With four kids and many trips of different varieties under our belts, we have traveling down to both an art and a science.
Most of our family trips are road trips. All my family still lives in Massachusetts, and we make a point to drive up there two or three times a year. It’s a ten hour drive, minimum, with children. We did make it in nine hours once (woo-hoo!), but we’ve also taken over fourteen hours (I’m cringing just thinking about it). Ten seems to be about our average, and what we expect when we hit the road. We’ve been doing this for nine years now, so I’d guess we’ve made the D.C.-Boston drive about 25-30 times.
We’ve done it with infants, with toddlers, with infants AND toddlers, while nursing, while pumping, with two kids in diapers, while potty training…you name it, we’ve driven through it. Finally we are in that sweet spot where everyone is potty trained, 3 out of 4 children can read to themselves, and everyone can feed themselves without making a disastrous mess. At this point, I wouldn’t hesitate to say we are pros when it comes to road trips with children.
When I was thinking about what advice I would give for taking a road trip with kids, I realized that I really prepare for our trips in two completely different stages: the actual driving portion of the trip, and the vacation portion when we arrive. If you think about it, there are things we’ll need in the car that we won’t need once we arrive, and things we’ll need for our vacation that we won’t need on the actual road trip.
I also really think it helps to have the kids involved in the packing process. Each of my kids has an awesome canvas bag with their name stenciled on it that my sister made for them. The bags are sturdy and easily washed and just the right size to pack for a car trip. The kids are in charge of packing them (although I help Q..at age 3 he doesn’t quite have the ability to foresee what he might want/need in the car). In general, they each bring a few books, some puzzle game books (word searches, crossword puzzles, sudoku, etc), maybe a coloring book with crayons. Occasionally the boys will bring some little cars or guys. These bags have to be packed and waiting the day before the trip.
Then I need to think about food–ten hours in the car means we definitely need to eat. Since we don’t eat fast food at all, we can’t just stop mid-trip and grab lunch. We’ve found the best method is to pack an individual lunch bag for each person rather than one big bag of food we all dip into. The problem with the big bag is that the passenger seat occupant (usually me) spends half the trip passing out different foods to different people. Honestly, I have spent hours putting pretzels in bags and handing out fruit. By giving each person their own bag with a sandwich, pretzels or chips, fruit, string cheese, etc, I give them control of what they eat when. Better for me, better for them. It took us YEARS to get this down though. Obviously, when kids are very little they can’t open their own snacks easily or feed themselves, so we had that obstacle. But it literally wasn’t until last year that Matt did the individual bags for a trip and it was like a miracle. SO much better!
Finally, for the actual driving portion of the trip, we set up a few rules. First, only water for drinks (easier to clean, no stickiness if it spills). Second, the kids have to occupy themselves with whatever they brought in their bags until we get to the halfway point of the trip (usually that means NYC when we’re driving between DC and Boston). Once we’ve reached NY, they can watch a movie on the car DVD player, but up till then–the rule is find something to do and do it quietly. I am sure this sounds crazy to most people, but I really feel like that long stretch of time is a great opportunity for the kids to learn to be bored and deal with it. They read books, draw, practice letters, play the alphabet game out the window…and I’m glad they know how to occupy down time without being plugged in. I will admit though, once that movie comes on and Matt and I can count on 90-120 minutes of not being disturbed, we all breath a sigh of relief.
More tips for road trips with kids coming soon! Please, let me know your traveling with kids secrets, too.