How to travel with kids (and live to tell the story)

I’m diverging a little from Picture Book Monday right now because, while I have several posts-in-progress on Picture Books, this topic came up on Facebook, and I thought it (and an accompanying post on good traveling books and audiobooks) would be useful.

Over the years, our family has put hundreds of thousands of miles on one minivan, and now a second, in traveling with kids. And while our children are now in the teen/tween years, I still recall the challenges of pre-reader traveling.

Some of the strategies we’ve developed work well not just with younger kids, but with older ones as well. And most of these involve books.

Without further ado, here are four strategies for traveling with children (and living to tell the story):

1.  Name it and claim it: your kids are good travelers.

Repeat this to yourself and to your children all the time. Use the phrase so much, whether it’s a trip to Target or church, that either it becomes true, or it becomes your family’s perception of truth. And the latter is more important, because how you approach and view a trip goes a long way towards your enjoyment of a trip, before, during and after.

I’m not saying this because our trips are always flawless. Our family has experienced, sometimes within the space of one hour: carsickness, the throwing of books, the throwing of food, the throwing of shoes, crying, hitting, fighting, biting or attempted biting, complaining and other bad behavior.

Traveling with kids is not going to be pretty, sometimes.

But sometimes, traveling with kids is great, and you need to focus on those times. And when you’re talking about your trips, don’t dwell on the carsick/hitting/fighting hour (or hours), but instead on the fun times you had.

perspective really is everything

We have several trips as a family that, frankly, if I could count up the carsickness or other negatives (see above), it would sound like a trip through a deep dark place. But our kids now talk about some of these trip as “the most fun ever” because we remember the Utz chips we got, or hiking a tiny portion of the Appalachian Trail (we saw a sign for this once and left the highway–it was well worth the detour) or listening to Narnia CDs.

Your kids are good travelers. Really.

2.  Employ the principle of “halfway.”

This is probably my favorite traveling strategy with kids, and one we use in various ways. When our kids were younger, we primarily used “halfway” with DVDs on a trip.

[I know some families on principle will not use DVDs or other devices on car trips. Some of these are my dearest friends, and so I say this with affection only, that their motivation is perhaps time off purgatory? Because strategically used, DVDs (and these days, devices like iPads) can be golden on trips.]

“Halfway” means that we wait until more than half of a trip, or a day’s journey, before we pop in a DVD or break out the devices. This basically eliminates the constant questions about “when can I play on the iPad?” or “when can we watch a movie?” because the answer is always: “halfway.”

This photo “kind of” (or halfway) illustrates halfway, and it’s really beautiful, too.

So, for instance, on our regular trip to Columbus, Ohio, which is almost exactly 400 miles, we would stop on the east side of Indianapolis. That is usually about 220 miles into the trip. (That doesn’t mean we wouldn’t stop before then for bathroom breaks or other things, just that this one was our planned “halfway” stop).

At “halfway,” the kids would pick out a DVD to watch. If it were a full-length movie, we’d be almost to Columbus by the time it was over, and the last bit of driving was usually easy.

On a longer, multi-day trip, we would know how far we were going in a day. So, for instance, on a 600-mile day, we would wait until 300 miles or thereabouts to break out the DVD or devices. It helps kids (and parents…) practice delayed gratification, and it helps the DVDs be most effective, in giving kids and their parents a rest.

Have we always used “halfway”? No. I recall one day’s journey that was slated to be close to 700 miles. In the first hour, a child got carsick over several car seats and a good portion of the back of the van. By the time we had cleaned everything and everyone up and continued on our way, it was time for a DVD (and some deep breathing for mom & dad).

But overall, our kids know the “halfway” strategy, and it works well for us.

If you don’t use DVDs or devices (to which I again ask, why, oh my people?), you could use the “halfway” strategy for stopping for a special treat, or breaking out small toys to play with. I’ve used “halfway” successfully just for me, to put off eating Utz chips or dark chocolate M&Ms during a trip, my trip treats.

3.  Books are your friends (especially audiobooks)

As mentioned, I plan to do a post in the very near future of great books for trips, but more importantly, audiobooks for trips, especially for different age groups.

Younger kids can be especially be drawn into audiobooks, and even long stretches of listening don’t seem to cause the crankiness that too much DVD time seems to spawn.

In general, I wouldn’t use the “halfway” strategy for audiobooks, but I also wouldn’t start a trip with an audio CD. I would definitely use the first half-hour or hour of travel to enjoy the novelty of the ride. We say our traveling prayer (more on that next), we all get settled into our seats and maybe play with something or begin reading (or looking at) a favorite book. This can easily be stretched out for 20 minutes-half an hour.

But after the bloom wears off, it may be time for starting an audiobook. I have fairly good-sized collection of audiobooks that we own, and I’ve imported into iTunes. I also borrow audio CDs from the library to use for trips.

Two important provisos in using audiobooks on trips:

–proviso one: remember C.S. Lewis: “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally – and often far more – worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.” This goes double for an audiobook that everyone will be listening to. Please choose something that everyone will enjoy, not just children.

(As an example: one of my children went through a “Magic Tree House” book reading phase; they are great for emergent readers. But as a read-aloud or audiobook, especially on a trip, those books would be death, at least to me).

So choose a good quality audiobook with a good narrator. If the driver, like my husband, isn’t sometimes as eager about a particular audiobook or narrator, you can divert the sound to the back of the vehicle.

–proviso two: sometimes you have to use audiobooks in small doses, say, half-hour increments. Sometimes an audiobook may be a challenge for kids, and while 30 minutes can work well, longer might tax their attention.

If we find an audiobook choice (or the prospect of said audiobook) not as appealing, sometimes I’ll say, “let’s give it 20 minutes” and often it captures our attention. If not, we pick out another one.

4.  Start with prayer.

Perhaps I should have started this discussion sharing about the power of prayer, but I think this is also a good way to wrap up. Our family starts each day of a trip with a prayer from a Franciscan prayer book my husband got for me when we were first married. It’s dog-eared, and I found it buried in a door well of the minivan at the moment.


But we all know this prayer of “traveling by vehicle” by heart now, and it’s a beautiful beginning to any trip:

Lord God, be well-disposed to our prayers, and bless this vehicle with your holy hand. Appoint your angels as an escort over it, who will always shield its passengers and keep them safe from accidents.

And as once by your deacon Philip, you bestowed faith and grace upon the Ethiopian seated in his carriage and reading Holy Writ, show also now the way of salvation to your servants, in order that, strengthened by your grace, and ever intent upon good works, they may obtain, after all the successes and failures of this life, the certain happiness of life everlasting, through Christ our Lord, Amen.

Do you have a favorite strategy for traveling with kids?  Other moms have offered some great ideas for traveling with small ones.  Here’s just one link to Bonnie’s ideas for making it a fun trip and here is one by Dianna Kennedy with 10 top tips.  Do you know of any other good ones?

3 thoughts on “How to travel with kids (and live to tell the story)”

  1. Great tips, Nancy. I am going to remember ‘halfway’ and ‘let’s give it 20 minutes.’ Nice.

    1. Anne, the “halfway” tip is from hard-knock experience, from having done exactly the opposite and having to live with the inevitable crankiness. The “let’s give it 20” I started when meeting resistance to someone reading a “classic.” For instance, some months back I offered my then 9-year-old “The 21 Balloons.” He was not enthused, and I said, “I’ll put on the kitchen timer for 20 minutes, and if you don’t like it, you can put it down for today.” He went off with it and came back several hours later saying, “Wow, that was a really good book!”

  2. Great tips, Nancy. We will try the “halfway” tip soon, too. Our kids are pretty good travelers, most of the time. We have only done a few longer trips, but regularly do a 180 mile trip to visit grandparents. One of the things we have learned is just to have a different mid-set about traveling. We are not going to arrive in the three hours that Google maps says the trip should take. We are going to take the breaks we need- for bathrooms, snacks, nursing the baby, or play. (We know all the parks and even the rest stops with playgrounds on the way to visit any of our family).

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