A car trip. Yes, voluntarily confining yourself to a contained space with your kids for hours ... days, even. There will be spilled drinks, crying, fighting and at least one shower of cold french fries.
But do it anyway. On a recent road trip to Vancouver, Sandra Fransen of Portland, Ore., found herself asking "Are we there yet?" as often as kids do. But she'd definitely do it all over again. "It's about spending time with your family and having fun," she says. And with gas prices more reasonable, a road trip can be a truly memorable, budget-friendly vacation.
Here's how to keep it fun:
Do a little prep work
Most libraries allow you to download books for free off their Web sites. Fill your iPod with kids' audiobooks, an imaginative way to pass the hours that, unlike DVDs, the driver can enjoy too. Head to a dollar store to pick up lots of small, wacky gifts, then wrap them up. Dole them out as needed to circumvent whining. To get everyone in the mood, watch (or rewatch) the animated flick "Cars" before you go (or view it on the road, if you have a DVD player in the car); it's surprisingly insightful about American road-trip culture, says Jamie Jensen, a dad who wrote "Road Trip USA."
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Unplug, at least part of the time
Passing the hours without being plugged in is a challenge, but it's worth it. "My friends still think I'm crazy, but our best vacation was when our DVD player broke twenty minutes into the trip," says Stephanie Vozza, a mom of two from Rochester Hills, Mich. Fortunately, she had packed "KidChat," a book filled with conversation starters like, "What trait about yourself are you most proud of?" Vozza was surprised by some of her kids' answers — and even more stunned at how much they learned about each other. "Car rides are one of the few chances you have to spend time together without distractions," she says. "Take advantage of them!"
Invite them to document the journey
Give your kids disposable cameras and ask them to take photos of whatever catches their eye, then invent stories about the places or people. "The observations my children made were the highlight of the trip," says Devra Renner, a mom of two from Centreville, Va. "My youngest saw a man with an eye patch and was sure he was a pirate on vacation!" Also, keep a journal, with everyone adding entries as you go: thoughts, drawings, postcards, ticket stubs, even that pretty flower your daughter picked on the side of the road.
Get out and stretch
Take advantage of rest areas — and not just when someone needs a bathroom break. Bring a ball or Frisbee along to expend some energy. Many state rest areas have free coloring books and pamphlets for kids.
When you stop at a gas station, ask people about the closest place to grab a good bite. Then trust them! "You have to be open to the idea that the place with the dingy outside really does have the best fries in town," says Jensen. On a trip with her two sons, Eva Keiser of Minneapolis took a chance on country roads over the highway. They crossed the Mississippi River and drove up and down bluffs like roller coasters. "All of us were squealing with excitement," she says.
First stop: Costanoa Resort
This eco resort nestled right into the protected California coastline (just outside of Santa Cruz) will make even a nature-loathing kid be taken back in awe. You can camp with your own gear, the cheapest option, or post up in a waterproof canvas tent bungalow and the work is done for you. Even though you're "camping," you can still hit the spa to relax and go to the grill when you get hungry.
Next: Hearst Castle
This Mediterranean-style estate can rightly be called a castle. Perched above Highway 1 in San Simeon, it is definitely worth the stop. They offer guided tours of the grounds — learn about the colorful life of William Randolph Hearst, and check out the mosaic-tiled Roman pool and plush interiors.
Next: Elephant Seals at Piedras Blancas
A very short jaunt from Hearst Castle in the San Luis Obispo State Park, you'll find a colony of 7,500 wondrous elephant seals. Despite those big, drooping schnauzes, they're quite photogenic.
Next: San Luis Obispo's ABC Bubble Gum Alley
A slightly gross participatory art project, your kids will appreciate the eww factor here. It's an entire alley full of Already Been Chewed gum! Is it possible to add a piece without touching anything? Let us know!
Next: Ostrich Land U.S.A.
Between Santa Maria and Santa Barbara, you'll find this (real) Big Bird headquarters. For a perfectly kitsch break from the open road, everyone can have a blast feeding wacky ostriches and emu as they roam the open land.
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