On the road (with the kids)

Categories: Hacking Life, Parenting, The Juggle


I’m writing this as we road trip, thanks to the power of technology and an exceedingly tolerant husband who does not mind long stretches behind the wheel. Three of our five kids are packed in the back, and even though it’s around noon and, as such, a prime time for a squabble, they’re quiet and – gasp – content.

Our long drives have not always been like this. We’ve heard our fair share of “I want to get out!” from those strapped into car seats and “This is not my idea of fun” from sulky teens, and it goes without saying that all of the kids, from teen to toddler, usually ask at least a couple times, “Are we there yet?” Here’s how we’re keeping the chorus of complaints at bay today:

1.) Plenty of room. Smaller cars are more fuel efficient, but I’m willing to give up a few gallons of gas in order to have a more peaceful ride. We’re in my husband’s gigantic Suburban. I balked, for a moment, until I realized that the price of diesel is about the same as the price of regular gas right now, and the truck’s diesel engine gets more miles per the gallon than does my Honda minivan. Pre-Suburban, we’ve actually rented a larger vehicle to let the kids have enough room to ride comfortably.

2.)  Plenty of snacks. I spent a lot of time this morning packing individual lunchboxes for the kids, but the instant one of them said she was hungry and then reached over and got herself a snack without bothering anyone else, I remembered why it was worthwhile. Pack as if you’re sending them off to school – a full meal plus a snack or two and an extra drink – and you’ll be good to go. Don’t forget the ice pack, and keep some treats (lollipops and fake fruit gummy things, in my case) hidden for doling out as bribes or rewards. And don’t forget to pack something for the adults in the car (I forgot, and the extra string cheese sticks and juice boxes are going to look mighty attractive to me in another hundred miles or so).

3.)  Some cool apps for your iPhone or iPod Touch. My husband is a NPR junkie, and the minute we cross the border from Massachusetts into Connecticut and he loses his favorite station, he starts twiddling with the radio, looking for his fix as the stations fade in and out. This trip, we hit the dead radio zone and I pulled up a great little live-streaming public radio app on my iPhone. Best of all: It was free. (Check out some other great apps in this Work It, Mom! slideshow and a couple of great member articles.)

4.) A portable DVD player and a bunch of DVDs. I got my dual-screen DVD player at Target; the screens strap to the backs of the front seats, and they’re connected to each other so that two kids can watch the same movie. Important detail: Each screen has its own headphone jack, allowing my preschoolers to watch “The Wiggles” while my nearly 16-year-old listens to her iPod behind them without going crazy.

5.)  A power inverter. This handy contraption plugs into your car’s power source (formerly known as the cigarette lighter) and allows you to plug anything else into it using a regular plug. (Like my techno-speak?) The big reason for bringing one of these along is that you can recharge your cell phone or laptop or iPhone or whatever you don’t have a car adapter for.

6.)  Non-electronic entertainment. Even with a power inverter, there’s only so much battery-powered entertainment you want to deal with. Stash a few new (or new-to-you) age-appropriate books for your kids in the car, and pull them out when the whining starts. Also bring blank notebooks and pencils – they’ll come in handy for anything from writing a short, silly story (each person in the car contributes a sentence, one person reads it out loud) to a game of I Spy where the players have to write down (or draw pictures of) what they see. Other excellent car-ride choices include Water Wow books (paint with water, let dry, do it again), finger puppets, and magnet boards.

7.)  Pillows and light blankets. The air conditioning can make the car a little too chilly to nap (but if the car is warm, it can get too cozy to drive). A small pillow keeps kids comfortable in their car seats, and can be used for lumbar support if grownups need it.

Working moms (and dads), share your tips and tricks: How do you make long car rides go more smoothly?

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7 comments so far...

  • I haven’t figured this one out yet and we’re leaving in a few days for a 600 mile road trip with Amelie - now 14.5 months and totally opposed to any car ride over 45 minutes. She’s past the napping through most of the trip stage. [whimper] Any advice?

    Phe  |  June 29th, 2009 at 10:15 am

  • This is tough on the parents, but in some ways, might be worth it:
    for daylong road trips, my friends start driving around 9PM (when the kids
    are sleepy anyway) and drive through the night…the kids sleep, the
    roads are empty.

    I’m guessing this would only work for a trip under 400 miles that ends at the grandparents’ house, because the
    parents will be exhausted at the end of it, just when the kids are
    waking up refreshed!!

    Jeannie  |  June 29th, 2009 at 10:49 am

  • Jeannie,
    I used to do that when traveling to MI or upstate NY sans children and was junk the next day. Although I have been thinking about doing it for this one…

    Phe  |  June 29th, 2009 at 10:57 am

  • I don’t do most of those things. My kids are not allowed to eat/drink in the car and we don’t do electronics. A couple of books, doll/bear, blanket, and the ability to get shoes / socks on and off and chat with Sister are usually more than enough.

    What my kids really like is to listen to me talk to other adults (assuming any are in the car, which is usually the case on a long drive). They love to listen to what adults think is important. It doesn’t matter that they don’t understand all of it (though, even at age 1, they understood more than most gave them credit for). Between that, watching the world go by out the window, making periodic potty / food stops, singing to favorite (grown-up) music, and napping, every car trip we’ve had has been a success. Our longest was about 12 hours of driving in one day.

    SKL  |  June 29th, 2009 at 12:15 pm

  • We recently spent 6 hours in the car on our way from Orlando, FL to Charleston, SC. To entertain my 3 1/2 year old, we packed her favorite DVDs and toys but I also surprised her with a “goody” bag full of new toys. When she started to get bored with her DVDs or own toys, she was allowed to pick one “toy”/”game” from the goody bag. She liked the game because she would have to close her eyes and reach into the bag. She knew she could only pick one toy - and I put enough in there to pick about one an hour (on way up and way back). I filled the bag with toys/games/books from the dollar store. Items like a small flashlight, squishy ball, new book, water toys (to be used in the pool and bath in Charleston) - were among the gifts. She loved it!

    We also made sure to bring the “porta potty” - in case she couldn’t hold it and we couldn’t find a rest stop quick enough….luckily we didn’t have to use it :)

    We did play some games - “eye spy the color red” - a fun game that she could play for about 10-15minutes.

    Lastly - we stopped about four times - allowed her to get out, stretch and she could pick a “treat” from the convenience store.

    Laura  |  June 29th, 2009 at 2:16 pm

  • We have done long trips(20 hrs max so far) with kids.

    We always plan our trip with an overnight break and stay in a hotel.

    Also we take breaks every 3 hours or so or 30-40 minutes unless kids are sleeping. In good weather, we find either a park or a good lawn next to a restaurant/fastfood and put out a big blanket and let kids play.

    Another thing that works for our girls is music, I have a wide assortment of kids songs cds which we play often and sing along.

    As my elder one got older(around 3), we started to print and take coloring sheets and games. For the baby, we take few toys which we try to rotate.

    Lakshmi  |  June 29th, 2009 at 4:43 pm

  • I agree on everything except the DVDs. If you already have a DVD player of course use it, but it’s not necessary. My kids have traveled extensively, to Europe and back and across half the USA and back with no DVD.

    I’d add the following tips:
    1) Plan to stop at a rest stop for at least 5 minutes every hour - drive no more than 2 hours without a break. Often the driver dislikes this, maybe even intensely, but it makes the trip manageable.
    2) Take a ball and a couple of other outdoor toys. Play with these at the rest stops - get the bodies moving.
    3) Fill an ice chest with fresh snacks like grapes, mini carrots and cheese sticks. Too much carbohydrate is bad.
    4) Eat meals at rest stops rather than in restaurants. Kids need to move and can get really restless waiting for food. Outdoor time makes a big difference. You’ll also save money this way.
    5) Plan your hotel accommodation to allow for a swim at the end of a day of travel.
    6) Quiz books and I Spy type books are wonderful to take. My kids also have personal CD players with headphones. We always have a blank notebook for each kid too. It’s amazing what they put in there.

    Have a safe and enjoyable trip!

    Alison Kerr  |  June 30th, 2009 at 12:17 pm