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Tips for fun family road trips

My kids are always squabbling in the back of the car. The last time we took a long car trip, I came up with a little project they could do together.
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1. My kids are always squabbling in the back of the car. The last time we took a long car trip, I came up with a little project they could do together. I gave them each a roll of low-tack masking tape and told them they could build a divider between themselves, right down the middle of the back set. Soon, they were busy and giggling and they ended up with a tremendous wall of tape. When we got to our destination, the wall came down in one fell swoop. No muss, no fuss. — Julia from Gunnison, Colo.

2. Every parent who drives with kids in the car needs to know about , a worldwide automobile safety program that distributes free cell phone headsets to anyone who wants one. To get a free headset for your cell phone, you just need to sign up and select the make and model of the cell phone you use. They will send you a free headset, but you pay the shipping charges (about $5). — Rose from Del Mar, Calif.

3. My family likes playing license plate bingo. These from Scholastic.com make the game easy to set up in advance. I fill in the names of different states before we leave home. — Marnie from New Canaan, Conn.

4. Having worked for years at the front desk of a hotel, I know that every hotel has a few rooms that are better than others—perhaps slightly more spacious, or with a nicer view, or in a quieter location. Making an effort to be nice to the front desk staff when you arrive can go a long way in getting a better room. I always say, “This is a very special trip for us.” We usually end up with a wonderful room, and sometimes even an upgrade! — Cecilia from Santa Barbara, Calif.

5. I’ve read again and again that even just-cleaned hotel rooms are full of germs. That’s why I never travel without sanitizing wipes. When we first get into our hotel room, the first thing I do is wipe down all the surfaces that the housekeeping crew would probably miss: Light switches, TV remote control, telephone, doorknobs, bedside alarm clock, and especially the toilet flush handle. Oh, and I always remove the bedspread. — Pam from Mason, Ohio

6. If your car has a panic button, you can use it as a security alarm system when staying at campsites or in motel rooms where your door opens directly to the outside. Presumably, your car is parked nearby. Put your car keys beside your bed at night. If you were ever in danger from an animal or intruder, you could press your car’s panic button to set off the alarm. The car horn would sound repeatedly until you turned it off or the battery died. You can reset it with the button on the key fob chain. — Laurie from Ashburn, Va.

7. My son just loves doing word search puzzles. Before we go on a family vacation, I make up customized word search puzzles for him to do in the car or on the plane, using words about our trip and destination. DiscoverySchool.com’s makes this simple and fast. You just type in words that you want included, and the program generates a word search puzzle that can be printed out. Easy and fun! — Kirsten from Eau Claire, Wis.

8. We often take two days to get to grandma’s since our kids are still small. I always pick a hotel that offers free breakfast. Hampton Inn is one of the best for this, in my opinion. (They also give you cookies at night!) The breakfast menu always has something the kids will eat and it allows us to get away without spending that $15-$30 in the morning. Then, we carry bread and some cold cuts and/or peanut butter in the car for lunch. It works out well because we stop at a nice rest area, eat, and let the kids burn off some energy. There’s another $15-$30 saved. Frankly, I find the kids’ energy expenditure worth more than the savings. We play more during a picnic lunch than when we stop at a restaurant. Lastly, we bring our own drinks. We carry water, juice, and Gatorade in a cooler. Buying it at the grocery store is much cheaper than the gas station mini-mart. To help with this, we bought one of the Coleman “powered” coolers that plugs into our cigarette lighter. Works like a charm. — David from Gainesville, Fla.

9. Before our last family trip, I loaded my iPod with free audio stories for children from . My kids were thrilled to be able listen to something “just for them” and I was happy that these stories were age-appropriate. — Kim from Rochester, N.Y.

10. We teach our kids how to dial “911”. And we teach them how to use a cell phone, in case of emergency. It’s also a good idea to take a few minutes after settling into a new hotel room to show them how to operate the hotel phone. Kids should know how to contact the front desk, how to get an outside line, and how to call for an ambulance. — Melinda from Ogden, Utah

11. Use your time in the car to remember the past. If you have a portable VCR or DVD player, watch home movies on long car rides. It is a great way to remember fun trips or special events. — Chris from Elk River, Minn.

12. I worried that my 14-month-old son wouldn’t be able to sleep soundly in our hotel room, so I brought two key elements from his nursery: a portable CD player and his night light. At bedtime, we put on his “night-night” music and plugged in his night light, which filled our hotel room with a familiar amber glow. He was asleep within minutes. –Tara from Hoboken, NJ

13. My kindergartner and preschooler love eating at chain restaurants that give out kids’ activity placemats and coloring materials while you wait. When my husband and I want to bring the family somewhere that isn’t as obviously kid-oriented, we bring our “Restaurant Kid Kit.” It’s simply a large plastic SpaceMaker container filled with crayons, activity books with word searches and mazes, HotWheels, and other small toys. We keep it in the car so it’s handy during car trips and outings. We get to visit a wider range of restaurants, and our kids do less whining. — Kristin from Nevada City, Calif.

14. An inexpensive metal cookie sheet makes the best lap table for a child during car trips. It can be a food tray or a writing desk (the raised edges keep crayons from rolling off). It can be a clipboard with the addition of a clip-style fridge magnet. It’s an instant play table for all sorts of magnetic toys. On various trips, we’ve brought simple letters and numbers, LeapFrog farm animal magnets, magnet books, Magnet Wheelies kits, magnet dress up toys, and Magnetix. My daughter likes to play with a magnet puzzle shaped like the United States. When we see a license plate from one state, she adds it to her magnetic map. — Brooke from Carlisle, Pa.

15. Fuel taxes vary from state to state, which is reflected in gas prices. When you take a road trip that crosses state lines, plan to gas up in the least expensive states. Consult the AAA’s to see where gas prices are lowest. If you’ll be spending time in one locality, sites like and can help you find the cheapest gas while you’re there. — Jason from Sherwood, Ore.

16. Before we set out on a family car trip—even if it’s just a day trip—I give each of my kids a job for the day. My 9-year-old becomes the Navigator, responsible for making sure we get to our destination. I hand her a road map, a pen, and printed directions from an online mapping web site. My 11-year-old gets to be the Banker, responsible for keeping track of our money. After I’ve estimated our costs, I give him a realistic budget and a list of our required expenses, such as gas, food, and a hotel room (the only pre-arranged fixed cost). He also gets a notepad, a pen, and some cash. (Cash is best because it gives the child a more real sense of a dwindling supply of money.) When we stop for gas, he pays and gives the family an update on how much we have left. When we stop for a meal, he looks at the menu and decides if we can afford to eat there. When his sister asks if she can buy a souvenir at a rest stop, he decides if it’s okay and sets a limit on the cost. On the return trip, my kids swap roles. Of course, my husband and I guide their decision-making along the way. But my kids are getting a controlled taste of responsibility and learning valuable life skills. — Janice from Charlotte, N.C.

17. Before our last road trip, I collected a small jar full of quarters with US states on the back. During our journey, when one of my kids spotted a state's license plate, I'd give her a quarter with that state on it. If I didn't have a quarter for a particular state, I gave a dime or nickel, taped to an index card with the state's name written on the back side. When we got to our destination, the kids got to keep the coins to buy souvenirs. This incentivized version of the license plate game kept them much more eager to play! — Holly from Janesville, Wis.

18. On our cross-country road trip, I bought an inexpensive Styrofoam cooler and packed it with Gatorade, water, and mini cans of sodas. I also bought a large array of snacks, from trail mix to popcorn cakes, and made up individual portions in sandwich bags. I didn't have to worry when we hit a long stretch of road with nowhere to stop for snacks. It saved me money and also a lot of hassle about sharing snacks between kids. Everyone had his own! — Mindy from Carson City, Nevada

19. When your kids are young, it's a good idea to do a little prep work and choose fun places to stop every two hours along your route. I like to find interesting picnic spots, historical monuments, public parks and, whenever possible, a playground. To motivate my kids to burn off some energy, I always have a frisbee, a ball, and a jump rope in the car. It's amazing how much better they behave after just 15 or 20 minutes of playtime. — Lenora from Burlington, Vt.

20. On long car trips, I give each of my kids a crayon and a photocopied map of the USA. When we play the license plate game, my kids color in the states as we see them. This version of the game gives them a really good sense of our country's geography. — Carol Ann from Sparks, Nevada

21. Let your little one chronicle your journey from her point of view! Have her take pictures of stops you make along the way. The pictures will make great keepsakes and create another busy-bee project for later: A scrapbook. — Amy from Aurora, Colo.(Editor's Note: If you don't trust your kids with your expensive digital camera, consider buying a disposable camera for each child at the start of your trip.)

22. If your kids are studying a second language in school—or if you're teaching them at home—a road trip is a great time for practice. Pop in those practice tapes or CDs, and make a contest out of remembering words for things seen on the road (tree, car, etc.). Mom and Dad can pick up the language, too! — Stacy from Allendale, N.J.

23. Make up your own road scavenger hunt game. Write out a numbered list of 20 things that you'll likely see on your route. Include vehicles (truck, minivan, motorcycle, police car), animals (cow, dog, horse, bird), and buildings and other roadside items (barn, stop sign, church, fence, bridge). Photocopy the page for every child, and hand each a crayon. The first kid to spot all the items on the list wins. For kids too young to read, use pictures instead of words. — Karen from Brunswick, Maine

24. Encourage your kids to organize their backpacks with Ziploc storage bags. The one-gallon Ziplocs make great art bags—just toss in a small pad of paper, crayons, pens, and markers. Use a separate bag for each toy with lots of small parts: HotWheels, Legos, Magnetix, and the dreaded Barbies and Polly Pockets (all those teensy shoes and handbags!). Tuck in a few empty bags for cool rocks, pretty feathers, and other treasures picked up on expeditions. — Sarah from Ithaca, N.Y.

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