To make getting there part of the fun, you have to plan ahead. We normally plan 6-8 hour driving days (with an occasional 9-10 hour day) with an enjoyable stop each day. That way, the drive is part of the fun, and we always have something to look forward to. We also plan a couple of two-night stays into our itinerary to enjoy unique places and give ourselves a break from the car.
We use a mapping website, like www.mapquest.com, to plan out each day and then search the web to find interesting places to stop along the way. The kids have something to look forward to each day and a chance to run around and stretch their legs. It make the driving hours more bearable.
For example, on one of our trips to Oklahoma, we stopped at Luray Caverns in Virginia the first day, the Knoxville Zoo in Tennessee on the second day, a nature center with a hike on the third day on our way through Tennessee, and a city park with a playground on the last day through Oklahoma. See other example itineraries from our trips.
In the Car
No matter how you plan it, there will still be lots of long hours in the car! One of our favorite things to do on road trips is to listen to audio books. We've found some wonderful books that appeal to both of our boys (and to us, too). Sometimes, you can even choose a book that matches your journey, like the time we listened to Little House in the Big Woods while driving through Minnesota where Laura Ingalls Wilder first lived. The Chinaberry catalog offers many wonderful books on tape or CD. Often, we just borrow audio books from our local library or download them from iTunes or audible.com.
Besides audio books, our kids pack a small duffle bag of toys for the car and set it between them on the seat for easy access. They fill it with activity books, crayons or colored pencils, action figures, travel games - whatever stuff they most enjoy playing with at the time. They also have their pillows and some stuffed animals in the backseat with them. Our boys also bring their Gameboys along, although we set limits so the kids don’t miss too much of what’s going on around them.
Snacks are very important to help minimize stops and keep everyone happy. Each of us has a water bottle, and we pack a small soft cooler and a canvas bag with snacks. I try to pack plenty of nutritious snacks that will satisfy their appetites in between meals - Go-Gurts, sliced cheese and crackers, pretzels, peanuts, apples - plus some goodies.
For our first trip to South Dakota several years ago (1300 miles), I tried an extra incentive. I hung a string across the back of the front seats with a toy car tied in the middle. I put spring-loaded wooden clothespins on the left side of the string, each marked in 100-mile increments. Every 100 miles, our boys moved a clothespin to the right side of the string to mark how far we'd come. Every 300 miles, the mileage on the clothespin was written in red ink and they'd get a little surprise I had packed ahead of time. I had a bag with things like fruit roll-ups and gushers, tiny sets of cards or games, activity books, Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh cards. This really helped them to keep track of how far we'd gone (and how far we had left) and to anticipate the next milestone. This has become another road trip tradition in our family.
Our family enjoys long road trips. Some of our friends think we're crazy, especially since we travel without a portable DVD player, but all four of us look forward to our long days on the road together. Most summers we drive from Delaware to Oklahoma or South Dakota to visit family.
Our boys are now 10 and 13, and we've been taking long car trips with them since they were babies. We’ve learned some important lessons along the way that have made our road trip vacations the highlight of our year.