Heading south for spring: tips to keep children content on long trips

Despite the inflated cost of gasoline, going by car is still the most economical way to vacation, if you have the time.

We didn't have the time, really, the year New Orleans beckoned us south during spring break. One short week is hardly enough for leisurely enjoyment of a distance of 2,000 miles, especially with a four-year-old son and a lively eight-year-old daughter. Yet our family was fortunate in having a late-model bus that year. We'd never visited New Orleans, and the idea of catching up with spring somewhere along the way was irresistible.

''Go to New Orleans! Go to New Orleans!'' a good friend urged while we hesitated. ''You'll be glad you did.''

His challenge worked. As slushy snow fell cold and heavy, four suitcases were hastily filled, sandwich slices spread, bank account rationalized. We were ready to go to New Orleans.

How did we keep two active youngsters content while sightseeing, meeting family needs, and averaging over 400 miles most days? Let me share what we learned.

Remember the children's bedtime comforts. Never leave stuffed animals, favorite pajamas and story books, and their own bed pillows behind. For traveling adults, too, evenings are eased by remembering little things: Dad's slippers, perhaps, and Mom's English mystery.

Give children responsibility for their own suitcases. Let them pack those favorite clothing items they especially like to wear. (You can slip important oversights into your own luggage.) Emphasize dark, easy-care garments. And believe in the climate to come. Despite our intention to sneak-preview spring, it still seemed incredible to shuck thick coats in the Arkansas Ozarks and slip into lightweight jackets and sweaters almost overlooked in packing.

Small children may need special attention away from home. The idea of a ''vacation trip'' has little meaning when one is 3 or 4. But it wasn't until well into our journey that we realized our small son -- ''that least one,'' as an accommodating Arkansas mechanic called him -- mistook the nightly search for a comfortable motel as a search for our house! His time-space confusion was finally relieved by careful explanations, studying the map together, and providing a little calendar blocking out away-from-home days. He then enjoyed marking off each day for himself.

Have plenty of snacks in the car. To cover so many miles, we provided nonstop lunches and coffee breaks from our cooler. Hungry young stomachs stayed happy with sandwiches, hard-boiled eggs, crackers with cheese or peanut butter, fruit, mini-boxes of cereal, plain cookies, chilled milk, and fruit juice. With little children we found it best to avoid chocolate and crumbly cakes. Cleanup was easy with those predampened commercial wipes and the litter basket. We whisked out crumbs each morning before the family reentered the bus.

Elaborate or expensive restaurant meals for touring youngsters may be a waste. Off schedule and perhaps tired, children who imagine they can manage a feast often find themselves barely able to nibble. It's better to order small quantities of familiar dishes -- at least for preschoolers -- and let gustatory adventurers sample novelties from parents' plates.

Give some thought to the family's entertainment needs. Pack plenty of small amusements for use both in the car and in motels. For us, word puzzles, playing cards, writing and drawing supplies, books, paperback reference materials -- dictionary and nature study books -- were all fun.

And there's always window watching. As we pushed on toward Louisiana, apparently moving forward in time as well as space, both children rejoiced over signs of spring -- Irish green grass, golden flashes of daffodils, ticking spring peepers.

Mix up the seating arrangement. Long hours of riding in a car require as much diversification as possible. We found it worked well to rotate seating and companionship each time we switched drivers. We also set up the back seat for stretch-out napping for the idle driver.

Sightseeing and touring are most enriching when tailored to a median of family ages and interests. Thrilled beyond our happiest imaginings with the historic French Quarter, we parents could have spent all of our brief visit exploring the quaint streets, antique shops, and museums. We can concentrate on them next time. For this trip, the delightful highlight was touring the Vieux Carre via horse and buggy. In addition, the treat of eating fresh seafood could now be shared with our eight-year-old. She relished repeated plates of large pink shrimps, even though still shy of raw oysters on the half shell. Back in Kansas, their pearly gray and pink oyster shells are each child's most treasured souvenir.

Yes, friend, we are glad you urged us to drive to New Orleans that spring, even though we had little time!

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