Summer is (finally) here, which means: road trip season! These tips, tricks and activities will help maximize the fun, minimize the whining—and keep you sane.
1. Pack Kid-Friendly, No-Mess Foods
Save money—and help nix between-meal crankiness—with easy-to-pack foods to go. If you don’t happen to drive a super-family-friendly Ford Flex, with an available built-in refrigerator (yes, that’s a thing), bring a small cooler. Use plastic snack bags for berries, grapes and baby carrots. Pack individual containers of hummus, milk and juice. For items that don’t need to be chilled, buy a clear plastic food-storage container with a lid and sectioned compartments. Fill each compartment with a small amount of a different treat—try cereal, cheddar crackers, small pretzels, granola, nuts, raisins, and slices of dried apple, banana or mango. For a sweet addition, add mini-marshmallows or candy-coated chocolate. Make sure to take lots of water for the whole family, as well as reusable bottles to fill up at rest stops. And throw in some wet wipes, paper towels and a small garbage bag for quick clean-ups.
2. Create a Surprise Travel-Activity Bag
The dollar or discount store is your friend here. Choose puzzle and hidden-picture books, coloring books and crayons, kids’ mini binoculars, a deck of cards, comic books, fill-in-the-blanks books or magnetic games. Some parents like to dole out the surprises throughout the road trip, giving the children something new whenever enthusiasm wanes; other parents prefer to hand over the entire bag of loot at the beginning of the trip. Another fun twist: Wrap each item in inexpensive tissue paper to make it feel more special.
3. Control the Clutter
You’re not going to want to have to stop and root through your luggage every time your child asks for something. Keep snacks, napkins and other light-weight items within your children’s reach by hanging multi-pocket storage units on the back of the front seats. (Make sure they don’t impede your supplemental restraint system.) Store extra goodies in a secured compartmentalized cargo organizer in the trunk, then replenish as needed. For the space between kids in the rear seat, you can use a storage unit that attaches securely to the seat between two kids. Never put heavy objects untethered in a mesh storage container, just in case you have to stop quickly—you don’t want anything flying through the air.
4. Create a Trip Journal
Road trips are a great time to teach children about geography, local customs and the beauty of nature. Buy a simple paper journal. Encourage older kids to take photos on the trip, write journal entries or draw pictures of the places you visit. They can also collect maps, brochures, paper menus and other memorabilia to include. Give kids a small amount of spending money to buy “flat” souvenirs (stickers, a collectable pin, a patch, etc.) to add to the trip journal. Adding something as simple as a feather found on the ground, or a silly postcard purchased at a souvenir shop, can bring back fun memories for years to come. Pack glue sticks, tape and markers. Each evening when you stop for the day, encourage kids to journal and add the mementos from the day. Leave space to add photos when you get them printed.
5. Listen Up
What’s your destination? Podcasts on everything from Yosemite National Park to the Alamo to the Statue of Liberty are available for free online. Listen to audio books the whole family will enjoy. Take turns letting each family member choose the music. Before the trip, take time—maybe with the kids’ help—to create fun playlists for the trip. Goofy songs could include “Gangnam Style” or “La Macarena.” Or you could make a list of songs from your children’s favorite movies or those that mention different states, such as “Midnight Train to Georgia” or “Nebraska.”
6. And Don’t Forget the Electronics. (As If You Could.)
Chances are, your children are going to be clamoring to use tablets, smartphones and portable DVD players while you’re on the road. These gadgets are great—in moderation. Encourage kids to play age-appropriate electronic games and local-player games that can be passed back and forth. And bring a stash of movies and cartoons—along with all the chargers you’ll need to keep the fun going. Don’t want to overhear the scenes from Frozen one more time while driving across Texas? Bring along headphones for the kids. If you’re headphone shopping, consider those with volume limits to protect young ears.