Kay Gaensler/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
My family? We’re road warriors. We’ve taken our fair share of two- and three-day-long (each way) road trips between Texas and the East Coast and we’re about to embark on another big whirlwind trip all the way to New England and back.
As crazy as driving that far with kids sounds, driving is cheaper than flying, gives us more control over our itinerary, the ability to take breaks as needed, have everything we need within arms reach and see more of the country along the way. But it also requires the kids to stay sitting in a car for long stretches of time, which can be a recipe for major meltdowns and frustration all around.
Along the way, we’ve realized what allows us and our kids to survive those long days in the car without too much stress or too many breakdowns.
Here is what we’ve learned:
1. Have a well-stocked snack bag. Unfortunately, you’ll have to eat at least a couple fast food meals along the way. We do our best to pick the least unhealthy meals we can (it’s always nice to find a Chipotle along the way), but what really saves us is having lots of reasonably healthy snacks on hand. Apples, dried fruit, nuts, crackers, pretzels and Clif bars all travel well. We also usually pack a loaf of bread and some peanut butter to avoid at least one fast food lunch.
If you have an insulated tote bag and ice packs, you can pack some string cheese and hummus and veggies. Just make sure you are able to refreeze the ice pack and refrigerate the contents of the bag at night.
Kids can get punchy when they’re hungry, so having a few different options on hand to get them through snack times is a life saver and keeps them — and you — happy.
A little extra tip - if you pack bananas, eat them early on in the trip. They always end up beaten, bruised and mushy by the second day.
2. Fill everyone’s water bottles with ice water before you leave. Keep a jug of water in the back of the car for refills. We love the Thermos insulated water bottles for the kids. They keep the water cold for forever.
3. Pack each kid a goody bag. I pack each kid a little bag of favorite small items. The key being small. Things like cars, crayons, stickers, a small notepad or activity book, a little baggie of LEGOs, My Little Ponies, etc. Some of my favorites are these reusable sticker books and these no-mess water paint books.
These small items are great for playing in the backseat, plus they’re easy to throw in your bag to have on hand at restaurants throughout the trip. I also include a few books for each of them to flip through. Sometimes I’ll have one new surprise thing in those bags to make it seem special, but not always.
4. Make sure any special stuffed animals or blankets are within arms reach. We always have their favorite blankets and a couple pillows to make them feel cozy for naps.
5. Be flexible and make lots of stops. Between the times we need to stop for gas, food and everyone’s potty breaks, it can seem like we’re stopping every hour. We as parents have to let go of our adult preference to just drive as much as possible without stopping and realize traveling with kids is a whole other way of getting somewhere. After so many long drives, we’ve learned to let go of any set plan or ETA.
If the kids are getting frustrated or bored, stop at a rest area and let them run around for ten minutes. It’s worth the time it takes. Every time you stop for gas or food, everyone should get out, go to the bathroom and walk around for a minute. At the very least, when we stop we let them unbuckle and jump around in the backseat for as long as it takes to pump gas.
6. Embrace electronic devices. Yes, it’s important to limit screen time at home. Kids need to play and imagine and run around outside, but when you stick them in a car for hours at a time, something’s gotta give. For me, letting them play on the iPad gives them something interactive to do, keeps them entertained and pretty much fends off all meltdowns. We make sure the iPad is fully charged, and I’ll often download a new app or two for the trip. I also like to have a few kids audiobooks downloaded to play as we drive. DVD players or other tablets or smartphones will work too.
We believe we’re teaching the kids something important (patience, fortitude, a desire to travel) by taking them on these long road trips, but we also know we’re asking a lot of them to stay in the car for so long. Unlimited access to the iPad is what we trade off.
7. Stay at hotels with free continental breakfasts. Kids love the muffins and waffles and sitting down to a “real” breakfast before another long day on the road helps give the day a feeling of normalcy.
8. Make plans to see people you know along the way. If you can stop in a town where you know someone, you can avoid a hotel and you get the chance to catch up with loved ones you haven’t seen in a while. We often plan our routes not by what’s quickest, but by who we can see.
If staying at their place isn’t an option, make plans to get dinner with them. It makes the trip out there feel as special as the destination. It also breaks up the drive and saves everyone’s sanity.
9. Be patient and calm to the best of your ability. There will be a point when the kids break down. No matter how well you plan or pack, it’s inevitable. The best thing you can do is be the patient and calm one in that scenario. It’s 7:00 and they’ve been in a car all day without their toys or their bed — of course they’re over it. Let them cry, use a calm voice and it will pass. I promise. It might take half an hour for them to release all those emotions, but I promise it won’t last forever. And if all else fails, stop for ice cream.
Our kids have been taking these trips with us since they were born, but they’ve each had to learn how to deal with the long car rides.
I’d say around 1 year old is the worst time for kids in the car. They are just learning to walk and be mobile so they just want to move, but they’re too little to understand why they can’t. But once they’re even 18 months and up, they really start to understand the process and I have been able to see how my own kids’ ability to cope with frustration and be patient has grown with each of these road trips.
Plus, they get to see so many people that we love and so many interesting places each time! We really feel like these are some of the most enriching experiences we offer them.
If you’re just starting to take road trips with your kids, don’t worry. They’ll get the hang of it and the best thing you can do is keep traveling. Before you know it, they’ll be road warriors too.
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