Finding the fun in a family road trip
When Matt Villano sets out on the 560-mile road trip from his home in Healdsburg, California, to San Diego in July, his game plan will be carefully crafted. When you’re traveling with three kids under age 10, you have no choice.
Villano, a freelance writer who blogs about family travel at Wandering Pod, is no novice. He has traveled extensively, by plane and automobile, with his wife and daughters, now ages 9, 6 and 2. He has learned over the years that careful planning is often the difference between a fun family trip and a more, shall we say, Griswoldian adventure.
“The key is to plan ahead and know your kids well enough to know how each will manage being in the car for an extended period of time,” Villano says. Then work around that to come up with a travel itinerary that maximizes fun and minimizes stress.
According to a recent AAA survey, 64 percent of Americans plan to travel 50 miles or more by car this summer. We talked to Villano, a AAA representative and other family travel and parenting experts about how to navigate the challenges of traveling with kids. Here are their suggestions.
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Remember those days when you could motor for 10 hours with only a couple of quick pit stops and log 700 or more miles in a stretch? Yeah, forget that. Life with kids means you need to adjust your expectations and stop more frequently for longer breaks.
This can help with driver fatigue as well. AAA recommends stopping at least every two hours or 100 miles, says spokeswoman Julie Hall. That goes for everyone, not just families traveling with kids.
Rainer Jenss, the founder and president of the Family Travel Association, suggests building in extra time for the journey when possible. The more pleasant ride makes it worthwhile.
Use a website or app such as Road Food to find cool non-chain eateries along your route, then opt for sit-down meals instead of a drive-through. Try to pair those stops with a quick trip to a nearby playground or park, says Jenss, who lives in Nyack, New York. His two kids are in college, but when they were 8 and 11 the family spent 13 months traveling around the world, including driving across the United States for seven weeks. Taking the time to identify an interesting spot and plan a break that ventures beyond a highway rest stop can go a long way toward keeping the peace while you’re making tracks.
Villano agrees, saying, “The more opportunities you give kids to reset their perspective, the more patience they will have for long journeys.”
That doesn’t mean you have to spend a month’s earnings every time you want a pit stop. Villano likes to stop at a park with a food truck or a playground where he and his family can eat a picnic they’ve brought.
“To kids it feels like hours because they forget they’ve just spent three hours in the car,” he says. He also avoids traveling more than five or six hours in a day, finding that it’s more pleasant for everyone if they stop overnight to regroup en route to more far-flung destinations.
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Yes, this has become easier in the age of portable screens. Parents can hand a child a movie (or three) to watch in the back seat and be done with it. But if you’re trying to go old school or maintain your screen-time limits while traveling, there are plenty of ways to keep the kids engaged.
The old standby car games, including license plate bingo and the alphabet scavenger hunt, can keep younger kids busy. Jenss says he and his family would play games based on what they were listening to on the radio. While traversing the Midwest, for example, they heard a lot of country music, so they created a game where everyone chose a word (girlfriend, truck, etc.). The person whose word cropped up first in a song was the winner, or they would do points for the words mentioned most frequently.
Villano likes the game Story Cubes, in which passengers take turns rolling a set of nine dice and use the pictures to craft a story. He also lets the kids take turns playing DJ in the car, choosing the radio station, CDs or playlists for a set amount of time. His girls have small chunks of screen time, but he breaks it up with other activities to try to stick to their normal limits.
Hall suggests bringing along books and maps that relate to your destination to help kids get excited about the trip. She also recommends packing a new toy or game that you can surprise kids with when they get antsy.
Lynne Ticknor, education director of the Parenting Education Program in Kensington, Maryland, likes podcasts or audio books. Ticknor will be flying to Iceland this summer with her four children, ages 12 to 21, and then tour the country by car. She plans to have everyone listen to the same story or podcast en route so they can discuss it later.
"[The audio books or podcasts] are screen-free, and they still engage their imagination because they allow them to sit back and be able to imagine a story in their head,” Ticknor says. Some options she likes include “Eleanor Amplified,” “Story Pirates” and “The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel.”
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Even with an arsenal of diversions and the most carefully planned breaks, all kids contained in cramped quarters will reach their limit at some point. Ticknor says parents should try to ignore the disagreements over who crossed the line in the middle of the seat, or who is looking at whom.
“Most times kids squabble or get into fights because they are trying to pull the parent in for attention,” she says. “We would advise, as much as possible, not to pay attention to sibling squabbles. The more you ignore it, the more that they’ll realize that’s not the way to get attention.”
If, after ignoring the fighting, it doesn’t stop or it escalates to the point where someone is in danger (hitting or bullying), it might call for a consequence, such as sitting in the vehicle’s third row for an hour, or losing some device time. If it becomes a distraction for the driver, Ticknor says you should pull over in a safe spot and calmly wait for the storm to pass. But resist the urge to yell.
“Put the car in park and just wait,” she says. “Eventually, the kids will realize you’ve stopped. Then the driver can very calmly say, ‘When there’s fighting in the back seat, I can’t concentrate on driving, and distracted driving is dangerous.’ There’s no lecturing, no bribing, just a very simple statement to explain it to the kids.” Ideally, she says, you have a conversation about this before the trip, and then if you pull over, the kids will know why.
Villano’s go-to solution is to require the fighting siblings to hold hands for two minutes. That usually puts an end to the squabble in progress, he says, and acts as an excellent deterrent against further disputes.
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It’s great to plan to stop and stretch your legs at a restaurant or a park when it’s mealtime, but if parents stopped every time one of the kids gets hungry (and every time someone needs to use the restroom), a reasonable road trip could quickly turn into an epic journey. So make sure to pack plenty of healthy (and fun) snacks for the road.
Villano packs a cooler of snacks but recommends separating everything into individual reusable containers beforehand, with equal amounts of each snack for each child, to ward off the squabbles over who gets what. Label each container with the child’s name.
Jenss says the more involved the kids are in choosing and packing the snacks, the more likely they will be to consume their road food without complaining.
That goes for pretty much everything related to traveling with kids and parenting in general, he says.
“The key to any planning is to get the kids involved in everything,” he says. “Then they’re invested in it because they made the decision, even if it’s something you’re planning to do during the trip. If you know you’re going to a museum, if you ask them what they want to see, and let them make the plan, they’ll like it more.”
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