My kids and I road trip…a lot. In fact, I would go so far as to say my kids are super tough, road trip warriors. They have been taking cross country drives since they were babies (literally since they were just weeks old). We choose to drive rather than fly for multiple reasons. The first of which is we are a family of five and flying cross country becomes very expensive, very quickly. Second, we travel often. We love to go all over and we like to feel free to hop in the car for weekend trips. The less we fly, the more often we can afford to travel. My husband travels consistently for work, and if the kids and I are willing to drive to wherever he is at we often get a “free” hotel stay in fun and exciting places. Thirdly, I like to have my own car. It’s totally frustrating to fly somewhere, have to lug car seats through the airport and get to your destination only to have to search for rides or rent an unfamiliar car. It makes me feel like a teenager again and it limits my feeling of vaca freedom. And lastly, I like to pack and not have to worry about luggage fees or doing laundry while on a trip. It bums me out to have to sit in a laundry mat when all I want to do is explore my new surroundings.
When I discuss travel plans with friends I am almost always looked at like a crazy loon when I tell them that we drive basically everywhere. Headed from our current home in North Carolina to our “real” home in Montana? Yep, we drive. It is 45 hours of car time, but we drive. And not only do we drive, but we have a fantastic time along the way. Here are some tips that I have picked up and learned somewhere during the many tens of thousands of miles:
1. Technology is Your Friend
I generally don’t advocate sticking your kids in front of a TV or video games, but that becomes a saving grace when you are spending full days driving. Most newer vehicles even have places to charge your devices, so make sure to pack all of your chargers. And headphones for each child will make your life so much more enjoyable. I don’t know about you, but there are just so many times that I can listen to the same mind numbing kid’s movies before I become a homicidal maniac. Take advantage of the amazing technological advancements and it may just buy you some quite time to listen to something other than the Frozen soundtrack on repeat.
2. Make a Dollar Store Run Before you Leave
There are tons of hidden gems awaiting you at a dollar store. Toys, candy, coloring books and baskets to hold it all are just some of the things that we like to stock up on before trips. I like to give my kids a set dollar amount and let them pick the things that interest them most. I always pick up a basket for each child as well as a new mesh laundry bag to take care of all of our stinky clothes while traveling (that way you won’t have to try to shove things into suitcases on multi – day drives). The kids love to pick new toys and I love that it is super affordable.
3. Bring Lovies
If your child has a blanket, pillow or stuffed animal that they are attached to, make sure to bring it with you. Your child will feel more comfortable and relaxed and it may even help them to sleep in unfamiliar situations. My kids all use Pillow Pets at home, so I bought some of the mini Pillow Pets to take on trips. It takes up a bit less space, but they still have that familiarity. I also make sure to always pack a nightlight for hotel stays.
4. Be Prepared for the Unexpected and Pack Extras
This one pretty much goes without saying, but when driving thousands of miles with kiddos, expect the unexpected to happen. For instance, while traveling with my three kids and Rottweiler cross country, the dog had an accident in her kennel in the back and one of my kids got carsick and projectile vomited EVERY. WHERE. The car immediately had a horrific scent and the rest of us were quickly feeling queasy. By the time that I was able to pull over, kids were crying and I was ready to throw in the towel on the whole trip. I just happened to have large trash bags and a portable Febreeze canister, so we were able to save the day. I threw away the dog’s blanket (there was no saving that), took my daughter’s car seat apart and bagged all of the material pieces to be washed, wiped everything down with baby wipes and sprayed the entire canister of Febreeze. It took me about 20 minutes to clean up, but as soon as it was done we were back on the road as though nothing had happened.
Another quick tip here is to prepare for your travel days and pack small hotel bags. If you plan to be on the road for two days and spend a night in a hotel in between, throw everyone’s pajamas, clothes and toothbrushes in one bag. Just the essentials. That way you don’t have to drag out everyone’s full suitcase and essentially unpack your vehicle.
5. Personal Luggage
Whether it be a suitcase, backpack or even just a lunchbox, kids love to have their own luggage. You can put them in charge of bringing it in and out of the car when you reach your destination and it makes them feel like they are being productive and helping out. My kiddos all have a small rolling suitcase that we purchased from the Disney Store. They are small enough to fit in the under seat storage in my car, but can hold about a weeks worth of kid’s clothes. I have found that being responsible for a piece of luggage helps them feel some ownership of the whole trip and keeps them more engaged.
6. Let Children Help Plan Pit Stops
It is next to impossible to contain kids in a moving vehicle for any real length of time without giving them incentives. One of the things that we like to do is stop at museums, aquariums or historical landmarks along the route. Pull out a map and look at some of the attractions that you will be near while traveling. Remember that this may be your only chance to drive that route, so if you are passing something that sounds remotely interesting, take the detour. And get your kiddos into the planning process with you and have them help pick some of the pit stops. Some of our favorite vacation memories have come from stopping at fun landmarks.
7. Good Behavior is Rewarded
Another incentive that my kids have is basically an out and out bribe. We do not eat much candy or sugary foods in my house, so my kid’s good behavior can earn them a sugary treat at each stop. I use a small clip on my visor (clothespins are perfect for this) for each child. They all start out with the clip on the visor and if they behave the clip stays put and they are able to pick a treat at our next stop. If they start misbehaving or whining, the clip comes down. They have the ability to earn their treat back by changing the attitude or behavior issues. A little candy bar seems like a small price to pay for four hours of happy, quiet kids.
8. Redbox Movies can Travel
Redbox movies can be rented at one location and returned at any location in the US! This is a lifesaver for us! Having new movies to watch can make the difference between hearing incessant “Are we there yets?” and nothing but silence. We tend to rent movies right on our way out of town and return them as we are settling in for the night.
9. Stop at Both Rest Stops and Gas Stations
I multi-task constantly in my life, but when we are road tripping I try to make sure to split things up. When we stop at gas stations, we will occasionally get a treat, fill up the car and use the restroom if it is dire. We greatly prefer to use the restrooms at the state run rest stops. Why, you might ask? Simple…free stuff. Many rest stops (especially the first one in each state) will have maps, brochures, sometimes even fresh cookies or juice all awaiting the new visitors. Not only can you get in on the freebies, but it gives your legs another chance to stretch out quickly.
10. Pack a Travel Journal and/or a Camera
Children remember trips very differently than adults do. Make sure to capture these memories by giving each child a travel journal and/or a camera to capture their thoughts. It is amazing to see some of the things that they come up with. If your child is too young to write, ask them to draw a simple picture of something that they did or saw (make sure to write what the picture is so you can remember it later). If your child is older, try a Smash Book so they can keep all kinds of souvenirs right there in their own book. They will love it and can look back and remember how much fun they had…with you.
As you gear up for spring break and summer trips I hope that these tips will help you have a successful road trip. It truly is one of the best ways to see this country and all that it has to offer. My last little tip is to take the time to enjoy it. Before we know it our backseats will be empty and we will long for the days when we heard “how much longer?”
My three little road trip warriors on a quick trip to Washington, DC two weeks ago:
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