Summer Road Trip Tips for Families

Filed under: Activities: Babies, Activities: Toddlers & Preschoolers, Activities: Big Kids, Activities: Tweens, Activities: Family Time

Traveling with kids doesn't have to be painful. Photo:

I don't know about you, but the summer sunshine sure ignites my wanderlust. In just a few weeks I'll pack up my family for a four-week road trip across five states, ending up at the very tip of the East coast, in Provincetown, Mass.

While the ocean beckons, the idea of packing enough clothing and gear for 30 days on the road with two adults and two kids under 5 makes me feel like crying. What's that? You want me to stop complaining? Well, chew on this for a minute --- that's 1,400 miles ONE WAY.

Yeah, it's crazy. But spending two full months in the flatlands of the Midwest without any water in sight makes for one miserable summer. What's a mom to do when faced with a dilemma like this? Does she throw up her hands and stay home?

No way! Never fear, parents. I've been doing this "15 hours in a mini-van" thing for the past three years, and I humbly call myself a bit of an expert. Need proof of my credentials? I spent the last two years writing a family-travel column, so I know of what I speak.

Here are my tried-and-true travel tips, gathered from experience and experts alike:

Rent it, baby
: Nothing sparks a marital meltdown like packing the car for a long road trip. Or how about hauling all that gear on an airplane? Here's my advice: Don't do it. Plenty of cities boast businesses that rent just about everything a kid on the go needs: Cribs, car seats, strollers, even toys. Ask your hotel or do a simple Web search to find a baby-rental service near your destination. Yes, it will cost you a couple of clams. But isn't that better than paying for a divorce lawyer?

Leave the kitchen sink at home
: No, you do not need to bring the Barbie Dream House with you. One of the great things about traveling is that kids are fascinated by a new environment. Every time I bring a giant bag o' toys with me, my children wind up playing with a feather duster the entire time we're on vacation.

Mix-and-match: Here's a good rule of thumb -- pack for half as many days as your trip is long. So if you're traveling for 10 days, pack for five. Mix and match outfits by packing one or two basic pieces you can swap out with simple T-shirts and tops. Remember, pretty much any city has a laundromat, and hotels and resorts typically offer laundry service or have a washer and dryer on site for guest use. You can also save space by limiting shoes to two pair. It's tough, but you can do it.

Teachable moments:
You've spent 13 hours in the car, or six hours waiting for your delayed plane. Take advantage of the time with your kids -- how often do you get to spend that much time with them without any distractions? Make a teachable moment of it: Count the planes at the gate, talk about how the food grown in those corn fields will end up on their plates in some form or another. You'd be surprised at how interesting the ordinary world is when you're 8 years old.

Let's 'em run:
No one likes to be cooped up for hours at a time. I know I don't. So let your kids run! Challenge your family to a foot race from one airport gate to another, or make a pit stop at a rest area that has an open field. Let them shake the sillies out. Bonus? They'll be so tired that they'll take a cat nap so you can listen to Neil Young instead of The Wiggles.

Go-go gadgets:
There are plenty of great electronic devices out there for kids. My daughter loves her portable game system (loaded with only educational games, of course), or you can load your iPod with kids' music and TV shows. Or invest in a portable DVD system, one that can go from plane to train to automobile. This is especially enchanting for kids who aren't used to watching a lot of TV or movies.

Go with the flow:
You're on the road, people. You are not at home, and you are on vacation -- so enjoy it, will you? Keep your routines if you can, but don't be afraid to let that nap schedule slide a little bit. Or create a new routine, one that offers predictability without being so rigid. When we go the beach, we have a morning and an afternoon activity, and in between we take breaks for meals and naps, if needed. Then, at night, we often go for ice cream. Sure, the kids get to bed later than they do at home, but they are so tired when we get home that they fall asleep as soon as their heads hit the pillow.

Have fun: I bet you remember your family vacations -- and so will your kids. You're not just getting away from it all, you're creating a family history. You'll talk about that time Jane split her knee open on a clam shell or when Johnny tried lobster for the first time for years to come.

What are your tried-and-true family travel tips? Please share!

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.