When you're on the road, there are two types of things you'll need: the grown-up stuff, and the kids' stuff. We'll cover both here.
- Cell phone. We're not suggesting talking while you drive, but if you get lost, blow a tire, overheat an engine or need medical assistance, a cell phone is indispensable. If your adult partner (or teenage child) has a different carrier, have him or her bring a phone as well, because you never know which carrier will have a working signal at any given moment. Don't forget the car charger and wall charger. If you have (or are planning to buy) a Bluetooth-enabled phone, bear in mind that an increasing number of cars are available with hands-free Bluetooth technology and will allow you to call someone using only your voice.
- Detailed maps. OK, sounds obvious, but how many times have you had to stop to ask directions during your lifetime? If you're on a road trip and lose your way, vehicle navigation systems are a gift from heaven. If your car doesn't have a nav system and you have the cash, consider getting an aftermarket unit. At worst, bring detailed maps, not just driving directions. Some maps or guides will also highlight features along the route and the all-important rest stops. Rand McNally, Thomas Brothers and especially AAA are good places to start. Getting directions from strangers you meet while traveling is dicey, at best. So don't rely on the guy at that gas station, or you could end up driving in circles.
- Entertainment for the kids. We could spend all day on this one. Klutz Press publishes several books/activity packs for kids that will have you singing the company's praises, including Glove Compartment Games and Kids Travel — A Backseat Survival Guide, which has lots of puzzles, connect-the-dots and so on. Bring stories on CD — often you can get these at the library. For older kids, satellite radio such as Sirius or XM is a good bet. Finally, on long trips there's nothing better to keep kids busy than a DVD player or handheld electronic games. Some vehicles even offer gaming system connections so your kids can bring their favorite video games along with them. Naturally, there's always the entertainment fallback, traditional (and free) car games such as "I Spy" and "20 Questions" or "Geography."
- Munchies. This cannot be overstated. You need lots of snacks and lots of variety. Water bottles, juice boxes, individual bags of chips or crackers, grapes (cut in half for little ones to avoid choking), fresh veggies (OK, that's for you), Cheerios, granola bars or yogurt sticks that have been frozen (kids love this!). Most young kids calm down a bit when they drink milk, so bring along milk boxes that are vacuum-packed and don't need refrigeration. (They can be hard to find; check the powdered milk area of the grocery store.) Use disposable plastic containers and resealable plastic bags so the car doesn't resemble a Tupperware party. Remember, kids can't shout while they're busy drinking and eating. Don't forget a couple of bags to hold all the trash, too.
- Travel-sized goods. It isn't just shampoo and deodorant that come in travel sizes today. First aid kits, baby wipes, toys (classics like Mastermind and Connect Four, Etch-a-Sketch), hair brushes, disposable plastic placemats and bibs, sunscreen, bug repellent, just about everything comes in a mini version today, saving you a lot of weight in the suitcase and the need to rummage around looking for things. Pack all these things in one bag that is easy to get to, and you'll save not only time but energy as well.
- Prescription medicines. If you forget them, you'll be waking your doctor and scrambling for the number of the nearest pharmacy. Also ask your pediatrician about over-the-counter motion sickness medication if you will be traveling on winding roads.
- Change of clothing — for everyone. Nevermind the kids: If little Susie upchucks on your lap instead of her own, you'll be glad you brought along an extra pair of sweats. Don't overlook the obvious: extra diapers, undies, jackets.
- Legal documents/Legal tender. Bring driver licenses (for all drivers) or IDs, vehicle registration, current insurance card, AAA card (or other roadside assistance information), ATM/debit card, credit card and cash. This neat little package will save your trip if you are pulled over by police, towed, or break down. Keep them in one place, preferably in a front pants pocket, because they're harder to pick. You also won't risk that moment of panic if you realize your purse is hanging on the back of a chair in the restaurant, 10 miles back.
- Favorite blankie or stuffed animal. Torn or ratty, nothing, but nothing, becomes more valuable on a road trip than your child's "lovey." It connects him to home and makes him more comfortable in a strange place. It also helps him sleep. Don't leave home without it.
- Shades. If your vehicle's rear windows aren't heavily tinted (and even if they are), you might need a sunshade to keep the sun out of your little ones' eyes. Built-in sunshades are featured on many luxury sedans, and you can also get them on the Toyota Sienna and the Honda Odyssey. Several add-on sunshade accessories are available on the Web or in baby stores. Even then, it's a good idea to bring sunglasses for the whole family for those times you step out of the car and into a bright, sunny day.
Finally, you may already have a child safety seat, but is it a comfortable one? The rule of thumb is, the less expensive it is, the less padding there is between Junior and a hard piece of plastic. Check it out: Press down on the fabric...is there a lot of cushion, or will it feel like a rock after an hour? Remember: Keep 'em comfortable, and you'll keep everybody happy.