Memorial Day is when the phrase "If I have to stop this car..." was officially coined. It's when parents' need to kill cabin fever begins to outweigh their dread of a road trip with a 2-year-old. It's when the patriotic obligation to go somewhere calls them to action. It is the official start of travel season in America.
And it's almost here.
Traveling with family is fraught with every danger, from boredom-induced temper tantrums to getting lost, to just being ill-prepared for a cookout. If you don't have a checklist yet, here are some road trip essentials to help you and yours make the most of this grand American tradition: the Memorial Day road trip.
Portable DVD Player
No built-in screen for the kids to watch movies? No problem. Portable DVD players are so inexpensive that even dual-screen setups can be had for well under $200. Whether your kids will want to watch the same thing or enjoy their own movies or games, a dual-screen portable DVD player is an easy, relatively inexpensive way to keep the backseat peace for hours at a time.
The entertainment options available in apps for the iPhone and iPad are seemingly endless. Factoring in data plan costs, the iPad in particular can be a pricey prospect. The good news is that there are a slew of refurbished iPads on the market, and a used earlier-generation iPad can be had cheaply with more than enough memory for as many movies and games as your kids (and yourselves) could ever want.
A good navigation application can be both a time saver and a valuable resource for finding food, lodging and distractions while on the road. For an initial cost of $0.99 (live voice guidance and other features are available separately), MotionX GPS Drive is the most popular paid travel app on iTunes. Integrating localized Internet searching, Wikipedia, real-time traffic updates and even local speed limits, GPS Drive can get you just about anywhere you want to be.
Travel First Aid Kit
It's only smart to be prepared for anything, and there are a number of portable first aid kits on the market to help ensure you are. For around $10 or less, the 70-piece Johnson & Johnson kit is easy to find and covers most day-to-day needs (cuts and scrapes, headaches, etc.). For campers and other outdoorsy families, the Adventure Medical Kits Smart Travel first aid package is definitely more expensive at around $50, but it's a thorough "worst-case scenario" kit.
Food for Snacking/Grilling
Kids need snacks. It's a simple fact of life. And there's no underestimating the pacifying effect it tends to have on them. We've entertained kids for an hour with nothing more than Cheerios and peanut butter. But grapes or apple slices are a better choice in the car. And no self-respecting adult leaves home on Memorial Day weekend without some grilling food. It's hard to go wrong with hamburgers and hot dogs.
Even if you and yours aren't packing a bunch of snacks, water is a must — always. Long hours in a warm car will dehydrate anyone, and air-conditioning can dry you out just as quickly. Loading up on water will lead to more stops during your journey, but it's worth it to make sure everyone keeps their cool. Children famously overlook hydration and in the end everyone pays. Keep them drinking.
Even if you're not a germophobe, there's no avoiding the grimy restroom at some point during your road trip: likely more than one. A basic hand sanitizer and/or hand wipes can help stave off any stray bugs that threaten to ruin your weekend. Never forget that children are notorious purveyors of pathogens who exist to pass sickness on to you. Keep them clean and everyone should stay happy.
Toys, Books, etc.
It seems a little obvious to say "bring some toys for the kids," but striking the perfect balance of which toys to bring can be very difficult. A good game plan is to bring a couple more toys than you think your child would want, just as a redundancy. And don't forget the favorite stuffed animal. Books are even better to occupy the kids for longer periods of time (and better for them in general), and don't underestimate the power of a pad of paper and some markers or crayons.
Analog Travel Maps
Consider it insurance against divorce. That's right: old-school, paper, foldout maps, atlases and map books, which provide a big-picture perspective of the entire route, are often more valuable than a small-screen navigation system. Buying one ahead of your trip can make you familiar with your route before you ever leave the house (and it won't cost an arm and a leg, either). National Geographic has a good set of foldout maps with concise, informative illustrations.
There are rhinestone and cheap varieties, as the song goes, but any pair of shades that suits you will help preserve your eyes in the face of long hours of beating sun and road glare. You don't want to arrive at your vacation seeing spots and with a blinding headache. A decent pair of sunglasses shouldn't be too hard to find, and unless your taste ranges to the designer, they shouldn't cost you too much either. While you're at it, make sure the family has some shades, too — especially the little ones.