Parenting: Traveling With Kids - Taking The Car

For a kid, seeing the country from ground-level can make a big impretion.

July 7, 2010 8:52:54 AM PDT
One of the biggest obstacles to any family vacation is cost, especially when there's distance involved, and the cheapest way for parents and kids to cover ground is easily by car.

This is particularly true when there are more than three or four people involved. Plane tickets---even cheap tickets---can be $250 to $350 a pop. Once you add in the parking fee at the airport and the cost to rent a car on the other end, a family of five can be out $2000 before they've seen anything other than an airport.

With car travel, you cut out these expenses. You can also control the cost of covering those same miles by regulating the food you eat, and the places you stay along the way. And while you can't drive to Europe, there are plenty of interesting and even exotic destinations within two to four days of Philadelphia.

Bring It!

Another advantage of driving is that you can bring along more stuff. Assuming you have a minivan or some other vehicle with a little extra cargo space, board games for the hotel, laptops, a greater variety of clothing and extra all-weather gear suddenly become possible once the airplane is taken out of the travel equation. You can even throw-in some minor sports equipment (Frisbees, baseball gloves) for those recommended roadside breaks.

Really See It!

Driving, in my opinion, is also more educational for kids. It's one thing to toggle around Google Earth to get a sense of the size and varied nature of our country, or to fly over a chunk of it for a few hours. It's quite another to actually drive it. Nothing brings home the sheer enormity of the United States than experiencing it from ground-level, and while you have to go a day or two away from the Delaware Valley in most directions before the land changes dramatically, when you get there, the pay-off is amazing. I can remember driving into Texas for the first time, for example, and being genuinely thrilled when I saw my first, small buttes and cactus plants. Looking back on it, this was a pretty small discovery, compared to the Rockies, or the Grand Canyon, but that first sign of a truly different land appearing on the horizon still holds firm in my memory. For a kid, motoring into cowboy country (or the rocky shores of New England, or the Smokey Mountain foothills) can be a genuine adventure and make a big memory.

Of course, if you decide to drive, there are negatives to consider. Driving long-distance is hard. The kids can get bored, especially after four or five hours in, say, Missouri or Iowa (and even Maryland or Virginia, for that matter). It's essential to discuss this negative with them ahead of time, and take plenty of steps to avoid burn-out. Gameboys, books on tape, and lots of planned stops are important. My wife used to bring along guide books and read aloud some of the tidbits and history of a certain place we were driving through to add interest, and spark some conversation. For adults, shared driving is a great idea, but if there's one person who prefers to do most of the road work, don't overdo it. Limit the miles and hours per day, and find some of those quirky, out-of-the-way, roadside stops to freshen everybody up. In future blogs, I'll be covering a number of these near and far, to give you a better idea of the kinds of things that can work as family pit stops (as well as those that don't).

Time Isn't Everything

Another "driving downside" is the extra time it takes to get to your destination. There may be a tendency to drive too far and too fast to make up a few hours, which can be dangerous. I've heard famous stories of families who drive 18-hours straight in a mad dash to get to Florida from here. I've also seen plenty of news stories involving accidents and sleepy drivers. The best way to approach this is to plan on sharing the driving duties, limiting the miles covered per day, and taking a route that avoids major metropolitan areas during rush hour (which can really tire-out a driver, and get the whole family irritable). If you only have 9 days for your trip, don't plan eight days of driving. Pick a destination that's within a reasonable distance. If you have 16 days, on the other hand, you can go a lot farther and cover a lot more ground. But you still have to be sensible about it by planning plenty of destinations, with a few two-or-three-day stops along the way.

Murphy's Law

Also, remember this very important rule of trip-planning: distances on maps will always take longer to cover than you think they will. Road work, detours, unforeseen traffic jams, weather, and slower-than-expected speed limits will all conspire to hold you back. You can absolutely count on this happening, so plan ahead, and when a problem arises, relax and take it in stride.

Wear and tear on the family car is also a concern on a long road trip. You can minimize the chance of trouble by having your mechanic check over things like tires, belts, hoses and fluid levels before the trip, and in another blog, we'll hear from AAA Mid-Atlantic with more specific information on preparing your vehicle for a road trip. And speaking of auto clubs, a membership in one might not be a bad idea, since it usually includes free emergency road service in the case of an unexpected break-down. Aside from AAA, some car makers include this sort of service as part of the purchase, at least for a time. You may also have a road protection feature with one of your credit cards. I've only had to use this type of service a few times over the years, but it's worked when I've needed it.

One way to guarantee your car won't suffer from a long haul is to leave it in the driveway and get a rental, the subject of my next blog.

Read more Parenting Perspective blogs by visiting the Parenting Channel on