How to survive long car trips with kids

... without leaving them by the side of the road


Kiran Ansari


Ten tips Just thinking about a long car trip with kids can be daunting for many parents. Sibling squabbles, bathroom breaks and plain old fidgeting can make parents rethink a vacation before it even begins.

The AAA Chicago Motor Club recommends parents involve kids in planning a trip by studying maps, choosing which attractions to visit, calculating how much will be spent on gas and choosing what to play in the car. Not only will this make the children look forward to the trip, but you’ll be sneaking in geography, history and math lessons as well.

Here are some things to add to your packing list that have proved helpful to traveling families:

1 Something old. The security children find in a familiar object while away from home is priceless. “When leaving the motel we make re-packing the girls’ blankies our top priority,” says Kristin Varela, mom and creator of, a Web site that reviews cars based on what’s important to women and mothers. “Shoes and toiletries are easily replaceable, but a child without her favorite blankie or stuffed animal will make everyone miserable for the rest of the trip,” she adds.

2 Something new. Visit a dollar store before the trip and buy some new trinkets or activities for each child. Wrap them up and put them in a grab bag. Reward good behavior at regular intervals—every 100 miles or every two hours—by letting the kids reach in and choose a prize. Print out travel games from the Web ( printables.html) or make up your own, such as finding license plates from every state. The sneaky secret here is that car games are also good for brain development. Games such as the ABC imaginary trip where children pack a bag for using letters of the alphabet develop cognitive organization and memory. I Spy and 20 Questions help build deductive reasoning skill. 

3 Something borrowed. Let your children choose books, books on tape or music from the library. Audio books promote family discussions since everyone is on the same page and you can easily stop the CD and talk about the book. Borrowing time-tested travel stuff—such as a neck pillow or lap desk—from a friend is also an option.

4 Something blue. And green, red and yellow colored pencils are musts for art projects. Crayons can melt in the heat, and regular paint and markers can let your kids’ creativity wander past the paper and onto the seats.

5 Something just in case. For kids who get motion sick, Varela recommends “lots and lots of disinfectant wipes, old towels for clean up, a change of clothes [so you don’t have to rummage through packed suitcases] and gallon Ziplocs to contain the mess.”

6 Something to eat. Ambereen Tariq of Schaumburg has taken many long car trips with her kids, Mona and Maaz, now 6 and 4. “Lollipops are a great lifesaver because they take so long to finish,” she says. “I pack snacks like grapes, raisins and cookies in individual baggies and prefer juice boxes with straws so that they each have their own.”

7 Something to forget. That would be your temper. Strapping bundles of energy in car seats for several hours can make even the most angelic child a tad irritable. To reduce the drone of “Are we there yet?” trace out a simple map and highlight milestones when you pass them. Or hand out a roll of quarters to each kid. Every time they squabble, have them give one quarter back. Whatever they save can be their vacation souvenir money.

8 Something for exercise. Don’t make your car trip a race against MapQuest. Factor in extra time because you’re traveling with kids. Tariq and her family stop every two to three hours so the kids can expend some energy. They cover the maximum distance while the children nap. Depending on the weather, pack a Frisbee or bubbles for use at a rest stop. Or eat at a fast food restaurant with an indoor play area. Consider staying at a motel with a pool. Or make a surprise stop at an ice rink en route rather than waiting until you reach your destination.

9 Something to consider. Parents often debate the merits of having a DVD player in the car, and experts agree that it has its pros and cons. “I’ve never met a parent who hasn’t thought it worth every cent,” says Joe Wiesenfelder, senior editor of “Even parents who bemoan their children’s habit of sitting in front of the TV at home make an exception in the car.” Have the children use headphones while they watch a movie or battle one another on a virtual basketball court so the driver is less distracted.

Mark Bilek, editorial director at Consumer Guide Automotive and the father of children ages 3, 5 and 7, agrees. But he cautions parents not to compromise on safety. Some minivans do not offer side-curtain air bags if you choose the entertainment system, he explains. Bilek recommends parents test the system first and set rules about using it. And don’t forget that those car games they complain about, the in-car chats, the views, the things that happen when the movie is off, are the stuff that builds family memories.

10 Something to cherish. Capturing memories is a creative way to pass time. Whether it’s keeping a journal, collecting postcards or using a disposable camera, kids can draw or write their account of the vacation and share it with their class when they return. Gradually, they can build a personal record of their travels, a souvenir that beats a gas station mug any time. 

Kiran Ansari is a writer and mom in Roselle who still enjoys playing 20 questions while traveling with her family.

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