A Stress-Free Car Trip

by Christine Loomis; Peter Herbst; Jeannette Lam

A Stress-Free Car Trip

When I ask adults to name the childhood vacation they most loved and remember, the answer is almost always a road trip. When I ask parents what their family vacation nightmare is, the answer is almost always  — you guessed it  — a road trip.

What’s great about family driving trips is also what’s potentially awful  — long hours close together in unfamiliar places with no means of escape. Which is why, if you’d told me eight years ago that I was destined to log more than 25,000 miles on the road with my family (Kira, now 18, Molly, 12, and Hutch, 9), I might have put the minivan up for sale on the spot. And I would have missed out on some of our best, and most memorable, family vacations.

To date we’ve covered 43 states, one province, and cities from coast to coast. We’ve visited president’s houses, alligator farms, five-star resorts, and ten national parks. We’ve checked out the world’s largest thermometer (or so the sign said), and had our picture taken on a giant, but, alas, not real, “jackalope.” We’ve seen America as it can only be seen on a driving vacation, and we’ve had a blast  — surprises, wonders, problems, and all. If I had to boil my recipe for success down to just one word, it would be this: planning. It can almost guarantee success  — which is not always synonymous with problem-free. It can also help you handle whatever hazards and detours the road throws at you. One more thing you’ll need before you hit the highway: Your sense of humor in case disaster strikes. That and a master plan will get you through anything.

Mapping Your Route

When most families plan road trips they look for the shortest route to get from home to paradise. But eight hours through Nebraska pastures on I-80 won’t fire anyone’s imagination. Choose routes that take you through interesting places with sights to stop and see. Plan your route with a good guide for the areas you’ll be traveling through. The top picks for a general guide are the regional Mobil Travel Guide series ($17 each, Publications International

), and Fodor’s Road Guide USA ($16 each, Random House

), which will be published in May. Both guides list hundreds of cities, sights, museums, historical places, addresses, and phone numbers. You’ll also want guides that specialize in family vacations. The Fun with the Family series and the Great Family Vacation series ($13 and $15, respectively, Globe Pequot

), and Fun Places to Go with Children series ($12, Chronicle

) cover various regions and cities. If you’re heading to our national parks, National Parks With Kids: Be a Traveler  — Not a Tourist by Paris Permenter and John Bigley (Open Road Publishing

) is a must. Though not all of the listings in Great Nature Vacations With Your Kids by Dorothy Jordon (World Leisure

) are accessible by car, there are enough to make this guide worthwhile for families on the road.

Don’t forget children’s travel books. They offer a new perspective on sites and events that have taken place along your route, and they can spark kids’ enthusiasm. Try the Kidding Around series ($8, John Muir), which provides a kids-eye view of 15 American cities; also check your library for books about events that happened along your route. Read these books beforehand to get children excited, but be sure to pack them in the car, too.

A good atlas is a must. Not only is it a map for you, it can also turn into a geography lesson for your children. Among the best for kids is Kingfisher’s Young People’s Atlas United States ($22, Kingfisher). For general atlases, go to Mapquest (, then click on the map store at the bottom of the screen. One of the best CD-ROMs is AAA Map’n’Go 5.0 ($35, DeLorme,) an easy-to-use program with maps and more than 70,000 AAA-rated lodges, restaurants, and attractions. For something more economical than a ho-hum motel room, reserve a “kamping kottage” at one of Kampgrounds of America’s (KOA’s) campgrounds . KOA campgrounds are all about families; most have pools, some have playgrounds and miniature golf. (For a campground directory, send $3 to KOA, P.O. Box 30558, Executive Offices, Billings, MT 59114.)

Life in the Backseat

Before you start driving each day, pick a couple of sights to see. Give everyone a turn to choose; that way you’ll have a mix of sightseeing memories.



  • Make sure kids are dressed in layers they can easily get on and off to stay comfortable throughout the day’s travel.


  • Bring CDs or tapes that the whole family enjoys (see “10 Great Car CDs”), and pack some the kids can use with their individual music players. Consider books on tape to keep everyone entertained as the miles roll by. Listening Library has some of the best-selling kids’ books on tape. Among them: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, The Golden Compass, and the Redwall series performed by author Brian Jacques. For CD players, try Echoes of the Elders and Spirit of the Cedar People (DK Ink), book-and-CD sets of Native American stories told by a chief of the Kwakiutl people.


  • Remember those travel guides? Get them out once you’re on the road. Reading about the Salem witch trials as you drive through places where these events happened brings history alive.


  • Get your children thinking about the trip in new ways. What would this drive look like to their grandparents? If they were traveling by horse and wagon? What would their best friend most like about it?


  • Don’t get carried away turning every bend in the road into a lesson. It’s okay to let everyone tune out for a while and listen to headphones. Have as many portable players as you can  — one for each child is ideal. Or take turns. Don’t forget to take your turn, too

    Meals on Wheels

    Meals don’t have to be monotonous. Mix it up!



    • Pack a small cooler of healthy snacks and put it within your children’s reach. Try putting it on the seat between them  — a quick solution to backseat squabbles.


    • Stop at local grocery stores for simple sandwich makings for an outdoor picnic.


    • If you opt for fast food, don’t grab and go. Get out, and let your kids burn energy on the playground.


    • Take time to have an unhurried, sit-down dinner once or twice on the drive. Try a popular local restaurant with regional cuisine  — preferably one that’s casual enough so the kids don’t have to sit too still; after confinement in a car, they need room to move.

    10 Great Car CDs

    • Mozart’s Simphonia Concertante K364 and Concertone, Perlman and Zukerman (Uni/Deutsche Grammaphon)
    • Songs for Swingin’ Lovers, Frank Sinatra (Emi/Capitol)
    • The Only Broadway CD You’ll Ever Need (BMG/RCA Victor)
    • The Beatles 1962-1966 (The Red Album) (Emi/Capitol)
    • Talking Book, Stevie Wonder (Uni/Motown)
    • The Dance, Fleetwood Mac (WEA/Warner Bros.)
    • Hitsville USA: The Motown Singles (Uni/Motown)
    • Steal Away, Charlie Haden and Hank Jones (Uni/Verve)
    • Backwaters, The Tony Rice Unit (Rounder)
    • Late Night Grande Hotel, Nanci Griffith (Uni/MCA)

    8 Foolproof Packing Tips

    Even on the road, take a tip from the friendly skies: Go with one bag and one carry-on per person.

    1. [BOLD {Soft-sided luggage}] is easier to pack in a car and if any bags are going to be in the seating area, soft is safer. That doesn’t mean you have to lug them everywhere. Both L.L. Bean and KT Travel Gear carry easy-to-pack rolling duffels.
    2. [BOLD {Put larger bags in the trunk;}] if you can’t get them all in, consider a car-top luggage carrier, such as those by Sherpak available through Seattle Sports.
    3. [BOLD {A few days before the trip,}] give each child a small, soft bag to have in the car. Let her fill it with anything she’ll want during the drive. L.L. Bean’s colorful Adventure duffel, small or medium size, is perfect.
    4. [BOLD {Having enough room}] to stay comfortable is crucial for keeping everyone happy. Avoid piling luggage around the kids in the backseat; it’s a surefire way to make them cranky.
    5. [BOLD {A cooler with snacks}] will also keep young travelers happy, but be sure it’s small enough not to get in the way in the backseat. has a great selection.
    6. [BOLD {Backseat organizers}] that hang on the back of the front seat are handy space-savers with roomy pockets kids can fill with stuff they’ll use often.
    7. [BOLD {For meals in the car}] (see “Meals on Wheels”), buy travel trays ; they’re more stable than a fidgety lap.
    8. [BOLD {If you’ll be staying overnight}] at motels or campgrounds, pack overnight essentials (toothbrushes, shampoo, pajamas) in one small bag. Put this into your trunk last so you have a minimal amount of baggage to unload at the end of a long day. (You’ll also avoid repacking bags every morning.)

    Games to Go


    • Brush up on your grammar and get everyone laughing when you fill in the blanks in Mad Libs stories ($4).
    • Carry your keys on the Wooly Willy Keychain and create new faces for him wherever you go ($4).
    • Just fill the Waterfall Ring Toss with water and enjoy the fun of trying to get all the rings on the pegs ($9).
    • Watch UFOs attack and bad dogs run loose with Slidemaster’s two slide puzzles in one ($8).
    • Explore all 50 states with the Wooden United States map while learning little-known facts included on each puzzle piece ($20).
    • Spot a license plate and find the state on the map with your vinyl state stickers in States’ Plates ($4).
    • Etch2O, the new Etch-a-Sketch comes in bright colors but still has the screen that lets kids draw for hours ($8).
    • The Stencil Fun Kit includes two blank minibooks, six color markers, and more than 50 stencils to create fun, bright pictures ($20).
    • Challenge your road skills to find an escape route with the Rush Hour Traffic Jam Puzzle ($16).
    • Use the magnetic words to build fun sentences, or create imaginative stories on the Magnetic StoryBoard ($19).
    • Give the kids something to ask besides, “how much longer?” with Travel Card Games’ pocket-sized versions of Truth or Dare, 20 Questions, and Symbol Simon ($5).
    • Colorform’s Basic Shapes let you create characters and stories with colorful stick-on pieces ($13).
    • Turn your car into an arcade center with the Take Along Mini Arcade series that includes pinball, foosball, and rod hockey ($20).
    • Time flies quickly when you play the card game, Are We There Yet? ($12).
    • The Family Car Songbook will have the whole car belting out songs until you reach your destination ($10, Running Press).
    • Pentel’s Milky Pens come in fun colors you can use with your Official Milky Gear sketch pad, diary, or mini-sketch key chain ($2).
    • Help a frog overcome his obstacles to reach his lily pad safely in Hasbro’s handheld electronic game, Frogger ($15).


    • The license-plate game: The winner is the one who spots every state license plate first – and can alphabetize them.
    • Geography game: Start with the name of a place; the next player has to think of a name beginning with the last letter of the first name, and so on.
    • State capitals: Quiz your children and see who can name them all.
    • Trivia pursuits: Keep those atlases handy so the kids can follow your route on paper, looking up facts as you go.
    • 22. Quiz show: Have them quiz you – how much do you really know about where you are and where you’re going?
    • A calculator. It isn’t a toy but it’s a fun tool older kids can use to calculate time to the next stop (a solution to the “how long till we get there” syndrome) and help with daily budgeting (If we have $45 for dinner, how much can we spend on each person’s order?).
    • 20 Questions: Tie these to your trip, or a subject your child is studying in school.
    • Tape recorder: Take turns creating an audio record of the trip. Unlike writing in a journal, this lets you record sounds (that elephant at the zoo) and interview people.

    How Long Should You Drive

    Adults may be able to survive marathon driving sessions, but long stretches are bound to make kids cranky. Plus, driving straight to your destination means missing some of the best parts of a family road trip ¿¿¿¿¿ ¿ spending time with your kids as you discover together the cool nooks and crannies of America.

    • If your ultimate purpose is to reach a particular destination, add a couple of days onto your getaway so you can relax and make the drive part of your trip.
    • Be flexible and spontaneous. If you see a sign for a sight that your family will like, learn from, or laugh at, scrap the preordained route and go for it. Those places usually turn out to be the ones you remember.
    • Try to limit driving to about six hours a day, eight at the most. Of course, you should stop every couple of hours to let the kids run around for a few minutes.
    • Don’t underestimate how a dip in the pool will rejuvenate all of you, so make sure you stop early enough to take a swim at the motel or campground.

    Car Travel Safety

    To ensure the safest trip, check this list before you go.

    • Take your car in for an oil change and tune-up. Don’t forget to check tire air pressure and windshield-washer fluid. Make sure you have a working jack and a spare tire; a cell phone is a good idea if you’re driving in remote areas.
    • If you aren’t a member of a travel organization, join one now, such as AAA or the Target Travel Club . If you don’t already have emergency road service, join a club that has it. Besides trip routing and booking, some also have updated information on construction delays (as Mapquest does). Don’t forget to carry your membership card with you.
    • Call your health insurance company for details on how to handle illness on the road, just in case. Bring your insurance card, your doctor’s phone number, and emergency contact numbers, too.