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The family road trip can be a treasured bonding time or cruel and unusual punishment, depending on how you play your parenting cards. To avoid a nightmare scenario, follow these rules of the road. Because, let's face it, a vacation that involves a car full of cranky kids isn't much of a vacation.

Be prepared

As with all things involving wee ones, if you fly by the seat of your pants you'll probably wind up falling on your butt. Take time to put together some road essentials – games, snacks, toys, music and whatever else might keep them occupied. "It's amazing – you see people who travel with their dogs, and they make all of these elaborate plans for stops, and then you see people who think they can just strap their kids in the car for 10 hours and not worry about it," says Vancouver-based parenting expert Kathy Lynn. "Your car is really just a house on wheels," she says. Meaning that if your four-year-old won't sit still for five hours at home, he or she is not going to be any better in the back seat.

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Take the road less travelled

To keep spirits up (and tears to a minimum), it's important to give kids exercise breaks. Ms. Lynn recommends identifying parks in advance. In a pinch, you can always seek out an elementary school where they can slide and swing and just generally expel energy for 20 minutes. Activity stops are also a good way to break up the odyssey. Are you driving past the world's largest ball of twine (Darwin, Minn.) or a giant monument to the perogy (Glendon, Alta.)? Stopping may delay your arrival, but it will also mean a carload of kids not on the verge of meltdown. And you might even have fun.

Turn your kids into tiny travel agents

"Often kids act up because they're being ignored," says Ms. Lynn. Involve your kids from the get-go by purchasing a map and planning the route together. Circling checkpoints along the way and planning possible picnic locations are great ways to empower your pint-sized travel companion. For older kids, Ms. Lynn recommends purchasing tour books: "We would have our kids look for hotels, pick out a place to eat or plan something to do in whatever place we were visiting." It's a great way to keep them occupied and a lot cheaper than using a professional.

Take some time away from the tribe

Plan for a bit of "me time," which will help you decompress and be a better, happier parent when you're on duty. "My husband and I would alternate – every other dinner, one of us would get to stay and have a cup of coffee while the other one took the kids to run around a bit before getting into the car," says Ms. Lynn.

Technology is your friend, just not your only friend

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A lot of parents aren't keen on turning their car into a movie theatre, but on a long trip devices like portable DVD players can be a godsend. "Let's face it, these things are a great tool," says Ms. Lynn. "But just as in regular home life you want to set limits." Make the rules in advance. If it's one DVD per day, decide together what time the movie will go on, and after it's over put the device away. For older kids, it's okay to let them tune out with their iPods for a while, but don't be afraid to insist on together time – this is a family vacation after all. And remember: No family is ever too old or too cool for a game of I Spy.

And don't do this: Think that your family dynamic is going to suddenly improve. It's a car, not a magic lamp.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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