Motherhood Matters: Tried-and-true road trip tips for families

By Saren Eyre Loosli

Power of Moms

Published: Wednesday, July 16 2014 6:00 a.m. MDT

    • Snacks and meals: We have a small collapsible cooler that we fill with fruits and veggies (baby carrots and grapes are staples), plus a few other healthy snacks like almonds, Kashi crackers and cookies (the Original 7-Grain Crackers are our favorite), Trader Joes honey whole wheat pretzels, etc. I used to pack sandwiches and other healthy meal food, but that ended up being a big hassle. But we decided that because we pretty much only have fast food on road trips, and there are somewhat healthy and cheap options at Subway and Taco Bell, we’ll generally just go with fast food on road trips. We give out the fruits and veggies from our little cooler to tide people over until a meal break to be sure they’re getting better nutrition than fast food alone can provide and to keep them hydrated. We also bring a refillable water bottle full of water for each person, but we like to minimize the drinking that happens in the car in the car because random drinks equal random needs for bathroom breaks, and we try to get everyone needing to use the bathroom on close to the same schedule. If we’re thirsty, grapes or carrots help without making the bathroom need imminent. We make a point of having everyone drink quite a lot about a half hour before we’ll be stopping for gas or for a meal, then they can use the bathroom during a scheduled stop. For drinks, we only allow water in the car, which means no messy spills. I’ve found that the more sugary stuff the kids eat in the car, the more on-edge and fidgety they are. Sugar gives quick energy — energy kids don’t really need in the car.
    • Screen time: Back when our kids were little, our road trips were revolutionized when we bought a little portable TV with a built-in VCR, and "The Wiggles," "Veggie Tales" and "Bob the Builder" became welcome parts of our road trips. Later on, we upgraded to a nice built-in DVD player and enjoyed grabbing a DVD or two at a Redbox as a special treat during road trips. But even when the kids were really young, we played lots of games in the car and held off on screen time until we’d done other fun stuff first. Now that the kids are older, we’ve decreased screen time in the car and increased the reading time, family game time and discussion of the scenery and history of areas we drove through. Then, last year, our in-car DVD player broke, and we decided not to bother fixing it. It’s been great to not even have the temptation. The kids enjoy some limited time playing on a smartphone or on our Kindle Fire. Check out the points system we came up with that allows kids to earn screen time in the car here, but we really limit screen time in the car these days. We have an absolute “no screen time” rule when we’re passing through an area with interesting scenery or when we’re reading or listening to a chapter book together or something like that.
    • Car supplies: Along with snacks, we try to keep the car constantly stocked with these things in easily accessible places (door pockets, under seats, cup holders, etc.):
      • Water bottles — One for each person with names written on it in permanent marker. We refill at each stop, so we have fewer bottles to lug around.
      • Wet wipes — They’re not just for babies!
      • Tissues and paper towels or all the extra napkins you don’t end up using at a fast-food place
      • First aid kit with Band-Aids and medicines you might need (stuff for upset stomachs and aches and pains).
      • Bug spray and sun screen
      • Pillows for kids to sleep in the car more comfortably. We use small pillows or camping pillows in old pillow cases. Regular-sized pillows take up way too much space.
      • Books to read
      • Journals to write in
      • A tablet for kids to play games on when they’ve earned some screen time. They can earn screen time through reading or writing in their journals. Check out details on how we do this here if you like.
      • Chargers for phones and electronics
    • Car activities: Here’s a sampling of what we do in the car. (For more car time activities, check out this post on my blog: A glimpse into our car time.)
      • We play "I Spy” and the alphabet game (where you find each letter of the alphabet on signs or cars) a lot.
      • We tell stories where each person gets to add a part to a silly story.
      • We read from chapter books together or listen to audio books from Audiobooks.com or from the library.
      • Sometimes Jared or I sit in the back so that one of us can do story time or a fun game and one of the big kids sits in the front with the driver to enjoy a little one-on-one time up there.
      • Thanks to our smartphones, we have the big kids look up information about the area we’re driving through and give a little report to the rest of the family.
      • We listen to favorite songs. My big kids love making playlists for road trips or playing their favorite songs for us in the car — and certain songs end up becoming theme songs for our trips, which is fun.
      • The kids are extra motivated to read and write in their journals when we let them earn treats like candy bars or 30 minutes of screen time on a phone or tablet by reading or writing a certain number of pages. My son Ashton explained our whole “car points systems” on my blog here. I have to say it works quite nicely.
      • Getting the wiggles out: Whenever we stop for food, gas or a bathroom break, we make a point of doing something active. Sometimes we can find a park right on our route (thank you, GPS). But usually we just find an open area (even an empty part of a parking lot works fine) and do some races, play tag or simply run around the car 10 times or so (timing kids to see if they can beat their time for 10 laps around the car the last time we stopped can be a good incentive). Kids seem to behave much better in the car if they get a chance to run around every few hours.

On our recent three-week road trip across the United States, we found that it worked beautifully to book a hotel via Priceline or Hotwire the day of rather than booking in advance. We usually were’t sure exactly how far we’d get each day, so it was great to just hop on the mobile Hotwire or Priceline app on my phone toward the end of the day and see which nearby towns had good Express Deals on hotels for that evening. With the Express Deals, you get to see the number of stars and what amenities a hotel has and a price but not the hotel name. We liked the 2.5-star hotels because they were generally very nice and always included free breakfast, free Internet and free parking (the three-star hotels seemed about the same as far as how nice they were but didn’t offer free breakfast, Internet or parking most of the time). So we’d look for the 2.5-star hotel with the best price and highest reviewer scores. We go for something with at least a 7.5 on reviews on a scale of one to 10 in Express Deals. We’ve always found a good place to stay using this method, and we’ve paid much less than what seemed to be typical had we booked in advance. Including taxes and fees, we paid from $65-110 a room per night for a nice 2.5-star hotel.

I hope some of these ideas will help reduce the stress and increase the fun and enjoyment on your next family road trip.

Please add your own tips and ideas in the comment area below, and good luck with your upcoming trips.

QUESTION: What works for you when it comes to packing and enjoying family road trips?

CHALLENGE: Decide on a few things you’ll do to make your packing experience more effective and less stressful and make your car-time more fun and meaningful.

This article is courtesy of Power of Moms, an online gathering place for deliberate mothers.

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