Like many parents in the 1950s, mine were in love with their automobile. Their idea of the perfect way to top off a weekend was to take the children on a “Sunday drive.” Even now, I shudder to think about it. They’d pile us into the back seat and we’d be off simply to drive around for an hour or so. We kids would fight. Our parents would scold. Someone inevitably would get carsick. We’d all come home angry, sulking, and thoroughly convinced that no punishment could be worse than driving around aimlessly in an old Chevy. Slow learners or optimists that they were (I never did figure out which), the next Sunday afternoon would come around and my mother or father would utter the phrase that still strikes dread in my heart: “Let’s go for a drive.”
I remember those days when I contemplate loading my four children into a car for a summer vacation trip. With the forgetfulness and nostalgia that seems to come with parenting, I seem to have some idea that kids who bicker, squabble, jockey for attention, tease and torture are going to somehow be transformed into a group of sedate sightseers. Not likely. Nonetheless, I’m joined in this madness each year by millions of families who need to get from here to there to take a vacation. Until we can “beam up,” we’re all stuck with car travel for at least part of the trip and with “Are we there yet?” as a recurring lament whined from the back seat.
Take heart, parents, for there is a way to make car travel with kids manageable. There is even a way to make it fun! Here’s the key: Traveling successfully by car with children under the age of 10 means doing it at a kid’s pace and from a kid’s point of view. Enjoyable car travel with kids can’t happen if you’re worried about making “good time,” if you want to cover 500 miles a day, or if you insist that there won’t be stops along the way. Enjoyable travel — yes, it can be enjoyable — means accommodating your kids.
Kids have energy. Kids have short attention spans. Kids get wired. Kids — even the nicest, sweetest kids — usually tussle with siblings. Kids don’t like to be confined. If we really know and accept all this, we can plan car trips that work.
Travel Tips from Parents Who’ve Got It Figured Out
- Prepare the family. Let kids in on the planning. Get out a map and show them where you are going to go. Send for brochures or get pictures of the destination online or in a book. Help them understand how many hours or days it will take to do the trip. When kids are informed, excited and invested, they have more tolerance for traveling.
- Travel at night when you can. Sleeping kids are happy kids. Start your trip in the late afternoon after letting the kids run around during the day. Drive for a couple of hours. Stop for dinner. Get the kids into pajamas and settle them with pillows, perhaps a story tape, and blankets. Chances are that they will fall asleep. You’ll have several hours of peaceful travel before you are too tired to drive.
- During the day, plan for short hops with short stops. Young kids can’t sustain more than an hour and a half without a leg stretch and a potty break. The stops don’t have to be long. Ten minutes to play a little ball or frisbee, to go to the bathroom and get a drink, or to just run around a bit can make a huge difference.
- Pack for success. Have each of your kids pack a backpack with a few books, paper and markers, a magnetized game, and some favorite small toys. When the kids get restless, tell them to pull a different toy or game from their backpacks. Just introducing difference will keep them happy for a time.
- Pack lots of small, healthy snacks. Keep a cooler in the front seat packed with things like grapes, carrot sticks, raisins, Cheerios, trail mix, juice boxes, etc. Not only do you save money by not buying snacks, you also have another distraction at your disposal. Deciding what to have, distributing it, eating it, and cleaning up breaks the monotony.
- Bring along some books on tape. One family I know made it all the way across the country to a read-aloud of Harry Potter. Vary stories with some tapes of children’s songs. Sing along.
- Make getting there part of the fun. One of the reasons people travel is to see new things. Use games to focus the kids’ attention on what can be spied along the roadside.
Vacations Are Important Family Times
Vacations provide time for family members to really get to know one another, time to share experiences, and time to connect. Car travel with young children is its own special kind of journey. When parents are willing to match their children’s needs, interests and pace, everyone can have a good time.