Drawing from my experience as a father of seven, traveling happily comes down to two things — fun car games and engaging, riveting books on CD.
My family's top choice for a car game would have to be Hinky Pinky, which the kids sometimes play for hours. It's a word rhyming game that starts with someone thinking of two words that rhyme and then coming up with two non-rhyming words as clues.
For example, the winning phrase might be "bug rug" with a clue of "insect doormat." The person who guesses correctly then thinks of their own rhyming combination. It's funny, fast-paced and you don't have to keep track of a score.
This goes against conventional wisdom, but I suggest skipping DVDs in favor of a book on CD. A narrated story doesn't have to deal with the problems that can come from viewing angles, screen size or film choice. Besides, I balk at sedating the captive audience with "favorite" films (read: movies the kids have already seen multiple times) or the expense of renting or buying newer films they haven't seen.
You might ask about holiday classics like A Christmas Story or It's a Wonderful Life. Those perennial favorites are best viewed together on a couch in a darkened living room with accompanying holiday snacks and beverages.
Besides, the driver and front passenger can't (well, shouldn't) watch along.
Here is a trick my wife, Denise, and I learned through trial and error. When selecting a book on CD, maintain a benevolent dictatorship.
Pick out a classic story with broad appeal, but don't put it up for a vote. In fact, keep your selection (with a backup selection or two) secret until you have popped it into the vehicle's CD player. This eliminates trying to negotiate a selection that's acceptable by all, which is impossible anyway. If you have selected wisely, the initial grumbling dissipates as the passengers become involved in the story.
Here are some of our family's favorites. For elementary ages, choose from the Molly Moon series by Georgia Byng, the Ramona series by Beverly Cleary, A Year Down Yonder by Richard Peck, the Narnia series by C.S. Lewis, How To Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell, Scat or Hoot by Carl Hiassen, and Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson's Peter Pan series.
For older children, try The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, the Young Bond series of James Bond novels by Charlie Higson, the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, the Mrs. Pollifax series by Dorothy Edith Gilman, and the Artemis Fowl series by Eoin Colfer.
Another advantage of books on CD is they can usually be borrowed for free from the local library or downloaded to an iPod.
Here's one recommendation, though. Despite the temptation, stay away from the Hank the Cowdog series.
Don't get me wrong. Over the years, our kids have probably read every single installment of the canine Chief of Security adventures, but the emphasis is on "read."
As funny as the stories are, the audio versions come with an excruciatingly annoying soundtrack that plays constantly throughout the narration and is unbearable to anyone older than 8.
A word to the Hank the Cowdog series: get rid of the music and watch your sales skyrocket.