When Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Life is a journey, not a destination,” he probably wasn’t driving from Boston to Seattle with three fighting kids in the back of an SUV. And while the I-90 coast-to-coast route is definitely not for the faint-hearted, family road trips are still very much a part of American life.
However they shouldn’t turn into a loop of Bart Simpson’s famed “Are we there yet?”. At the risk of coming over all Maria von Trapp, a road trip can be invaluable, uninterrupted time for you and your family to talk. You’re a captive audience for each other, after all. And wasn’t spending time together the purpose of the vacation in the first place?
Long journeys are also a perfect environment to impose your own music tastes onto your kids, especially when you’ve had enough of Tay Tay Shaking It Off. Knowing the words to every Johnny Cash and Bruce Springsteen song is a skill they’ll thank you for in years to come.
Like so many things to do with traveling with kids, spend some time planning and you can turn a long, possibly boring drive, into a fun family adventure. Here are our top 10 tips.
1. Food, glorious food
The great downside of any road trip, regardless of which route you’re traveling, is that much of the sustenance you find along the way is spectacularly awful. You didn’t have kids to see them succumb to fast-food-induced heart disease before they’d started junior high. So avoid overdosing on candy and take as much as you can yourself. Load up the cooler with fruit cut into bite-size pieces; yoghurts in tubes (less mess, no spoons needed); rice cakes; cheese cubes and crackers; and hard-boiled eggs sprinkled with salt and pepper. Remember: Mickey D’s is purely a bathroom stop.
2. Load up on audio books
Years of spinning through those fusty-looking audio bookshelves at the Cracker Barrel may have you thinking celebs reading classics is not for you. But downloadable audio books can actually be a huge smack of fun, especially when it’s family fare read by the likes of Stephen Fry, Anne Hathaway or Kate Winslet. The drive from San Francisco to Tahoe will pass like a flash with Roald Dahl’s BFG as your companion. Or tell them Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) is reading Huck Finn to introduce them to Mark Twain’s classic. Give the Audible free trial a go.
3. Embrace old-fashioned car games
Teach your kids the games you played as a child: I Spy, The Letter Game (finding A to Z via road signs, bumper stickers and license plates) and The Story Game, where family members take it in turns to add a new line to a growing story. The License Plate game is fun if you’re travelling east to west or north to south: compile a master list of the 50 states and cross them off as you spot them.
If you’re traveling in summer, freeze a half-filled bottle the night before you leave then top up with cold water before you go—you’ll have refreshing iced water for much of the trip.
5. Activity trays
Some kids are quite comfortable looking down reading or drawing in the car; others get nauseous and vomit. For the former, place books in pockets they can reach easily, and give them a small tray with Lego, Transformers or coloring books and pencils, which they can rest on their knees. For the nauseous ones, take a bucket.
6. Pack some lollipops
Notwithstanding everything mentioned in No. 1, above, remember that kids can’t whine and suck at the same time.
7. Take out the trash
You’d be surprised how much mess you generate even on a short road trip. And trust us, you do not want to find that banana skin under the seat a week later.
8. Technology as a last resort
Don’t start the journey with kids on screens. Just don’t. This is a tough one for families used to connectivity at all times, but it’s the wisest piece of advice I can share. Hold the iPads back until the kids really are at their wits’ ends. And don’t forget the headphones.
9. Clean up your act
You can never have enough Kleenex or baby wipes. A gel-based hand sanitizer is also handy for the restrooms you encounter along the way (or the emergency roadside pee) where there might not be running water or soap.
10. Resort to bribery
Anyone can be bought, so if all else fails… resort to bribery. Put a bag of gummy bears on the dashboard and every time a child is out of line throw a bear out the window. Whether you give them one at the end of the trip is up to you. Just don’t tell any environmental warrior friends.