Parenting: Traveling With Kids - Older Kids

David Murphy says the older kids get, the more they remember and absorb while traveling.

July 7, 2010 8:53:08 AM PDT
Once your kids get into grade school, they become much easier travel companions, because they can comprehend the value and excitement of a vacation.

Teenagers can be even more fun, because they can join in an almost unlimited range of activities, and can even play a role in planning a vacation. Plus, they can help lug the luggage!

But no matter what the age, keeping the gang occupied between the hotels, campgrounds, or tourist destinations (especially if there's a lot of driving or flying involved) is one of any parent's biggest family vacation challenges. I would recommend approaching this the same way you would approach kid entertainment during a rainy, boring day at home. Assuming you're like me and have not yet graduated to a car with those built-in TV screens mounted to the seats or ceiling, absolutely bring a laptop or one of those small, inexpensive DVD players ($64 - &189 at my favorite electronics store). I've heard purists suggest that this is a bad idea, since it discourages kids from looking out the window and experiencing what's around them. These are people who have little practical experience with family travel. The truth is the average kid will not have an unlimited interest in passing scenery, even if the drive involves some new part of the country with different geological features. Having some movies to watch will not only be a diversion, it's something that you can build-up ahead of time as one of the fun things about travel. I'm fine with setting limits on time spent watching movies, or ground rules like, "When we're driving over the Golden Gate Bridge, you have to turn that thing off and LOOK OUT THE WINDOW!" But in general, both in the car or on a plane, DVDs are a great time-killer.

Travel writer Jennifer W. Miner suggests surprising the kids with a new DVD during the trip, rather than simply asking them to watch the same Sponge Bob cartoons over and over again. I think this is a great idea, but I'd go further than that. Hide two or three DVDs they haven't seen in your suitcase, and surprise them with a new one more than once, especially on days when you have a lot of travelling to do.

By the way, be sure to hide any electronics well whenever you get out of the car. This includes power cords. You want to make it look like slim pickings for any thief. At night, we bring all valuables into our hotel room, and we use the room safe.

To Game or Not To Game

If the kids want to bring their Game Boys, iPods, and cell phones, I'd let them. Just make sure they know they're responsible if the gadgets get lost. I would also make a rule that these items are only for the "down time" portions of the trip, and are not to be constantly attached to hands and ears. You'll find that most kids will agree to this, although the 14-to-16-year old age bracket may give you trouble.

Non-Electronic Options

While this next suggestion may make some of you cringe, I'm also going to suggest more traditional travel entertainment. A good old-fashioned game of "20 Questions" (which is free, by the way) can be a lot of fun, as long as it's not over-used. Spotting license plates from different states can also be a nice diversion, or counting a certain kind or color of car or truck. When I was a grade schooler, Roadway and Yellow were two big truck lines. I kept score in my head or on paper as to which turned up more often, and I even got my sisters to help out. Also consider taking out family-friendly books-on-tape (or CD) from your local library (also free).

Most of all, don't forget about conversation. How rare is it that parents and children actually have time together with no distractions? Start talking about old family memories and see where it takes you. A long morning in the car can be a great time to tell the kids about their family history, how mom and dad met, or the day they were born.

Stomach-Smart Snacks

As for snacks, yes, they're important. But as mentioned in my Kids Travel ? Infants and Toddlers blog, be careful about relying too heavily on candy. First of all, too much of that can lead to a kid with a bellyache which is no fun for anyone. Second, too much sugar can make them a little hyper. We made this mistake early on, and came to refer to candy as "Bags O' Aggravation". Now, we supplement our Whoppers or Twizzlers with things like raisins, crackers, mozzarella sticks, and popcorn. We usually go for bottled water, juice, or Gatorade for drinks. Each morning, find a grocery store and get some fresh strawberries or grapes. If you're driving, bring along a mini-cooler for perishables (something that can sit at your feet or between seats). You can get free ice for it each morning from the hotel ice machine. If it's a fly-and-drive vacation, you can pick-up a small Styrofoam cooler at most convenience stores for a few dollars, and then just give it away or trash it at the end of the trip (although, I admit, the eco-friendly among you might not be comfortable with the "trash" option).

Read more Parenting Perspective blogs by visiting the Parenting Channel on