There’s a reason why so many families tell and retell the stories of long-ago road trips in the family car. The truth is, being in such close quarters with the ones we love most can create some hilarious situations and wonderful memories, but it can also be stressful. Need some help avoiding motion sickness and keeping the peace between quarrelsome kids? Follow our tips for family car travel and make your next trip one to remember.
Before you hit the road, be honest with yourself about what you and your children can handle in the way of a road trip. While older children might be capable of dealing with 10+ hours in the family van, chances are your 4-year-old isn’t. Generally speaking, young children should not be subjected to confinement in a car for more than six hours a day. This is just as much for your sanity as it is for theirs.
If your family car is better suited to in-town trips rather than long hauls, think about renting a van. A van will, at minimum, leave everyone enough room to create their own personal space. If your 8-year-old doesn’t share his toys, chances are he isn’t going to want to share elbow room either. If you decide to rent, make your reservation well in advance, especially during peak travel times. See our article on car rental tips for more information.
Start packing, at least mentally, a few days before you leave. Let the kids help pack their own bags if they are old enough, and discuss the trip with them — kids are much better behaved when they know what to expect. Packed bags mean less confusion, less standing around and less frustration on departure day. This translates into a pleasant start to your road trip.
A great way to avoid the inevitable question (are we there yet?) is to give kids a map, or, even more fun, help them create their own. You can trace the route together and point out interesting landmarks so that they will have a sense of where they are going.
What to Bring
Safety first — if you decide to rent a car, bring your own car seats. Chances are they are of a higher quality than those provided by rental car companies and more comfortable for the kids too. Bring along a first-aid kit to treat minor mishaps.
Just this once, go against your parenting books and let the television baby-sit your kids. Portable DVD players might just be the key to your sanity on a long trip — you may want to go as far as to get one for each child. No arguments about whether to watch “Dora the Explorer” or “Spiderman” means peace and quiet for you.
Whatever you were planning on bringing in the way of snacks — double it. And toss the rules about junk food on the roadside — this is one time to let your daughter have another cookie or your son another juice box. One day of poor eating cannot destroy a life of healthy habits. Pack their favorite healthy snacks, and keep the junky ones for when you get desperate.
Some other items to consider: books on CD, their favorite music CD’s, blankets, pillows and favorite small toys. Coloring books and crayons will also keep the young ones occupied — surprise them with a new one when the car gets moving. Keep the car clean by taking along a trash bag to collect the remains of snack time and moist wipes to clean up minor spills. An easily accessible (not packed deep in the trunk) change of clothes is a wise idea in case of spills or accidents.
For more packing help, see our interactive packing list.
Avoiding and Treating Motion Sickness
Over-the-counter drugs are available for treating motion sickness; many must be taken before the trip starts. Consult your doctor before giving your kids any new medications. If your child complains of dizziness or nausea, chances are it is just motion sickness and can be cured temporarily by getting out of the car for fresh air. If you can’t stop the car, open the car window and encourage the child to look outside the car rather than focusing on a point inside the vehicle. Avoid hard-to-digest foods and keep dry crackers on hand to munch on if nausea sets in.
Keep the Peace
Take advantage of sights along the way, even if it’s just at a neighborhood park or a McDonald’s with a playground. Although it might add time to the trip, stopping often will keep the journey interesting for young travelers. Sometimes a quick stop to burn off energy is all they need to get back in the car happily.
Plan your road trip with your child’s sleeping schedule in mind. Many parents choose to leave late in the evening and let the children sleep while they divide the driving. Other parents will try their best to adhere to nap times in the car — after all, few things are more unpleasant than a child who’s missed his or her nap.
Don’t expect your children to share nicely. Make sure you’ve packed ample toys, games, books and snacks for each child so the fighting is kept to a minimum. If there is room, change up the scenery in the car by letting an old-enough child ride in the passenger seat while an adult rides in the back seat with a younger child. Lastly, if you are traveling with a spouse, consider designating roles: driver and entertainer. The driver will concentrate on the road while the other keeps the peace — keeping your whole family happy and, most importantly, safe.
See our sister site, Family Vacation Critic, for more information on planning a family road trip.
–written by Genevieve S. Brown