Traveling with Children

Written by:  Dr. Richard Gallagher, Ph.D,
You've been packing for days. Finally, you're done and everything's in the car. You buckle up, turn on the radio, set the cruise control, and within minutes, you hear those four familiar, annoying words:

"Are we there yet?"

There are 200 more miles to go.

Whether it's a much needed vacation or a family holiday outing, just getting there can be exhausting.

Here are some tips that can make any trip go a little easier.

  • Consider the child's age You can make the whole process less stressful if you understand the developmental level of your child and plan accordingly. A child's attention span increases with age. A toddler, with an attention span of about fifteen minutes, will need a variety of toys to get through a long car trip, but a game or activity may occupy a school-age child for more than an hour. Keep these developmental differences in mind when you pack for the trip, and provide a greater variety of stimuli for very young children or those with short attention spans. Let them know a trip is coming up. The younger the child, the less time they need for preparation. Repeatedly telling a 6-year-old about a trip to Disneyland 3 months in advance can unleash excitement that is difficult to contain.
  • Involve your children in planning If children are old enough, let them pick out toys to occupy them. Also, plan where you will stow these diversions. For school-age children, it may be helpful to place a basket with books, drawing pads, and electronic games within easy reach. For the younger child, too many toys may be overwhelming. So provide them one at a time at appropriate intervals. Keep other items such as messy toys, medicines, or snack foods out of their reach. Travelling long distances on an airplane - where you can't pull over at will - can be even more demanding. So take extra care in planning your trip.
  • Make frequent stops Every experienced parent knows to remind children to go to the bathroom before they start their trip. But even with this precaution, young children may announce sudden needs for a rest stop. If you are driving, plan to stop frequently, announce upcoming rest stations, and include rest time in your itinerary. Even if no one needs to use the facilities, everyone should get out and stretch. If you plan ahead, you can identify state parks and even work a short hike, jump rope, or game of catch into your trip. On plane trips, allow children to move around as much as possible during stopover time in airports.
  • Have an eating plan Healthy or favorite food can be hard to find on the road, so think about bringing it along. Fruits are great fast foods that can be packed ahead of time. But try not to use food as a way to alleviate boredom, either for adults or children. Stick to regular snack and meal times, rather than making your trip a day-long excuse for eating.
  • Consider the trip as family time Going on a family vacation can be a great exercise in family togetherness. Not only can children pack their own toys, they may also be involved in selecting the music and travel routes. Use family time in the car to sing silly songs or play games. The traditional ones are always fun. You can see who spots the most cows, finds license plates from every state, wins at twenty questions, or invents a new game. The travel section of toy stores and book stores offer other ideas for family activities.
  • Travel and learn The internet can be a wonderful tool for pre-planning. Searching out maps, plotting the route, researching destinations, checking the weather, etc. are at any child or adult's fingertips. Finding out about new places - having a scavenger hunt for people, places, and things on route and once you arrive can be fun and educational. You may also want to prepare children for different tastes, cultures, and customs.
  • Discipline on the road Consider important social lessons you can teach along the way. Stress the importance of sharing and turn-taking. Warn your children there may be times when driving becomes more stressful and they will need to quiet down. Let them suggest a signal for indicating those times. Realize that rules and people often relax when away from home but some limits should always remain. Parents should have some ideas about immediate discipline strategies while away, "wait till we get home" should never be the refrain of first or last resort.
  • Never unbuckle This rule always bears reminding. No matter how whiny a child may become, it is important to always enforce the seat belt rule.

Travelling with children can tax even the most patient parent and cooperative child. But a little imagination and planning can go a long way