July 16, 2012 -- I bet most childless folks probably consider a long road trip with young children to be a good approximation of hell. But unless you're a member of the private plane set, sooner or later you're probably going to hit the road with your kids—either to save money (airfare for parents plus kids can really add up) or to visit places not easily reached by plane. Since summer is peak season for family road trips, I've put together some advice from parents who have logged serious miles in the car with their kids.
1. Technology is your friend.
Virtually everyone I spoke to recommended bringing something that plays movies. DVD players are great; or you can eliminate the DVDs altogether and download movies to a laptop or iPad.2. If you have multiple kids, bring multiple electronic devices.
The more kids you have, the harder it is to get them to agree on a movie. Rebecca Saff, who recently completed a 6,000+ mile, four-week road trip with her husband and four young sons, packed four tablet computers. "That way, everyone could watch a different movie or play games," she says.
3. Choose toys carefully.
"No toys with small pieces unless you want to pick them up 50 million times," warns Carol Michael Stuckey, who makes regular road trips from Massachusetts to Indiana with her two small kids.
4. Change activities often. Rather than letting her kids watch an entire movie in one sitting or play computer games for hours on end, Saff was strict about switching things up on a regular basis. "Every 30 minutes or so, everyone would put away what they were doing and start something else," she says.
5. Visit the library before you leave.
Saff checked out 20 books on CD from her local library and made MP3 files of them to play in the car. The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew and Encyclopedia Brown were big hits.
6. Have kids keep a record of the trip.
We've kept a couple old digital cameras to give to our kids when we travel. They take a lot of goofy photos, but it'll be fun when they're older to look back on family trips through their eyes. Saff's older kids kept daily journals.
7. Novelty is key.
Load up your iPhone or iPad with new games, bring movies your kids haven't seen before, and pick up new toys as you travel.
8. Bring lap desks.
Kids can color or play with small toys like cars or blocks.
9. Old-school songs and games still work.
Many parents introduced their kids to games they remember playing on road trips they took with their own parents. (If you choose to open the Pandora's box of "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall," however, don't blame me.)
10. Consider bringing your own potty.
"They sell fold-up portable kids' potties that unfold to be pretty much like a regular potty. They use gallon zip-top bags that you zip up and throw out. Terrible to think about but sort of a life saver!" says Stuckey.
11. Stock up on motion-sickness meds, just in case.
Talk to your pediatrician in advance.
12. Minimize restaurant meals.
Breakfast in a restaurant with young kids is often a waste of time and money, so if your hotel doesn't offer free breakfast, stop at a grocery store the night before and eat in your room. Saff recommends instant oatmeal packets and fruit. She also notes that lunch in restaurants didn't work out so well. "If you've been sitting in a car all day, you don't want to get out of the car just to sit some more in a restaurant. We'd stop just before lunchtime—maybe run around in a park or playground—then get back in the car and eat while we were driving again."
13. Pack lots of snacks.
Fruit is great. When my family drove through California last summer, we stopped at roadside produce stands and let the kids pick out whatever they wanted. Also, squeezable applesauce packets were a big hit. Finally, virtually all the parents I spoke with advised dividing up snacks into small portions in zip-top bags or plastic containers… so no one can dump out a family-size box of Cheerios in your minivan.