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Surviving Long Car Trips With Kids

Being prepared can help reduce back-seat whining and fighting on long family car trips.

By GreatSchools Staff

The longer the trip, the more you may dread piling the family into the car and heading off on a family vacation together. Being prepared can help reduce back-seat whining and fighting.

Car travel does have its advantages for family trips. You're literally in the driver's seat so you can control when and where you stop, as well as your departure time. (Arrival times are another story!) You don't have to worry about bothering other travelers with the noise of your little ones, and you can pack as much as you need in the car. Here are 10 tips to make the trip pleasant and safe for all:

Leave plenty of time to get to your destination.

Include extra time for stops along the way--for food, refueling and restroom breaks, and to allow time for running around and releasing pent-up energy. In your "ETA," factor in unforeseen traffic delays. Vicki Lansky, author of Trouble-Free Travel With Your Children, advises adding one-third more to your normal driving time when planning a trip with children in tow. If at all possible, avoid driving near major cities and well-traveled routes during morning and evening rush hour. Include older children in the planning. Before you set out, get out maps and guidebooks to plan the driving time with your children. Discuss with them how long you should drive before stopping, what you will see and do along the way, and how long the whole trip will be. This might cut down on the number of times you hear the question, "Are we there yet?"

Bring toys, CD players and a few surprises.

Come armed with plenty of activities for your children to do. Favorite toys (avoid those with small pieces), a CD player for each child with CDs (Don't forget to bring extra batteries!) and one or two new items will keep them occupied. Stories that the whole family will enjoy listening to and talking about are a good idea, too. Audible.com has a list of its favorites for family listening.

Play car travel games together.

A simple one, called "A to Z," goes like this: Find words beginning with "A"on signs around you. Have your children take turns, after "A,"go to "B" and so on. Can you get to "Z" and finish the alphabet? For more travel games, see Are We There Yet? Travel Games for the Road.

Back-seat bickering is inevitable.

Playing games, listening to stories and music will help lessen the amount, but it's just normal for kids to fight, so prepare yourself. Praise and reward good behavior (the power of positive reinforcement), but when things get out of hand, threaten to pull over and stop (and follow through on your threat, if necessary) until the fighting stops. Another option is to rotate seats in the car using a consistent time schedule (every hour or two hours).

In Trouble-Free Travel With Your Children, Carole T. Meyers, a California mom suggests this technique: "I use a technique called 'Mad Bag/Glad Bag' to help our children monitor their behavior when traveling. Each is given a 'Glad Bag,' (a fabric pouch) with spending money in it. The parent owns the 'Mad Bag.' When a child misbehaves, you determine how much he or she must deduct from their Glad Bag. Used in moderation, this system can work well. P.S. Give the kids the opportunity to earn their money back for good behavior!"

Above all, keep your cool and your sense of humor. Fighting in the back seat tends to bother the adults more than the kids.

Keep plenty of non-messy snacks and drinks in the car.

Stop frequently for meals and to stretch. But to avoid desperate hunger pains, keep snacks in easy reach in the car. Good choices include pretzels, animal crackers, rice crackers, water and fruit. Individual pre-packed Ziploc bags are a good idea to avoid fighting over quantities, too.

Make use of state highway rest areas.

Most state highways have designated rest areas. These areas are easily accessible from the highway and most have restrooms, picnic areas and room to safely run around. Some have visitor information and vending machines. You can find out their locations by checking your state Department of Transportation Web site. These Web sites will also tell you what facilities are available-useful information to print out and save when planning your travels. Check out this sample from the California Department of Transportation. Take along a Frisbee, soccer ball, or baseball and mitts. These are good items to take out at rest areas for letting off steam.

Do your driving at night or very early in the morning.

If there is no way to avoid sibling squabbling, a good alternative is to drive at night when kids are sleeping. Or start out very early with the kids still in their PJs, and if you're lucky, they'll fall back asleep and wake up in time for a breakfast stop. Just be sure the driver is awake and alert!

Use car seats and booster seats for young children.

Never hold a child in your lap when driving. For safety's sake, obey the laws. Each state's laws are slightly different, so it's a good idea to find out what the state law is for the states where you'll be traveling. As a general rule, the safest place for a child under 12 is in the back seat. Once children are too big for car seats, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recommends they remain in booster seats until they reach 4 feet, 9 inches tall or weigh 80 pounds. Since the weight limits of booster seats vary by model, parents should check the guidelines on the seat they buy. Many states have booster seat laws as well as car seat laws.

Adults need to set a good example and buckle up, too! Make it a rule that you don't start the engine until everyone is buckled up. Older children may like being given the responsibility of making sure everyone has their sear belt buckled.

Make sure the car is safe, too. Before heading off, have the car serviced, check the tires, change the oil and have it tuned up, if necessary.


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