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The Single Parent’s Guide to Road Trips with Kids

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Any place east of the Mississippi means a road trip for us. I love the freedom of traveling by car; the ability to leave when I want, pack whatever I want, and change plans at the last minute if need be. Since much of my family lives 500 miles away from us, from a young age, my kids have been traveling long distances and have grown to love our road trips as much as I do. As my kids have grown older, I don’t have to put quite as much effort into keeping them amused. (They now actually try to talk me out of my prescribed stops, just wanting to get to our destination.) However, some preparation is always helpful, particularly on the longer road trips.

Plan out your stops

I’m an engineer and scientist by training and by nature, for the most part, and I like to break the trip up into manageable goals. This means not only planning out our stops for multi-day trips, but planning out our breaks. For example, on our 500 mile trip to Ohio, I plan the trip in four segments of 125 miles. I find that dealing with 125 miles at a time is easier than thinking about 500 miles at a time. When we reach 125 miles, I look for a place to stop, even if we don’t seem to need it yet. It’s better to take a break before you’re desperate than to wait until the kids are throttling each other in the back seat. I am a big fan of rest areas and fast food restaurants with play areas. Even a short 20 minutes to run around can ease the confinement of the car.

Maps

I start each trip by handing my children a map that shows the route we’ll take. I particularly like those maps available at AAA that let you plot out your course and provide information about places along the way. The maps usually end up crumpled on the floor by the end of the trip, but they get a lot of attention at the beginning, and are a good way to throw in a little geography lesson.

A prize an hour

I have tried different approaches to the activity bag over the years. I’ve packed their backpacks full of little books and games and snacks and provided it to them at the start of the trip, which usually means they tear through it all within the first 30 minutes. I’ve had much more success with pulling together their backpacks of activities, but doling out something new every hour or so. Younger children may need something small more often. A drawing pad and pencils are always good for some quiet time, as are puzzle books and teen magazines when they’re older. A trip through the dollar store can yield some great little toys, while some of the bookstores have more expensive, but very nice, travel toys.

Rewards

Let’s face it, road trips aren’t easy on children, particularly those still in car seats. In fact, I firmly believe being on a road trip calls for rewards. I plan for a small reward at each stop. This shouldn’t be anything expensive or hard to come by, but something to which you might ordinarily say no. An extra $2 toy at the restaurant? Absolutely! Getting to pick out one thing, anything at all, at the convenience store? Yes! These small rewards go a long way towards creating excitement and contentment for part of the trip.

Entertainment on the road

I tried a portable DVD player when the kids were younger with some success, but ultimately, I wasn’t crazy about it. I didn’t have a built in player, and there seemed to be continual problems with sound and positioning. I also felt very isolated from my kids, since of course, I couldn’t watch the movie with them.

By the time my kids were in elementary school, we had switched to books on tape. These are readily available at your local library, although if you choose to purchase them, you can generally sell them later and get a good price. There are some wonderful children’s stories out there now. We have traveled around the country listening to stories of dragons, mermaids, and other fantastical creatures. The stories make the miles fly by and we get to experience the stories together. We’ve often stopped the story to talk about what’s happening, or we sit in the car even once we’ve arrived to hear the end of the chapter. Some of our favorites have been Dragon Rider by Cornelia Funke, Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins, and of course, the Harry Potter series. (Read about our trip to see Harry Potter in London.) We now like to plan out road trips so we can listen to a book we’ve been waiting to hear.

Our time together on road trips has been some of the best memories we have as a family. Don’t be afraid to pile the kids in the car and hit the road!

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Andrea is a single mom in Arlington, Virginia with a 15-year-old son and a 13-year-old daughter. Her children took their first trips when they were just four…

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