Put some pizzazz in your trips with these great ideas for a fantastic motorhome getaway.
By Helena Smrcek
One day my 9-year-old made this excited confession to me. “Mom, I love when you wake us up while it’s still dark, and we drive away. So, when can we go again?”
In our B.C. (before children) days, all we needed to get away was a map and a full tank of fuel. We’d pick a spot and be on our way. But with kids, spontaneity is out the window. We have learned, by trial and numerous errors, that regardless of whether we take our own kids or borrow someone else’s (with parental consent, of course), fun and fight-free travel requires a lot of homework.
Our planning starts several months before we leave the driveway. We’ve found that the first trick to creating a successful vacation is to involve the kids from the very beginning. Sometimes we even manage to creatively tie in a theme, following their school curriculum. French Lick, Indiana, for instance, offered a limestone industry, fossils, and nearby cave explorations. New Bern, North Carolina, provided not only the birthplace of Pepsi-Cola, but also a pirate hangout of the past. This summer we are set to travel through Virginia to Washington, D.C., and, if everyone behaves, we might take a short detour to New York City “” where Spider-Man swings from the Empire State Building in one of my son’s favorite movies.
Serious planning for us begins with a visit to www.mapquest.com. This site can provide trip routing that includes rest stops, exact mileage, and estimated time of travel. The site works well, but doesn’t forewarn about rush-hour traffic and construction. My husband, being the perfectionist he is, double-checks the route and looks for alternatives. And, of course, a good road map is always handy.
Using the MapQuest printout, we search on www.google.com for fascinating places along the route. We also look up the towns through which we’ll pass, hoping to find interesting local attractions “” a welcome break for the kids.
We like to visit www.nps.gov, the National Park Service site, because it affords both a geographical and a topical search. Then we follow up with detailed research on our destination, with suitable campgrounds along our way.
A master binder holds all of the information for the trip: booking confirmations; emergency contacts; and info about possible heritage attractions, including the hours of operation and phone numbers to avoid last-minute disappointments.
We develop historical expertise on our destination by consulting http://dmoz.org, a comprehensive site that provides not only travel information but also links to various governments’ sites, and much more. The state bureaus of tourism and local chambers of commerce are wonderful resources and usually will send information about the area. We typically phone or e-mail well in advance, to allow time for traditional postal mail to arrive before we leave. We love looking through the colorful brochures, cutting out interesting pages, and adding them to our master binder “” a keepsake in the making. Often we receive local road maps, which, in addition to a notepad and blank page protectors for memorabilia collected during our trip, complete our pre-trip binder.
A few days before the actual trip we let the kids choose a travel theme. Together we visit our local public library and stock up on related books, books on tape, and DVDs. I check out www.michaels.com for new, fun, and easy kids’ craft ideas, and make a point of visiting my favorite craft store. Then I visit a dollar store that offers an array of inexpensive mini puzzles, coloring books, window markers, and party favors. That’s one trip I make alone! All these great finds become the contents of the Magic Bag, which goes with us on our trip. For our 7-year-old artist, we also pack Sharpie Mini Markers. She loves to draw faces on rocks that she collects as we travel “” her unique, always original, souvenirs.
The pre-packed goody bags intended for birthday parties provide great excitement for young travelers. However, a word of caution: stay away from anything that makes noise.
Last year we added an interesting twist to our Magic Bag of ideas: the kids had to sing a song when they were ready to dip in the bag for another activity. Half of the fun was coaxing our “grown-up” son to sing what he considered “baby songs.”
The following Web sites are great sources for good old-fashioned games the whole family will enjoy on the road:
In addition, a book titled Take the Kids Travelling, Survive and Enjoy! ($16.95, Cadogan Guides) by Helen Truszkowski offers a wealth of advice. Although not written exclusively for motorhome travel, it is filled with wonderful ideas and useful information, addressing issues such as saving money, medical matters, and fun stuff to do.
For our son’s sake we alternate hands-on activities, games, and books on tape with a Game Boy, a portable Sony PlayStation, or whatever the newest gadget is. (But be aware that some kids develop motion sickness playing electronic games while on the road.) If all else fails, there is always the DVD player “” a worthwhile investment that can offer hours of peace in the midst of a boredom crisis.
Remember exercise breaks, too! This year, we are adding a stretch tote to our travel packing. We’ll fill it with Frisbees, jump ropes, and baseball mitts and balls, which will surely come in handy at rest stops. A short game of catch or a two-on-two Frisbee match gives us all a good stretch. We also pack chalk for hopscotch or an art attack on the parking lot pavement.
Now, a few words about safety. From the time our kids were very young, we drilled into them the “Don’t talk to strangers” rule, until a friend pointed out the obvious flaw. If they are not allowed to talk to strangers, how will they ever ask for help if lost? “Find a police officer” is also highly impractical advice, especially in a water park. Now, whenever we visit a tourist attraction or amusement park, we always first identify the “safe people” to ask for help. Our kids know that if there is no uniformed staff or store employee in sight, they are to find another mom with kids and ask for help. We keep our cell phones on; they are now old enough to remember the numbers.
Good snacks, of course, are of paramount concern when traveling with children. It’s easy to get into the drive-through habit while on a long trek, but there is a hidden cost, aside from the money spent at the cash register. The high fat and sugar content of many fast-food favorites can cause problems, especially in kids who suffer from hyperactivity from sweets, and frankly, what kid doesn’t? Strategic foresight includes involving the children in shopping for and packing our snacks.
The day before our big trip we make a special snack stop at the grocery store. As the children walk through the aisles, they each get three choices of their favorite snack, and three choices of a healthful snack, in an attempt to balance the junk food with some nutritional value. Between the two of them, by the time we are done shopping, we are well supplied. Creating small packages that resemble school lunches is fun for the kids and less work for Mom. With some supervision, they pack our surprise snack bags and help stock the refrigerated items on the eve of our travel. I allow no carbonated drinks en route, as kids always manage to make them fizz over onto the seats. We also limit the amount of juice they are permitted to pack; again, sugar content is a concern. Instead, we keep a case of bottled water at arm’s reach, so they can help themselves. A box of baby wipes also is essential for quick cleanups, and I keep an antibacterial hand cleanser at the ready.
Our last trick, and perhaps the most important one, is the departure time. We pack the night before and set our alarm clocks for very early in the morning. We allow the kids to sleep in their regular clothes “” part of the excitement. We tell them that we will wake them up after midnight “” that is, if they try their best to fall asleep as soon as possible. Many times the thrill of a trip is so great, they are almost too keyed up to sleep.
When we wake them up, they are so excited that they just jump out of bed, regardless of the hour. They know to bring their favorite blankets and pillows; we buckle them up, and they try to fall back asleep. It’s great to see their eyes close as we make a quick stop to fuel our own sleepy bodies with coffee. But this way, we usually get three to four hours of peaceful driving.
We have learned that long drives can become exciting and anticipated events, but it all depends on our preparedness. If we dread taking the kids on the road for days ahead of our departure, and are frustrated with everyone as soon as we pull out of the driveway, they’ll behave accordingly. If, on the other hand, despite all the work and packing, we manage to be enthused about our family trip, our attitude rubs off on them, and they join in. Our road trips furnish fun for everyone, but we also hope that the bond of great memories will seal our family ties for a lifetime.