Talking on a cell phone while driving is dangerous. But a mid-transit chat pales in comparison to the distraction of driving with one (or two!) children wailing in the backseat. Nothing increases adrenaline and quick recall of four-letter words quite like crying kids.
As parents, we can mentally cope with crying kids to and from the grocery store. But long-distance trips need more finesse. Careful preparation and a few necessities can prevent a few glitches and keep your travel going smoothly. As you prepare for holiday travels, make the most of your trip with these handy gadgets.
1. Snack Container
A signature trademark of a kid-friendly car is a Hansel and Gretel-worthy crumb collection on every surface. If you can overlook this completely annoying parenthood perk, I applaud you; otherwise invest in some creative cups. Munchkin offers an ingenious design with handles and no spill rubber top–two for under $7. Sporting a similar design but with an attachable rope (and additional solid top) is the Spill-Proof Snack Buddy Cup from One Step Ahead.
2. Window Shade
Getting on the road is tough enough; stopping to shade a sunset shouldn't be on your list of priorities. Grab a light-cutting window shade to curb the brightness. Measure your windows and buy the widest shade possible, making sure you have enough visibility in your back and rear passenger windows. Check out your options at Great Baby Products for window shade reviews.
3. Lacing Toys
Kids above age 3 (who don't suffer from motion sickness) will work on lacing boards for hours. Growing Tree Toys has a fantastic range of simple lacing activities, like necklaces and ABCs, to complex connect-a-dot boards. Bring a bucket to set in your child's lap so that she can contain the blocks without dropping them on the floor.
4. Finger Puppets
For the dramatic types in your crew, a set of finger puppets can be a space-saving lifesaver. My favorite are high-quality puppets that tell a familiar story, like Thumbelina or the Frog Prince from puppet master Folkmanis, but folks on a budget can definitely afford IKEA's popular set of circus characters or animals for just $4.99.
5. Favorite Music
Not your favorite music, mind you. Junior may not appreciate the vocal stylings of Rihanna for hours on end (and, honestly, you shouldn't either). Enjoy some traditional Disney favorites and throw in some award-winning movement songs from Hap Palmer and Joe Scruggs to keep the mood kid-friendly. Bring on talk radio when it's time for a snooze.
So what if you have to clean up the residue later! Bubbles are total fun for all ages, especially when the road seems never-ending. Unless you have an older child, mom or dad needs to commandeer the liquid and blow them toward the back. The best bubbles on the market, hands down, come from Gymboree. These bubbles float forever and the solution never dries out.
7. Barf Bag
Close to 30 percent of people are susceptible to motion sickness, and kids are no exception. The barfies can strike at any time–there's no guarantee that your child will or won't get sick on a road trip. Prepare for the worst by investing in a few leak-proof barf bags with fun pictures printed on the outside and show your child how to "cough" into it if his tummy starts to hurt. And bring an extra couple of towels just in case.
8. Neck Pillow
This is a tricky one. Your younger child may or may not like the feeling of something so close to her neck. Try it on short stroller trips ahead of time to practice. If your kiddo will wear it, she'll be far more comfortable during naps. Pillow companions like the Dora neck pillow attach to the straps of your car seat or stroller, making it a bit more accessible.
9. Small Baking Sheets
This ingenious idea from Family Fun keeps the ever-present I-dropped-it-on-the-floor wail at bay. Use a conventional (but smaller) lipped baking sheet as a drawing, magnetic, and keep-it-all-in-one place surface. Glue one or two layers of foam shelf paper on the bottom to make it less likely to fall and affix white contact paper to the top for the drawing surface. Turn it into multiple activities by attaching magnets to buttons for checkers or bingo games. Older travelers might prefer a more sophisticated travel kit like this one from Martha Stewart.
No, I'm not a fan of hours of screen time for little eyes, but during a road trip this godsend is a total catchall. From apps for all ages to music and movies, the iPad is the perfect device for tiny travelers. Purchasing gift cards at a discount from sites like GiftCardGranny can help you pay for the pricey device at such retailers as Target and Walmart, who are currently offering deals on iPad 2 bundles. Then, let your kiddos learn letters with Starfall or everything nursery-rhyme cooky from Duck Duck Moose. When all else fails, strap it to the seat and watch a movie.
Ashley Grimaldo comes from a long line of penny pinchers and enjoys blogging on money-saving tips and advice for frugal-minded parents. She lives with her husband and three children. Ashley has been featured among such media outlets as Redbook, The Chicago Tribune, Time.com, and CBS News-Houston.
How do you keep little travelers busy while in the car? Share your family's travel secrets!