How To Survive a Family Road Trip (Without Plugging In)

“This is no longer a vacation. It’s a quest. It’s a quest for fun.”
— Clark Griswold, Vacation

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Thanks in part to the sheer size of the landscape, the “road trip” has become an iconic piece of American culture – satisfying a wanderlust in the American soul that spans generations, ethnicities and socioeconomic groups. Hitting the open road, it could be argued, is an age-old component of a fully realized life, but it doesn’t come without its trials and tribulations, especially when traveling with young children who may not yet appreciate that difficult roads often lead to beautiful destinations. Planning ahead for the monotony may save you a few gray hairs and leave your kids with treasured memories that are likely to last a lifetime!

If you’re considering a family road trip this summer, you’ve probably already wondered whether or not it’s worth it – balancing the savings on rental cars and airline tickets against the potentially brutal barrage of questions like “Are we there yet?” and “How much longer?” and “When can we stop again?” as you plod through stretches of seemingly unending pavement. And while iPads and iPods and DVD players can momentarily defray the boredom, there are ways to not only endure the trip, but to actually enjoy it, to remind your kids – who are growing up in an increasingly impatient world – that life is in the journey, not the road 3 - adam

Safety First!

The first tip to surviving a road trip is to – well, survive it. Before you leave, make sure you take care of any suggested maintenance, check your fluids, and, for the love of everything precious in the world, check your tire pressure! If you need assistance making sure your vehicle’s maintenance needs are up to date, the Hershey Motors Service Department can always help!

safety-checklist-mdBut even in a well-maintained or brand new car, unexpected problems can still arise. Make sure you always have – at minimum – a little food and water (more if you plan to travel through remote or exceptionally hot climates), a flashlight, a first-aid kit, an up-to-date road assistance plan, a map or an atlas (in case the GPS fails and/or you lose cell service), and warm clothes and blankets for winter trips. And, perhaps most importantly, be sure that all potential drivers are well-rested and never push forward when a driver is too tired – it’s never worth sacrificing safety for staying on schedule, especially when the greatest road trip memories are likely to be made during unexpected stops!

Know Your Travel Games!

653px-License_plate_preambleSure, you could plug your kids into their favorite electronic devices, and that will probably keep them occupied…for at least a little while. But believe it or not, they may actually enjoy engaging – with you, with each other and with the open road. There are tons of fun travel games that won’t just pass the time, but will utilize it in a way that’s both fun and memorable. Enjoy games that revolve around the experience of traveling itself, like “License Plate Bingo”, “I Spy” or the “Alphabet Game”, which require players to look out the windows for signs, billboards or license plates in order to check off letters from the alphabet. Choose teams or play as individuals, and alter the rules however it best suits your family. Or try a game like “Twenty Questions” or the “Name Game”, which can be played at night and will keep kids engaged as the miles just float away! For more ideas on travel games and free printable game cards, check out Mom’s Minivan.

Start a Collection!

pennantAs a kid, I collected souvenir spoons from each of the places we visited. As I got older, I stopped collecting, but I wish I hadn’t – I wish I had one from every place I have ever traveled to. In the short term, it’s a reason for kids to look forward to the next stop instead of focusing on the overwhelming number of miles between you and your final destination. It also is a great way to focus souvenir-buying, which any parent who has waited for a 10-year-old to decide between a T-shirt, a magnet, a key chain and a water bottle will certainly appreciate. And it doesn’t matter what it is, so spoonlong as it’s cheap and relatively small – while I collected spoons, my sister collected over-sized pencils and my brother collected pennants. In the long term, your kids will appreciate having a physical reminder of your past family trips!

Something To Look Forward To!

For longer trips, you may consider some incentives that can be offered along the way to dull the monotony. One of my best memories as a kid was a long trip from east to west where my mother gave us presents along the way – wrapped and everything – to be opened as we crossed each state line. Kids love presents, and it doesn’t matter how small the packages are – it will turn each milestone into a mini Christmas morning! Choose items that are small and able to be used in the car – some of ours were little toys, chocolate bars or small bags of candies, clothing, books and handheld electronic games (which will likely be unimpressive to kids these days – maybe an iTunes or Google Play gift card instead!).

Skip McDonald’s – Pack a Picnic!

colorado city rest areaParents are often goal-oriented, worried about things like “making time” and “getting there on schedule”. While sticking to a schedule and following a plan are admirable qualities, it makes it easy to prioritize maximizing efficiency over the mental well-being of your fellow roadtrippers. It makes sense, in a perfectly logical world, to accomplish multiple goals in one stop – finding an exit where you you’ll be able to fill the tank, fill your bellies and empty your bladders. But kids can be like little balls of energy, and bottling them up for too long may be counterproductive in the long run, as boredom turns into whining, which turns into more stops.

rest areaInstead, take a page from my mother’s handbook and trade in spending a fortune on greasy fast food and gas station hot dogs for packing a cooler full of sandwich fixings. I know, I know – you’ve got a million things to do before a big trip and the last thing you want to think about is going to the deli, buying ice and packing condiments, but trust me, it’ll be worth it. Instead of looking for the next fast food joint, where you’ll shuttle your kids from one enclosed location to another, look for a rest area. They’ll be harder to find on toll roads, where travel plazas are the stop du jour, but most states have ample roadside stops available at regular intervals. While you’ll save a few bucks on the food, the biggest benefit will be in giving your kids a break from their car seat straight jackets. Take a Frisbee or a Hacky Sack, a jump rope or a ball, bubbles or paddle ball – any outdoor activity that lets them run, jump, move, wiggle, yell, stretch and expend as much energy as possible while you make up a few of their favorite sandwiches (no need to fight over which restaurant you stop at – everyone gets to have their favorite!). It’ll give the whole family, even the adults, a real break, and you’ll all climb back into the car feeling truly refreshed – by the sun, by the food, by the open space – with your bellies full and your bladders empty. You can stop for gas later – someone will have to use the bathroom again anyway!


Of course, you can’t cater to every whim your kids may have on a long trip – it’ll be hard enough just keeping up with their basic needs – but you can indulge them from time to time. If they show a genuine interest in an attraction, maybe it’s possible to alter your plans just a little – remember, it’s their road trip too! And roadtripping is about far more than just arriving!

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If the time spent on the road is filled only with “tolerating” and “enduring”, your kids will remember your road trips as long, miserable drives to nowhere. So don’t forget to have some fun along the way, and your kids may remember these long trips the way my siblings and I do – as wild, unexpected adventures into parts unknown!

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