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Make Your Family Road Trip a Memorable One

Your Guide to Car Trips with Kids

When you think of road trips, do you think of National Lampoon's Griswold family, a station wagon with no air conditioning and singing "Are We There Yet?" with your siblings? If your idea of a road trip hasn't changed in the past couple of decades, you're in for a surprise.

While retro road trips are enjoying a revival thanks to a stalled economy, smart parents are realizing that trips on four wheels are easier on their nerves as well as their wallets--as long as they take the time to make a game plan to keep things safe, cheap, and entertaining. Unlike travel by train or plane, travel by car is at your pace. You're in charge.

Here are some ways to make sure that big trip goes off better than the Griswolds'!

Tune Up, Clean Up, Then Pack Up
  • Before you leave, it's important to do a full tune-up on your vehicle. Change your oil, test all of your lights, and refill your fluids before getting out on the road. Check all of your tires to make sure that they have good air pressure, are free of leaks, and have adequate treading.

  • Make sure that you have a spare car key on hand; it's better to be safe than sorry in case you--or one of the kids--lock your keys in your car. Consider registering for roadside assistance through an automobile club or your car insurance. (It's also a good idea to double check that your registration and insurance are up to date and easy to access.)

  • To eliminate confusion while on the road, map out your route beforehand. Compare your journey on several different maps; do not solely rely on one source, especially internet map sites, because they might not be the most up-to-date or accurate resources. Taking along a real map or a GPS (global positioning system) unit is your best bet, especially if you have a lot of ground to cover.

  • If you have a minivan or sport utility vehicle, consider having you or your partner sit in the back with the kids for safety. If one child is screaming, hungry or in need of attention, it's a lot easier and safer to help hand out treats, wipe away tears and give bottles when sitting next to a child in the back seat than reaching through from the front seat.

  • Also, give your car a good cleaning before hitting the road. Less mess and clutter means more space for your trip essentials--and with little ones, everything is essential--and less time spent rummaging to find those essentials.

  • When packing for kids, pack just as you would on an airplane: checked and carry-on baggage. Each child should have a "carry-on" bag of car-friendly toys, a change of clothes, any supplies they'll need during the trip (diapers, bottles, bibs, etc.) and whatever else they'll need during the trip. Pack everything else in "checked luggage" stowed in the trunk.
Timing is Everything
  • Carefully plan the timing of your road trip, scheduling driving around kids' naps and even bedtimes. If your little ones are not yet eating solids, feed them and then hit the road to allow the maximum peace and quiet during the drive.

  • Leaving just before mealtime is a good option once kids are old enough to feed themselves without too much mess. They'll have something to keep them occupied and full tummies will soon lead to sleepy children!

  • Traveling at bedtime is another tactic to consider. Give kids a bath to relax them, put on their pajamas and hit the road. (Just make sure you and your partner are well-rested enough to drive safely!) This tactic doesn't always work, but if your kids sleep well in the car, you might want to consider this.

  • Even the most angelic of children has been known to misbehave on car trips--and who can blame them? Being cooped up in a car is no fun for kids! To keep them on their best behavior, stop the car every couple of hours and let kids run around and play for a few minutes. Consider a game of tag in the rest area green space, or race the kids up the sidewalk and back when you stop. Plan stops along the way at parks or fast food restaurants with play areas.

  • Little ones who are used to plenty of face time with mom and dad get rowdy and restless in the car. Take babies and infants out of their car seats and take them for a quick walk. A change of scenery and a bit of cuddle time will keep baby calm and happy until the stop.

  • If you are in need of a bathroom on the road, many moms say hotels and casual dining restaurants are good options. Restrooms are cleaner and more likely to have changing facilities for little ones. Hostesses and front desk clerks are usually understanding to the plight of a kid who's got to go now, if you're polite. Supermarkets and big-box stores like Wal-Mart and Target are other good rest-stop options, and you can generally avoid fast food and endless requests for junk food that way.
Saving Money on the Road
  • Small expenses can easily add up when you're traveling. An easy way to cut back on extraneous costs and avoid junk food is to pack a cooler. (For information on how to pack a cooler and what to eat while you're on the road, read Healthy Eating on the Road.)

  • To further your savings, rent a stack of audio books and some family-friendly music from your local library instead of buying your kids new games and toys for the trip. That way, both the passengers and the driver will be kept entertained! Make sure to pick a variety of audio books to please everyone.

  • If your kids are older, have each family member make a mix CD or pick out a few favorite CDs before you leave. (Little ones can help pick their favorite songs!) Have everyone take turns being the DJ; it'll keep boredom at bay and is a great way to gain more insight into your family's individual musical tastes.

  • In terms of the costs of your transportation, renting a car may be a good option. Compare the gas mileage of your family car to other vehicles that might be more fuel-efficient. In addition, maximize your fuel economy by making simple tweaks, like driving at an even pace (use cruise control!), using air conditioning instead of rolling down the windows on the highway, and limiting your luggage. (For more tips on improving fuel efficiency, read 20 Tips to Save Money on Gas.)

  • If you need to stop at a hotel for the night, plan ahead; do your research to find the best hotel deals on travel websites and look for those with family-friendly amenities such as a pool, cribs, and microwave and mini fridge in the room. It's better to plan for a stop halfway through your route and to make a reservation rather than trying to find a good deal when you're exhausted from traveling.

  • If yours is a trip that will last more than one day, a fun night at a hotel can make the journey as much fun as the destination.
Don't Let Boredom Strike!
Mom, I'm bored! Wah! No matter how old your children are, you'll likely to hear complaints about the length of the trip along with the most dreaded road trip question: "Are we there yet?" To keep boredom at bay, compile a list of games for your older kids to play in the car before you leave. If you have another adult in the car, assign one of you to be the social director while the other one drives. Here are some new and classic games to get you started!

  • Kids will want to bring along every toy they have if given the option. Tell kids they can take along a certain number of toys, and then bring them out one at a time to "stretch" the fun.

  • For babies, think about play mats that attach to the back of the seat or travel mobiles. Get a mirror so baby can see you. Staring at the back of a car seat all day is no fun, even for infants. Pull out all the standard baby games: peek-a-boo, funny faces, "I've got your nose" and pretty much any other game you can think of.

  • For toddlers, bring along picture books and other stimulating toys. Consider buying a few new books and bringing them out one at a time to keep kids occupied. Magnetic doodle pads and simple toys like dolls and cars are good choices. And because no mom wants to constantly pick up dropped toys, consider bringing along a baking tray for kids to use as a play surface.

  • For older kids, try classic car games like the License Plate State Game, Categories, 20 Questions, and I Spy.

  • Other Games: Bring a deck of cards to play easy games like Old Maid and Crazy Eights. Uno is also a really simple one to take up lots of time. Another good bet is to take along Mad Libs to concoct crazy stories and scenarios. You can also print off word searches, crosswords, coloring pages, and Sudoku puzzles.
Remember, road trips aren't just about the destination! With a little bit of planning and forethought, you can turn what might be a long journey full of extra costs and setbacks into a pleasant and memorable experience for your entire family.

Freelance writer Melinda Hershey is studying Health Promotion and Education at the University of Cincinnati. Her interest in health was first inspired at a young age by her mother's passion for healthy cooking, and Melinda loves to learn and to teach others about the benefits of a healthy lifestyle. She hopes to merge her health concentration with her love of travel and community service.

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