Ah yes, the family road trip. Perhaps no other phrase has more power to set parental hearts aflutter with anticipation and dread. There will be whining and fighting—that’s a given. There will be diaper bags and barf bags, maps that refuse to refold, and enough plastic dinosaurs, crayons, puzzles and gummy bears to stock a modestly sized Toys “R” Us. There will be breakdowns, both mechanical and emotional, and there will be an endless array of bills: gas, food, lodging, Tylenol.
And yet, year after year, countless Canadians will load up the minivan and point the nose down the highway because the family road trip can also be magical, engendering lifelong memories in children and adults alike. Here, then, are a few tips to maximize the magic and minimize the mayhem.
Put safety first. The one thing you don’t want with a back seat full of cranky, impatient kids is to have car trouble on a back road somewhere. For that reason Korey Kennedy, manager of public and government affairs with the North and East Ontario chapter of the Canadian Automobile Association (CAA), says vacationers should always get their vehicles serviced before they set off on a multi-day trip. “Get the brake lines and fluids checked. Ensure the spare tire is inflated and the jack is working properly. Make sure the tires have good treads and are properly inflated to get better mileage.”
Vehicles, he adds, should be equipped with a road safety kit including jumper cables, a blanket, non-perishable foods and a first-aid kit. “Make sure you have a charged cell phone with you at all times, in case you run into mechanical problems and have to call for assistance.” If you have a roadside assistance membership, make sure it’s up-to-date, and that you have the phone number and membership card with you.
Plan your route. Don’t just rely on a GPS when you’re travelling to an unfamiliar destination. Do a little research and plan your route before you hit the open road. “A GPS will get you where you’re going, but won’t be able to find the most interesting route,” says Kennedy, who advises travellers to take advantage of CAA’s customized TripTik maps and online travel planners, which not only show scenic routes and highways but up-to-date information on construction zones, gas stations and recommended restaurants, motels and campgrounds.
Ann Campbell, a travel writer from British Columbia, says she and her husband are always looking for ways to get off the highway and onto alternate routes during her family’s road trips—the extra effort always pays off. “Do your homework in advance,” she advises. “Provincial and state websites usually have suggestions for scenic routes, as do old-style guidebooks.” As for the risk of getting lost, “that’s part of the fun,” Campbell says. “In a way, a road trip is all about getting lost, losing yourself in new experiences before having to return to your day-to-day life.”
Send them packing. Calgary-based travel writer Joanne Elves says packing is all about figuring out what you’ll need to get at frequently and fast, without any fuss. “I make sure there’s an easily accessible bag with T-shirts and shorts for each kid, and a separate laundry hamper full of shoes. I also put a basket between the seats where all the toys and games can be thrown into for a quick, 10-second tidy up. Oh, and that diaper bag? That’s up top, not buried.”
Campbell suggests that parents should make sure kids have all their activities close at hand. “We use back-of-seat holders for books, pens, papers and games, and make sure each kid has a solid surface—like one of those portable beanbag desks—they can put on their laps for colouring or doing puzzles.”
Kennedy says vacationers should ensure windows and sightlines aren’t blocked by luggage, and notes that packing as lightly as possible will result in lower fuel costs. Drivers shouldn’t, however, have to worry that a full load of kids and luggage will alter the handling characteristics of their vehicles. “Unless you have an extreme amount of weight, packing shouldn’t affect braking or handling.”
Get an early start. The early bird gets an extra three hours of hassle-free driving, Elves says. “The best idea my husband and I ever came up with was to pack everything the night before, get up at five in the morning and carry the kids to the car in their pyjamas. They’d sleep through the first three hours of the trip and when they’d wake up at eight or so we’d stop for breakfast and get them changed into their travel clothes. Do you have any idea how precious three hours of peaceful driving is?”
If your tykes are going to be awake at the start of the drive, make sure they’re not too awake. “Get them to let off some steam before they get in the car,” advises Toronto-based travel writer Jennifer Merrick. “An hour of vigorous playing or swimming will ensure they’re a little calmer when you buckle them in.”
Of course, all that pre-drive exercise eventually wears off. “Parents have to be realistic about how much sitting the kids can handle,” says Elves. “When the bickering starts, it’s time to get out and stretch. Find a park or a hiking trail so they can burn off some energy.”
Keep ‘em separated. If bickering is all you have to put up with, count yourself lucky. Especially if you have two or more boys in the back seat, you can count on a certain amount of hitting, kicking, yelling and screaming. Back in the day, that’s when Dad would twist around in his seat—while driving, no less—and try to swat anyone or anything within arm’s length.
Not surprisingly, CAA’s Kennedy says that’s a definite no-no. “The spouse riding shotgun should be the disciplinarian, leaving the driver to focus on the road. Distracted driving is a major cause of accidents.”
But what can you do to prevent fraternal frustrations from boiling over in the first place? As the song says, keep ’em separated. “We have neighbours who’ve gone so far as to build a physical divider down the back seat,” says Campbell. “When they tried crossing into the U.S. the customs agent was very interested. He wanted to learn how they did it so he could build one himself.”
As for her own family, Campbell makes do with a small cooler plunked in the middle of the back seat, with one kid on either side. “It’s easy access to cold drinks and it enforces a degree of separation.”
Keep a stash of new stuff. “The most important thing is ensuring there are enough toys and activities to keep the kids occupied,” says Campbell. “Our strategy was every 30 minutes we’d have something new for the kids, whether it was colouring books, stickers, games, or snacks. If we knew we had five hours of driving, we’d have 10 different things.”
That strategy works well for Elves, too. “I’d collect a bunch of toys from McDonald’s or buy them at the dollar store, and wrap them up in newspaper. Then I’d give them out every hour or so. They knew that if they behaved for another hour they’d get another toy.”
“Get something special for the ride back,” Merrick adds. “You tend to prepare well for the ride out, but the ride back is even more important. Hold something special in reserve or buy a couple of new toys before turning for home.”
Use a digital babysitter. Regardless of how parents feel about television and video games at home, most vacationers wouldn’t dream of undertaking a multi-day road trip without stocking up on a carload of DVDs and computer games. “DVDs are great for keeping kids amused,” acknowledges Kennedy, “as long as the driver isn’t watching them.”
“Our deal was we only allowed the kids to play video games in transit,” says Campbell. “So they would actually look forward to long road trips because that was when they were allowed to play with their GameBoys or my smartphone.”
Stock up on eats. “We try to bring at least the first day’s food in a cooler,” says Elves. “After that we’ll pull into a Safeway and make our own sandwiches or buy ready-made sandwiches from the grocery store. It’s way cheaper than buying them from Tim Hortons.” They used the same strategy for coffee. “We’ll bring the first day’s coffee in a thermos and we’ll try to stay at places with coffee makers in the room so we can fill the thermos each morning before we hit the road.” When they do eat at restaurants along the route, one parent will get a table and order while the other plays with the kids outside, again burning off excess energy for the afternoon drive.
“We’ll pack a collapsible cooler and go to the market and pick things up,” says Merrick. “We’ll grab a chicken and bread and make sandwiches for at least one meal a day, instead of fast food. And if we do go to Subway and get a sandwich, we’ll take it and eat it in a park, to try to make it more special.”
“We always brought a Coleman stove so we could have lunches at roadside rest areas,” Campbell says. “That way the kids could run around, and it’s cost-effective.”
Learn the inns and outs. The CAA rates hotels, motels and campgrounds, and many of these offer discounts to members. Other than that, Campbell suggests staying at family-friendly motels that offer perks like free popcorn or pizza, and where the rooms have pull-out couches or cots.
Breakfasts that are included in the room rate are a must, says Elves. “They can save you a lot of money for a family of four, to say nothing of the time saved by not having to stop for breakfast on the road.”
Merrick cautions, however, against always trying to find the absolute cheapest accommodations. “Remember that once the kids are asleep you won’t be going anywhere, so sometimes it makes sense to pay a little more for a nicer room or a balcony where you can sit out and watch the stars.”
There you have it. The sun’s shining, school’s letting out for the summer and another family road trip looms. Will it be magic or mayhem? To a certain extent, that’s up to you.