Tales from the Passenger Side

Having recently survived a 21-hour car trip with a preschooler and a third-grader, I feel I can call myself a travel expert. Trust me, I qualify. I’ve picked pulverized cheese crackers from the matted carpet of a very dirty mini-van. I’ve endured the chanting of every jump rope rhyme ever dreamed up — for two solid hours — and maintained my happy-parent-traveling-smile. I’ve even served fresh fruit, cream cheese bagels, juice boxes and steaming coffee to an entire car full of grumpy travelers, all the while hurtling down I-95 at 75 miles per hour. Beats a breakfast buffet any day. An expert is smart, I reasoned. After all, I had steered away from all really, really long car excursions with children, say, from the grocery store and back. And I had sworn off any and all boat trips — including cruises — and even the shortest of hops on airplanes. I took this vow when my youngest was 18 months and had her head stuck underneath the airplane seat and was wildly kicking the first class divider repeatedly while screeching loudly. The man sitting next to me was not my husband and he was not amused. He probably felt sorry for my husband. Or my epiphany might have occurred when I overfed my daughter in attempt to prevent ear pain on her first airplane ride as an infant. I heeded the advice of countless moms and repeatedly stuck a bottle in Lucy’s mouth during the ascent. She voiced her displeasure and promptly threw up. It was about the same time I vowed not to take a child of napping age to Disney World or a child too young to gasp at the night-lit Eiffel Tower to Paris. Of course, I could have done all of these things. But I had a plan. I was waiting for the right age. We would listen to books on CD and discuss them. We would picnic at scenic roadside areas, visit quaint antique shops, unusual sights, buy local produce at roadside stands and marvel at wildlife and wildflowers. We would learn the language basics of the country we happened to be in, have our children painstakingly detail their travels in a journal, and happily sample foods of other lands — with no complaints. Our most recent trips haven’t been quite like the dream I envisioned. But they’ve been close.

The key is preparation. So what if you no longer require a diaper bag, stroller, a baggie of Cheerios, a case of diapers, formula, lullaby tapes, musical bear, special blankie, back-up pacifers, electrical outlet safety covers, or a baby monitor to travel anywhere? Traveling with any child is work. Here’s my road-tested advice on what to pack if you’d like to keep your sanity:

• Got a car trip that stretches to eternity? Bring along stuff to do or you’ll be scouting out the first Wal-Mart you see to load up on supplies. That means: pack coloring or sticker books, Mad Lib booklets, magnetic puzzles, books of mazes or sketching pads, and color pencils. Leave all glitter crafts or beading projects at home. You are duly warned.

• Refresh yourself on The License Plate Game or it could be a long trip. Consider books on CD — not War and Peace, but a family classic everyone will dig. Swiss Family Robinson, A Cricket in Times Square or The Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe can be good choices.

• Music! Do you want to hear "99 Bottles of Milk on the Wall" all the way to California and back? Then pack some CDs that the kids like, not just stuff for Mom and Dad. Consider a portable disc player and headphones for children if you are traveling by air. (But teach them to adhere to flight regulations for portable electronic devices).

• Snacks are essential. A mess is not. Think ‘easy portions’ and ‘healthy’ (apples, carrots, animal crackers, Fig Newtons, or cereal or granola bars). Or ignore my advice and spend a good hour vacuuming crushed corn chips out of your SUV.

• Keep them busy for at least 10 minutes with disposable cameras — one for each child. So what if all your trip pictures are of the car’s dirty carpeting and equally dirty windows? You’ve earned yourself 10 minutes without any backseat bickering.

• Books, books and more books. Enough said.

• Wet wipes or paper towels. You know why.

• The patience of Job.

The lesson you’ll inevitably learn (just as I did) is this: travel with a child any time is the right time. Don’t wait until it’s too late to revel in a 7-year-old’s first awed glimpse of the Grand Canyon or the gleeful yelps brought about by a toddler’s first plane ride. Travels with Junior are not to be taken lightly, however, and can be one of the most memorable highlights of your (and their!) lives with a bit of age-appropriate advance planning. Oh yeah, and some verrrry realistic expectations.

KATHLEEN E. CONROY has two daughters and is associate editor of ‘Charlotte Parent’ magazine in Charlotte, N.C.


Are we there yet?

By Sue Shackles

Ah, vacations! The lure of the open road, the excitement of unknown and mysterious destinations, the chance for families to rediscover each other. Unfortunately, it can also mean lots of whining, carsickness, and ultimately a post-vacation trip to the beauty salon for some color on your prematurely gray hair. So how do you make a vacation enjoyable in practice as well as in theory if you don't have access to a therapist and a logistics expert? The most important thing is lots of advance planning. Choose your destination carefully with each member of your family in mind. If you have very small children, or toddlers, do you really want to spend two days traveling to your destination by car? An alternative would be traveling by train, which is less stressful for everyone, with a rental car at the destination. Older children also love the novelty of train travel, and it can become an exciting part of the trip rather than a constant whine of: "Are we there yet?"

• Stay away from anything including milk, and juice and water are much better than fizzy soda type drinks which only make a child thirstier. Don't forget to arrange regular rest breaks along the way. Not only is a child with a full bladder an unbearable traveling companion, it's nice to get out of the car and stretch your legs when you've been driving for a while. You may even feel like getting back in with your children at the end of the rest stop rather than abandoning them by the side of the road.

• If you're planning on staying in a hotel or motel during your vacation, don't forget to bring along things which will make bedtime easier. There is enough distraction being inside a strange place to keep even the sleepiest child awake, so try and incorporate as much of his regular bedtime routine as possible. Bring favorite soft toys and bedtime books. You may also want to invest in a stopper if you're in a room with a shower and no tub, and your child is used to baths. I've stopped up enough shower drains with wash cloths to appease a shower hater in my time to know the importance of this item. If your child is a bedwetter, some kind of protection for the bed will make him feel a little less embarrassed.

• Don't forget to plan your vacation with a little something for everyone. Sun and sand for the little ones is fine, but adults and older children could become bored with this after a while. Call the tourist information agency in advance, or check out their online listings via computer. Quite often they can give you information about kid-friendly museums, farms, art galleries, etc., which are off the beaten track, and not easy for a visitor to find. They can also usually tell you about restaurants that are geared to children, so you don't have to spend every meal inside a fast food place!

• A good way to create a memory of the vacation is to bring back souvenirs that remind you of the things you did and saw. These don't have to be expensive, ready-made items. Some driftwood, shells and pebbles, washed and glued together and covered with a coat of clear varnish makes something unique, which even small children can help to find pieces for, and assemble on their return. Mark the piece in permanent marker with the place and the date of the vacation before sealing it with varnish, and you've a homemade souvenir to be proud of. Scrapbooks with tickets, menus and other bits and pieces will also help to remind you of the trip, and are excellent ways to hold the memories when the children grow up.


Advance strategies

By Belinda Mooney

Family travel can leave parents more exhausted when it is all over than in the beginning. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Traveling together can be something everyone looks forward to each year. With a little forethought and planning, hitting the road can be a breeze. Considering the ages of the children and their emotional as well as physical needs will also help during the plotting stage:

Prepare Ahead of Time. Don’t wait until the last minute to decide to take a week-long vacation. Write lists of items you will need to take with you, and double check them. Make sure everyone has the appropriate clothes well in advance. Discovering Susie needs new tennis shoes going out the door is no fun. Get prescriptions refilled, check allergy medicines and restock the first aid kit. Pack children’s suitcases to make them accessible. Roll complete outfits, shoes, shirts, shorts and underwear, together. You can get more in this way, also. Pack the car the night before so the only thing you have to do in the morning is get in it. Be sure to pack pillows and blankets for snuggling while driving.

Sleeping & Eating. If possible, try to rest a bit before going out to eat. For adventure purposes, tell the kids, “We are not going to eat any place we eat at back home.” In the car, be sure to pack plenty of healthy snacks and bottled water. A cooler in the back will allow you to keep drinks cold, and can include yogurt or fruit fresh. Sipper cups or cups with straws that fit in a lid prevent spills.

Bring a Buddy. If your child is under 12, make sure you bring a buddy — a cuddly one, that is. Traveling can be emotionally stressful for little ones and having along a ‘friend’ can make all the difference in the world. A favorite stuffed animal or doll can provide comfort to tired youngsters in unfamiliar places. Dolls and action figures also allow a child to retreat into their own little world. They are great for imaginative play during layovers at airports or unexpected delays.

Boredom Busters. The really fun part of traveling is keeping the kids entertained, especially on long car rides. Pack backpacks with coloring books, crayons, puzzle books and miniature toys. Making an art box for each child — with scissors, glue sticks, journal, stickers and markers — is a good option for older kids. The Travel & Play portable table opens up into a sturdy table with sides and is held in place by Velcro around the child‚s waist. It’s perfect for art projects and games. You can find them at www.travelplayco.com.

BELINDA MOONEY is a mom of seven!