I enjoy car trips. Some of my best childhood memories involve cross-country trips, all six kids piled in the back of a van while my mom studied the map and my dad drove. So far, I haven’t been able to convince my husband that a cross-country adventure would be great fun, but we do travel as often as we can, whether it is a quick weekend camping trip or a week-long trip to the beach.
Car travel with kids can be a great experience – it can also be one of the worst. Here are a few tricks I've picked up along the way to make your summer vacation with kids -- and pets -- a smooth one.
Before you leave, pack an emergency "fun" kit. My kids tend to sleep a lot in the car, so the first couple of hours are quiet ones – as long as I've remembered to bring their pillows and blankets along. Once they wake up, they realize how limited their space is and the inevitable shoving, shouts of "stop touching me," arguments over which inch of space belongs to whom, and the questions of "how much longer?" begin. That is when I reach into my bag of tricks and search for something to distract them. I love car bingo and car scavenger hunt – these are great ways to pass the time. We also have a competition where we choose a type of vehicle (camper, motorcycle, or a specific model car) and every time we see one, we shout it out. If we shout it out before anyone else, we get a point. At the end of the trip, the person with the most points "wins." (There is no actual prize – just bragging rights.)
I am perfectly fine with hand-held game devices in the car. When my kids were younger, I would hang on to these until desperation set in, but now that they are older and I am wiser, they can have them the entire trip. If you have a video system in your car, pack some of the kids' favorite movies. After all, they are trapped in a car … anything that distracts them from that fact should be utilized.
Also before heading out, pack a cooler with lunch items and a bag with dry goods and snacks for the car. I won't let the kids drink any sodas, sports drinks, or juice in the car – it's a water-only zone. This cuts down on the inevitable pleas for the nearest rest area as well as making sure they aren't getting unnecessary doses of sugar that will make them antsy.
Don't stop at a restaurant – even a fast-food one – for lunch. Depending on your departure time, the kids (and pets) are probably little powder kegs of pent-up energy. Instead, find a rest area with picnic tables or exit at a state park. Let them run off some steam (you can even bring along a football or Frisbee to help them along with this), then have lunch. After lunch and a quick trip to the facilities, everyone will be ready to settle back in for the rest of the day's drive. (This is also much more economical, which will help with your overall travel budget.)
Kids and pets may be a little uncomfortable in a strange hotel. Be sure your child has his favorite stuffed animal, blanket, or toy. Your pet will need his favorite toy, his pillow or blanket, and travel bowls for food and water. According to the ASPCA, you should bring your own water from home for your dog – water from a strange area can upset his stomach and cause a real issue on your trip.
Try to find a hotel that offers a free hot breakfast. (Look for the word "hot" and not "continental.") This will save you money and time in the morning, and some hotels feature really great breakfasts. Also, look for a hotel with a pool or play area. If you take the kids down right after check-in, they can expel that pent-up energy in the pool or play area and they will sleep much more soundly – which means they will wake up in a much better mood.
When traveling with kids or pets, you will want to book your hotels in advance. You don't want to try and find a pet-friendly hotel (or a hotel with the things kids will need) at the end of a tiring drive. Find the hotels that offer the amenities you'll want around the place you intend to stop for the night. (Be sure it is near the Interstate you will be traveling on – the last thing you want to do is search for a hotel in a strange city at night.)
Also, watch out for extra fees for pets – many hotels will want a deposit or charge a pet fee. Some, such as La Quinta, don't charge for pets and don't require a deposit. Be sure to check the hotel's pet policy, and if you have any questions, call and ask before booking.
With a little planning, driving will be half the fun! So go ahead; have a great vacation with your kids and your pets. The memories you make will be ones you -- and your kids -- cherish for a lifetime.