There is a family vacation paradox: We pursue family vacations to achieve togetherness and relaxation. And yet the getting there and getting home often leave us peeved and stressed.
I come from a long line of road trip devotees. My summers were spent driving from Cincinnati to Colorado – and all without tablets or movies or even GameBoys (the lack of GameBoys is an example of my parents’ infamous Daily Dose of Disappointment). These trips are some of my fondest memories, and I credit them with my love of music, appreciation for scenery, and close bond with my family.
Whether two hours or two days, the journey to Family Vacation is never an easy one. There is no wrong way to tackle it – you simply have to find the style that works best for you.
Allow me to introduce four Road Trip Personalities. What’s your style?
You get a screen, your kid gets a screen, everyone gets a screen!
Some call this the “Easy Button,” but there is nothing easy about more than three hours in a car with kids. Fortunately, giving everyone their own screen is the most likely to reduce bickering and boredom. In this digital age, you have a wide variety of options: tablets, phones, your old GameBoy, preschool laptops with a handful of ten-second melodies that will haunt your dreams for the next 10 years. You know what? Headphones are probably a good idea. Keep in mind that reception can get spotty in certain regions of the country, so download content before departure (or take a peek at The Simon & Garfunkel and The Rihanna for retro entertainment solutions). Whatever you do, don’t forget the charging cables. Unfortunately, this approach is not recommended for people prone to motion sickness.
The Norma Desmond
The van is big. It’s the pictures that get small.
You prefer that everyone watch one shared screen. This approach requires a certain level of negotiation and compromise, but it does offer a shared experience. These days, many vehicles offer streaming and SmartTV access, so the entertainment is nearly limitless. Additionally, this approach often works better for those prone to mild motion sickness due to the screen being farther away and the movement outside of the windows showing in the periphery. Of course, you’ll want to take the same precautions regarding reception, so be sure to have DVDs for back-up, and maybe grab a few packing suggestions from The Rihanna.
The Simon & Garfunkel
No screens until you are Homeward Bound.
This style, which I learned from TikTok creator @lackofimpulsecontrol, assumes that everyone is excited and well-rested on the way to the destination. The positive energy makes conversation, music, and collaborative games easier. On the way home, however, everyone is exhausted and dreading the process of unpacking and going back to work, so screens become permitted. Should you choose this approach, be sure to acquaint yourself with The Oprah personality type for digital needs on the ride home.
“No screens at all on the way there? But what do we do?” you might be asking. Here are a few of my favorite family entertainment games to help pass the time:
- Alphabet Game: It’s a race! Work your way through the alphabet finding words that begin with each letter. Words must be outside of the vehicle but can be on billboards, vehicles, street signs, etc. House rules will vary, but generally, players cannot use the same sighting of a word as another player. If the driver is playing, players may not use signs that you have to turn around to see. Watch out for the great equalizers: Q, X and Z.
- State License Plates: Have a map of the United States and color each state as you see a vehicle with that license plate. Bonus points if you are the first to name the capital of that state.
- Grandmother’s House: Collaborative storytelling game in which everyone shares what they are bringing to Grandmother’s house. Each item must begin with a new letter in the alphabet, and as it grows, players must remember the list. “I am going to grandmother’s house, and I am bringing an Apple.” “I am going to grandmother’s house, and I am bringing an Apple and a Blanket.” “I am going to grandmother’s house, and I am bringing an Apple and a Blanket and a Candle,” and so on.
- 20 Questions: One person thinks of something and everyone else tries to guess it using only Yes or No questions. This game is great because it can be as strict or as loosey-goosey as the players need. You can limit players to exactly 20 questions, or let people guess until they get it. You can provide categories as general as “Person, Place or Thing,” or you can get more specific like “Book” or “TV Character.”
- Name That Tune: Someone hums a part of a tune, and everyone else tries to identify the song. You can start with a short section, and gradually sing more and more of it until it is guessed correctly.
Please, don’t stop the music.
In this style, music is the only digital entertainment allowed. This is how I was raised, and I will personally die on this hill with my family. Growing up, we found that the most diplomatic approach to selecting music is to work clockwise around the vehicle to give each person a turn. This was straightforward in the age of CDs, but if you prefer streaming playlists, a time limit of about 30 minutes is a good guideline. Don’t forget about podcasts and audiobooks – there are plenty of options out there for kids, including:
- Circle Round: From WBUR, folk tales and music curated for kids
- Girl Tales: Feminist stories for a new generation
- Grimm, Grimmer, Grimmest: Retelling classic fairy tales to a group of kids who provide candid feedback – a definite must for someone who loves fairy tales but knows they could use some updating. Each episode is ranked by how “Grimm” it is so you don’t scare your children before they want to be scared.
Of course, headphones and iPods are also great for when you can’t take any more CocoMelon, your kids can’t take any more Jason Mraz, or someone implements my mother’s secret weapon “The Mommy Tape,” aka, 30 minutes of silence.
Depending on how long you’re in the car, this style may also require more “retro” methods of entertainment. Make sure you learn the collaborative games from The Simon & Garfunkel personality type. Additionally, fill a bag with the following supplies, all available from various online retailers:
- Car Bingo: Cardboard cards with illustrations of things you might see from the road (barns, power lines, RVs). Colorful sliding windows allow you to cover items as you see them. Card themes include Street Signs, Interstate Bingo, and State Highway for the more rural routes.
- Water Wow!, Magic Marker pads, Magna Doodle, Etch-a-Sketch: There’s nothing wrong with a bag of markers and blank paper, but you can reach the end of a 10-hour trip with a 3-year-old covered eyelash to fingertip in Crayola marker… not that I know from experience. If your kids are in that age range, mess-free options can give you peace of mind. Stickers are also excellent entertainment for those earlier years but know that some may end up on the windows.
- Travel Arcade Games: Sometimes called “Water Games” or “Push Button Games,” these are simultaneously fascinating and frustrating in their simplicity and difficulty. Good for those prone to motion sickness because it is easy to look up often.
- Travel Board Games: There is quite a market for travel board games, so stock up. Guess Who has a particularly effective adaptation, but Trouble and Battleship are great, too. And, frankly, I refuse to ever play Scrabble without the grid that locks tiles into place.
- BrainQuest Q&A Cards: A great way to keep brains sharp during the summer slide. Grab the deck that matches your kids’ ages, and quiz each other on a variety of trivia.
- Deck of Cards: It can be great for games on rainy days at your destination, and while in the car, learn to play one-handed solitaire. Much harder to win than you’d think, and a soothingly mindless way to pass time.
Lastly, I have three road trip hacks for all personalities:
- Portable Potty: Yes, the small plastic thing often used for potty training home. If you have children under the age of 6, pack it. Include a roll of toilet paper, some Lysol spray, and lots of plastic bags. This way, you need never fear seeing the sign “Next Exit 55 miles” just as your child says, “I gotta go!” And if you decide you need to use it, too, you will get no judgment from me.
- Barf Bucket: Kids are growing and changing so much, it’s hard to know when they’ll have motion sickness or when they’ll just eat too many McDonald’s fries. Keep a large bowl easily accessible, along with those paper towels and Lysol spray. If it’s motion sickness, hopefully, you’ll learn the signs and manage to catch everything by the second or third instance.
- Overnight Bag: Even if you’re not stopping at a hotel, pack a small bag with changes of clothes and toiletries because, frankly, stuff happens. Spills, accidents, vomit – being able to change clothes and freshen up without digging out the full-week suitcase will reduce your delays and stress.
Remember, it’s not about the destination. It’s about the road trip journey. Embrace the style that keeps you sane, buckle up, and enjoy the ride.