I may sound crazy but I absolutely love road trips. I spent my adolescence driving to rodeos around the country and I took my oldest son his first road trip when he was 3 months old. There is just something special about seeing the country between vacation destinations. My husband and I have three kids now (5, 7 & 10) that still jump up and down when they see us pull out the luggage. We do our fair share of short weekend trips but we also manage to drive across the country with our brood and still love each other when we arrive. A road trip with kids can be a fantastic adventure for everyone involved if you plan ahead and are flexible.
Before you start thinking that I must have three calm and quiet little angels, you should know that one of my kids has ADHD and another has special needs that result in a lack of impulse control. They have never been accused of being calm and quiet but we plan for success, roll with the punches and honestly enjoy our adventures. Here are a few of tips I’ve picked up along the way for making road trips not just doable but actually something that you passionately love like I do, or at least tolerate more. (Note: this is a two-part series so make sure that you come back for the second half of the list next week!)
Change going TO vacation into going ON vacation
The most important part of having a great road trip with kids is deciding that you are going to have a great road trip. Vacation doesn’t start when you check into your hotel, it starts the minute you leave your driveway. Driving is not just about saving money on airfare but is also about adding to your adventure. Taking the car allows you to see a side of America that you miss in a plane and spend intimate time with your family. Decide ahead of time that you are going to have fun and present this the drive to your children as a special part of your trip. If you teach them that driving is enjoyable, they will enjoy it more and you will too.
Plan your departure time
Age old wisdom says that the best way to travel with children is to drive through the night. I find that results in exhausted parents with wide awake children who arrive hours before check-in time at the hotel with nowhere to go. If your kids nap, try leaving at noon instead. They will drift off for the first leg of the trip then wake up for a few hours before going back to sleep in the evening. If we are staying somewhere with a pool, we always leave late enough to give us a chance to swim before we go. It is much easier for everyone to sit still in the car for several hours after some time playing in the water. Find the system that makes the most sense for your family even if it isn’t what the experts recommend.
Stop to see the elephants
Traveling, especially with children, has ups and downs. There will be melt downs and traffic jams. There will also be amazing road side attractions and random stops that could easily become the highlight of the vacation. Leave time for all of that. Create a flexible enough schedule that you can see some of the things that you would have missed in an airplane. Embrace your inner quirkiness and checkout the sites along the way that excite your inner child. Personally, I have an odd fascination with random giant objects that I tend to find smattered across the country. My rule is that if we are too rushed to stop and take a picture in front of a 30 foot tall pink elephant, then we are just too rushed.
Sitting in a car for 14 hours without using the scissors that you stowed away to cut your sister’s hair off is hard work for kids. When we head out on road trips, I pay $0.25 for every hour that a child behaves. Each kid has their own container for the money that they earn along the way and they get excited to see the change building up as we go along. If you have a rough hour you won’t get a quarter but you still have a chance to earn the next one. Best of all, quarters can be earned while sleeping so no one should arrive empty handed. Those earnings become the kids’ spending money when we reach our destination. They are proud because they have something to show for working hard and not killing each other and mommy drinks less wine. It’s a win-win.
Keep it simple
I am constantly amazed at the complicated Pinterest projects that every parent NEEDS to survive a road trip with their kids. Coloring books and crayons are one thing but giant homemade puzzles or anything that involves pipe cleaners and beads is probably taking it a little too far. Staying simple will help your car to not look like a warzone and will keep you from pulling your hair out when they lose a piece or don’t understand the instructions. Bring a few new books and a couple of toys that the kids can play with unassisted and have no small parts to be lost under the seat for all eternity. For the record, there is really no reason that children should ever be allowed to use glitter in a car unless of course you intend on selling your vehicle to a travelling circus after your vacation.
As you hit the road with your kids, remember that it really is about the journey. Take a breath and give yourself permission to really enjoy the drive. It may not go perfect but you’ll end up with great stories to share for years to come. I share five more practical tips to having a fantastic road trip with kids in the next post which you can find here. Make sure you check back for that and share some of your own practical advice in the comments or on Facebook.