Our family spent almost an entire year traveling around the U.S., which added up to hundreds of hours in the car with three children. And while we can talk up the benefits of travel until we’re blue in the face, the truth is that being in the car all day isn’t much fun, for kids or adults.
Thankfully, we grown-ups have all kinds of deeply philosophical things to ponder while we stare out the window, decades of favorite tunes to jam to, and smartphones for the lucky parent in the passenger seat. But meditating on life and rocking out to their parents’ music only lasts a matter of minutes with our kids, and then they need something else. (And they’re not getting smartphones anytime soon.)
Here are nine road-trip “musts” that have worked the best for our family of five:
They may not have smartphones, but we do have a collection of iPads, iPods, and Kindles that get passed around our backseat. Yes, it’s a total cop-out. Totally don’t care. I know some people get all sanctimonious when it comes to kids and electronics in the car, citing their own childhood road trips with no A/C, no seatbelts, and nothing but AM radio to listen to. That’s cool, but my feeling is that when you’re stuck in the car all day, sanity trumps sanctimony.
I’m actually a big Scrooge when it comes to screen time on a normal day, but on long road trips, I let the kids use electronics to their hearts’ content (or until the batteries die, whichever happens first). Our iPads have been our best travel companions, quickly followed by the DVD player. When the DVD player went kaput, I propped up my laptop between the front seats, and that worked just as well for watching movies. On a 10-hour road trip, electronics are a total sanity-saver.
If you have a kid who loves to read and can read in the car without getting carsick, count your lucky stars and pile up the books. We don’t have any of those kids. I can’t read for very long in the car, either. Thankfully, before we left on our trip, a friend bought us a subscription to Audible. We get one free audiobook download a month, and can purchase others for reasonable prices. Awesome.
However, for the next stint of long travels we do, I will figure out a way to have each kid listen to his or her own audiobook with headphones. While the idea of listening to a book all together sounds great on paper, the reality is that the road noise is loud enough to make it difficult to hear sometimes, we have three kids of very different ages who enjoy different books, and as soon as someone interrupts the story to ask a question, all hell breaks loose. So audiobooks, definitely yes. Just be aware that you may have to adjust how you use them, depending on your family dynamics.
3. Paper & Pencils
On one of our stops, a friend gave us a bag of car activities, which included some tiny little blank notebooks. I handed one to our 9-year-old and kept one for myself, and we wrote and passed notes back and forth for a good hour. She’s always been a reluctant writer, so it got her writing, we got some bonding in, and the “secret” nature of it kept her interested. Sometimes we wrote questions and answers, and sometimes we wrote a story together, each writing one sentence at a time. Our 4-year-old wanted in on it, too, so I passed him notes with some simple words to read. They loved it. Kids can write notes to each other, too. Nothing but paper and a writing utensil needed. So simple.
(You could save some trees and do the same thing with a dry erase board or something, but half the fun for the kids was unfolding the note. Sorry, trees. I’ll plant you a sister to make up for it someday.)
As I mentioned, we have too many carsickness issues to read books in the car, but children’s magazines seem to be another story. Kids magazines usually have short snippets of reading material, which is much more conducive to car reading. And most have activities kids can do, too, which kills time and makes up for some of the brain-drain of the screen time binges. Plus, most magazines are a bit more disposable in nature than a book, so you don’t care as much when they end up stuck to the bottom of the car floor with gum, crumbs, and dirty footprints all over them. (That’s not just our car, right?)
Maybe it’s because we just covered 7000 miles of the U.S., but our kids loved looking at the road atlas to see where we were, where we’d been, and where we were going. I highlighted our trip route as we went, and it was immensely satisfying for them to see our travels on paper. Thanks to our “Stack the States” app (seriously awesome app), they even enjoyed just flipping through the various state maps and seeing where the capitals were, etc.
(A quick Pinterest search would probably offer up a zillion-and-one map activities for the car. Now that I think about it, a quick Pinterest search would probably offer up a way better list of travel tips than this one, too. But you know, you’re already here, so you might as well stay a while. Here, put your feet up. Can I get you a cold beverage? Something to eat, perhaps? Oh, speaking of which . . . )
This one’s obvious, but there’s a wisdom to certain food choices while traveling. Sitting in the car all day can make your digestion a bit, um, sluggish, so we try to keep snacks healthy and simple and fiber-filled. A small cooler, if you have room for it, expands the options beyond chips and crackers. Our kids’ favorites are grapes, apple slices, sugar snap peas, and yogurt cups (if your kids aren’t too messy, or your car is already so messy that you don’t care about a few yogurt drips).
But the real key to happy travelers is an unexpected treat every once in a while. Gum seems to keep our kids busy for a while, and also helps with the ear-popping through the mountains. And an occasional candy or other sweet is a great reward for the patience and perseverance required to sit in a car for hours on end. In fact, get yourself some treats, too, while your’e at it. You deserve them as much (if not more) than the kids.
(Yes, I know the popular theory that praise is ruining our children and causing the downfall of our society. I have my doubts, but it doesn’t really matter in the car. Again, sanity trumps sanctimony. Praise away.)