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Tips & Advice

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles: Family Travel Essentials

by Denise Schipani

Photo credit: MNStudio/ Shutterstock

When I was ten, we took our first Big Family Road Trip, an epic three-day journey from our home on Long Island to our grandparents’ winter condo in Florida. Orange groves! Palm trees! Grandma! Disney World! We would leave at the romantic (to my overheated, book-addled mind) hour of 4:00 AM, to avoid metro New York traffic and be well into southern New Jersey by breakfast. We had all the accoutrements of a road trip at hand: a 1974 Caprice Classic station wagon, with fake-wood-panel sides and lime-green shag carpet remnant in the “Way Back.” There was a cooler packed with that day’s breakfast and lunch (so we wouldn’t have to spend money on meals until dinnertime). I had books, a notebook, possibly a Mad Libs, and that was about it.

Road trips are more complicated now. What I could breeze through with buttered bagels and a bag of books, my own sons — now ten and twelve — could not envision without their eReader, my iPhone, books, multiple snacks, and a portable DVD player.

Planning something epic for summer travel? Whether you’ll be spending hours on a plane or hours (or days) in your car, you’ll need some strategies, starting with a good sense of humor and spirit of adventure. Here’s our thoroughly modern list of Road Trip Survival Essentials. And while books are an obvious first, they’re not you or your kids’ only needs:

  • Timing: My father’s 4:00 AM leave-time was smart pre-planning; it meant he didn’t have two whiny kids in metro traffic, but two mostly-asleep kids who woke up at a South Jersey rest stop happy to eat bagels and peel hard boiled eggs. Take your kids’ ages, your destination/length of trip, and traffic conditions into account when deciding the ideal set-off time.
  • Books: This one is obvious, but it’s worth planning. Is there a series your kids have been dying to dig into? Or one your whole family might like — if only you had the time? Long trips lend themselves to, say, the whole Harry Potter series in audiobook form. Or, the treat for your kids of the next ten Magic Tree House books. Slip in surprises, so that if your kid is bored with the choices she made, you can present a new book or audiobook.
  • Maps: Yes, you’re using GPS; who wouldn’t? But there’s something retro-fun about breaking out a big atlas and showing the kids where you’re going and marking the route you’ll likely take. You might consider making photocopies of pages and putting them on a clipboard so the kids can follow along and draw on the maps.
  • Checklists: We often drive from New York to Washington, D.C., and we never leave home without a pre-printed list of the 50 states and a few Canadian provinces, so we can check off license plates as we see them. And yes, even in that relatively short route, we have gotten as many as 35 states and two or three provinces checked off. Still looking for Alaska…
  • Picnic supplies: You may be planning to snack or consume packed lunches in the car, or stop at roadside diners or highway rest stops. But be prepared for possible picnics, too; just toss a blanket in the back of the car. If you have room, pack camp chairs and/or sports equipment.
  • Recording device: On another long road trip my family took in the late 1970s, my dad got us the coolest item ever: a tape player that we could plug into the cigarette lighter. Not only could we listen to tapes (mostly kiddie stuff, thanks to the addition of my toddler brother), we could record. Your kids, depending on their ages and your stomach for handing over your smartphone, can record a travelogue to listen back to later — much better than our approximately 400 listens of Sesame Street’s Greatest Hits.
  • Bag of tricks: My friend Claudia took her three daughters back to her native Argentina many times over the course of their childhoods — a 14-hour plane ride. She survived with this tried and true trick: three backpacks stocked with dollar-store ephemera they could pull out and delight themselves with periodically.
  • Pace yourself: There should be a mathematical equation you can use to divide the time you’ll be traveling by the weather by how many kids you have and their ages and temperaments — but in the absence of something Newtonian, do your own assessment. Break up the trip’s length by whatever works: the baby’s feedings, meal times, sleep needs. Plot stops along the road or, if you’re flying a very long way, consider breaking it up with an overnight layover.
  • Survival kit: You probably thought of things like a first-aid kit and water bottles. But also consider stashing a bag with sweatshirts and/or blankets, chargers for everything and/or batteries, snacks that don’t require either refrigeration or wet-naps to consume (like trail mix). But bring wet-naps, too. Why not!

Whatever you do this summer, happy travels!