How To Survive A Long Car Trip With Your Kids

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It’s that time of year. Time to visit those weird, faraway relatives in weird, faraway places, where the Target and the Costco and the Whole Foods are all switched around. It’s time to roll down hundreds of miles of dear old Ike’s eight-lane American dream, leaving one suburban hellscape for another. It’s time for the Holiday Family Road Trip.

Maybe you figured out how to redeem your airline miles and booked the whole damn family non-stop to Albany. Hats off to you. But even if I could afford to fly, I wouldn’t. Air travel is a horror show. Especially at this time of year, the gate areas all look like steerage class on a steamer ship, with people sprawled all over the floor, eating soggy pre-wrapped sandwiches off their laps. And once you’re on the plane, there’s always a guy trying to detonate his underwear or drunkenly pissing all over everyone or biting people. And your fellow passengers will still have more warmth in their hearts for those characters than they will for you, once they see Junior and Sis toddling along at your side. If Jesus Himself could look into the eyes of every businessman who has ever glowered at a small child boarding an airplane, He would despair of any chance for the triumph of Love o’er all the Earth, let alone on flight 8843 with service to Des Moines.


Besides, road trips have come a long way. When I was a youngster in the mid-’80s, Mom drove a Plymouth Horizon and Dad drove a 1977 VW camper van. Neither vehicle was safe at any speed. Compared to the van, the Horizon felt luxurious, since it had a working heater and none of its doors fell off on a regular basis. On the other hand, the camper van provided a sense of security because, with a nod to Mitch Hedberg, although it frequently ceased internal combustion, it could never break down: It could only become a domicile. Wherever we went, home was with us.

Still, neither the American death trap nor the German brick-on-wheels had a tape deck or auxiliary ports or headrest DVD screens. We were too poor for Walkmen. The only entertainment was found by slowly turning the radio dial, hoping for Mike and the Mechanics or another milquetoast adult-contemporary group to battle out of the static. Other than that, we were left to play the Alphabet Game or to pump our arms up and down at every trucker, begging for an air-horn blast, or to simply stare through the windshield at the oncoming snowflakes, pretending that we were about to make the jump to ludicrous speed.

Kids these days don’t ever have to look out the window at the oncoming blizzard, what with their vidya games and iTabs and computer phones. But it’s far less than adequate to let little Junior stare at a screen for 10 hours. Here are some tips I’ve gleaned over many years of holiday road-tripping from the the banks of the Mississippi to the Virginia coast.


Variety Kills Boredom

I want the inside of your minivan to look like your mobbed-up cousin just hit an arts & crafts delivery truck. Coloring books, word finds, Mad Libs, Sudoku, eye-spy games, Rubik’s Cubes, card games, sewing kits—whatever your kids are into. Just don’t bring anything sticky or melty or made up of 10,001 tiny plastic pieces. Make sure you buy some new stuff and keep it out of sight until everyone is in the car. Look, kids: presents for Car Prison!

Even if your kids are super crafty, that shit isn’t going to last more than a couple hours. Next up, books. Bring a whole milk crate full of them. Why else did you buy a vehicle with 40 cubic feet of cargo volume? If your kids are in the middle-grade to young-adult range, there’s a whole shit-ton of new titles to choose from every month. Hit the bookstore and scour the bargain section, or load up at the library. My daughter has recently begun reading novels, and it’s a damn miracle. Sure, I’m over the moon that she’s experiencing the life of the mind and touching the soul of a writer and all of that, but more importantly, it buys me hours of peace and quiet, because when she’s reading, she’s not fighting with her brother or telling me in excruciating detail about a dream she had last night.

Don’t want to bring books? Try books on CD! If you choose wisely, you’ll get at least five hours of engagement for each story. Audio books are super expensive though, so get ’em from the library and rip ’em. Don’t tell the FBI. I’ve been doing this for years, so I now have hours of stories about Ramona Quimby and Charlie Bucket and Winnie the Pooh.


Tired of words? Break out the music. Make a sing-along playlist ahead of time and blast it when everyone starts to lag. The mood you want is movie-montage happy-song time. Smiling faces, giggles, dopey dance moves—the whole shebang. Again, this won’t last the whole trip, but it’ll raise everyone’s spirits long enough to get you two-thirds of the way there.

And look, eventually, you will give in and hand over the iPad or portable DVD player. There’s no getting around it, especially if your road trip is insanely long like ours. It’s the closest thing we have to deep-space stasis travel, with everyone slipping into a kind of video coma. The hours fly by, the drool puddles on the kids’ shirts, and they might even pee their pants without noticing. The problem comes when the videos turn off. For my kids, TV is a drug, and it triggers a withdrawal worthy of a James Frey fictional memoir. That screen goes dark and the kids spring to life as demons, wailing and gnashing their teeth, enraged by their confinement. The hurricane tantrum is not worth the quiet that preceded it.


Pack Your Lunches

I know fast food is unavoidable on the interstate, and I remember well the siren song of the Golden Arches. Of course, now you realize it tastes like crap and makes you feel horrible—both immediately afterward and later that night, alone and crying for mercy on the commode. But the kids like it, you say. The kids also eat their own boogers and refuse Grandma’s famous mashed potatoes. What they hell do they know about cuisine? But what about those fast-food play areas, you say. How do you feel about tossing your babies into a giant petri dish coated in a thick, invisible smoothie of cholera-scarlet fever-dropsy super-germs?


For your meals, pack a little cooler and have a picnic. Plan some balanced, nutritional meals, but throw in a few road-trip snacks. For me, traveling great distances by car requires the consumption of Combos and Doritos. Find a playground or a park in a town just off the interstate, have a little lunch, and let the kids do their thing on the jungle gym. Make sure you pack a frisbee or a soccer ball in case the playground equipment is rusty, Soviet-era surplus. You and the missus can spend the time bickering about the shitty sleeping arrangements at your destination or just stare at your phones in silence.

If it’s going to be too cold to play outside, look at the route ahead of time for children’s museums or science centers. Those are usually only in big cities, and if your route is more country than concrete jungle, look for interesting roadside attractions or bowling alleys or skating rinks. Something that gets the kids out of the car for a little while to let them burn off energy.


One caveat for stopping: If it happens that your children have fallen asleep, either through blind luck or the correct dosage of Benadryl, do not stop. Drive. Drive like Forrest ran. Never, ever wake a sleeping child.

Plan For The Worst

Remember the Snowpocalypse that hit the southeast in 2014? People in Atlanta were trapped in their cars for hours and hours. If only more folks drove camper vans, they would have been home sweet home. Anyhow, the way the weather shifts these days, I wouldn’t feel entirely safe from the frozen reach of Old Man Winter even if I was driving through Death Valley. You don’t want to have a Donner Party cosplay experience in your minivan or be reduced to scrounging for animal-cracker crumbs off the floor mats to survive.


Start by looking at the weather report. If there’s a chance you’ll encounter snow or ice in a region that’s unprepared for it—I’m looking at you, Atlanta—think about an alternate route to avoid megalopolises of idiotic drivers. Even if you have no fear of thundersnow, freezing fog, or wintry mix, you should bring a couple blankets and some emergency rations. Throw in a flashlight, a foldable snow shovel, and a window scraper. Make sure you—or whoever you expect to send for help—bring footwear appropriate for walking outside in the cold.

Beyond the catastrophic, you should prepare for the mundane. Inflate your tires before the trip—including the spare!—and bring a tire-pressure gauge and some jumper cables. Check your oil and coolant levels and fill your windshield-washer reservoir with fluid that won’t freeze.


Agree On A Division Of Labor For The Adults

The driver drives. That is all. The other adult does everything else that happens while the car is in motion. Which includes checking the route for traffic issues, opening snacks, cleaning up spilled snacks, passing out barf bags, yelling at the kids to quiet down, searching for lost toys under the third row of seats, reading the same picture book 12 times in a row, adjusting headphones for tiny craniums, leading songs with a happy face, changing DVDs, uploading photographic evidence of blissful children to Facebook, offering neck massages to the driver, muttering curses at the other drivers, and generally acting as Johnny on the Spot.


This might seem like an unbalanced division of labor. I agree. And it’s up to you and your beloved to figure out how often—or if—you’ll switch off. That’s especially important on long trips, when the driver becomes road-weary. Gotta stay sharp, because the driver is literally holding the lives of everyone in the car in his Dorito-dust-encrusted fingers as he grips the wheel, swerving sharply—while still maintaining control—to avoid the car-top luggage-carrier screeching down the far left lane of the I-275 bypass outside of Cincinnati. The driver only drives, eyes on the road, hands upon the wheel, phone ignored for hours at a time.

Yes, the driver is left to revel in his command of two and a half tons of modern mechanical engineering, and perhaps to slip into a daydream while locked into a 20-car caravan doing 67, passing a tractor trailer doing 65, imagining the joy of trading in the minivan for a Mad Max rig with big-ass wheel spikes and a gatling gun and a flame-throwing, double-necked guitar, something that could blow that meandering Buick at the head of the pack into spectacular smithereens, something that could streak across this fallen land of outlet malls and neon signs and apocalyptic billboards, over the river and through the woods, shiny and chrome, to Grandmother’s house we go.


Geoffrey Redick is a freelance writer and radio producer. He lives in Memphis. He’s on Twitter.

Illustration by Sam Woolley.

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