So how did we do it, and how do families today have a truly great summer family road trip? Based on now 22 years as a father with a summer road trip of varying durations almost every year, here are some tips that we found essential to road trip success.
Let the kids be involved in planning. This is a very important first step. Take a couple of family nights to plan the trip together. Get out your atlas and look at stops along the way that are of interest to the children. On our Midwest trip, we visited many historical sites and we had each of the children prepare to the tour guide at one of the sites. They became the resident expert on that site and were able to lead the family on our visit to that location. They still remember fondly the facts and figures about many of those places.
Bring fun and comfort items along. Recognizing that children can become stressed on a long trip, we made sure we had some of their favorite items. Bring along coloring books or coloring pages and colored pencils (not crayons-they tend to melt in a warm car). Make sure they have their favorite pillow, blanket and/or stuffed toy. Our kids loved portable video games like GameBoy.
Checking the car for safety and maintenance. Have your car well inspected and serviced to all manufacturers' recommendations. Check your lights, signals, wiper blades (including the rear), horn, and radio. Check fluid levels, belts, caps and hoses, and filters. Check and adjust tire pressure (right tire pressure equals safer driving and better fuel consumption). Make sure your spare tire is useable.
Plan extra time for fun. We made sure that we planned to stop at spots along the way for a little fun. We usually made sandwiches the night before and put them in a cooler and then stopped for an impromptu picnic at lunch time. Baseballs and baseball gloves, frisbees and Nerf guns made for a lot of fun.
Plan for pit stops and activities at the pit stop. I remember my dad on road trips getting so frustrated when someone needed a stop for the bathroom at a gas station or rest stop. I learned from his frustration and anticipated the extra time needed for rest stops. We also allowed a few extra minutes for kids to run around and stretch on these periodic stops.
Rent a DVD player and bring DVDs. You may also want to consider renting or buying a mobile DVD player if your vehicle is not already so equipped. This can help pass the long hours on the road. Bringing a few favorite DVD's or renting or buying a couple of new ones can make the trip a lot more bearable for all concerned.
Bring favorite travel safe snacks. If you are willing to allow snacking in the car, a few "travel safe snacks" are appreciated. Try to avoid chocolate or sugary treats-they tend to melt in the car and leave a mess, and sugar hyped children together in a confined space don't mix well. Travel Safe Snacks to consider include pretzels, animal crackers, all-natural fruit rolls, raisins, cereal, grapes, granola bars, and cheese sticks.
Share driving with teens. If you are traveling with teenagers who have a drivers license, give them an opportunity to share driving time. Make sure one parent is in the front passenger seat and awake and alert at all times. (Candidly, staying awake and alert while my teens were at the wheel has never been a problem for me.) Using your teen drivers can give adults a needed break and give the teen drivers some experience (and some appreciation for what adult drivers experience on a road trip).
An emergency kit. Despite our best efforts, we may find ourselves in an emergency situation on a family vacation. We always carry an emergency kit in a plastic bin. Kits should include at a minimum:
- Waterproof matches and candle
- Road Flares
- First Aid Kit
- Collapsible Shovel
- Jumper Cable
- Cutting device (box cutter, pocket knife)
- Duct tape
- Tool kit
- Gloves, hat and boots
- Chains or traction device
- Gallon of water
- Spare hoses or parts
Publish car rules. Before you embark on your journey, write down a set of car rules. Keep hands to yourself…Use a quiet voice…Clean up your trash…are just a few simple rules. A lack of rules invites misbehavior. One of our favorite techniques is what we called "dime fines." Each child starts the trip with a roll of dimes. Each time there was a violation of the rules, the children involved put a dime into a jar we brought along. What they had at the end of each leg of the trip, they could spend. It was kind of a fun motivation to keep the peace and obey the rules.