I've often wondered why nobody has invented a Plexiglas partition to separate the front and back seats of a family car. Limousines have them, but minivans need them even more! Sharing an enclosed vehicle with chatty kids can be challenging, especially if you're headed for a far-off destination like Cape Cod or the Outer Banks. We might not have a noise-cancellation device for you, but we do have parent-tested tips for surviving your family road trip.
Totally Terrific Travel Games
Kate Ross of Learning Express recommends these travel games, which can be purchased in the Ramsey, Allendale and Englewood stores, as well as online at lexnj.learningexpresstoys.com.
Hot Dots Jr. ($13) – an electronic Q&A game for ages 4 and up.
Find It Kids' Edition ($21) – a twist-and-shake game of activities for ages 8 and up.
Kabam! ($13) – a head-to-head word game for ages 8 and up.
Flip-to-Win Hangman ($13) – a classic by Melissa & Doug for ages 6 and up.
Pivotal Pit Stops
Don't even think about driving straight through to your final destination if it's more than an hour or two away. Breaks are critical for replenishing supplies and rejuvenating weary travelers.
Sometimes the easiest option is to pull off the Parkway into a service station. But instead of parking in the thick of things, choose a less-crowded area – preferably with a patch of grass – where kids can burn off a bit of energy without the threat of moving cars.
Highway stops are convenient, but it's more interesting to stop for food, gas and a good stretch in a small town off the highway. For local flavor, opt for a local diner or sandwich shop instead of a chain restaurant you've been to a hundred times before. Who knows – you might get lucky and discover a neighborhood playground, just right for tiring the kids out before the next leg of your journey.
Car Packing Tips
• When packing the car, load big suitcases and duffles first, then fill in spaces and holes with smaller bags and loose items like pillows and bike helmets.
• Leave each child's backpack or travel bag right at his feet for easy reach.
• Have a bag with everything you need for a diaper change somewhere that's easily accessible, like the front corner of the trunk or in the front seat console, so you can grab and go for a mid-trip change.
• Strollers also need quick access, so pack it last.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, right? Preventing meltdowns and sibling battles is a cinch if you have a well-stocked car. Here's a basic packing guide.
Each child should have her own small duffle bag or suitcase. It's too hard to find things when everyone's sharing bags – better for it to be separated out. If your child is about 5 or older, give her a list of things she'll need for the trip and let her pack by herself. She'll love the sense of independence, and you'll love the lighter workload. Just be sure to give it a once-over when she's done. And give her a small backpack to fill up with things to do in the car.
Kids cannot survive on food alone, so be sure to stock up on sources of entertainment. We asked Kate Ross, the buyer for Learning Express toy stores in Allendale, Ridgewood and Englewood, for recommendations. Her top pick: Spot It! ($13, learningexpresstoys.com).
"This card game is simple enough for every member of the family," she says, "but it's fast-paced enough to keep you on your toes." We also love Techno-Source's electronic 20Q ($13 at target.com), a handheld version of the classic game of 20 questions.
Other powerful time-passers include a simple sketch pad and pencil, a travel journal for recording on-the-road experiences and a stack of books. Toss in a cultural or geography lesson by selecting books that spotlight your destination.
Most of us insist on limiting screen time. But we recommend extra flexibility during road trips. Let's be honest – the peace and quiet that comes when iPads, iPods and iPhones are turned on is priceless! To keep things in check, follow these tips:
If you're concerned about too much game time, alternate games with educational or creative apps like Stack the States (99 cents on iTunes), Feed Me! Pencilbot Preschool (free on iTunes), or draw 4 free (free on iTunes). Set a timer to alert you at each interval.
Preschoolers do well with personal DVD players and a collection of movies. Properly fitting earphones are a must, though, if you don't want to repeatedly turn around for readjustments.
Smartphones can be lifesavers not only for apps but also on-the-spot short videos (like Pink Panther cartoons) on YouTube.
Laptops are perfect for playing DVDs and scoping out things to do and places to see when you arrive at your destination. (Gotta love Google!) But make sure you have a case to protect it from bumps and scratches. We like the neoprene laptop sleeves from Built NY ($10 to $30 at builtny.com).
We all know that with kids, snacks are king. But did you know that granting (perceived) control of said snacks satiates them even more? They'll feel good about having an individual bag filled with edibles, and you won't have to keep reaching over your seat to pass back supplies. Bonus: It prevents sibling arguments over whose turn it is to hold the bag of Goldfish.
Good snack options include a basic meal (like a sandwich and baby carrots or cheese and crackers plus a bunch of grapes), extra nibbles (string cheese, apple slices, pretzels), a drink (a catch-22, as it will likely lead to more bathroom breaks), a stack of napkins and a travel pack of baby wipes for easy cleanup.
Minimize tension and increase harmony with these mantras.
Assign a co-pilot. Kids love to navigate, so enlist them to help map out your journey and look for landmarks along the way. Use tools like Google Maps or good old-fashioned paper maps to hone navigation skills and instill a sense of purpose.
The best road trips begin at home. Before you leave, share the itinerary with your kids. Explain where you're going, how long it will take to get there and what you expect from them. If they know what they're in for, it's easy to remind them if and when they start to squirm.
Stretch it out. The journey can be half the fun. Instead of making a beeline from home to your final destination, find a way to meander. Most serendipitous travel moments stem from wandering off the beaten path.
Flexibility is your friend. Sticking to a rigid schedule is unrealistic and unnecessary. Your perfect schedule will be waiting for you when you return. You're on vacation, so enjoy the freedom of tossing your routine out the window.
From all of us at (201) Family, happy travels!
Must-haves you shouldn't leave home without:
• First-aid kit loaded with bandages, sterile wipes and an antibiotic ointment like Neosporin or Bacitracin.
• On-the-spot medications like Children's Advil (for headaches) or Zyrtec (for allergies) and a thermometer (for taking a temperature).
• A bag of medication for any child who has a prescription. This might include an asthma inhaler even if your child hasn't used one in a while. Be sure to bring the prescription drug information in case you need an unexpected refill.
• Eyeglasses, contacts and cleaners for any child (and adult) who wears them.
• Sunscreen of all kinds and SPF factors. Also useful is a bottle of aloe for minor sunburns.
• A roll of paper towels, a few towels and a change of clothes for each child in case of spills or accidents.
• Travel packs of tissues and wipes (one pack of each per child).
• Pillows and small blankets or throws for napping while driving.
• Favorite stuffed animals plus a few favorite toys from home like a Ziploc bag filled with Matchbox cars, Playmobil figures or Legos to keep them busy in the car, restaurants, and your vacation rental or hotel.
• A sweatshirt or sweater for each child in case the air conditioning feels too cold.
To be super prepared, pack these extras:
• Rain gear like raincoats, Windbreakers, inexpensive packaged ponchos and pocket umbrellas.
• Flip-flops for icky showers.
• Sneakers or trail shoes for off-road experiences like family hikes.
• Bikes, bike helmets and any other necessary gear for family bike rides.
• Plastic bags to toss dirty clothes in. (Each person should have his or her own.)
• Bottles of Purell for the car, the hotel and not-so-clean bathrooms.
• A small bottle of laundry detergent and a stain remover for quick cleanings.
• Sippy cups, bottles, bibs, wipes, diapers, and other daily baby and toddlersupplies.
• A bunch of Ziploc bags for things like restaurant leftovers, collections of beach shells and other on-the-fly uses.
• Beach towels, sunglasses, swimsuits, cover-ups, swim diapers and beach toys (if you're headed for the beach).