The first time I hit the road with child, my son was six weeks old and my husband and I embarked on an odyssey taking us from Delaware halfway across the US and back. I made a lot of mistakes. Like, when I thought we could drive 400 miles in three hours. Or packing the car dangerously full of baby gear to the point where the baby was at risk of decapitation via board book if we stopped suddenly. I also forgot to bring an atlas on that first trip. But I digress.
That baby is now eight years old and since then, I have driven across the entire United States with a one-year-old, all in a small sedan containing no screens of any kind.
When it comes to road trips I am hardcore, old school, and unafraid. In fact, I believe in road trips as an important and memorable shared family experience, the kind you hear about in songs and greeting cards.
1. Attitude Is Everything
This one is simple: Act like a road trip is something to dread and your children will pick up on it and will dread it too. Act like it is fun, and, well you get the idea.
Think of those hours of driving as special family time. When else does it happen that you’re all together without distractions or interruptions? Put it to good use. Tell stories. Read favorite books together. Play car games like I Spy or the Alphabet Game. Oh, and just try finding something that starts with a “K” in the middle of the Interstate, I double dare ya. Pull out snacks you never let the kids have at home. Talk about the road signs you see on the way, the things you’ll do when you get there, the places you’ve been. Make getting there part of the adventure.
2. Pack Accordingly
Kids need things to do in the car. What you bring with you will of course depend on your children’s preferences. In my family we travel without screens or hand-held devices, although if your kids can’t live without video games by all means bring them along. What do I pack? Loads and loads of reading material. Stickers. Those Magic Pen books that use “invisible ink”. Piles of coloring books, hidden picture books, crossword puzzle books, word-find books – anything that can be attacked with a pencil or pen.
I also always bring along books for the grownups to read aloud (we got through most of the Narnia series in the car) although you can of course bring audio books if that’s your preference.
And while you’re at it, chuck in a small first aid kit and one of those nifty car emergency kits with the flares and the booster cables. Then you can really feel like a Boy Scout.
3. Feed Your Faces Creatively
When it comes to food on the road I usually take a three-pronged approached. First, I pack a lunch and some fun snacks. I know, I know, you don’t need another thing to pack. But let me say this: I’ve never been sorry when I’ve brought food along, and what I bring is often better than the available options and it means we can stop for a meal anywhere.
Second, I do a little online research about local options in the areas where I know we’ll be stopping. This has led us to some great little diners and brewpubs that are recommended by foodie residents themselves on sites like Chowhound. TripAdvisor and Google are my main starting points for this research.
Third, I improvise. I’ve bought lunches and breakfasts at farmer’s markets I discovered at rest areas. We’ve had amazing fried chicken and homemade biscuits by ignoring the fast food signs and pulling instead into the parking lot of Ma and Pa’s Kettle in Cameron, Missouri. Healthy? Maybe not. Delicious and supporting the local economy? You bet.
4. Keep A Few Surprises Up Your Sleeve
Whether it’s paper dolls, a new video game, a cool app, or a special magazine you know your child will love, have a few things stashed away to pull out just when the drive is at its most dreary. There’s no feeling quite like playing the hero during hour nine of a ten-hour day.
5. Music Is Key
If you’ve got little ones, you know that you can’t go wrong in the car with some of their favorite kiddie music, some of which is fun for the whole family. But you don’t have to entirely cater to your kids’ music taste. There’s a world of music out there to put on your kid’s music playlist.
My husband and I use road trips as opportunities to create themed playlists that we debut on the first day of driving. Past themes have included fun songs from the 1950s, a mix of Motown and Beach Boys tunes, and our favorite songs from high school. Fun for all, historic, and an audio souvenir of your trip.
Older kids may of course want earbuds and their own MP3 players. I accept that this will happen eventually in my family. But until it does, I’m going to make sure that those boys hear plenty of Blondie and Duran Duran.
6. Stretch Baby, Stretch!
You’d be amazed at how much of a difference a mere fifteen minutes out of the car can make. Take advantage of any stops to move a little bit. We usually bring a ball and some baseball gloves to play catch, but a vigorous game of tag on the rest area lawn or a (careful) loop or two around the parking lot work too.
Pit Stops For Kids is one of my favorite sites to check for roadside breaks. A great resource for families traveling in the US.
7. Don’t Underestimate the Power Of A Detour
It can happen on the best of driving days: you’re flying down the highway, making great time, when suddenly there’s nothing for miles but brake lights. It’s an accident and who knows how long you’ll be there.
But wait! You see salvation in the form of an exit. You must choose. Stay with the planned route or whip out that atlas — the one I now always remember to bring — and figure a different way to go. On the last leg of a particularly long driving trip we did this, taking a country highway across Pennsylvania instead of staying on the Interstate in Maryland. We ended up enjoying a lovely summer ride with no stopping and even happened upon a great local joint that served its own microbrew. The savings in aggravation was well worth the lost time for taking the long way home.
8. Take Holidays, Weather & Special Events Into Account
Long delays? Bad rain? Can’t find a hotel because there’s a dentist convention in town who has booked up every room? All of these will become a bit more complicated when you have a small child in the backseat crying because he’s sick of sitting in the car and your promised stop isn’t working out. Thus, a little planning ahead could save you hours of trouble.
How to find out more information about what’s going on and where? Plan a basic route of where you’ll be stopping, then google those places for reservations and local information. Thanks to smart phones and iPads, you can even do your research in the car.
9. Be Realistic and Resourceful
Willing a trip to take less time than is possible is never a good idea, especially because when you travel with kids. You’ll need to stop often. I recommend tacking extra time onto your estimates even if weather conditions are ideal and you are unlikely to hit traffic.
Also, consider breaking up any drive longer than 8 or 9 hours into two days. Sure you’ll have to pay for a stay in hotel, but what’s more fun for kids than an indoor pool and a little cable TV? Mine complain a lot less about a long day in the car when they know they’ll have a good swim at the end of it and again in the morning before we hit the road. It’s well worth the expense.
10. Dust Off That Sense Of Humor
One of my all-time favorite road trip stories comes to me via a friend who got trapped in traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike on the Sunday after Thanksgiving. Clearly she hadn’t read Tip Number 8. It was the end of a long weekend. Everyone was exhausted, and all that lay in sight was lots and lots of taillights, when her youngest announced that he had to pee RIGHT AWAY!
Without missing a beat, she simply leaned around into the back seat, held out an empty Gatorade bottle and told him to do what he needed to do. All averted their eyes to provide some privacy and problem solved. There was much mirth and merriment all around.
See? I told you road trips could bring your family closer together.
What tricks and tips do you employ to make your family driving time more interesting and fun? Leave your ideas in the comments below.
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