Over the River and Through the Woods: Getting to Grandma’s in One Piece

Thanksgiving is the time for family, food and relaxation. But before the big dinner, everyone has to get to grandma’s house. During my childhood, that meant another horrible family road trip. Of course, that was back before the age of the minivan.

My parents had the classic Ford Pinto wagon. All four kids had to be packed in and ready to go by the time Dad got off work at five. My mother would have spent the three days prior packing and re packing tiny suitcases or bags while Dad created a bunk bed in the back of the Pinto.

The plan was that we would all sleep through the 10-hour trip to my grandparents’ house in Arizona. What could my parents have been thinking?

Who can sleep packed between two siblings with two more on a bunk bed that is pressing down on your legs? Who could sleep when we were going to grandma’s house! The land of M&M cookies, the giant sandbox outside and sleeping on the living room floor with all of our cousins. It was heaven!

Times sure have changed since then. The Pintos are gone, but they’ve been replaced with the Outback wagon. Bunk beds are outlawed in favor of car seats of all shapes and sizes. But family road trips are still a staple of the holiday season.

So, how can University of Utah families avoid the pitfalls of car travel? Many people can share horror stories of these road trips, but there are some proven steps to prevent holiday trips from being the worst memories for both parents and children.

“Planning is the first step,” said Rosemary Hobbs, a Customer Service Representative at the AAA club national office. “You may have driven the same route a hundred times, but this trip could be the one with a detour or construction.”

Hobbs advises parents with young children to make sure they are aware of the route. Speaking from experience, being trapped at a standstill with a fussy two-year old can only be equated with having oral surgery without anesthesia.

AAA members can also get free “triptiks,” which will highlight any areas of concern. Or, if you aren’t an AAA member, a quick look on your favorite map Web site, such as www.mapquest.com, is another place which can point out any areas of concern.

Planning also includes snacks and meals for the family. Keep the snacks simple, and avoid messy items that will ruin or stain upholstery. If you don’t have the money to stop and eat out, pack a meal or two.

Make sure the kids and adults will enjoy what you pack. This is not the time to try bologna and cheese sandwiches on your picky eater.

Juice boxes are easy to serve and clean up quick. If your child uses a sippy-cup, pack two or three full ones in your meal carrier. Don’t forget napkins, wet wipes and paper plates just in case. Also, make sure to include stopping points to eat meals.

If it is a new route, do not assume that every exit will have a suitable place for a family to stretch out and eat. Remember that these trips are a two-way adventure. You may want to plan ahead for your return trip. You don’t want to get caught where your kids will be unsafe.

“You never want to just stop on the shoulder of the highway,” said Sergeant Paul Lockwood, of the Utah Highway Patrol. “It is very dangerous, and children can be swept into harm’s way by the wind of a large truck passing at high speed.”

Lockwood also warns, “Some freeway rest stops will be closed as the snow flies due to maintenance problems. Know where you are going to stop and what is available there.”

Another point to keep in mind is to make sure that your vehicle is in good working order prior to your trip.

“This is one time when you should make sure everything is OK,” said Chuck Lawton, a mechanic from Jiffy Lube. Lawton recommends a check of all fluids, belts and tires before hitting the road. “Whether you do the work yourself, or have a regular shop, get everything checked to avoid problems.”

Make sure to also allow plenty of time for travel. Few families are in a situation where they can leave several days before the holiday, but it is important that the drivers be well-rested.

Lockwood advises that drivers who do tire should trade off or pull off the highway into a safe area to sleep for a few hours rather than risk falling asleep at the wheel or being the cause of a fatal accident.

“Families that are driving through the night should have pajamas for the children to change into when they are ready to sleep,” said Brenda Hurlburt, an adjunct professor of teaching and learning, and mother of two. “Everyone sleeps better in a clean change of clothes.”

Don’t forget to pack all of the normal bedtime essentials for your child. If they have a special teddy bear, pillow, blanket, or need a pacifier, bring it along so that your child can easily go to sleep. You will want to have all of the bedtime supplies together in one place where they will be easily accessible.

Once on the road, have plenty of activities for children to do. This is a great time to present toddlers and young children with new coloring books and washable crayons or markers.

Clipboards can hold the pages in and provide a solid surface for coloring. Videos can be viewed on a small television if there is room in the vehicle (borrow from a friend if you don’t have one). Remember when selecting videos or music for the trip that all persons in the car will have to hear them unless headphones can be provided for specific individuals.

Thus, even “Veggietales” videos that seem innocuous at home can be incredibly irritating when you are trapped in a small vehicle and forced to listen to it for hours.

Keeping in contact with someone at your destination is also a good idea.

“Whether you use a cell phone or a pay phone, let someone at your destination know of your progress,” said Kevin King, a graduate student in the department of teaching and learning. “In the event of a problem, someone will have an idea of where you are.”

This is especially important if you are traveling through bad weather. As a bonus, these periodic phone calls help build excitement and provide breaks for the children in the vehicle as they take turns reporting in to Grandma and Grandpa or other family members.

Road trips can create great memories for family members of all ages. With good planning and travel techniques, these trips can go smoothly and may not be remembered as, “that horrible trip we took in 2001!”

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