I’ve always been impressed by people who travel with kids. I can remember reading about the Oxenreider family’s travels and feeling both envious of the experiences they were having and relieved that I wasn’t trekking around the world with my clan.
Until I found myself riding shotgun down the interstate with 5 small children behind me and 2,500 miles between us and our destination.
There are a lot of amazing things about driving across the country instead of flying. You can stop when you want, see what you want, and learn things about your own country that you otherwise may never have known. Plus, you can take more than a carry-on.
The downside is that it takes six times longer, requires a lot more bathroom stops, and tests your patience (“No, we are not there yet”). It also strains the bounds of sibling bonhomie, as sitting 4 inches from your little brother or sister would make any of us snap (if we were 7 years old…hopefully).
But like anything else, we learned as we went and figured out how to make our road trip as comfortable as possible, despite the straining limits of a minivan carrying seven people and way too much stuff.
If you’re thinking about taking a trip with your family this summer, or can’t even fathom that kind of insanity, here are 10 tips from the trenches on how to road-trip with littles and survive to tell the tale.
- Go nowhere without food. Snacking becomes essential when you’re trying to make it to a pre-booked motel at the end of the night and have to cover x amount of miles to get there. It also keeps the troops happy when they realize that they are spending hours in the same seat. I first experienced this when I took a 13-hour flight from Beijing to JFK and they brought out food every two hours like clockwork (this was 2004, when food was free and plentiful, if a little bland, on airplanes).
- Beware car sickness. Since my children have never been on a long car ride, I was worried about them getting car sick. So I packed a plastic bag (no holes!) by each seat and in my purse in case the worst happened. I also had the kids tell me if they felt nauseous at all. We limited their iPad usage to 15 minutes at a time to make sure it wasn’t a trigger. I’m so thankful we dodged that yucky bullet.
Be flexible with sleeping arrangements. In a perfect world, we would have retired to our comfy motel beds, adults and children to the ones assigned to them. Instead, I found myself with one child on my left, another on my right, and a third laying across my feet like a wiggly, 30-pound blanket. My bed became a puppy pile. I’m not sure if the kids’ beds were even slept in. It didn’t take long to give up on the whole “this is your bed, sleep there” thing. And it made the first night without juvenile blanket hogs even better.
- Plan bathroom breaks. They’re going to happen, even if you ration water like you’re driving through the middle of a drought. The best you can hope for is multi-tasking when you get gas or food, and coordinating them. We finally worked out a system where the boys went first (they were always faster), then me and the girls, and the baby got a diaper change as needed.
- Go easy on the meals. After a breakfast at Denny’s that had me practically in tears because of my younger son running through the restaurant and disrupting other diners before I basically grabbed our coats and ran (the bill was paid, don’t worry), we decided that sit down restaurants of any caliber were not the best move after the kids were cooped up intermittently all day. Prepare some things ahead of time or try fast food. It’s not forever, so relaxing your food standards might be the difference between staying sane and crying in the middle of Denny’s.
Choose foods wisely. Speaking of relaxed standards, be careful what you choose to feed your kids and yourself. We realized that pancakes were not going to work because the corn syrup-laden syrup was turning my kids into whirling dervishes. We also saw the same with tropical fruit trail mix and Nutri-grain bars. So even though something may be more convenient at the time, it may lead to trouble down the road (pun intended 😉 ).
- Leg room is a must. I literally spent two days sitting cross-legged because there was not enough room for me to straighten them. The kids were practically mountain climbing to get in and out of the car. Make sure that you give everyone the room they need to be comfortable or crankiness will surely ensue.
- Pack lightly. Be a minimalist when you pack. There are a million Wal-Marts from here to there, so if you forget something, you can still pick it up. I speak as someone who traveled 2,000 miles with 4 packages of peppermint bark Fudge Stripe cookies. Letting those things go might have given me some leg room.
- Stretch your legs. If you can, take the time to let everyone out of the car to move. Find a town park, go into a store, or just have lunch at a rest stop that has picnic tables and open space. Letting the kids burn off some energy will make them happier, and you, too. It’s also a good excuse to see some local landmarks. While my trip was destination oriented, yours might be one of exploration, and hiking a trail in a national park or seeing the animals at the Lincoln Park Zoo is a great way to get some exercise.
- Plan to change your plans. Midway through, we realized that the pace we were going at couldn’t be sustained because it was too hard of a drive, stops were taking too long, and we never left the motel early enough. This can be frustrating, but every parent knows that keeping to a schedule with kids is no easy task. No plan goes off without a hitch, and between seven people (or however many you may have), weather, traffic, and biological needs, there are too many factors to accurately predict. So give yourself grace and adjust accordingly.
If you’re planning to take a road trip with your kids, I hope you’ll find this list helpful as you plan and prepare. For all the difficulties that can arise, it provides them with an unparalleled experience.
My own parents took us around the country by car for two weeks during many summer vacations. They gave us memories that we’ll treasure forever. And I’m sure it wasn’t easy to accomplish. But I’m glad they did it. Your kids will be, too.
Where would you like to take your kids for a road trip? What’s on your list of things to do to make the experience easier and more enjoyable? Let me know in the comments!