The Family Travel Handbook
Our print-out-and-save guide to family vacations is packed with tips on planning and packing; coping with cars, airplanes, and hotels; eating well; and enjoying yourselves while away from home.
Buy a portable DVD player
Even if it only brings you 15 minutes of peace, it's worth it. Get an extra battery, too, and be sure it's charged (or you'll be looking at a meltdown). Leave the bulky plastic DVD boxes at home; instead, put a dozen disks into a slim carrying case. The new Pixar Short Films Collection ($30) is perfect for trips: The shorts are entertaining for all ages—even adults—and because each one is only a few minutes, you can easily control how much your child watches.
Get out of the car
On long road trips, take lots of breaks to play tag at a park, wander around a town, jump rope at a highway rest stop, or even go shopping at the mall. Everyone will stay saner and sleep better.
Create activity kits
Give kids something to look forward to: List facts and landmarks relating to every state you're passing through, in packets that aren't to be opened until you reach the state line.
Entertainment is a group effort
Driving doesn't have to be dead time. Choose books on CD like the Harry Potter or Narnia series that everyone will enjoy in the car; burn a CD together, with a few favorite songs chosen by each person, and play it on shuffle during the ride; give every child a map and solicit suggestions on where to stop; or organize scavenger hunts relating to the scenery and reward the person who spots the most silos, lighthouses, water towers, windmills, deer, or cacti. Websites like momsminivan.com list other ideas for activities, such as song lyrics for sing-alongs, that you can print out and bring with you.
Let someone else deal with car seats
If the only driving you'll be doing is to and from the airport, book a local car service and bring your own car seat for the ride. Many companies will hold on to your car seat while you're on vacation and have it ready at the airport when they pick you up for the ride home—and often they won't even charge anything extra.
What's the rush?
Stop as often as possible. Zoos, aquariums, and amusement parks are obvious, but there are lots of other roadside attractions that are worth a visit. These books are filled with off-the-beaten-path destinations and quirky facts: Weird U.S. by Mark Moran and Mark Sceurman ($20), Watch It Made in the U.S.A. by Karen Axelrod and Bruce Brumberg ($22), Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges into National Parks ($18), and Roadside Attractions by Brian Butko and Sarah Butko ($25).
Everybody loves presents
To keep kids occupied and on good behavior, periodically dole out treats or small new toys. They don't have to be fancy: Plastic fish or bugs, a finger puppet or two, or toy dinosaurs from a party or dollar store should buy an hour or two of relative peace. (Avoid toys that make noise.) Wrap each one up so kids have something to open, or use a grab bag. Parents with older kids can try giving them a $1 reward for every half hour they behave.