area that is already filthy. If you start out with crumb-crusted seatbelts and snot-caked windows, I guarantee you that things will only get worse. Visit your local do-it-yourself car wash on your way out of town, and make your car a happy environment to live in for 8-plus hours a day.

Vacuum out the vehicle so you don’t feel like you’re vacationing in a garbage truck. Clean the interior windows, wipe off interior doors, dust the dashboard, etc.

All the same, realize that you will have to do this again immediately upon your return. After two or more days on the road with children, the interior of your car will not be a pretty sight!

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Pack the Essentials

  1. First Aid Kit

    Band-aids, thermometer, children’s Tylenol and Sudafed (ditto for adults), butterfly bandages, Pepto-Bismol, an anti-diarrheal (for adults only, not recommended by the AAP for kiddos), salt pills, an oral rehydration solution (to combat the diarrhea/dehydration dangers in small children), paperback version of Dr. Spock, phone number and after-hours exchange of pediatrician. If you’re heading to wilderness areas, think about including a snakebite kit. A venomous snake that will make an adult extremely sick has the capacity to kill a small child in a very short period of time.

  2. Backseat Organizer

    Storage is at a premium on road trips. Consider investing in pockets that hang on the back of the driver and passenger seats, to help little backseat passengers keep things organized. Backseat pockets can provide storage for all the games, toys, snacks, tapes, and coloring books that will be necessary to occupy your youngsters for long periods of time. Go to www.kelgar.com/Travel/travel.html for an example of this helpful item.

  3. Wet Wipes

    Pick your favorite brand, and remember that these will be your best friends in just about any situation involving children. Buy twice as much as you think you will need.

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Diversions

When you’re cramming your kids in the car for hours on end, it is reasonable that you provide some form of kiddie entertainment so they don’t drive you absolutely crazy! If you’re doing a long haul, consider buying new toys – something they haven’t played with before and haven’t become bored with.

Below is a list of age-appropriate diversions that can help you out. This is in no way a complete listing, so use your imagination – you know your child best! Also, see the fabulous website www.familyonboard.com for great travel toys and distractions.

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Rugrats
Infants & Non-walking/Non-talking Toddlers

Stuffed animals, rattles, busy boxes, board books (be sure to look out for choking items!). Also include a favorite blanket or cuddly stuffed animal. Some small children can become very out-of-sorts by a change of environment. Having a familiar item can provide invaluable reassurance.

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L’enfante Terrible
The Terrible Two-Year-Old

Undoubtedly, this is the toughest age to deal with in the car – or in just about any other situation. Go for a mix of toddler toys and preschooler toys, depending on the developmental stage of your child. The book Peekaboo and Other Games to Play With Your Baby by Shari Steelsmith has plenty of hints for the difficult toddler stage. Important Warning: Don’t forget to stash a potty seat in the trunk if you’re potty training. You may be doing a lot of unplanned potty stops!

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Young & Innocent
Preschoolers & Kindergartners

Books on tape with headphones, Viewmasters, kaliedescopes, Lift-the-Flap books, finger puppets, stickers. I especially like reusable stickers like Colorforms, but remember that these can be choking hazards for children under 3!

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Hip Sophisticates
Grade School Children & Up

With this group, consider including them in on the trip planning. Youngsters can learn to navigate using maps (but check their work – kids can also get you pretty lost). They may also be interested in learning about the states/regions you are traversing, so provide some informative books. Also, think about chapter books, Gameboys, car bingo, magnetic checkers/chess, etc.

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Desperation
Spending consecutive days in the car? Consider a car television. Yes, this may make you feel like a failure as a parent, but remember: your sanity is important too. Admittedly, this is an expensive item, and I only recommend investing in one if you’re a fervent road trip family. Again, go to www.familyonboard.com for more information.

My basic rule of thumb with the television is as follows: if the trip is six hours or less, then no television. The kiddos are expected to entertain themselves with the myriad of toys provided and remain civil without the TV. However, any trip over six hours and extending to 10 or 12 hours, I will haul out the television without remorse.

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“Are We There Yet??”
Yes, this is the world’s most annoying question. But in their defense, I must point out that small children often do not have an accurate grasp of time. If they’re bored, it may seem like hours since they’ve asked the annoying question, when actually it has only been 5 minutes. Some ideas to combat the interrogation include:

  1. Prepare little gift-wrapped packages – one for each hour on the road. Tell the kids that they will receive a little surprise each hour and that constantly questioning arrival time will delay the gift by five minutes. A little incentive never hurt anyone!
  2. Speaking of incentives – make up an “incentive chart”, with columns for each hour on the road. At the top of the hour, each child gets to put a sticker of their choice (dinosaurs, PowerPuff Girls, Disney pals, etc.) on the chart. This will better help them understand the passage of time if they can’t read the clock.

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Snacks
A hungry kid is a grumpy kid. Pack food that is fun and not too messy. Focus on items that are not too high in sugar or too salty (then the kids will be terribly thirsty and you’ll be making more potty stops than you thought!). Little boxes of animal crackers are a big hit with my kids. The little animals act out many adventures before being eaten! For drinks, consider juice boxes – they’re hard to spill. Also bring several bottles of water. These are perfect for quenching thirst, as well as providing liquid for impromptu clean-ups.

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Diversions Along the Way
Think about stopping for an hour at a child-oriented place. This does not mean that you have to seek out the local Chuck E. Cheese or McDonalds restaurant (God forbid!). Instead, think creatively – an Amish restaurant in the Midwest or a local playground. Try picnicking for lunch at a National Park or near the ocean. Include older children in planning fun stops with an activity involved. Also, consider taking some extra time at a rest-stop to run the kids around. Rest-stop fun can include a blow-up beach ball, soap bubbles, a kite, or a Frisbee.

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Last Words

My basic rule is no more than 8 hours in the car a day for kids – this includes a stop for lunch. I’ve done 10 hours straight, and I can tell you from experience that the last 2 hours were unbearable for everyone in the vehicle, adults as well as kids.

Finally, take pride in a job well done. It takes guts to drive cross-country with kids. Not everyone can take the mind-bending agony you’re brave enough to endure. You’ve got the inner fortitude and true strength of a devoted parent. Good luck and Godspeed!

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