It’s the time of year when many families take to the road, going home for the holidays. For too many parents, getting there is so stressful that every year they promise themselves they’ll never, ever, go visiting again. Then Christmas comes around, nostalgia for home sets in, and they’re back in the car. By the time they arrive at their destination, the kids are in meltdown and the adults are fried. Not a pretty picture. I know I have been there.

Here’s the good news: It doesn’t have to be that way. Young children can be taken on very long car trips with a minimum of stress and a maximum of family togetherness. The secret is simple: To travel with kids, travel in the “kid zone.”

Young kids are little bundles of energy — curious, active, and distract-able. Attention spans are short. Bladders are small. Coop them up in the back seat with little stimulation except passing cars and it’s only normal for them to wind up.

Traveling in the kid zone means accepting and working with your children’s developmental ages and stages. With good planning and pacing, car trips can become the stuff of happy family memories. Stop the fighting before it ever starts!

I remember one of the first road trips traveling home for Christmas with all three kids. Hurry to the bathroom, back, in the car, no time to stop and eat, and fast food in the car. All so we could keep moving and “make good time.” We were obsessed with how long it was going to take us to get home. We were grumpy, the kids were grumpy and by the time we did make it home, we were all fighting. Good times… For our next trip, I was determined to make it more fun and at least tolerable for all of us. So, I did some research and came up with the following tips.

road trip tips for families

  • Do as much as you can ahead of time. If you do nothing else, plan so that you can leave calmly. Leaving calmly sets the tone for the trip. Are you expected to bring something for the holiday dinner? Make it a week or more ahead and pop it in the freezer, then transfer it to your picnic cooler before you leave. Pack the car at least a day ahead. That lets you focus on the kids instead of your stuff when you are trying to get out the door.
  • Travel when the kids are asleep. Put the kids in pajamas or sweats and leave late in the day. Drive for a couple of hours, stop for dinner, and then settle everyone in to sleep. Most kids are lulled by the darkness and the hum of a car. Make sure one parent takes a long nap before leaving so that he or she can keep the other driver awake! 
If you’re on a long trip, you can carry the kids into a hotel room at 2 a.m. and they’ll sleep at least until 6:00 a.m. One parent gets up with the kids and takes them to breakfast while the other gets some more sleep and then it’s on the road again. Alternatively, go to bed with the kids at 7 or 8 p.m. Set your alarm for 2 a.m. Load sleepy kids into the car and you get at least four hours of travel time before they fully awaken and you stop for breakfast. 
Bring comfort toys and “loveys.” A favorite blanket and pillow, a stuffed animal, and favorite toy act as familiar anchors when kids are feeling unsettled by a trip.
  • Plan to take longer getting there. You need to stop every two to three hours, depending on your kids’ temperaments and ages. Plan on at least 20 minutes per stop. If you plan it, you won’t resent it. It simply takes time for kids to run off some of that pent-up energy and reorganize for the next lap.
  • Plan stops that will break up the trip. If the trip will take 8 or more hours (and you’re not able or willing to consider night travel), identify some interesting sight to see at the halfway mark. Stopping for an hour to check out a roadside attraction, explore a beach or hiking trail, or play at a playground will do wonders. Two four- or five-hour trips are easier to manage than one that is eight to 10 hours long.
  • Engage with the kids. Forget about having adult conversation along the way or playing your own music on the radio unless the kids are asleep. Kids travel best when adults are involved with them. Play age-appropriate games. (Count all the red cars, for little ones. Find license plates for all the states for older ones.) Sing together. Do you have a limited repertoire? Put on a sing-along CD and join in. Sing loud. Sing soft. Sing in funny voices. Playing with kids makes the miles go fast for everyone.
  • Bring food and drinks. Accept it. Children need to eat more frequently than adults. You don’t want to stop every time someone is thirsty. You don’t want to spend the inflated prices at roadside stops. Bring along a supply of juice boxes, granola bars, and dried and fresh fruit. You’ll save both time and money, and the kids won’t load up on sugar and fast food.
  • Bring some activities to keep boredom at bay. Pack a bag with books, crayons and coloring books, a few toys, and a few things that are reserved for car trips. An inexpensive pair of binoculars or a telescope, a kaleidoscope, or a magnifying glass can hold kids’ interest for quite awhile, especially if they have never seen them before. Pass these items out one at a time when the kids are getting restless. If you have a car with a built-in DVD player, or if you have a portable player, bring a batch of DVDs. The secret is to use them judiciously. Save them for when you’ve run through your other options or make a rule of a half-hour video every couple of hours so that watching a movie is something special. If movies are on constantly, the kids start to regard them as background noise rather than as something that engages their interest. More important, if movies are on constantly, you’ll miss out on all the other fun.

I try to turn our car time into family time; viewing it as an opportunity to share excitement about traveling and visiting and to play along the way. We are headed home for Christmas again this year. I have my arsenal of games, DVD’s and yummy snacks planned.

Time to hit the road!