No, you’re not almost there yet — in fact, you haven’t left your ZIP code. When a trip to the grocery store leaves your kids whining from boredom, the prospect of a family road trip is enough to inspire nightmares, and unless you have a bus fitted with private bunks and a fridge stocked with snacks, you might imagine your kids will spend the whole trip cranky and bickering. Don’t assume the worst, though. With plenty of advance prep and an arsenal of distractions ready to keep little ones happy, this is going to be your best trip yet.
Outfit the car with gear that should keep the kids physically comfortable. Attach sun shades to un-tinted side windows to keep the back of the vehicle cool. Place a blanket at each child’s spot in the car in case he feels the air conditioning is too cold; you might also pick up battery-operated personal fans for kids to use when they feel warm. Stow a small pillow for each child to ensure comfortable napping; neck pillows are ideal for kids stuck in middle seats.
Dress every child in his most comfortable clothes. Let kids wear pajama bottoms, oversized T-shirts and bedroom slippers if they want. Ask each child to keep one sweatshirt or light jacket with him in the car. He can use it to cover up a sloppy outfit before going into a rest stop or pull it on if he wants more comfort.
Load a bag with snacks. Keep it within your reach, or stow it in the trunk and pull out a few new items at every stop. Pick low-sugar foods, since you don’t want confined kids on a sugar rush; nutrition expert Joy Bauer suggests string cheese, whole nuts, rice cakes and sliced oranges and apples as tasty low-sugar snacks. Dole out a snack every few hours to keep kids feeling satisfied. Keep a jug of filtered water in a cooler to refill everyone’s water bottles periodically.
Give each child a paper bag to fill with books, video games, stuffed animals or handheld devices — including earphones and extra batteries — to keep at his seat. Ask that he pack the rest of his toys in his suitcase to prevent the car from feeling like it’s stuffed with junk. Pick up a few surprises, like new coloring books and handheld travel games, to pull out once you’re on the road.
Schedule stops every two to three hours. Insist each child get out of the car during each stop, unless he’s asleep. Lead everyone in a five-minute walk around the rest stop, or pull the car over to an empty corner of the parking lot and lead kids in a quick round of yoga stretches and jumping jacks. Everyone will feel much less antsy once back in the car.