Simple is better. Give kids paper, pencils, a clipboard and fun stickers. Eppley recommends buying a new book or travel game for the trip. “Cracker Barrel has great word games for kids,” she says.

The Dobson family recently took an 1,800-mile Oregon Trail car trip—all with only one toy for the car, plus a few books and coloring papers. “That one toy (along with a Happy Meal box and toy we got on the road) entertained them for days. They were so creative with the games they came up with,” she says.

Interact with the family. Being confined in the car can spark interesting and fruitful conversations. “Make sure you, as the parent spend time having conversations, playing simple games and participating in the journey rather than just expecting the kids to behave,” says Heid. “Engage with them and they are more apt to stay entertained and happy.”

“We talk, talk, talk on our trips. It’s our special time for us to connect with our kids. We like making up stories together to which everyone contributes,” adds Dobson.

Have a snack plan. Figure out portable snacks, like granola bars and fruit leather, ahead of time. Give each child a refillable water bottle for the trip, too. Being able to toss back sustenance during a traffic jam that has delayed you can be a life-saver. Be sure to pack some baby wipes for cleaning up sticky fingers, faces and messes in the car.

Give a child ownership. Have each child pack her own backpack of parent-approved car toys, books and travel-sized games. “It is so much fun for them to unpack their backpack on the plane, and it entertains them for a long time,” says Dobson. “They are responsible for their backpack, and this responsibility helps keep them engaged as we go through the airport.”

Go on a car hunt. To engage children in their surroundings, talk about the scenery and all the different things that can be seen. “On road trips, we spot unusual things, like the tugboats down the Columbia River and the ‘real’ cowboy we saw riding his horse in Idaho, and write those down,” says Dobson.

Schedule breaks. Remember that children, especially younger ones, need frequent stops. Plan your trip accordingly by stopping every two to three hours to get gas, take a bathroom break or eat lunch. Being able to stretch your legs will often keep everyone from getting too confined.

Plan for discipline. Riding in a car or on a plane for extended periods of time can trigger conflict. Expecting issues to crop up—and knowing ahead of time how you’ll handle them—can help you to avoid big blow-ups.

“Have a plan in advance,” says Heid. “Give your children clear expectations as well as what will happen if they choose to not comply.”

“It’s important to have a plan so that when the misbehavior occurs, and it will, parents are not thrown off balance,” agrees Eppley. “They can respond in a calm, secure manner that communicates ‘I’m in charge here’ to the children.”

When traveling, Eppley recommends using a ticket system because of its portability. “They are great to use for family vacations,” she says, adding that she explains the system in detail on her website. Basically, tickets—small pieces of cardboard—are lost for misbehaviors you outline before the trip begins. You also explain the consequences for losing all tickets—and make sure it’s something you can follow-through on if necessary.

“Imagine telling the kids they have three tickets each for a five-hour ride to the beach. You let them know that the price of admission to the water upon arrival is one ticket. Then, all you have to do is take a ticket from each kid if there’s fighting, or whining or whatever short list of targeted behaviors you listed before the trip started,” Eppley explains. “No screaming or idle threats are necessary.”

With a little forethought, you can look forward to your family vacations and even have a positive experience while traveling with children.

Sarah Hamaker is a freelance writer and editor, and author of Hired @ Home: The Christian Mother's Guide to Working From Home. She lives in Fairfax, Va., with her husband and four children. Visit her at www.sarahhamaker.com.

Publication date: July 2, 2012