When you travel with your family by plane, you imply that the destination is the goal. When you take a road trip, you make a different declaration: There’s value in the journey. You have set your sights on discovering hidden gems and embracing the Zen-like qualities of the open road.
A road trip offers a chance for free-flowing time with your children. When you first have kids, so much time is devoted to business. Sleep schedules. Nutrition. Manners. Values. Then something happens. These babies you’ve labored over, poured your life into, suddenly become people. And, if you’re lucky, they become people you like being around. People who surprise you and make you laugh and think. We don’t always make the unscheduled, untethered time to notice and appreciate each other.
And after all, the chants of bored kids rising up from the back seat, the choruses of “Are we there yet?” and “I need to go to the bathroom,” are essential songs on the soundtrack of parenthood. Here’s how to plan ahead for a fun and bonding-filled family road trip.
Preparation & Packing
Let your kids help plan
One joy of a road trip is meandering. Another joy is actually having a place to sleep each night. So plan, but plan loosely. Kids can help build in a few stops between destinations with the easy-to-read resource book “National Geographic Kids Ultimate U.S. Road Trip Atlas,” which features stops like “World’s Largest Catsup Bottle” in Collinsville, Ill. and a cool hedge labyrinth in New Harmony, Ind. The Book Stall, $6
Pack in increments
Save your back by packing one bag of things that everyone will want handy at each hotel—toiletries, medications, computer, bathing suits, etc. Use the other bags to pack the shoes and clothes that everyone will need, divided into several-day increments. You’ll only have to lug two suitcases per stop.
Cut down on your number of stops by packing snacks. Bring healthier items since road trips tend to be full of drive-thrus. Good options include water, snack bars, popcorn, dried fruit, nuts, and fresh-yet-hardy fruit like apples. Pack snacks into snack-size bags to avoid major cleanup after spills.
For each child, pack a blank notebook, tape, markers, scissors and a disposable camera (if they don’t have a camera or other device to snap photos on). They can collect cards, brochures and napkins and draw pictures of things they see along the way. Leave some pages blank to fill in with their photos, once printed, or print as you go from a mobile device with the Hiti Pringo Portable Printer. Staples, $140
The Rubberneckers car game is sort of a combination of “I Spy” and the dare part of “Truth or Dare.” Your whole family can compete to find items listed on their cards—like a car with more than three bumper stickers, birds on a wire, or a motorcycle with two people on it. Additionally, teams compete to get other travelers to do things like flash a peace sign or honk their horns. Amazon, $12
Auto Bingo, with its lack of loose pieces, is a perfect road trip game. It’ll have your family looking for RVs and trains, silos and barns. There’s an “interstate” version of the game for longer trips. Kids Love Travel, 4 cards for $8
Old school games
Don’t forget about the oldie-but-goodie games of our own childhoods.
- 20 Questions: One player thinks of a person, place or thing, and the other players can ask up to 20 yes/no questions in an effort to guess what it is.
- Alphabet memory game: If “grocery store” is the topic, the first player lists something found at the store that starts with “A,” like “apples,” then the second person repeats it and adds an item starting with “B,” such as “apples and “beets,” and so on until each player recites the full 26-item long list.
- Find a license plate from each state.
- Fortunately, Unfortunately: An exercise in positivity as one player starts with an outlandish statement and the other players flip it for comedic effect. For example, the first player might say, “Unfortunately, a lion is about to attack us” with a sample player response of, “Fortunately, they teach lion taming at my middle school.”
Download the Roadside America app and select the region you’ll be traveling in for location-specific suggestions. It’s an easy way to find spontaneous stops when your kids are getting antsy and need a quick dose of wacky fun. iTunes, $3
Books are great for long trips, but for those who get carsick from reading on the go, these small, self-contained audio books are a good alternative. Available at most libraries, you provide the headphones and your kids can plug in and listen to tomes by their favorite authors.
Great options for all ages.
- Spare the Rock, Spoil the Child: Each episode is a playlist billed as “indie music for indie kids.” Perfect for jamming without radio static and annoying DJs.
- Storynory: These short stories are perfect for kids ages 7-11.
- How Stuff Works: A series that covers topics older kids and teens will find interesting like “Does the five-second rule work?” and “How spies work.”
- Good Job, Brain!: A weekly quiz show and offbeat trivia podcast that teens and adults will love.
One last tip: When your kids inevitably ask “Are we there yet?,” just answer “Yes.” Enjoy the ride.
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