Tips for Road Tripping with Kids (#4)

No need to buy a kid-tough digital camera from Fischer-Price, get a five year old Canon PowerShot at your local pawn shop: the photo quality is better and they shoot videos as well... And don't forget a little something for yourself too!

The fourth in our series of travel-tested road trip tips.

Tip #4. Get a cheap digital camera for the kids
This is one we discovered on the road trip we took this past June. I had to shoot a house in western North Carolina and meet up with an author in Nashville to go over an article. We hooked up with another author in Washington DC on the way down and then another in Chapel Hill, NC, on the return trip. It was a pretty ambitious road trip which took over two weeks. We had basically stopped using the point and shoot Canon PowerShot (state of the art in 2000) in favor of a modern SLR (Canon 20D), so we let Tommy use the PowerShot to chronicle the road trip. It was a great idea, and I think it'll work for others too. You'll probably want to upgrade the card, and make sure you have a battery charger that plugs into the cigarette lighter. We downloaded the photos onto my laptop at the end of the day and had a fun family photo viewing session (which bought an hour away from the TV). Check out Tommy's photo gallery here. The real fun part is that the camera also shoots video shorts, which kept Tommy enthralled for the entire return trip. If you want to check out the Fischer-Price kid-tough camera look here. They're around $70, but I'll bet you can get a good used canon for the same or less.

Tips for Road Tripping with Kids (#3)

Sometimes you've got to take what they give you. In fact, all the time, you've got to take what they give you.

The third in our ongoing series of road trip tips.
Most parents came to terms with the fact that they no longer have a life about three days into their first child. But many don't realize that this law transfers into roadtripping too. The drum roll please...

3. Don’t sweat the schedule

Schedule, schmedule. It's great to have goals, but the key to setting goals is to make sure they're realistic and achievable. Don't book a bunch of hotel rooms in advance only to cancel and pay the penalty. Book the room at supper time the night you want to stay there. We like to stay at Residence Inns by Marriott because they're very kid friendly, they allow dogs, and they're ubiquitous. Keep the 800 number handy and call ahead to see what's available and where.

Our kids are pretty road tested, so we can often get up to 500 miles in a day, but we feel lucky to pull off 350. Stop a lot, toss a ball or a Frisbee at the rest areas, walk the dog, and take what they give you. The point of a family vacation is to have fun, not to make time. If you really need to make up time, do it after supper when the kids fall asleep and you can drive without boring them silly.

Tips for Road Tripping with Kids (#2)

Forget about distracting the kids with a handful of vids; instead, keep them engaged with the real world. In fact, sometimes the whole family can actually learn something...

The second in our ongoing series of road trip tips. We've logged over 16,000 miles in the past four years with kids in the car (often with our 120 lb. Great Dane/German Shepard mix, the late, great Wookie).

Skip the DVDs, use books and other interactive media

DVDs make kids dumb, books don't. Puzzle-, coloring-, game-, and comic books can keep kids involved without creating that glazed-over vidiot look. A lot of times, we'll use a video as a reward for great behavior: at the end of the day, he can watch a movie. This works well because when it's dark in the van, it's hard to the read books. The down side is that movies keep kids awake.

The Klutz game book is a pretty good option (although there are lots of little game pieces that could get lost pretty quickly in the chaos of the backseat); there are quite a variety of activities in there. A yellow pad and a pencil keep Tommy busy for hours, but some kids may not be as enthralled with art as Tommy is. Magna-doodles are magnetic drawing slates that make learning to read and learning basic arithmetic fun. Etch-a-sketch works well (it helps if one of the parents is an etch-a-sketch wiz, as is Tinsley). A car seat tray is a convenient way to keep their toys, pencils, game pieces and goldfish off the floor.

One of the best tricks we've found is to give Tommy a road atlas with our route highlighted in yellow. As we make progress, Tommy tracks it with another highlighter pen (blue, green). Now, the signs and town names make a little more sense to him because he can see them out the window. And he doesn't have to ask "are we there yet?". Tip: don't try to share the atlas with your back seat adventurer, and don't get one with teeny maps, big maps are more interesting.

Ghost of Road Trips Past: Montana to Mexico and Back

A spring break road trip I took with a friend of mine, John Webb. We met some other friends down in San Felipe and had a great time on the beach for a week. John and I had the car repaired in about five cities (I can only remember San Luis Obispo and San Diego, but I'm pretty sure there were others... I remember pushing the car over the border to get back to the US so we could have it fixed again.

We stopped in Redwood National Park, drove down 101 to San Francisco, to Yosetite National Park, Sequoia National Park, to San Diego, where we had the alternator replaced (again?). Then down to Baja. The drive home was filled with something like mustard and lettuce sandwiches at 80 mph. Very little money left.

Meet the Family Road Trippers!

Tinsley, the Mom!

Dan, aka PhotoDad!

Tommy, the boy!

Lilly, "the Destroyer"

Here are many of the Family road trips we've enjoyed. Tinsley and I started our journey through life together by renting a Ryder truck (one of the big ones) with a vehicle trailer carying Tinsley's Toyota pickup on the trailer. We parked my Toyota in the back of the Ryder truck and packed stuff around it. We packed my expensive acoustic guitar under the truck for protection, but it turned out to be not such a great idea. Luckily, I have a very strong guitar case.

We stopped at Mount Rushmore.
Almoston the way up the mountain in fact.

Here's a tip: Don't ever park a truck inside of another truck, put a third truck on the big heavy trailer and then load all three trucks with stuff (put a canoe and a moped on one of them), and then drive up a mountain. Luckily, I haven't developed any tips about backing a big Ryder truck hauling a trailor down Mt. Rushmore during the busy season.

We drove to Tennessee, which was our new home base for three years until we moved to New England. Now we make frequent trips to Nahville, North Carolina, Washington DC and Maine as part of my job.

Three Word Games You can Play in the Car

The miles go faster and familes are happier when the kids are having fun (besides, word games are free and they don't have little plastic pieces to lose)

When you're spending more than a few hours in the car, your kids are bound to get tired of the activity books you've packed for them. A road atlas of their own helps, but when it gets dark, those activities are out of the question. Word games help kids' eyes grow droopy, and that's good news for parents. There are hundreds of word games to play; here are three for the first installment of this series. A couple of these games are well known and one is our own invention (Name That Instrument).

1. Essence: Guess a person based on questions relating to their essence.
Good for kids over 7 or 8, depending on their level. You can do it with younger kids, but you need to scale down the skill level, maybe limit it to people in the car and those you're traveling to visit. The leader of the game thinks of a person that everybody in the car knows personally. The other players each ask questions to the leader that focus on the person's essence. Such questions sound like: If this person were a tree, what kind of tree would this person be? Tip: For some reason, these questions are more fun to say in a quasi-French accent ("If zees person were a tree, what kind of tree would zees person be?") Whoever guesses correctly, wins; if no one can figure it out, nobody wins.

2. Name That Tune/Name That Instrument
Good for kids 6 years old and under. This isn't like the old TV game show; you don't try to name the tune in a certain number of notes. Guess the song that an individual is humming. The simplicity of this game can be deceiving: after going beyond "Happy Birthday" and "If You're Happy and You Know It" move on to pop, country and heavy metal hits. For added complexity, the humm-or should mimic a particular instrument. Charades are often helpful for the instrument portion of this, but it gets tricky for the driver; harmonica and other one-handed instruments work well for drivers. You don't need to combine the games, you can do either as a stand aloner game or both for added fun. Everyone's a winner in this game.

3. The State Capital Game
Good for kids five and up. Name the capital, given the state name. All you need is a road atlas. Of course, you need to study up on the capitals. This is a game that's best played repeatedly over a long road trip, as you pass through many states, and in order to gain memorization through repetition. We have a placemat for Tommy with a US map and their capitals on it. he reads it every day at breakfast and dinner. Not only does he know where every state in the union is, but he knows almost all the capitals on any given day. And we know most of them now too!

What word games does your family play on road trips?

Three Tips for Happy-Dog Road Trips

Maximize space by minimizing potential hassles

Our dogs have made nearly every road trip we've ventured on. From western Montana to Nashville, TN, to Lisbon Falls, ME to Connecticut, to North Carolina, to Washington, DC and Ocean City, MD, to Nashville and back to Connecticut. They logged a lot of miles. They're both gone now, running around on the other side of the Rainbow Bridge .

Dogs aren't too picky about traveling with you, they're typically happy just to go along, but there are some things you need to think about to make life better for Spot.
Here are a few tips:

1. Get a small dog
Do as we say, not as we do. Our heroes were a German Shepard and a Great Dane/German Shepard mix (see wookie in the left column). Big dogs are big fun, but they're a big pain in the neck on a road trip. They eat big amounts of food, which takes up big amounts of space in a small vehicle (anything but a Ryder truck is small compared to a big dog). Everything about big dogs is big. It's very hard for us to recommend against a big dog, but if you're looking for a road trip dog, go small. Look at the dogs that truck drivers travel with: little guys. Assuming you've already got a dog, we're certainly not going to recommend trading down, so you'll have to change the strategy: think of big ways to reduce your space needs.

2. Ice cubes are a good way to water the dog while driving
Ice cubes don't spill, and if they do, Ol' Rex can chomp them up before they melt. Place them in a wide shallow dish that won't tip over in the back of the van, and Fido can chomp ice cubes while laying down. You'll typically already have ice cubes in the cooler, so if you water the Woofer with them, you won't need to spend the floor space on water jugs; Sparky'll appreciate the spare room.

Ice cubes aren't a substitute for properly watering Frisky, you still need to give her plenty at the rest stops, but it's a good way to reduce the stuff you stuff in the minivan, and it's a nifty way for Snuffy to pass the time.

3. Residence Inn and Cracker Barrel
I rack up a lot of Marriott rewards points traveling for work, so I like to stick within the system; aside from that though, Residence Inn is one of the few family-friendly hotel chains that allows dogs. There's a free breakfast bar, which has nothing to do with the dog, but makes the family trip a heck of a lot easier (and cost effective). Consider how much breakfast costs: $10 for each adult, $7 for each kid, 15% tip (with two kids, that's 1/3 of the price of a hotel room) and the time invested...

Cracker Barrel doesn't allow dogs, but the parking lots are very, very big, and they usually have decent sized trees so you can pull around far in the back, find a shady parking spot with a private grassy area to walk Poopsie. Tip: when in the south, order fried catfish with beans n' greens. When in the north, don't. Go with the meatloaf and mashed potatos.

What rest areas and/or accommodations have you found to be especially dog-friendly?

Put this on your Roadtrip ipod

'Bottom-40' Country Music Hits
Foggy Mountain Breakdown -- Flatt & Scruggs (start every day with this song)
Hot Rod Lincoln -- Commander Cody
Highway Patrol -- Junior Brown
On the Road Again -- Willie Nelson
Happy Trails -- Sons of the Pioneers
Georgia on a Fast Train -- Billy Joe Shaver
Slow Train Through Georgia -- Norman Blake
Lost Highway -- Hank Williams
I've Been Everywhere -- Johnny Cash
Ramblin' Man -- Hank Williams
Ramblin' Man -- The Allman Brothers Band
City of New Orleans -- Arlo Guthrie
Alice's Resatraunt -- Arlo Guthrie
Route 66 -- Asleep at the Wheel
Dance with Who Brug You -- Asleep at the Wheel
Amarillo by Morning -- George Strait
Amarillo Highway -- Robert Earl Keene Jr.
Silver Spurs and Gold Tequilla -- Robert Earl Keene Jr.
Car Wheels on a Gravel Road -- Lucinda Williams
Like a Rolling Stone -- Bob Dylan
Big River -- The Highwaymen (J. Cash, W. Nelson, K. Kristofferson, W. Jennings)
Tombstone Every Mile -- Dick Curless
Convoy -- C.W. McCall
She Keeps the Home Fires Burnin' -- Ronny Milsap
Keep on Truckin' -- Greatful Dead
The Fly that Rode From Buffalo -- Southern Culture on the Skids
Old Home Filler-Up An' Keep On-A Truckin' Cafe -- C.W. McCall
Wolf Creek Pass -- C.W. McCall
Broke Down South of Dallas -- Junior Brown
L.A. Freeway -- Guy Clark
Traveler's Prayer -- Dolly Parton (really)
East Bound and Down -- Jerry Reed
King of the Road -- Roger Miller

Soul Music
Soul Man -- Sam and Dave
Night Train -- James Brown

and here's a link from Fodor's Forum on this topic.

What's on your roadtrip ipod?