Whoever said “Getting there is half the fun” probably never drove cross-country in a minivan with three cranky kids and a carpet of crushed potato chips underfoot. But piling everyone in the car is still not only a cheap way to go, it’s also an American tradition: According to AAA, in 2012 between 85 and 90 percent of summer holiday travelers made the journey by car. And though extended vehicular togetherness always has its pitfalls (we’re looking at you, hundredth repeat of “Let It Go”), a little pretrip strategy should help you ride it out in peace.
The Plan: Give Your Car a Checkup
Check the air pressure of the tires and the coolant level, and make sure you’re up-to-date on oil changes. If you’re traveling a long distance, it wouldn’t hurt to have a technician give you the official go-ahead. (Since forewarned is forearmed, find out how often you really need to replace key auto parts.) You can budget for gas by checking fuelgaugereport.aaa.com, which makes an estimate based on your starting and ending points as well as the make, model, and year of your car.
Get all passengers involved during the planning stage—yes, that means the small fry, too. “When parents say, ‘We’re going to drive from Chicago to San Francisco,’ kids can get stressed-out, because they don’t know what to expect,” says Elizabeth Foy Larsen, a mom of three and a coauthor of Unbored: The Essential Field Guide to Serious Fun ($25, amazon.com).
Before long trips, Larsen’s family sits down with a map to discuss which cities might make good overnight stops. Each person gets to pick an attraction that he or she would like to visit along the route. That way, everybody has something to look forward to.
3 of 6Michele Gastl
Set a Realistic Timeline
This isn’t The Amazing Race, so don’t schedule eight-hour driving days, which will tire kids and adults alike. Larsen suggests five to six hours on the road, plus multiple breaks. (AAA recommends stopping every two hours or 100 miles.) In the middle of the day, break for a couple of hours. “Even if a stretch isn’t particularly exciting,” says Larsen, “you can surely find some reason to stop”—a park, a kooky attraction, a diner with a decent ice cream list.
To find out what’s along the way, download the apps Road Ninja and Roadside America. For local restaurant recommendations— including such regional specialties as New Mexico green chili cheeseburgers—go to roadfood.com. Factory tours can also be surprisingly interesting. (At factorytoursusa.com, you’ll find a state-by-state list of places that make everything from potato chips to baseball bats.)
4 of 6Jim Franco
Pack Secret Weapons
Of course you should have the basics: first-aid kit, jumper cables, flashlights, batteries, food, and water. One lesser-known lifesaver is gallon-size Ziploc bags, says Suzanne Rowan Kelleher, a family-travel expert at the travel site MiniTime.com. “They’re ideal for messy snack trash, like banana peels,” she says. “The airtight seal also makes them the perfect barf bag in a pinch. I just wish they were opaque!”
Also indispensable: a universal electronics charger (from about $9, amazon.com) that plugs into the car’s cigarette lighter. You can use its USB port to power up smartphones, tablets, laptops, cameras, and other gadgets. If you have many devices, get one with two ports so you can charge a couple at once.
5 of 6Laurie Frankel
Ever wonder why reading or looking at a screen can make a passenger’s stomach start churning? Motion sickness often happens when the eyes aren’t in sync with the inner ears. The brain is constantly monitoring the body’s position through input from the eyes, the inner ears, and the somatosensory system, which informs a person about her environment through touch and the position and movement of body parts, says Susan S. Blum, M.D., M.P.H., the founder and director of the Blum Center for Health, in Rye Brook, New York.
“When you walk, your brain can easily estimate how you’re supposed to hold your head because it’s getting the appropriate feedback from your legs and eyes,” says Blum. “But when a car is moving your body and you’re looking at something stationary, like a book, the mismatch of information can cause you to feel nauseated.” If you or your kids are carsick-prone but simply must read or watch a movie, keep the book or the device at eye level and take periodic breaks to glance out the window. This will recalibrate the signals between the eyes and the brain.
If you start to feel sick, look out the front windshield or move to the front seat and stare at the horizon so your eyes won’t be met with landscape that’s whip- ping by. Blum recommends ginger, which studies have shown eases motion sickness in naval cadets at sea. She also suggests this acupressure technique: Using your thumb, apply pressure to the underside of your wrist, about two inches below your palm and between the two tendons. (This is the principle behind the acupuncture wristband Sea-Bands; $11 at drugstores.) If these measures don’t work, one over-the-counter remedy is Bonine ($5 for a package of eight, at drugstores), a chewable motion-sickness tablet thought to be less sedating than Dramamine.
6 of 6Pascal Preti/Getty Images
Head Off the Fighting
Kelleher prevents kids’ backseat battles by giving each one his own roll of painter’s tape at the start of the trip to mark off territory. “People laugh, but it works,” she says. “They wind up creating these elaborate floor-to-ceiling walls with the tape, so it also keeps them busy for a while. And it’s easy to pull it down and wad it up at the end of the trip.”
Larsen likes to bring along each kid’s sleeping bag, which, she says, “helps them create their own personal space.” Most of the time, she says, kids (and adults) get cranky because they’re tired, hungry, or bored. When the bickering reaches a fever pitch, the best way to defuse the situation is to make good on that time-honored threat: Pull over. Let everyone (including you) get out of the car to blow off steam.