Think of road trips with your children as rare opportunities. When else do you have a long stretch of time with your kids uninterrupted by television, homework, phone calls, their friends or other distractions? Especially with kids along, getting there can be half the fun.
To make sure, plan ahead and follow the cardinal rule of family travel: maintain a sense of humor. After all, sometimes cars break down, babies spit up, traffic crawls and attractions get crowded. Here are some suggestions, oriented to age groups, to make your road trip memorable for all the right reasons.
Tweens and Teens:
•Talk with them . Get the conversation going by telling tales of your childhood. Kids love to hear about their parents at their same age.
•Listen . A car provides an ideal venue for older children to open up about their feelings. Since the driver looks straight ahead and the passengers often do too, conversation feels much less judgmental than a face-to-face talk. On a long stretch of highway when it's dark, you're likely to find out what it really felt like to come in third at the swim meet.
•Let teens pick aspects of the trip . The ultimate procrastinators, most teens won't have given your journey much thought, although they will express definite opinions. Once on the highway, hand your teens guidebooks and travel apps so they can choose a few activities and restaurants.
•Share music. Music really can soothe the soul. Ask your teens to share songs from their personal iPods or MP3 players that the family might like. Use your car's stereo system or tote a portable speaker.
•Vary the seating . After miles on the road, it's common to hear such backseat cries as "His foot is on my side." To manage a meltdown, divide and conquer. Switch places so that the child old enough to sit in the front moves next to the driver. If there's another adult, have him sit in the rear. That not only stops squabbles, but gives each child important one-on-one time with a parent or grandparent.
•Use the baby to mark a border . With three children, place the littlest one in the middle of the car's backseat. That creates a buffer zone between fighting older siblings and positions two kids to play with the tot.
•Think picnic. Tweak the tried-and-true rule of taking a bathroom and snack break every two to three hours: pack a lunch and pause for a picnic and a Frisbee game at a local or state park along your route.
•Bring games and toys . Bring the movies, portable electronic games and other hi-tech toys your brood favors. But think low-tech, too. Pack pipe cleaners for making crazy-shaped critters, as well as coloring books, crayons and sticker games, plus a few new toys as a surprise.
•Arrive by late afternoon . After a day on the road, everybody looks forward to an out-of-car experience. Plan to arrive at your daily destination well before dinner so that you and the kids can take advantage of the swimming pool or play area.
Babies and Toddlers:
•Understand your family's rhythms of the road . Some families prefer putting little ones in pajamas and starting the drive after dinner when traffic diminishes and kids sleep. Others find that early-morning departures enable them to be at their destination before the late-afternoon, kid-cranky hours.
•Work with a tot's schedule, not against it. Maximize little ones' nap time by driving when they sleep and stopping for meals when they are hungry. Don't expect your three-year-old not to be tired when it's her nap time just because you've arrived at the children's museum.
•Know what your child can drink in a moving vehicle . Some children can down a bottle of juice or milk in the car, but then upchuck it two miles down the highway. Best to give some thirsty tots only water until you pull in to a rest stop.
•Be prepared . Keep lots of wet wipes, paper towels, and diapers as well as a few trash bags and extra clothes within easy reach.
•Dress for the drive . Make sure the baby's wearing easy to undo, comfortable clothing. Save the "grandma dress" with the lace and frills for after your arrival.