Are we there yet? How to organize your family's travel time

Oct 11, 2009 at 12:13 a.m. ET

"Are we there yet?" "How far is it?" "I'm hungry!" "He's looking at me again!" If you are in a car for more than 15 minutes with a child, chances are you've heard any or all of these questions during holiday travel. Here are some Thanksgiving travel tips to keep your kids happy -- and you sane!

Disorganized Roadtrip

Less stress

Ah, the family road trip. Many parents plan to hop in the car to drive to an exciting destination -- perhaps to your favorite theme park, to camp in the mountains, or to visit loved ones seldom seen. But does the thought of spending hour after hour in a small space listening to a constant whining sound gives you the shudders? By using some of these travel tips, you'll be able to plan a less stressful outing for your own family -- and may even find the courage to do it again next year, too.

When are we going to be there?

Whether your kids are two or 12, they often seem clueless when it comes to space and time. Telling them repeatedly "Soon, dear" does not give them any more indication of an ETA (estimated time of arrival) than saying that Christmas is in December to a three-year-old. They just don't get it. 

Satisfy their curiosity by providing them with the rights tools for the job: a map, a compass and an inexpensive digital watch. Even the smallest of preschoolers will be happy to find north on a compass, not to mention telling the driver he's going the wrong way!

Give your little navigator an atlas or state map, or make a good photocopy of your original one. Highlight your route, placing stickers or stars at scheduled rest stops. Not only does this point the way, but it also takes care of the next two challenges: perpetual hunger while in motion and boredom. It helps your little travelers to know when and where they will be stopping to stretch and get the wiggles out. 

I'm hungry!

It's inevitable; no sooner than your minivan leaves the driveway, a small voice from the backseat cries, "I'm hungry!" At the risk of giving professional car detailers everywhere a jump in business, I highly recommend putting the kids in charge of their snacks. I'm not endorsing a junk-food frenzy, but you can make food and drink accessible to them so that they have a sense of independence and responsibility. 

Put a small cooler with drinks in a central location where everyone can reach. In our SUV, I have a small cooler between the seats, Velcroed to the carpet to minimize slippage. But you can place this on the floorboard or between the seats. It can even double as a seat divider to diminish those cries of "Mom, he's TOUCHING me!" Fill paper lunch sacks with pre-measured snacks of fruit, crackers, cookies, trail mix, etc. Use your imagination, or let the kids help you make these in advance. They just love being in charge of their meals, and this is a good way to let them help while you pack the car for your trip.

But I'm B-O-R-E-D!"

There's nothing to do." "I'm tired." "I don't want to play any more license plate bingo!" Yes, sooner rather than later, you're going to hear that the troops are bored. 

It's important to realize that time seems to pass much more slowly for kids, meaning that an hour for you feels more like two or three to them. To compensate, stop off so your kids can burn off some steam. Lisa Chamberlain, MD, MPH, mother of two and a Clinical Instructor at Packard Children's Hospital in Palo Alto, California, says, "A good idea for long car trips is to take breaks at rest stops. Let the kids get out and play for a while."

Are the kids tired of the old standby car games? Plan a few new ones this year with a quick visit to your local toy store, or invent your own. Magnetic board games, handheld video games, a CD or MP3 player with audio books or your child's favorite music are a great start to car harmony.

Our children are fortunate to live in an age of convenient entertainment. Even if your car isn't equipped with a video system, you can get an adaptor to plug a laptop into your cigarette lighter so the kids can watch DVDs as you drive. (An iPod video or portable DVD player can be used to the same end.) Almost nothing -- apart from a nap -- can make the time so painlessly fly by. 

Just say play

To reduce stress for everyone, Dr Chamberlain strongly recommends preparation. "Successful planning and packing needs to take into account the age and developmental stage of the child. Younger children need more distraction since their attention span is short. Parents need to bring a series of small things like books, magnetic games, crayons and stickers so that they have one new activity to offer at needed intervals. Older children will obviously require fewer distinct activities." 

"Board games are great for children," says UC Davis Medical Group pediatrician Marcy Ahrons. "For babies, a busy box or toy suspended from a short string is perfect. Any car trip will be more interesting for baby if you place a picture above a rear-facing car seat," she says.

If you're not sure which toys to bring, for preschoolers select story and music CDs, finger puppets, sticky sticks or pipe cleaners for play. Older children enjoy card games, like Fish and Old Maid. Ahrons points out that lap boards, with paper and plenty of markers, are indispensable for drawing. 

"Other good choices are magnetic puzzles and numbered stickers that paste into puzzles," says Ahrons. "Electronic hand-held toys can entertain children for hours, but remember to turn down the volume to preserve your own sanity," she says.

One thing to skip, though, may be books. Dr Ahrons says, "Reading tends to increase motion sickness, so if your child is vulnerable to motion sickness, don't encourage reading while traveling." If your child becomes sick, stop the car for awhile and let him or her lie down. "Place a cold washcloth on the child's head, and keep the car well-ventilated," she says. "Dramamine is a helpful medication for children over age 2, and Benadryl can help younger children." 

Everyone loves a treat

"Children love to unwrap presents. Bring presents to unwrap for a special diversion," says Dr Ahrons. I recommend assembling activity treat bags in paper lunch bags filled with a snack, an activity and a toy. For toddlers and preschoolers, this can be a small box of raisins, a travel-size MagnaDoodle and a Beanie Baby. Older kids might enjoy Fruit Rollups, word search puzzles and a comic book. These don't have to be new items, either; just raid the toy box for items that haven't been used in a while. You'll be recycling their toys as well as their interest (for a few miles, anyway). 

Take the activity bag one step further by securing the top with ribbon and placing colored stickers on the outside of each bag: one sticker for the first bag, two stickers for the second, three stickers for the third, etc. If you hide these and don't let the kids know what's up until you get in the car, it will be like a treasure hunt on wheels. At a predetermined spot on your map (and theirs), they can open Bag One, but they have to wait until the next spot to open Bag Two and so forth. Put a star on the map indicating when (and where) they can open their bags. This passes the time, keeps their interest varied, and teaches basic geography skills all at the same time.

Another simple twist on the activity bag is to wait to open them until you are stopped at a rest stop. The bags contain snacks, physical activities, and provide a little structure for the wiggle worms in your car. One summer during a long driving vacation, I stashed bubbles, a small Frisbee and a Hot Wheels car in my son's bags. He was excited about the goodies, he was able to stay busy with Dad while I unpacked our picnic lunch. It also gave him something safe to do while we were stopped.

Plan ahead and take it easy

Driving trips don't have to be dreaded all year long. With a bit of organization, planning and teamwork, you can supply your travelers with some simple and effective ways to pass their time. Before you know it, they will no longer be asking, "Are we there yet?" but rather "Dad, can I drive?"

For now, enjoy the scenery, have a safe trip... and don't forget to send me a postcard.