Road Trip Planning for Young Families

We've taken a lot of roadtrips with our kids. Norah's not even two yet and has already visited 14 states! Now, a lot of our travel is to visit family. I probably wouldn't be doing these long long drives with littles just for fun but both sets of grandparents and all of our siblings live more than 14 hours away by car (One set of grandparents does have a second home in a city just 4 hours away now which has already come in handy though!). So family is a big draw for us to travel but its also taken some of the fear away. We have to see the grandparents so we drive 16 hrs. But once you've done that with kids age 1, 4 and 6, driving several hours away for a weekend suddenly doesn't seem to bad at all. In fact, I didn't really even plan any extra entertainment for the kids until that morning because a trip of "just" 4 hours seemed so short! But I have learned thing or two.

Getting There: 

Don't overcomplicate entertainment

.Our first really long (I consider anything over 10 hours long) was this trip to North Carolina three years ago. Jonah was one and a half and Lucy has just turned 4.  I scoured Pinterest for fun printouts and made magnet toys and got them each a magnetic cookie sheet to go over their lap. Big waste of time. Pieces got lost sheets got tipped and they ended up just coloring most of the time. I know some people love goodie bags to hand out at certain times or having a reward system and we might try something like that when kids are older but right now, I keep entertainment choices limited:

- One small toy or set of toys each. (Lucy brought her Lottie Doll, Jonah a ziploc bag of superheroes. Norah was supposed to have her baby doll but I forgot it and this was probably part of her bedtime issues on that trip. She was sooo happy to come home and find her!)

- One coloring book each, a stack of white paper and a bag of colored pencils to share.  I like colored pencils because they don't dry out although they can need sharpening. I haven't had too much trouble with crayons melting but Jonah does like to sit and peel them leaving teeny tiny pieces of paper all over the van. I guess it keeps him busy - but colored pencils are nice. I've heard good things about these but haven't even felt inconvenienced enough by sharpening to buy them. For Norah, I give her one coloring sheet at a time on a clip board and one crayon.

- A couple picture books for each bigger kid and a stack of board books for the baby/toddler.

- AUDIOBOOKS! Plus maybe a fun music cd. Before our big trip to North Dakota this year, we bought the kids the full Radio Theatre Chronicles of Narnia set which is a fantastic deal and really well done. But we also utilize the library and librovox/podcasts (like sparkle stories) for other fun audio stories.

- TV. I try to strike a middle ground when it comes to shows. Before we leave, I'll download a few Netflix episodes onto our kindle fire but those are kept for the nighttime part of the trip or baby emergencies. The kid's don't even ask about this normally because they know the answer will be not yet.

Be Cozy 

Dress kids comfortable. Make sure shoes are easy to get on and off. Mine always want to take them off as soon as possible and we often need to get them back on quickly because we have to get to a potty ASAP! Our kids also bring the same blanket they sleep with at night and one lovey. We've done pillows at times but those seem more hassle than they are worth. Tidy up the car every night so they have a general space about them and can find their stuff. It's never what I want to do when we finally get to our hotel but I'm always glad the next day that one super hero they really really have to have 20 seconds after we've gotta on the highway is no longer stuck in a crack between the seats. Have a trash bag handy. We have a plastic cereal box with plastic bags in it as an all the time trash container but more importantly -  make sure it gets used and make the kids help you! They've been sitting all day, stretching and crawling around the van floor finding tiny pieces of trash is good for them! I've also started keeping a beach towel. It's nice for when we have to pull over and Jonah needs to pee but wants privacy. I'm the only one in our family that gets motion sick (this might be changing now that Lucy is in the back of the minivan. I hope not) and we haven't had any car puking since Lucy was a baby (she used to hate the car and would start throwing up if we didn't take her out within 5 minutes of her starting to cry. Those were not big roadtrip times for us) but its nice to know its there if we need it.

Creative Timing:

When we are driving, we either take a "just get there fast" approach which probably involves driving at night, or we take a slow and steady approach. If we drive at night, either one big overnight trip to get somewhere fast or after taking a long break and doing a big stretch in the evening to make a little more progress, I generally feed kids dinner then put pj's on and let them watch a show or two while I cross my fingers hoping Norah falls asleep. Once she's out, I switch kids over to an audiobook and they normally fall asleep pretty quickly since that's how they fall asleep at home normally. I'll be honest, this kills the adults. So I don't think we'd ever attempt it if we need to be at a wedding or theme park or anything that requires us to be alert alive the next day. But if we're going to the grandparents farm and they'll be around so we can each grab a nap, its nice to just get there.

They gotta eat:

Pack a lunch: We almost always eat lunch in the car if we are on the road. If we are stopped, its to see a sight or let the kids run around. I don't want to finally let them out of the car only to have them then sit down to eat. Plus, if we can keep lunch similar to what they eat at home and hotel breakfasts somewhat similar, then we can eat out for dinner without wreaking too much havoc on there little systems - and the attitudes attached to those systems. Even this last trip which kinda snuck up on me and I didn't have enough stuff, I just ran into an Aldi near our hotel and bought some lunch supplies. Two days of supplies was probably half of what one trip through the drive through would be even when I threw it some "splurges" for our family like veggie straws and a chocolate bar for us adults to secretly indulge in (chocolate always helps road trips seem to go smoother!)

I really love these containers. I can pack everything for one kid all together at home or in the hotel room and just pass it back when its time to eat. That way I'm only spending 50% of time straining my neck searching for and handing a kid something instead of 95% of my time. I know there are lots of really cool bento boxes out there but these are cheap, lightweight and get the job done.  And I don't have kids handing my half eaten apples or sandwich crusts when they are done, they just put the lid back on and I deal with it later. They are also great for happy meals. Yes, my kids do occasionally get happy meals - just not for lunch. Typical we eat fast food for our last meal of the trip and its often the dinner time meal right before we reach home. Which is sad because that's often a Sunday which means no Chick-fil-A.

Think Global:

Obviously this will depend on how picky your eaters are but we also enjoy eating ethnic foods. We've gone with kids to everything from Ethiopian restaurants to Greek. This last trip we found a great Indian place. Honestly, Norah was highly skeptical but the big kids partook and Jonah especially loved it and it was all fairly healthy - lamb, chicken, some veggies and whole wheat flat bread. When we go to too many casual diners or American style places, I look back and realize they kids have eaten chicken strips for three dinners in a row and the only vegetables they've had were potatoes and ketchup. I do try and bring along some extra lunch meat and fruit in case someone really doesn't like their choice - or more likely, decides at bedtime that they probably should have eaten a bit more and they are just soo soo hungry and they really need a granola/lara bar. I can thwart those attempts and say "well, here's some lunch meat for you."

Go Early 

We also try to eat on the early side. We do at home too but with wait times and long days/short naps and the need to sit down and be polite, this becomes even more important. The Indian place I mentioned opened at 5pm for dinner so guess who was waiting in the parking lot at 4:55. Yes, we did. But we got in and served right away and no melt downs were had. Depending on ages/naptimes, once we are at our destination, we might switch our lunch and dinner and eat out for lunch and have sandwiches for dinner or if we're at a house like our rental in North Carolina, we bought nicer food to cook at home (lots of seafood, yum!) then just went out for ice cream once or twice. I know cooking on vacation may not seem like fun but I've just realized its often less stressful than trying to keep kids in there seats when their schedule has been off and they are wired up after a big long day.

The Fun Stuff:

Be Realistic

 Most of the time, it's a mix, leaning heavily on the slow and steady. Unless we are doing the overnight thing, we really search out stuff to do. We like all the little random stops you find in America. Sometimes you get a dud but you never know and we've found some really neat places by being willing to take a chance on random. When we go slow and steady, we normally plan to stop every two to three hours. I'm sure that will get longer as kids get older but for now, that's our limit. And when I stay stop, I mean, STOP. We don't do many quick gas station/bathroom breaks and then jump back in car (unless someone has to go potty 20 minutes after we left our last stop!) Our best section of driving is normally the first one in the morning so I try to push us the full three hours. Same thing at naptime. I do not like to wake a sleeping baby or toddler! So sometimes I'll have two or three little stops that we can choose from depending on if someone is asleep and we can keep going a bit more versus we need to stop on the early side.

If we are staying someplace for a few days, we generally only do one big thing a day. It may be tempting to pack our days full but that doesn't end well for us. That doesn't mean we just sit around in the hotel all day but we have smaller, more flexible activities on our list.  In Springfield we were there three days. Our big activities were Laura Ingalls Homestead, Children's Museum and a minor league baseball game. So we did one each day. Then we went putt-putting and visited Bass Pro Shop and the giant fork and went out to eat to fill in the rest of the time, mostly the afternoon. For a 5 year old, the mini-golf with it's paper mache dinosaur is practically as glamorous as the Eiffel tower.  And it's much easier to walk away from that or a free trip to visit the turtles at a store when kids have reached their limit than a expensive adventure. So what if you only do 8 or the 18 holes, you can stop when everyone is having fun!

The pool and movies are our extra filler activities. We always get a hotel with a pool. You can't keep a kid contained in a hotel room for long. When Norah needs a nap but the big kid's don't, Dad takes them swimming and I get a bit of quiet time to re-pack suitcases or clean lunch boxes. We've even taken kids first thing in morning before driving to use up a bit of energy.

 We are normally sticklers about bedtime but if Jonah isn't very tired, he will bug Lucy when they share a bed. And Norah doesn't fall asleep well in hotel at all these days so this trip we tried watching a movie and letting them stay up later than normal and it seemed to work. The first night Lucy even asked to go to bed. But everyone has to be all ready for bed and tucked in so when I turn the show off, they don't have to move. So, just be flexible and try different things. That said, really do try and let the napping kids get at least a small nap. Even just in the car or on someone's back or in the stroller. A missed nap is a terrible thing.

Be Bold 

This may sound like the opposite of realistic but it's really not. My mama mantra when we go on trips is "We're building memories and having fun!" because I so easily fall into the trap of just containing the chaos and surviving. If I just wanted to survive the easiest way I could, I wouldn't go on road trips! But that's no fun! Yes, there will be meltdowns. Yes, kid's won't eat as well and sleep as well, but they'll survive, especially if they eat and sleep well the other 95% of the time.

Same with decisions. We've got our basically road trip plan but sometimes, we chuck it and say "well, let's try this!" Or we generally go to kid friendly places but if I really want to see this place but it's not really aimed at kids, we'll just do a shortened version. And sometimes, we're really crazy and pack a day full because that's the only way it will work. We know we'll pay for it later but we grin and bear it. And by "it" I mean the crying fussing children we are carrying out of the building.

One of two crying children we carried out of that museum . We survived. 

But one sandwich and a nap later and all is well again. And hopefully we got some cute pictures and fun memories before the tears came. Be bold! Make Memories!

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