"Are we there yet?" "Mom, he's touching me!" "Well, she's looking at me!" "Are we there YET?" "I've gotta go!" "Aren't we THERE YET?"
It's phrases like these that drive fear into a parent's heart, and make you wonder why you ever thought taking a family vacation was going to be "fun!" So what is a parent to do? Traveling with kids doesn't have to be a bad experience. Instead of deciding to leave the kids home for the next "family" vacation, relax! You can make traveling with the kids an enjoyable and stress-free experience by following these simple tips:
1. When possible, travel at night and let the kids sleep. But be cautious, because it's easy to get tired. If you find yourself getting sleepy, roll down the windows, play music, or better yet, find a safe place to pull over and take a 20-minute nap.
2. Plan your trip during the day with stops about every 90 minutes. By planning ahead, and using travel planning software, online trip planning sites or travel associations, you can find -- and stop at -- kid-friendly places such as parks with playgrounds, historic monuments or view areas where everyone can get out and walk around for a few minutes. Giving the kids even a 15-minute break will give them a chance to "get the wiggles out" and work off some energy.
3. Bring along some sing-along music. Although your kids may groan at first when you start singing, they'll soon join in, especially if the songs are either well-known, absurd or "gross." Think of your own childhood favorites, or camp songs. Singing can really help to pass the time, and creates happy memories later on. To help cut costs, you can even record your own CDs? If the kids don't know the words, create sing-along books for everyone by typing them in your Word processing program and printing them out.
4. Create a goodie-bag. Good ideas are travel toys and games, bubbles, inexpensive art books and pencils, even the latest in collectible cards or action figures. (To save money, look for seasonal sales or buy something every payday.) To cut down on arguments about sharing, you can set a time limit for playing with each game, before everyone has to switch. Individual presents can be wrapped or not, and given out at whatever schedule fits your needs and your kids' boredom levels. You can even choose particular games for particular stops, such as bubbles, Frisbees or small balls, which will encourage running off energy.
5. Bring along individual "quiet time" activities. These could include an art box (keep the supplies inside an inexpensive plastic shoe box), postcards or writing paper, or even a journal given to each child at the beginning of the trip. Encourage them to write letters, or record their thoughts and feelings. You can also bring along hand-held games, or inexpensive CD players and earphones so that everyone can listen to the music or books of their choice. Depending on the space you've got and the length of time you'll be gone, each child could have their own box or backpack, to keep their things organized and accessible.
6. If your trip is going to include a lot of sightseeing, pack a backpack with sweaters, hats, swimsuits (if in season), extra socks and even towels, in case anyone gets wet -- accidentally or on purpose. Keep the backpack in your trunk, so you can just grab it and go. Most kids, if given the chance when near water, will really enjoy getting wet, and it saves on the wear and tear of your vehicle if you plan ahead. Also be sure to pack extra water and travel snacks such as energy bars, nuts or travel mix. You can add to your child's enjoyment if you also include things such as a magnifying glass, binoculars, a disposable camera and their own travel map.
7. Include a "kid's activity" at least once every day. This may be something as simple as going for ice cream after visiting a museum, or going to a water or amusement park. There are often lots of great free or inexpensive activities in most places in the States. To find them, you can check ahead of time with local Chambers of Commerce, on city Websites, or with your travel agent. To help keep the expenses down, don't forget to check for "two for one" coupons, or discount tickets that are often available at local fast food restaurants or in local papers. Also, many family-style restaurants offer a "kids eat free" night, which could be a special treat.
8. Don't forget about the travel games you probably played as a child. There is "Letter Bingo" where you look at road signs and billboard ads to find the letters of the alphabet, or "License Plate Alphabet" where you go through the alphabet in order. You can also create easy bingo sheets that you print out with clip art of common sites you'll see on your trip. Your kids will be more inclined to play along if they know that your parents used to play the exact games with you. (Grandparents are SO much cooler than parents are...)
9. Let your kids help to navigate, narrate and create information about your trip. There are so many great resources online these days that can help you make your trip even better. Letting your kids get involved helps to make it more enjoyable for them. For example, let one child be the "trip navigator" each day. They have the responsibility of looking at the map, and making sure that the right exits are taken, or how much farther to each destination point. (If you really want to get creative, the navigator could wear a special hat or badge; the narrator could have a "press badge" or carry a reporter's notebook, etc.) Older children can create written entries in a journal or even in a Blog, talking about the daily activities and sights. Another option is to bring along an inexpensive tape recorder, and let each child record their impressions of the different places you see or things you do. Younger children can draw pictures, or use a disposable camera.
10. Start collecting postcards. Postcards are inexpensive, and your kids will enjoy getting to send them to their friends or other family members. Postcards are also a great addition to your family photo album after the trip. You can cut them up, or even write about specific experiences on the backs of them, to help everyone remember what you did and where you went.
11. Create a scrapbook at the end of each trip, using the postcards and pictures the kids took. Letting them help to decorate and put the journal together is a fun after-the-trip activity.
12. Above all, give yourself a break. There is no such thing as a "perfect" family vacation. Inevitably there will be things forgotten, things broken or other "unexpected" problems.
By planning ahead, and making every effort to get your kids involved in the trip, and giving the things to do to keep them occupied and interested, there will be less stress and everyone will have a better time. Have a great trip!