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Road Trip Strategies: 10 screen-free ideas for happier road trips with kids

Headed out of town this summer? We have 10 ideas for happier road trips with the kids.

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Interstate 40, I-40 traffic
Sarah Lindenfeld Hall

I am a seasoned road trip taker.

As a child, my family frequently made the trip from our home in upstate New York to Indiana and Michigan to see relatives. Since then, I've spent many hours in the car driving up and down the East Coast and into the midwest. (I'll get that cross country road trip sooner rather than later, hopefully).

During the last decade, one or two of my kids have been along for the ride. We're an old school family. Even though my kids are stuck in the back seat for hours at a time - past summers have seen us traveling to both southern Georgia and Indiana or New York state - we use no electronic devices.

There are no screens in the car other than my iPhone, which I reserve for directions and texting our expected arrival times and locations. The kids don't watch movies. They don't play any video games. Sometimes they just look at the window and stare.

I'm not making any judgment here on families who rely on those devices to keep kids entertained and to prevent the inevitable sibling squabbles. Believe me, there are moments when I wish I had them.

But we've managed without them. And now that my kids are 10 and 5, we've developed some activities and traditions that actually make me look forward to hours on the road. In the car, there are no dishes to wash, laundry to fold or room to tidy up. Instead, I just get to hang with my girls. Really, there's nothing better than that.

So here are 10 ways to survive road trips without relying (exclusively) on screens:

1. Eat in the car. This is especially key if you're traveling with toddlers to young grade schoolers with a lot of energy. A decade ago, when I was a novice at taking kids on road trips, I expected that my toddler would enjoy sitting down in a fast food restaurant after sitting down in a car for three hours. I was wrong. She wanted to walk around, play, chat and get some extra cuddles. She didn't want to eat. I quickly learned that restaurant time was wasted time ... and money. Now, we pack meals and snacks or get them to go. When we stop, it's to visit the restroom, fill up on gas and stretch our legs. We often do jumping jacks in parking lots and running races at rest stops. We eat in the car, which is a great way to pass 30 minutes or so.
2. Have the kids help plan the trip. I try and break up long road trips with interesting stops along the way. Last year, during our drive from upstate New York to North Carolina, we stopped at Hershey's Chocolate World in Pennsylvania. Between Indiana and North Carolina, we stopped at the Columbus Zoo in Ohio. Older kids, especially, will enjoy looking up interesting stops along your driving route. They can play a role in picking out hotels, mapping the location of rest stops and finding a favorite sandwich shop at an exit that you'll be driving by around lunch or dinner time (to eat in the car, of course).
3. Get a hotel with a pool and breakfast. If your road trip is long enough that you'll need to stop along the way and it's in your budget, be sure to stop at a hotel with both a pool and breakfast. Seriously, my kids think this set up is practically Shangri-La. Here, you can burn off that energy in the pool after a long day in the car and load up on a breakfast before you go (and maybe take a small snack for the road). I've also driven a little longer in the evening and let the kids swim in the morning, a great way to burn that energy before you get on the road. No pool? Take a long walk in the morning before you head out or find a local playground to get them active.
4. Bring a map. Like an actual real paper map. AAA members can get them free at local offices. (And if you're on a road trip, a AAA membership can be indispensable.). State tourism departments also often will send you free maps and all kinds of pamphlets about various attractions in their states. In North Carolina, the tourism department will send you an entire travel package for free. Older kids can follow along with your progress on their own map, even highlighting the route as you move along. For younger kids, before the trip, take out your highlighter and map and highlight the route that you'll take. If you're going through several states, use a different color for each state. Highlight any hotels or destinations that you'll stop at along the way. Talk about the map during the drive. As you cross a state border, tell your child to look for the "green route," for instance.
5. Play highway games. Sure, there's the ABC game where you find the letters in order on road signs or license plates. We also like to play I Spy and 20 Questions, where one person thinks of a person, place or thing and the rest of the car can ask 20 questions to figure it out. But the internet is full of many, many more ideas. I love these suggestions on PBS Parents. KidsHealth has some road trip boredom busters. TravelHacker has more.
6. Listen to audio books on CD. One of my kids gets car sick, so reading books is out of the question for her. We have found that listening to books on CD is a great way to pass the time. We started with picture books. "The Runaway Pancake," by writer and actor John Lithgow, is a big hit. Now that my younger daughter is five, we've progressed to chapter books. The Junie B. Jones series by Barbara Park has us all laughing out loud, even if we've read or listened to them a half dozen times before.
7. Don't forget a surprise bag. I always pack a big bag of surprises. There's nothing fancy inside the bag other than little items wrapped up in wrapping paper or the Sunday comics. Sometimes the surprises are a new box of crayons or a book picked up at a used bookstore or consignment sale. Other times, I'll actually wrap up an old toy or game that hasn't gotten a lot of use. There's always a big scene and some laughs when one of my kids unwraps her gift to reveal something that's already hers. I find that these are especially helpful when my husband isn't with us and I'm not able to hang in the back seat with the kids.
8. Hang in the back seat with the kids. I know this isn't going to work if you're the only driver, but if another adult is along for the ride and there's room, spend a little bit of time in the back with the kids. I find it heads off the potential for sibling squabbles. I'm able to read to my little one, for instance, as my older daughter does her own thing. We also play games together and just talk and laugh. I love those moments.
9. Let everybody have their own music hour: I've been on those road trips where we've listened to the same exact CD of kids music for four hours in a row. Not anymore. Let each family member pick out their own favorite tunes. Then, put together a schedule when each family member gets to control the music.
10. Take a deep breath. These are tried and true road trip strategies, but that doesn't mean it's going to be all rainbows and kittens during your 12-hour trip to grandma's house. Indeed, despite all this and more, there are certainly some stern words, skirmishes and unhappiness on most any road trip - as you'll find on most any day. Some days, I just let it go after yelling "simmer down back there!" Other days, we stop, stretch our legs and get an ice cream cone.

Happy traveling!


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