If your family is among the nearly 51 million Americans on the road this Thanksgiving, you'll want to be prepared for delays. The American Automobile Association (AAA - pronounced "Triple A"), says to expect the highest travel volume in 12 years. You'd never know it by the crowds at the airports, but apparently, 89 percent of all travelers (that's 45.5 million) are planning to travel by car. The AAA and INRIX, a global transportation analytics company, predict that travel times in the most congested cities in the U.S. could be as much as three times longer than you may be accustomed to.
Every parent knows the unpleasant consequences of such delays, especially how it feels to run out of acceptable answers for, "Are we there yet?". Bribery, yelling, and threats hardly ever work (for long) and only serve to frustrate you and your precious cargo further. You're off to spend time celebrating the season with friends and family, let's get you off to a good start. Here are some great insights and ideas from parents who have clenched the wheel many times (including yours truly) and found ways to make everyone a happy traveler.
Have a family meeting in advance.
Whether you're traveling with teens, toddlers, or someone in between, pre-travel discussions will get everyone on the same page. Instead of shouting orders while packing or as exit the driveway, plan a very intentional, focused conversation with the family days prior to your trip. Use daily-life comparisons to give the kids an idea of how long you'll be in the car. Get their suggestions for games and activities and, while you're at it, make a game of the discussion itself. One parent has everyone take turns to shout out what they are bringing on the trip using the alphabet as a guide. "A, for activity book, U for underwear!"
Talk about what you'll see along the way and what you'll do once you reach your destination. No one likes to be kept in the dark, not even a 4-year-old.
If you keep your packing list in your head more than one vital thing will get left behind. You'll leave home feeling much more prepared and relaxed if you complete a checklist as you pack.
Pack a convenience bag.
Smaller children may require a change of clothes, hand wipes, or the comfort of a special stuffed animal. Pack a separate bag of things you may need in the car or at a rest stop so you can grab and go, rather than tear apart your suitcase looking for something.
Flag points of interest.
Even though you want to get there fast, the kids will do better if you break the monotony with a few stops. Those are the parts of my childhood road trips that I remember best. When you do stop, either at a point of interest or a mere rest stop, make it fun. One dad told me about the rest stop game he plays with the family. Park away from other cars and have everyone exit the vehicle and put one hand on the car. With hands touching the car at all times, run around trying to tag each other. What a great way to get some exercise during an otherwise routine pit stop.
Parents agree: toys and activities the kids have never seen before are the biggest attention getter. The newness of it all buys you more time, one parent said. Also, bring a journal for each child so they can make notes, play games, and draw pictures of the things they see along the way.
A surprise snack bag is always a big hit. Instead of bringing a big bag of pretzels or trail mix, purchase more variety in smaller bags and separate the contents into baggies with a small serving size of the different snacks. A little bag containing ten pretzels, another with a handful of raisins, and so on. For every hour of good behavior, the kids get to close their eyes and grab something from the surprise snack bag. You might even slip in a few things that aren't allowed (often) at home. Just be careful not to overload on sugar--you'll certainly suffer the consequences later if you do.
Bring a jar of quarters.
"Are we there yet?" How often do you field this question in one-hours' time? One of the many great suggestions I received solved this age-old dilemma with a jar of quarters. Put a quarter in a clear jar for every 1/2 hour you are going to be in the car. Every half hour, remove a quarter from the jar to create a visual of how much longer before the car ride will be over. Once this family reaches their destination they use the quarters to buy some type of special treat.
Play family games.
Another mom suggests impromptu game-play, and not on devices. Have everyone in the family think of something you may see during your trip: a specific t-shirt design (like a Disney shirt), a guy with a mustache, someone with pink shoes (or hair). The first person to find each match wins a prize.
Use electronic devices as a last resort.
Parents agree on this one: your family getaway is a time to talk, bond, and be playful. While the same old online games and apps may occupy your kids (teens especially), they don't create good memories. If you do allow devices, alternate the time with activities that engage the whole family. Also, try something different like audio books for the whole family to enjoy.
Let the teens plan the way.
One mom said she lets her teenagers plan the road trip and lay out places they want to stop and visit. I can see how this would give them more ownership of the trip and get them engaged. Another "Are we there yet?" solution.
It's Thanksgiving, don't forget the gratitude.
Teaching your children the importance of gratitude is a meaningful gift. Designate three or four points in time and have everyone in the car name something they are extremely grateful for, but don't stop there. Ask them why they are grateful and to tell a little story about the things they mention.
Save some fun for the trip home.
With the anticipation of your arrival ahead, the trip to your destination is always easier than the trip home. Stash away goodie bags and surprises to keep the fun fresh and alive while heading home. One year, I planted a surprise in my girls' bedrooms and told them they have something special waiting for them at home. This kept the mood happy since home did not mark the end of our fun-filled journey, only the next leg of it.
Most importantly, remember how much your mood and the things you say and do affect your child's disposition. If you act like you're dreading a long car ride, so will they. You may have to fake it at first, but remaining upbeat and positive will reduce the stress all around.
Join the fun. Please note your best tips in the comments section below.