If you ever want to see sympathetic parents shudder- while whispering “crazy!” as you leave- tell them you are planning a 20 hour long road little kids. Although kids are notoriously challenging travelers, with preparation and good practices, the whole family can enjoy long car rides. Parents, teachers, and caregivers know that kids are at their worst when they are 1) tired, 2) hungry, or 3) bored. Here are 4 ways you can prevent these car-induced tantrums, driver despair, and whiny backseat riders.
1) Choose the time of travel carefully. This is one of the most important decisions parents needs to make when planning a road trip! Just as some of us are “night owls” or “morning people,” our kids may have a preferred time of day to be awake or asleep, or a time of day when they are most likely to take a nap.
- On “shorter” trips of 6 hours or less, plan for the child’s nap to land in the middle of the trip, and get gas (change diapers, take a potty break) just while they are getting sleepy so you don’t wake them up too soon. It takes us about 4 hours of highway driving in our minivan before we start to get low on gas, so we plan accordingly.
The best time to travel looooooooong distances is to strategically plan the long stretches of road when the kids are asleep. For example, when driving straight through on a 20 hour trip, we have tried leaving at 2am, 3am, 4am, 5am…. but also we’ve tried at 4pm, and 6pm. The advantage of leaving really early in the morning (before 4am) is that the kids will go back to sleep even if they are wide awake as we load them into the car. Any later than 4:30am and they just stay awake and are crabby (though then they get a nap around 9am). Leaving in the late afternoon is great because then they sleep the whole night (or until we stop at a hotel)– and they always comment on how “fast” we get to our destination. Note: this crazy method of driving through the night requires copious amounts of caffeine, and if the driver is too tired it’s best to pull off in a rest area and take a nap.
2) Pack more than enough food, snacks, and drinks. Packing healthy snacks and special treats for the car, to be taken out at the precise moment of a meltdown are invaluable! The contrary, of course is to wait to find a gas station amidst protests and screams (a la “30 miles to next fuel station”), in order to buy junk food that may quell the tantrum. It is imperative to plan ahead, and assume there will be more traffic, and that it will take more time in the car than you had anticipated. The Boy Scouts say to “Be Prepared” and parents on road trips must take this to heart when traveling with kids. See this article about eating on the road with kids.
3) Curb boredom! Tomorrow’s article in this series on Road-Tripping with Kids has tons of ideas for games and activities families can play in the car, so I won’t get into them here. Besides playing games inside the car, it is also important to stop and stretch everyone’s legs every one and a while. Note: some kids can sit for a lot longer than others! Here are some ideas:
- find fun stops along your route with this neat, free web site: plug in your starting point and your destination, and it will give you ideas to stop along the way anywhere in the world!
- many (though definitely not all) rest areas on US interstate highways are now building small playgrounds for our youngest travelers. Even without a playground, the wide open space is perfect for a quick game of tag, some relay races, or even kicking around the soccer ball
- some restaurants have play areas for the kids to burn some steam, and take a potty break in a clean restroom. Check out McDonald’s restaurant locator or Chick-Fil-A’s restaurant locator, and don’t forget to specify “playground/playscape.”
- map out your route beforehand and write down possible breaks: museums, cute towns, state parks, tourist oddities. Prepare to be flexible- if the kids are asleep, or the traffic was bad, you can skip them. But if you’re making good time and need a fun break, you have the list! We found this Desert Museum in Saltillo, Mexico on-line beforehand, and were so excited that we had time to stop and check it out:
4) Be flexible and adaptable! The last point is possibly the most important: parents need to teach their children by example that good travelers are flexible and have a sense of humor. We were only a couple of hours into a very long trip one time when there was a car accident ahead of us. The highway was closed down for more than 3 hours and we had to turn off our car and just sit and wait it out. I let the kids out of the car, locked it up, and let them walk up and down the highway– which was now a parking lot. They were so excited to walk in the street, and see semi-trucks and motorcycles up close!
The car in front of us had bikes that they brought down, and they rode up to the accident a mile ahead and would bring back updates to us. We had a picnic lunch, the kids caught a bunch of grasshoppers in the grass along the highway, and my daughter was excited that she could finally look at her books (which I had prohibited while driving so to avoid carsickness!). By the time we finally started up again, the kids were ready to get back in the car and start moving. Getting mad and stressed out would have only made everyone in a bad mood- and there was nothing we could do to control the traffic jam. It’s better for parents to just roll with the punches, and teach the kids to do the same.