It's that time of year again: time to plan your own, personal version of the Great American Roadtrip. Many parents shy away from this kind of travel, though, because it can be quite difficult with children. It's easy to cringe when the picture that comes to mind involves driving along in a speeding car, in the middle of the night, with a chorus of screams coming from the backseat.

However, taking kids on car trips — even long car trips — doesn't have to be painful. There are some simple, straightforward ways to get everyone headed in the same direction and keep them there, happily, until you reach your destination.

Take Practice Trips

If you're not sure how your kids will do on an extended car trip, take them on some smaller ones first. Start simple, with a destination an hour or two away. Then strap them in and see how they do. If it's tough, you can gradually increase the distance from your home to your destination until they're used to spending more time in the car. As an added bonus, doing this as a family gives you the chance to see some of the places closer to you that you might otherwise miss.

Expert Tip: String a few of these closer destinations together for a multi-day practice trip. That way, your kids get experience as travelers but you can always go home if it's meltdown city.

Bring "Bribes"

Even if your kids are great travelers, an extended car trip can wear down their desire to sit in one place and stare out the window. It will help if you have something out of the ordinary to offer them as a distraction, and it will especially help if it's something you know they'll like. For instance, my childhood car-trip treat was Oreo cookies. I never got them when we weren't traveling. When we were in the car, though, I'd savor eating them, making each one last as long as possible. Before I knew it, that last, long half-hour had passed and we'd reached our destination.

Expert Tip: "Treats" don't have to be synonymous with "junk food." If you know your kids like something to eat that's healthy, keep it away from them for a few weeks before your trip. Offering it in the car will be like offering something brand new and wonderful. You can also bring new toys, or old favorites that you hid for a while before you left.

Focus on the Things That Make Them Tick

When you're planning your trip, don't forget to include things your children will enjoy. If you have a history buff, find some historical sites along the way that he might enjoy. If she loves science, stop at a meteorite crater or a natural history museum. And if any of you enjoy quirky things, consider visiting something like Carhenge, just to give everyone a good laugh.

Expert Tip: Talk to your kids about where you're going and what's available both there and along the way, and let them each choose one or two destinations. That way, they'll be motivated to keep going even when they're tired and grumpy.

Make It Kid-Friendly

Most adults, myself included, don't consider places to stop and visit when they're on the road. The point is to get from here to there, not to stop and see what there is to see on the way. Kids, though, generally do better if you do a little meandering as you go. This can be as simple as taking a trip to the library or a bookstore before you leave and finding a travel guide to the areas you'll be driving through. Mark locations you think your kids would enjoy, and pull it out when they need to stop. Most likely, there will be something nearby that you can do to take the edge off.

Expert Tip: If your kids are old enough, let them choose some of your possible destinations. Help them do research online or in a guidebook. Even toddlers can choose between pictures of places, and they'll be overjoyed to see where the photo was taken.

Take It Slow

Plan to take as much time as you think your kids will need to make the trip. If at all possible, don't plan days where you will have to push them or where you're not sure they'll make it. Traveling like this can feel tedious to the parent-soul, but giving children the room to get out and walk around, to eat meals in a restaurant, and to spend some time outside of their car seats will help them last longer and enjoy the trip a little more.

Expert Tip: Add at least 2-3 hours to the time that you think you could do each day's travel in on your own (more for younger children). While your trip may not eat up all of this time, it's better to be safe than sorry. At the worst, you have a couple of extra hours for them to run off some energy.

Remember to Have a Great Trip

Even if everything goes wrong, do what you can to enjoy your trip. If you have to curtail it, acknowledge your disappointment but then let it go and help your kids to do the same. One of the perks of taking a road trip is that the unexpected can pop up an any moment. Whether this is a flat tire or a screaming baby, take it all in stride. At least you have a great story!

Expert Tip: Don't be afraid to turn around and go home. Sometimes this isn't practical, but try to keep your plans open to at least the hint of this possibility from the beginning. If it's not going to work, it's not going to work and the best you can do is come up with an alternate plan.

We'd love to hear from you! How do you keep your kids happy on a long car trip? Let us know what has worked (and what hasn't) in the comments.

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