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Summer road trips: Parents share tips on surviving and even thriving

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Here are some travel tips from parents who've learned from experience how to keep kids happy on long car rides. Remember, it's not the destination, it's the journey (and it can be fun.)
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Road trips with family are awesome. Journeys on the open road can provide memories that last a lifetime and bring families closer together... or the confined space of the car can drive your kids, and you, to the very limits of your patience and sanity.

Experience is a great teacher for these kinds of situations, so we asked parents on our Public Insight Network to share their tips and stories from previous trips with their kids.

Have one to share? You can fill out the query here.

Remember, it's not the destination, it's the journey (and it can be fun.)

First stop: Book store

"First stop is Half-Price Books, even though two of our three don't really read on their own. We get a bunch of kid-friendly graphic novels, which allow them to at least read a little of what is going on through the visuals. We also enjoy books on CD. We have found that giving them screen time on either a tablet, or portable DVD player, only leads to drama and disappointment, once they are told to turn them off, so we have moved away from that. ... We truck hard (my dad was a truck driver), so we try to keep our girls motivated by finding hotels with pools that they can swim in upon arrival." — P. J. Wiggins, Fridley

"We really enjoy audio stories. On one of our trips, we listened to Harry Potter 1-7. That kept the children and adults busy the whole trip. Most older kids sit next to a younger kid and has to share his/her kindle or other media device with them. ... Kids need food and water to be happy. Everybody has a water bottle and we buy gallons of water every time we buy gas to refill them. And I always keep a cooler with fruits, veggies and bars (often lunch too)." — Raya Newbold, Pine River

"Keep electronics off limits until the last possible moment — we have our kids spend at least two hours doing something else first before they can access their devices, even watching a movie. We do easy old standbys — the license plate game, 20 questions, travel bingo and then move to hangman and paper-based games. Magnetic paper doll/colorforms type things are good too. And we always make a stop at the bookstore before we go so they have something really good to read." — Mary Haugh

 Make time for yoga, make time for you

"We take frequent stops at rest areas and take movement/potty breaks. I like to stop for picnic lunches when I can. We play tag or do yoga/stretch before getting back in the car. I also break up the trips so that we don't go more than 6 hours a day if I can help it!" — Shandra Prowell, St. Louis Park

"This depends largely on the child. Our daughter is artistic and will spend hours sketching and coloring. So we plan for that. Our son likes fiddling with technology, so we provide educational projects that keep his attention. We'd also stash some surprises for the times when kids get impatient or tired. An unexpected activity or toy can go a long way to steering behavior and cooperation back on track. A new coloring book or toy buys precious peace and quiet when we need it most. ... The most difficult travel seems to be when we, the adults, are stressed, tired, or otherwise uncomfortable. Patience runs out more quickly and children reflect our attitudes. Maybe the lesson is the one flight attendants stress — take care of yourself first, then you can better accommodate the children." — Chris Buhs, St. Cloud

Hwy. 210 reopened more than five years after it was closed due to floods.
Highway 210 through Jay Cooke State Park on Oct. 4, 2017.
Dan Kraker | MPR News 2017

Pillows, treats and other surprises

"Pillows are good. Stopping for stretches are good. Singing at the top of our lungs is always good." — Bonnie Kloos, St. Croix Falls

"I have each kid pack a car toy bag (and then I check it over). Each has books to read, coloring/writing supplies, a lovie or two, a blanket and their old school Samsung tablet with charging cords and earbuds. We also have a portable DVD player that ONLY comes out on trips that will be 4 hours or more. I set aside special markers/paper/games especially for car trips AND keep a reserve 'surprise' creative toy on hand in case things get hairy. I lean toward open-ended/creative toys over other options ... e.g. a quarter yard of colorful fabric was good for a couple hours entertainment on one trip. It's a hat! It's a cape for your stuffed animal! It's a bookmark! It's a napkin for your snack! It's a sun shade!" — Andrea Lorek Strauss, Rochester

"We give them some money they can spend (or keep for later) usually $10-20. Make it cash they can hold which makes it real and leads to cute point of sale interactions." — Jeff Cook

"I try and plan a surprise for during the trip — a book that hasn't come out of the basement in a while, a stocking stuffer that is a cool car toy, or a snack that we don't typically have at home. Many rules are relaxed on the road, but we maintain the general structures from home. Yes, stopping at DQ on the way to the cabin is a tradition, but then the snacks for that trip are nuts, fruit, veggies, etc." — Mercedes Sheldon

"Snacks are rationed. You get something when we stop for gas and that's it. No asking in between stops. The only stops we make are for gas, bathroom emergencies and if there's a cool scenic overlook." — Lisa McWilliams

"Behave and earn a small treat (e.g. a piece of candy or gum) or misbehave and lose out." — Matthew Davis

 Skip the motel room? 

"Our first long road trip was from Minnesota to Colorado via South Dakota with an 8-year-old son (and ADHD poster child) and twin 3-year-old daughters. They had us awake at 4 a.m. on one of our last nights at a hotel. We skipped the next night's hotel stop in Nebraska and drove straight through to home. If kids won't let you sleep, there's no point paying for a hotel room. Hotels can be really hard on families. I think of all the nights we spent waiting for kids to settle while we parents sat on the floor in the bathroom, tried not to bark at the kids and tried to read a book to pass the time. If you can, splurge on a second room or a cabin or go camping — kids need space and to run and make noise. If they have to reign that in all day at museums or in the car, they have to let it out somewhere. Don't be afraid to complain if a property is really bad, too." — Lisa Meyers McClintick, St. Cloud

 All in this together

"They had their own maps and we'd navigate together. We also bought the 'Klutz' activity books — they included games and colored pencils for tic-tac-toe, etc." — Katie Cross, Minneapolis

"Our first trip with him was when he was 1-month-old. We went from Grand Marais to Sanibel Island, Florida. It took us three days. We learned that it is never too young to take a kid on the road. ... We keep an eye on him, but most important is to select locations that pose little danger to him, so he can explore without us trying to reign him in." — Bryan Hansel, Grand Marais

"I think you have to remember that road trips are about experiencing something together. Sometimes your kids won't appreciate it at the time but believe me they'll surprise you by referring to something they learned on the trip years later. My oldest son just thanked me for all of our road trips, after he went away to college out of state. He said he 'always had some travel memory to pull out when someone talked about their hometown.' He said he could strike up a conversation with almost anyone with what he remembered from our travels. (Please note that my oldest son was often the crankiest member of our road-tripping parties). On a longer trip, there will be moments of boredom and conflict and worry (hopefully not too many), but you shouldn't beat yourself up about them. A road trip isn't the same as a 2-day trip to Disneyland. The kids won't be deliriously happy every minute. Tell yourself that the point of a road trip is about building those memories. They'll remember the time they stood at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis and paid their respects to Dr. Martin Luther King. They won't remember that they once threw a fit about not being able to find their favorite socks buried in the wrong suitcase at the bottom of the pile in the car." — Rachel Coyne

"If they are old enough, have the kids do a little research on the various towns you will be driving through, and if they want to stop and check the town out, yes!" — David Poretti, Minneapolis

"We like to have a theme and then watch movies related. For instance, search for VE bugs and watch Herbie movies; dress like the 80s and watch 'Back to the Future.' Plan to visit museums, watch 'Night at the Museum' in the car. I like to get the free booklets from places we plan on visiting and when the kids were little we could cut out pictures and make a 'vision board.' As they got older it turned into powerpoints. Auto bingo with wrapped prizes. We still shop before travelling and everyone picks out a book or activity book, plus assorted snacks and everyone gets a bag of snacks to eat at their own pace." — Robin Saner, Rochester

 There's always Benadryl

"We always leave for our destination in the evening, so the kids fall asleep in their car seats. That might not work for everyone, but it has been great for us! When we depart for home the kids are usually so tired from a weekend of playing outside they usually zonk right out for the majority of the trip no matter what time, but we still try to leave close to afternoon nap time. One-ish." — April Bjorklund

"Young kids (with limited potty-training experience) on long road trips. We allowed them to earn 25 cents for each time they tried to go at a designated stop and 50 cents for each time they actually went at a designated stop. They earned their souvenir money that way. It worked great! For long flights (we've had many 24 plus hour flying trips with kids from 6 months-10 years) we've asked our doctor about Benadryl to help kids sleep (at appropriate times one long, many time-zone trips) and have found it works for our kids (it doesn't for all so must be tested in advance). Benadryl enabled us, parents, to get some much-needed breaks/sleep that ultimately enabled us to be better parents over long and trying travel periods." — Angela Gupta, Rochester