Spring is in the air, and summer is right around the corner. As you plan your family vacation, why not consider a cross-country road trip where the journey becomes part of the destination? As my sister found on her family road trip last summer, moments in the car can become the fun part of the journey (really!). With a little preparation, the long hours cramped in the car will become bonding time for the family in between wonderful excursions exploring our country’s amazing landscapes.
My sister, Laura Smail, and her husband started what will become their family tradition. They began their road trip in their home town of Park Ridge, Illinois, just northwest of Chicago. They crossed the Mississippi River and took I-80, the second largest interstate in the US, where they finally saw some of America’s finest treasures sprinkled along the Continental Divide: the National Parks, the Rocky Mountains, Mt. Rushmore, and the rugged land that holds rivers, wildflowers and bears. The part I cherished most was that they were using me—as I was then living in Idaho—as their final destination. (For more ideas on where your family can go, see: “The Family Cross-Country Vacation: Options for the Open Road.”)
They were thrilled to learn that they would receive a discount on their Cruise America RV once they agreed to rent one with the Cruise America logo. A few of their nights were spent at Kampgrounds of America (KOA), an easy place to work on the transition from RV to backcountry camping. KOA and Cruise America are also partners, so they received another discount for renting through Cruise America and staying at some KOAs.
With three children aged ten, eight and five, they had to ensure each had plenty to do on the ride. Rules were put in place—that each kid had to choose a seat and stick to it while they were driving—but books (or Mad Libs), crafts (like necklace making or art projects), and roadside stops for day hikes (they raced up a trail at Devil’s Tower National Monument) were scheduled to vanquish their car cabin fever. At one point during the drive up to Devil’s Tower, my sister stuck her head out of the RV window, took a deep breath and announced, “Oh, my gosh, what is that incredible smell?!” To which her husband replied, “That’s fresh air.”
As they drove through Jackson, Wyoming, locals screamed out, “Are you cruising America?” My sister and her three kids smiled while giving the thumbs up out the window. Days later, when we had all met up in Idaho, we decided to cross back over the Tetons and visit the Jackson Hole State Fair. Although we arrived late for the Demolition Derby, we thought there would surely be some seats left. We found our first adventure as an extended family when we had to sit under the bleachers, on the gravel, eat our pizza, and drink our draft beer. It wasn’t quite what we had planned, but we went with it and learned that spinning wheels with open eyes and mouths do not mix. Each time one of the cars from the Demolition Derby drove by, we yelled out, “CAR!” to warn our family crew. My five-year-old niece was the best at calling it out for all of us. Go figure.
Tailoring Activities for Tweens and Teens
For those who have kids a bit older, who may think staying home to be with friends is more exciting to them than riding around with the family, don’t fret. Just tailor activities to include your teenager. Buy some disposable cameras for the younger ones and a nicer digital camera for your teenager and make the road trip a photography scavenger hunt. At the end of your trip, have a prize for photo categories; invite friends over to your house for “Our Summer Road Trip” slideshow and pizza party. Another option is to have a family photography show at your local community center. If you’re driving your own car on open stretches of highway and your teenager has their driving permit (check with individual state laws beforehand), you may find this is the perfect time to teach your teenager the ins and outs of highway driving.
What about Toddlers & Preschoolers?
Any mom of a toddler or preschooler can tell you that keeping them occupied is a full-time job! Here are some tips from other moms about how to do so when in the car for hours on end:
- Play games that use the landscape such as, I Spy. Try to find the license plates from all fifty states, or find all the letters in the alphabet or find certain vocabulary through the roadside billboards. Clearly, toddlers around thirteen to fifteen months may just be excited when seeing all the trucks on the road. Looking out the window also shares the excitement of the open road and keeps the little one from getting carsick.
- Make frequent stops at rest areas or parks so your children can run around, or as my mom used to say, “To get rid of the jingles.”
- Have music tapes or CDs that your little ones love to sing along with for the ride. (While your tween or teen uses earplugs with their iPod!)
- Book CDs for little ones and bigger ones recorded on iPods are also a hit with some moms
- My sister and her husband installed a portable satellite radio in the RV so they could listen to their favorite kid’s station during their trip (they also listened to some good 80s music). She said it definitely got them through some of the more challenging moments during the trip.
- Have a cooler loaded with spill-proof drinks and healthy snacks
- Try driving during nap time
- Quiet toys are handy, like puzzles and coloring books. My sister’s kids sat at the table in the RV and played games, cards, read books, and had two Gameboys.
- For stretches of road that are long and tedious without much scenery, DVD players work for some families
Whatever tactics your family ends up using, just remember to try to engage your children with the open road. Point out the natural wonders that are different from the landscape they know from home. Stop the car periodically and scurry up rocks or wander on paths in national parks. This is the beginning for them to learn to love the beauty of our country.