Are We There Yet?

With road-trip season just around the corner, a local family travel expert gives the lowdown on keeping kids happy in the car


Courtesy Monkey Business Images/iStock

Does the notion of packing your kids into the back seat for a summer road trip strike terror in your heart? We hear you. So we went to the expert: Julie Bielenberg, a Denver-based travel writer, spends about a third of her time on the road, often bringing along her three children, ages 8, 6 and 2. (She took her youngest with her to Mardi Gras when he was 10 weeks old.) Sound challenging? It doesn’t have to be. “Road tripping can be easier than flying,” Bielenberg says, “because you have all your stuff with you and everyone is comfortable.” But you have to be prepared and remember that it’s all about fun. Here are seven of her tips

1. Pack lightly.

  • “It’s miserable to have to schlep big suitcases in and out of hotels. Most hotels have washers and dryers; you can do your own laundry, and some places will do it for you. Each of my kids gets a small duffle bag with their clothes, which I stack in the back of the car. By the time they’re 6 or so, they can carry their own stuff. I pack one giant shoe and gear bag that I leave in the car. And they each have a little backpack for the car, with a water bottle, snacks, a book or game and a package of wet wipes. Remember, they don’t need to pack 12 stuffed animals and 100 books. I have my kids read whatever is in the hotel rooms—magazines and pamphlets about what’s going on in the area.

2. Pack the car smartly.

  • “Always pack a first aid kit, with basic things like ibuprofen, Pedialyte and Immodium. Make sure you have copies of your kids’ immunization records and birth certificates and take photos, with your iPhone, of any medications you or the kids take. Keep extra jugs of water in the car, because you never know what will happen, especially on I-70. I always stuff a few leftover plastic grocery bags in the car, in case they get sick or in case we want a place to stuff wet underwear or dirty, smelly socks. And I always keep a blanket in the car. We can use it for a picnic, as a changing place for the baby, if the kids are cold, if one of them throws up. Things happen ….”

3. Get them excited ahead of time.

  • “Before we go someplace, I tell the kids where we’re going and the kinds of things they will see—mountains, or animals, or green chiles—and ask them what they want to do. And don’t forget to take pictures of your trip and print them out afterward so the kids can remember it and talk about it. We’re losing all of our memories. I put every trip into a photo album, and my mom makes books of trips we take, and the kids look at them all the time.”

4. Don’t overextend yourselves.

  • “You can’t get everything done, so make a list of all the activities you want to do and cut it in half. Each day, I try to pick two great activities, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. And if something organic happens in between, that’s great. My intention is never to wear my kids out to the point where they’re miserable. I want them to be happy.”

5. Make frequent stops.

  • “We never go for more than three or four hours without a break. Think of your kids’ peak activity times; they don’t want to be strapped into a seat then. So I always try to find new fun places where we can stop, like small general stores where they can look at old-fashioned items or have a root beer or do something else that’s special.”

6. Encourage imaginative play.

  • “Sometimes your instinct is just to turn the iPad on, but you’ve got all that technology
    at home. The reason you’re out on the road is to experience things. We might play the letter game, where you have to find every letter of the alphabet on signs. Or the color game, where you have to find something red, orange, yellow, green and blue. Or count the number of a certain kind of store that you see. Look out the window and engage with them.”

7. Don’t hesitate to ask for help.

  • “It’s human nature to want to help other people. I remember one time, I was flying back to Denver with the kids and my flight got canceled, so I was delayed four hours in the Tucson airport and we didn’t leave until close to midnight. I had a 6-month-old and a 2-and-a-half-year-old, and I was exhausted. This woman comes up and says, ‘Do you mind if I sit here? I am missing my kids right now, and I see that you’re alone. I’d love to help out if I could.’ I started seeing things differently.”

Great Sand Dunes National Park: In less than four hours, you and your kids can be sandboarding or sledding down North America’s tallest dunes before cooling off in the creek at the 30-square-mile park’s base. Reserve a campsite, spend the night and prepare to be dazzled by the stars above.

Mesa Verde National Park: This is a longer trip, more than six hours from Denver, but well worth the drive to explore the 4,000-plus sites of the Ancestral Puebloans, including 600 cliff dwellings. Spend the night in nearby Cortez and explore the town’s bustling arts scene.

Glenwood Hot Springs Resort: Since 1888, this historic hot springs pool has been noted for its therapeutic qualities. Reward your kids for being good on the three-hour drive with a dip, then cruise up to Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park and the Giant Canyon Swing, which flies 1,300 feet over the canyon. 

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