Heading South in the Minivan

ALONG INTERSTATE 95 HEADING SOUTH —: “PLEEZE make the radio louder!”

“Turn off the radio and put on a CD!”

“Not THAT CD!”

“Who cares about hearing the news?”

A Beanie Baby dog (those oh-so-hot small, $5 beanbag animals everyone seems to be collecting this spring) flew our way. My husband and I looked at each other grimly. It was going to be a long ride. And he’d thought this trip would be fun.

“Are we in South Carolina yet?” six-year-old Melanie wanted to know. We weren’t even through New Jersey when she asked, in between snacks that already had left the back of the van a crumb-and-paper-strewn mess. Eleven-year-old Reggie took off her earphones just long enough to ask “When can we stop at a CD store?”

“We should have flown,” grumped 13-year-old Matt, who guarded his territory fiercely to avoid sharing his space with his sisters.

Certainly there were bargain airfares advertised but like many of you have discovered, they weren’t available when we needed to travel or required multi-stops enroute. We figured at the least, we could save some money driving.

My husband was also convinced a 1,906-mile car trip down the East Coast and back again would give us some much-needed time together away from soccer fields, baseball diamonds, the computer, and the commuter trains. And it did. (Tip One: Store up plenty of stories from when you vacationed with your parents to tell on the way.)

But my husband didn’t figure the trade-off for all of that togetherness would be higher blood pressure (we made believe we didn’t know him when he lost his cool in front of the North Carolina convenience store) or the five pounds I gained eating my way down the highway. (Tip Two: Pretzels, popcorn and favorite dry cereals may be messy but at least they’re healthier alternatives to lollipops, chocolate bars, and sugar-laden drinks, though we had our share of those too.)

Even in the worst moments, I was comforted knowing I’ve got lots of company on the road. Last summer, the American Automobile Association reported 187 million vacation road trips were taken at least 100 miles from home. Roughly half those cars, vans and RVs — more than 90 million — included fidgety, noisy, often-bored kids. Travel experts are expecting even more families to hit the road this year because consumer confidence is high and people feel better about their own finances. Gas prices are lower as well.

Tip Three: Plan your overnight stops ahead. Remember, you can always cancel a room or campground reservation but as we discovered, you can’t always find a place to sleep when you most need one. It took us three tries on the way South and five on the trip back North to find a motel with a vacancy. We drove miles further than we wanted. If we hadn’t been so tired, we might have given into the kids’ pleas to drive all night. (They thought it would be an adventure but, of course, they weren’t doing the driving.)

Tip Four: Plan your survival strategy as carefully as you plan your route. You’ll need every Road Smart you can muster to manage the kids and the driving at the same time.

Jody DeBussy, the mother of five-year-old triplets, opts for a small TV-VCR gadget to keep the peace. The only problem, she concedes, are the squabbles over which tape they’ll watch.

Kyle McCarthy suggests stops at old cemeteries. “Kids think tombstones are fun. It’s a great place to run around and stretch your legs.” Pet cemeteries are especially big hits, adds McCarthy, president of the new Family Travel Forum, a membership organization that offers a newsletter, savings on gear and books and Website for traveling families (Membership costs $48 a year. Call 888-FT-FORUM or visit the Website at www.familytravelforum.com. Ask about available travel discounts.)

Another mom I know hands each child a copy of a map: The kids color in the appropriate state each time they pass a car with that state’s license plate.

We tried lots of word and license plate games but I confess most lost my gang’s interest within 10 minutes. Making up stories worked better: Each person in the car must add the next chapter to an ongoing tale. The story can get as zany as the kids like. The plus: all family members, once they’re old enough to talk, can join in.

(Send your Road Smarts ideas to {encode=”Eileen@takingthekids.com” title=”Eileen@takingthekids.com”}) Before we’d left, we’d thought we were well equipped for three kids’ listening pleasure through two days of driving. Along with the minivan’s requisite radio and CD player, we’d brought along four walkman-sized tape players and a portable diskman (all with earphones and extra batteries in pre-iPod days), a bag full of audio tapes (new ones and old favorites) and another holding CDs prized by the teen and preteen in the car.

But, we hadn’t bargained on the kindergartner in the group forsaking Pocahontas for The Spice Girls. Nor had we realized a tape player wouldn’t cut it when there was a portable CD player on hand.

The arguments, though, weren’t really about WHAT was being played. The crux of the battle being waged in the back of the van was over something far more important: Power. The kids want the power to control what we heard. Wars have started over less. And as battling nations have discovered, there’s no easy solution when real power is at stake.

TIP FIVE: Bribes work wonders. You’ll need them to mediate everything from the in-car airwaves to who sits where to who gets the last piece of gum.

By the time we’d pulled into our driveway at the end of the trip, I’d realized the family car serves as a microcosm for much bigger disputes. My negotiating skills are first-rate now.

I’m ready anytime you need me, Mr. President.

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