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Trains, Planes & Automobiles

On the Road Again

While some parents relish the freedom of piling the children into a car and hitting the road, others can't imagine a more gruesome scenario  -- wailing babies, constant complaining, sticky seats.

Before you head out on an extended journey with the kids, make sure your car or van is in tip-top working order and get a tune-up if necessary. (My sister learned this lesson the hard way, stranded once with two kids in a freak desert hailstorm on a cross-country trip while her husband sprinted out of sight in desperate search of a mechanic.)

If you don't trust your car for a long trip, it's a good idea to consider a rental. Rather than spring for a new transmission, we recently called a reputable local rental agency and got a good rate for a week on a medium-size four-door car (if your pocketbook allows, go for a van).

PACKING IT IN

No matter how I pack a car, when I'm done I can't see out the windows and half our stuff is still sitting in the driveway. When my husband and 14-year-old pack the car, the windows are clear and there's plenty of room to spare for a portable TV, a bike, and a hockey net. Guess who packs for our trips?

Accessibility and foresight are the keys to good packing. Medications, the first-aid box, extra diapers and wipes, and extra snacks (pretzels and bagels  -- forget crumbly items like donuts or cookies  -- juice boxes and water) are what get the place of honor in our trunk. What we probably won't need en route (the just-in-case galoshes, for instance) go into the far reaches. What to keep at arm's length? Linda Hynson brings a blanket and pillow for each child  -- a good idea to promote napping. In addition to the surprise package of small games or toys you'll want at your fingertips, each child should have access to her own backpack filled with her stash (her portable tape or CD player, books, crayons, etc.). Always carry a roll of paper towels and some tissues or napkins. It's also wise to keep a Frisbee or a ball within reach for stretching legs at rest stops.

While some parents can't wait to hightail it down the turnpike to their desired destination, others have discovered the joys of stopping to investigate points of historical interest or to sample regional pizza parlors and ice-cream shops. To boost older kids' interest and patience levels, let them participate in planning the route and following it with a map. They can help pick out a place to stop each day of a long car trip  -- a museum, for instance, or a special restaurant they might like or an area for a roadside picnic  -- so they have something specific to look forward to.

WOOZY ONES

Whether traveling by train, plane, or car, if your child suffers from motion sickness, try giving him a kid-size dose of Dramamine or Bonine, recommends Dr. Edwards. Babies don't usually have a problem with motion sickness, but if yours does, you can give her a dose of Benadryl to make her sleepy, Dr. Edwards notes. Motion-sickness patches placed behind the ear may also be useful for child travelers, but they don't work for everyone, says Bruce Meyer, M.D., a pediatrician at Columbus Children's Hospital; and there can be side effects, such as vomiting and nausea. Also, you need to begin to use the patches the day before travel, he says. If your child gets carsick, this is one time to discourage reading; it's better to focus straight ahead. And don't let him load up on food before a journey; a light snack is a better idea.

DIVERSIONARY TACTICS

One of the great things about traveling by car is that you can be your own entertainment planner. Many a traveling family has been saved by music, whether by singing, listening to tapes, or having kids hook up their own portable tape or CD players. Wendy Logan, mother of Andrew, 4, and Phillip, 6, from Seattle, audiotapes her kids' favorite videos and then plays the soundtracks as she drives: "The kids act out the parts and sing all the songs  -- they really get into it!" A Goofy Movie works well, she says, because it's about a road trip.

The all-time favorites? Car bingo (make your own or pick up the game at a discount store) or searching for Hondas, Corvettes, red or blue cars, various state license plates or for deer, hedgehogs, rabbits, or just about anything else (we counted 100 soaring hawks on our last trip). Reading aloud and books on tape are also popular with families who travel by car.

However you travel, it's worth making an extra effort so that getting there and back is enjoyable for everyone. As the proverb goes, the longest journey begins with the single step. So why not make it a pleasant one?

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