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Your Guide to a Better Road Trip

Don't hit the road this summer without reading these 15 mom-tested ways to travel with fewer hassles.

By Kimberly Holland

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family road trip
Somos Photography/Veer
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A Clean Car = Happier Trails

You're trying to get away, relax, and let the worries of the daily grind melt into the wide-open sky. There is something that could wreck those plans before you've even reached your destination, however: a cluttered car. A messy vehicle can increase stress and tension, says Julie Morgenstern, author of When Organizing Isn't Enough, Shed Your Stuff, Change Your Life. To avoid a trash pile in the back seat (and squabbles over the mess), toss garbage into a designated trash tote. Empty it at each rest stop to prevent overflow and funky smells from food wrappers.

Once you've cleared your car of trash and organized your trunk, do you think your car is road-trip worthy? Maybe not yet. A recent study out of England found that the average car has nearly 300 types of bacteria in just one square inch. (Yuck!) Wipe down all surfaces with an antibacterial wipe, and vacuum carpeted areas. And wash hands often on the road. "I use hand sanitizer after visiting the gas station. Hundreds of people before you have held those gas pumps and opened the doors," says Cara Dennis, an expectant mother from North Las Vegas.

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Check Your Must-Haves

Here's a recommended must-have list from Christie Hyde, a spokeswoman for AAA.

  • A tool kit—Flat-head and Phillips screwdrivers, an adjustable wrench, pliers. All-in-one roadside kits, such as the Lifeline AAA Road Adventure Kit ($60), has these things plus other essential items, such as an air pump that can be plugged into your cigarette lighter.
  • Emergency flares or a reflector
  • Snacks and water—Pack a few bottles of water in case you're stuck in the heat. Nutrient-dense foods such as protein bars or nuts are handy to keep around in the event of a car breakdown.
  • Mobile devices charger—The last thing you need is a dead cell phone when you're facing an emergency. Keep a car charger in your glove compartment in case you need to charge your phone, GPS, or Bluetooth. All-in-one devices, such as the iGo Car Charger ($20; iGo.com), let you charge multiple electronics at once.
  • A battery booster—Jumper cables aren't enough anymore. If your battery dies and you don't have a companion car to use for a jump, you're out of luck. Battery-booster boxes hold enough charge to jump your car as many as five times, sometimes more, before they need recharging, and they're compact enough to be carried in your trunk. Recharge after you use it.

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Plan Your Route

A GPS may save more than time—it could save your relationship. A recent survey found that 55 percent of couples' car quarrels are the result of getting lost. Fighting about directions raises stress—yours and the kids'. To avoid the "I told you so" bickering, map out your route using an online computer program before you go or plug your stops and destination into a GPS system.

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Know the Hazards Ahead

What's a less-than-fun way to start off your vacation? Rolling at a snail's pace for several miles on the interstate. In front of you, construction is reducing the four lanes of traffic to one, and the delay is putting a crinkle in your timeline (and stress level!). Avoid such a hassle, and get the latest updates before you go on road closures, construction, and accidents on the Federal Highway Administration's National Traffic and Road Closure Database. Or to keep up-to-date on the go, call 511 or download Waze to your smart phone—this app delivers real-time traffic monitoring so you can avoid traffic snarls and headaches.

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Check Your Grip

The safest position for your hands on the wheel is at 9 and 3 o'clock, says Matt Mullins, a driving instructor with the BMW Performance Driving Schools (not the traditionally recommended 10 and 2 o'clock). Not only is this a more comfortable position, but "The driver has more steering control and can turn the wheel better than he or she would at 10-and-2," Mullins says. A 9-and-3 position also means your front tires will be pointed straight head.

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Pick a Lane

The center lane of a three-lane road gives you the most options, says Mullins. You can quickly change over to the right lane for an exit, or move to the left if you need to pass a car. Left lanes are usually reserved for passing cars or those going at (or well above) the speed limit. If you ride in the right lane, watch for cars merging in and out of traffic for an exit.

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Don't Drive Tired

It sounds like a no-brainer, but who among us hasn't gotten behind the wheel a little fatigued or stayed there until we're too weary? But be warned: A survey from the National Sleep Foundation found that as many as 1.9 million drivers have a car crash or a near wreck due to drowsiness each year. What's more, drowsy driving kills an estimated 1,550 people every year.

If you start to feel sleepy behind the wheel, you're endangering all of your passengers as your reaction time drops. The best solution is to plan your trip so that no one person is driving more than six hours at a pop. If you can't do that, take a rest break. In a pinch, caffeine may help you stay alert for a few more hours. According to an Australian study, two cups of coffee are enough to keep you up for two hours. Or tune into something fun. "I love listening to NPR's This American Life, especially on long road trips," says New York City-based fundraising coordinator Sally Hall. "It keeps me alert and is usually something my car mates enjoy, too. I download as many recent podcasts as I can and play them straight from my iPod to avoid fumbling around and taking my eyes off the road."

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Put the Phone Away

Drivers who use handheld devices are four times more likely to get into crashes, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Hooking your phone up to Bluetooth may not be a safer option, either: A study from the University of Utah found that people who talk on their phone, whether they're using a headset or not, are as impaired as people who drive while drunk. That means delayed reaction time and an increase in risk for everyone around you.

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Watch Your Speed

It may be tempting to edge over the speed limit by a paltry five miles per hour or so, especially if construction or other delays have set you back in reaching your destination, but that extra speed may cost you: Driving over the speed limit triples your risk of being involved in an accident, according to AAA.

Plus, the added speed will hit you in your wallet. Each vehicle reaches its optimal fuel efficiency level at different speeds, but the average car sees a dramatic decrease in fuel efficiency above 60 mph. That means more gas guzzled, more fuel-ups needed, and more money out of your pocket.

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Protect Skin & Eyes

A squinting driver isn't a safe driver (and it will cause your eyes to tire faster). Make sure you have a good pair of sunglasses and perhaps a spare, too, for those times you leave your favorite pair on the diner counter. Remember sunscreen too: The sun's UVA rays do penetrate window glass, says Tina B. West, M.D., a cosmetic dermatologist in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Over time, this can lead to skin aging, collagen breakdown, and the formation of dark age spots. "It's very important you wear sunscreen every day, even in the car," she says. The other passengers in your car also will benefit from shades and sunscreen.

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What to Eat on the Road

With some smart-packing skills and a helpful eating tool or two from Steven G. Aldana, Ph.D., author of The Stop & Go Fast Food Nutrition Guide, you can eat (almost) healthy anywhere!

Carry your nutritionist in your pocket—You can know in a flash what your best options are (or to talk to yourself out of that blue slushy and donut) if you carry a calorie counter with you, such as The Pocket Posh Complete Calorie Counter, which lists nutritional information and calorie numbers for more than 5,000 foods. Bonus: It includes menu options from more than 50 restaurants. You can also download phone apps that help you find the healthiest options.

If your only option is a gas station—Larger gas stations and convenience stores sell single-serve yogurts, juices, and packs of heart-healthy nuts and dried fruit. Other good bets, if the store stocks them: whole-wheat crackers, fresh fruit, and string cheese.

If you're at a fast-food restaurant—Fast-food menus have expanded their healthier options in recent years as consumers started demanding better food. If you'll be dining in one of these establishments, order a salad topped with grilled chicken (low-fat dressing on the side). Order a baked potato instead of fries when you can. And steer clear of salads with crispy or fried chicken—many of them are just as high in calories, fat, and sodium as a Whopper or Big Mac.

If you're eating at a roadside diner—Sandwiches with lean meats (turkey, ham, or grilled chicken) are a good bet in these places. Be sure to request whole-grain or wheat bread, if it's available, and skip the mayo. Your next best selection: breakfast. A vegetable omelet is a great choice. Just ask them to leave off the cheese, and order a side of dry (that means without all the butter) whole-wheat toast.

Forget stopping! We're driving straight through—You'll need some healthy options then. Eat foods that are as close to their "natural" form as possible. "Keep fresh fruit—apple slices, grapes, bananas—chopped veggies, dried fruit, whole-grain crackers, and low-fat cheese on hand," Aldana says.

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Stretch!

Long car rides spent in cramped spaces can leave your muscles achy, sore, and all twisted up. "Our bodies were designed to stand up," says Michele Olson, Ph.D., a professor of exercise science at Auburn University at Montgomery, Alabama. "The muscles that are inhibited from movement when you're sitting need to be stretched to prevent aches." Use these simple, car-friendly moves (when you're not driving) to keep pains at bay.

Neck Stretch—Drop your chin to your chest, then roll your head back as far as it will go. Repeat this stretch five times every 30 minutes to keep your neck from tensing up.

Pelvic Tilts—Stretch your low back and hips by squeezing your glutes and holding for a few seconds, then release and repeat for one minute. Next, roll your bottom around in a circle for 30 seconds.

Shoulder Rolls—Shrug your shoulders up to your ears, then roll them around and down, in a circle. Do these five times every 30 minutes as well.

When you stop
Get out of the car and stretch every time the car stops. Touch your toes to stretch your hamstrings. Stretch across your chest by opening your arms wide, like a bird. Put your hands on your hips, then lean back—you're extending your spine and stretching your lower back.

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Keep the Kids Occupied

Distracted driving is one of the leading causes of crashes and near hits in the United States each year. And you won't be surprised to hear that one leading cause of distraction is: children.

While you're busy trying to settle disputes over who touched whom you could be weaving, moving into another lane without signaling, or worse—hitting another car. To keep the kids occupied, pack a variety of handheld games and movies. Also try:

Go tech-free—I Spy, Apples to Apples, and 20 Questions are great quizzes for your kids, and you don't need special equipment (or batteries). If you're the passenger, play along with them.

Bingo!—Roadtrip Bingo ($8; perpetualkid.com) is a fun way to keep everyone scouting for items (such as police cars, motels, and farms). First person to bingo gets to pick the next movie.

Scout plates—Type up and print a list of the 50 states before you leave home. Give each child a clipboard with the list and a colorful marker. Have them tally up how many license plates from each state they see.

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Refresh Your Space

After a few hours in a cramped space, things can really start to smell. "I like to keep my car smelling fresh, especially on long trips where we're closed up for a while," says expectant mom Cara Dennis. She keeps plenty of air freshener on hand and spritzes a few sprays when they stop for gas or bathroom breaks. "This way, the scent isn't overwhelming because it has time to air out before we get back in the car."

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Prepare for the Temperature Wars

Don't let a fight over the car temperature wear you out. Pack a sweater or light jacket in your bag, and slip it on when the warm-blooded people in your traveling party ask you to crank up the AC.

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