Finding Family Time in the Car

Talk about being brave. On her family's most recent long road trip, Katie Kaufman asked her daughter to take off her headphones.

"We wanted her to join the conversation, at least for a while," explained Kaufman, a mom of three from Des Moines who drives with her family every summer to Colorado. "You can't beat a car trip to regroup as a family--it's about the only time you've got the kids' undivided attention," she said.

"You find out all kinds of stuff about what's going on in their lives," said John Strom, a wholesale florist from upstate New York. "It's like a brain dump. There's nothing else to do but talk."

That is, when they're not killing each other in the back seat. Sound familiar? Chances are, if you're a parent, you've been there because more than 80% of vacations are road trips, the American Automobile Assn. says. More than 200 million Americans are expected to hit the highway this summer, and it might help us cope with the drive if we focus on the positives--such as reconnecting with the kids after a particularly frenetic spring when it seemed we spent more time cheering their Little League hits and soccer goals than talking to them.

If you don't think that piling the kids in a van and driving 500 miles is a rewarding experience, ask the Andersens. They don't think you need a destination to have a great trip. In fact, they're convinced getting there is all the fun.

"My 6-year-old asks us now if we're going on one of those trips where we don't get anywhere," jokes Kathy Andersen, an artist from suburban Philadelphia.

The Andersens' secret: back roads. "It's such a great way to explore the world," Andersen says.

Certainly the food is better. "When you find a wonderful genuine restaurant, you're not just getting good food, but a sense of the place and life in that part of the country," says Michael Stern, who with his wife, Jane, has made a career out of finding such spots. Their most recent book, "Eat Your Way Across America" (Broadway Books, $15) catalogs about 500 diners, pie palaces, rib joints and buffets across the U.S.

How can you find a good spot in a strange town? Look for the places crowded with the locals' cars and trucks for breakfast and those that have a slogan promising some unique or special dish for supper, Stern suggests.

And when you're done eating, stop and fossil hunt or explore a cave. Local zoos will have animals from that part of the country. The state tourism office can suggest all kinds of possibilities in the neighborhood. (Visit the Travel Industry Assn. of America's Web site at and link to state tourism offices. Get a "Discover America" tourism office guide to all 50 states by sending a stamped self-addressed envelope to TIA, 1100 New York Ave. NW, Suite 450, Washington, D.C. 20005.)

"Look beyond the obvious," says Neil Dinoff, managing editor of Rand McNally's popular Web site at The site is attuned to family travelers with its Parents Corner travel tips, suggested kid-oriented stops and state-by-state calendar of events.

But no matter how much fun you manage to have at your stops, you've still got to survive the time in the car together.

Susan Rabb, who lives near Philadelphia, always brings a kids' almanac because her three children love weird facts.

I always bring a big art box with stickers, scissors, glue sticks, colored pencils and plenty of paper.

One Seattle family makes up silly ditties for each trip they take. Mike Jay, meanwhile, said his two kids and two friends spent 850 miles with headphones on from Missouri to a Minnesota summer camp, alternately watching movies and playing video games on the portable TV-VCR that could run off the car battery.

Taking the Kids appears the first and third week of every month.

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