I once took a wrong turn because of road construction near Rockford, Wisconsin and ended up adding 2.5 hours to an already 13.5 hour day of driving. On the first day of a three day road trip. Oh, and I was alone with my three young children. Sounds like a nightmare, right?
But it wasn’t! The kids barely noticed. It wasn’t a big deal because of my Amazing Road Trip System.
I’ve always loved road trips. (When you grow up in a large state like Oregon, you tend to view a four-hour trip as a walk in the park.) And it used to be that all I needed was some great music and a bag of Corn Nuts, and I was all set for hours on the road.
Then kids happened.
For a while, we managed five-hour trips to Grandpa’s just fine with some board books, a dvd player, and an unlimited supply of Goldfish crackers. When we moved from Oregon to Michigan, however, life changed. We could get to my husband’s parents in under seven hours of driving if we cut through Canada, but my side of the family was several states away. My husband worked most of the summer, so if I wanted to take the kids for a nice, long visit in Oregon, I needed to either fly solo with my children (then two, seven, and nine), or drive with them across 3/4ths of the country. I hate flying anyway—and solo with young kids? No, thank you. (Additionally, paying for airline tickets plus a rental car at our destination, when I crunched the numbers, always came out to be significantly more than the gas for our vehicle plus a couple of nights in a reasonably priced road trip hotel.)
But if I was going to road trip with children and without another adult, I knew I needed a System.
It’s now five years (and at least twice that many road trips) later, and the System has evolved to the point of, dare I say, perfection. As I wrote above, when I inadvertently added 2.5 hours to an already long day of driving, the only negative outcome was a major case of Tired Butt Syndrome.
There are many aspects to the System. While they all work together for my family to create a glorious symphony of road trippery, feel free to pick and choose what makes most sense to you.
If children are going to spend 10-13 hours riding in the car with minimal complaining, the least I can do is find lodging with a decent pool and some sort of slide or play feature. (I seriously take this into consideration when I plan the driving route.) I always make sure there is at least a mini-fridge in the room and that breakfast is included in the price of the room. (Our favorite “road trip hotel” is ClubHouse Hotel & Suites… the two we’ve visited—Sioux Falls, SD and Pierre, SD—have good pools, nice rooms, and our dog stayed for free. Plus, they have s’mores kits for use at their outdoor fire pits.)
Once the route is established and the lodgings are booked, I plan the pit stops. I shoot for every 3.5 hours of driving, or roughly every 250 miles. I evaluate the possible stops for: distance off of the highway, amount of gas station options, and coffee/food options. (The latter only comes into play if I’m dying for Starbucks or if it is near dinner time and the kids are clamoring for Jimmy John’s, one of the lesser evils of fast food options.) Even if we don’t need gas, I fill up at every pit stop. Yes, I will make an unscheduled stop if there is a bathroom need, but it is a pretty rare occurrence. Occasionally, if nobody has to use the bathroom and we’re cruising along happily, we’ll blow throw a scheduled stop (which is possible if you’re filling up at all the other stops). Having a System doesn’t mean you can’t be flexible… it’s just there if you need it.
I print out a map of each day’s driving route. I mark the starting point, each projected pit stop, and the day’s destination. Each person in the car will get his own packet of the maps. This limits the amount of time I have to hear the most dreaded road trip questions . . . “When are we stopping?” “How much farther?” “Where are we?” It also creates anticipation.
My whole road trip system is based on the Theory of Anticipation. Okay, so maybe that isn’t an actual theory, but do you remember listening to the radio for hours, hoping to hear a favorite song? Or waiting ALL YEAR for the Easter showing of The Wizard of Oz? We’d sing the songs and act it out for months while we waited. Anticipation is better even than the reward. So, with that thought in mind, I try and create as much anticipation as possible during a long day on the road; it seriously helps the time pass quickly.
Another part of the planning process (and creating anticipation!) is acquiring and wrapping road trip presents. This doesn’t have to cost a lot of money—the most successful presents I’ve purchased to date were the used Far Side anthologies I bought from Powell’s for a few bucks each. I use newspaper instead of wrapping paper. The idea is that you wrap up things like books, a dvd, a pack of gum, Mad-Libs, a water toy for the hotel pool, or other small items that can be enjoyed in the car . . . the kids get to unwrap something at intervals throughout the day. I indicate the “unwrapping” times on their maps. It’s fun to time those for moderately significant moments like entering a new state.
Clothes- I have small duffel bags for each person. The duffels contain some clothes for the destination, but they also contain road trip outfits rolled into bundles with rubber bands or tied with string. Each bundle contains a t-shirt, underwear, and socks.
I pack a separate reusable grocery bag that contains swimming stuff: trunks, a life-jacket when needed for the youngest kid, and goggles.
Toiletries– I find it easier to pack one large family toiletries bag.
Electronics– All charging cords, etc. live in one bin or bag. Devices are stored in there when not in use.
Backpacks- Each child has a backpack filled with a couple of books, personal items, and a draw box filled with paper, pencils, pens, and markers.
Everyone has a large, re-fillable water bottle.
Sundry bin- Baby wipes, hand sanitizer, bags for garbage, small cutting board and sharp knife, napkins, extra drawing paper.
Food- I hate wasting good daylight driving hours waiting for and eating food, so that rules out restaurants. I also despise almost all fast food, and nobody feels good after eating crap for three meals a day several days in a row. The answer is to plan ahead and pack food… not EVERYTHING you’ll need for the whole trip, but enough to help you make good time and not feel terrible while doing it.
In a plastic bin with a lid I pack:
Granola/protein bars, fruit leather, individual serving sized baggies of dry cereal, individual serving sized baggies of crackers, individual packets/containers of peanut butter, individual serving sized baggies of trail mix.
In a towel-lined reusable grocery bag I pack:
Bananas, apples, clementines.
I pack a small cooler that contains:
Sandwiches for the first day, hard-boiled (and peeled) eggs, tubes of yogurt that I’ve frozen, string cheese, Mini-Babybel cheese wheels, individual serving sized baggies of grapes, individual serving sizes baggies of baby carrots.
We always eat a quick breakfast at the free hotel breakfast bar before hitting the road. For dinner, we either grab a quick sandwich at Jimmy John’s, or I’ll order pizza and salad to be delivered to the common area of our hotel. We’ll eat it before or after our evening swim. The food listed above gets us through the rest of the day. Not stopping for sit-down meals helps us make great time during the day and enables us to have time in the evening to enjoy ourselves in the hotel pool.
One year, I really went overboard and wrote down a schedule of the day, including entertainment blocks. It was largely ignored, not surprisingly. What I have found that works really well instead, is having a loose cycle. Video games are fairly “high interest” for my kids, but since it says right in the Nintendo manual that they shouldn’t play for more than 30 minutes at a time, we use that as a guideline. The video game sessions provide the structure for the cycles. For instance, as soon as we’re on the main highway each morning, they get a 30ish minute video game session. Once that is finished, the next video game session can begin two hours later. In between sessions, there are many choices:
Listen to audiobook
Listen to music
Listen to comedy
We usually have times where everyone is doing something quietly on their own, and then there are other times when we’re all listening to something or watching something together. Before leaving, I make sure to download at least one audio book for each kid (and one for the whole family to listen to together). I also make a fun playlist or two. Usually at some point during each day, we have a round of “DJ,” where we take turns picking songs to all listen to together. The music is loud, and we all get silly. (“Boogie in Your Butt” by Eddie Murphy is a frequent pick, and, for some reason, “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere” by Alan Jackson.)
In addition to music, I make a playlist of different comedians… it’s not too hard to find bits that are moderately appropriate. Listening to comedy together is a nice alternative to audiobooks and music on a long trip. Plus, it makes for excellent inside jokes. Just ask my kids about Pig Newtons.
I also make sure to have some different viewing options. We have an old portable dvd player on which they can watch movies together, and I make sure to have some options on iTunes for each kid. Usually, though, with all of the other options, movie/tv watching is just a small part of each day. It can really save those last, long two hours of each day’s drive, though.
Each child is encouraged to spend some time free-writing and doing a little math review. My children enjoy reading, so I don’t have to bribe them to do that. As for the math and writing, their next gaming session is usually a good enough carrot. (Your kids will thank you in the fall when they realize they didn’t succumb to the dreaded Summer Slide.)
The key, again, is anticipation. If you give the day a little structure… and throw in some “good for your brain” activities… there is more anticipation for the screen time. Having a predictable flow makes the day go smoother, and the kids don’t get tired of the “fun” things.
When we arrive at the hotel in the evening, I spend five minutes loading a reusable grocery bag with an outfit “bundle” from each person’s bag. (Unless the shorts were spilled on, they just wear the same shorts two days in a row.) We also bring in the electronics bin, toiletries bag, personal backpacks, swimming bag, and the small cooler. Food is put in the fridge for the night and ice packs are refrozen. Since we only bring in a few things, we only need to make the one trip into the hotel. (I developed this aspect of the System after feeling so annoyed about dragging in all of our bags each night to the hotel… and basically having to repack the car each morning.)
After swimming and showering, the kids sleep in the t-shirt and underwear they’ll wear the next morning. In the morning, I grab a plastic laundry bag from the hotel room closet for their dirty clothes from the day before, and when we get back in the car, the dirty clothes goes into a larger reusable bag in the car.
Combatting Tired Butt Syndrome-
The worst thing about long hours of driving is TBS. At each pit stop, we spend a few minutes running up and down available green space or an empty edge of a parking lot. Jumping jacks work, too, if you don’t have room. Once at the hotel, no matter the time, we always swim. The kids need that time to move, and they can always doze in the car the next day if they’re tired.
Random Helpful Hints-
*You’ve noticed I mention reusable grocery bags a lot. I make sure to have at least ten or so in the car. The larger, sort of stiff ones are perfect for just about any road trip need.
*Pass around the citrus after hard-boiled eggs are eaten—the orange peel scent eradicates the egg smell!
*Every day, each kid gets to pick out one Junk Treat at one of the afternoon pit stops. Everyone looks forward to their Junk Treats–anticipation! And a piece of candy or a bag of chips, if you’re otherwise eating pretty healthful foods, isn’t going to do much harm. (Corn Nuts still make the best Junk Treat in my book… Red Vines are a close second.)
*You can always play the license plate game or other road trip favorites. Put together a road trip “scavenger hunt” where the kids can cross off items as they come across them.
*To keep myself from going crazy, I encourage the kids to keep their drawing stuff and books and such in their backpacks when not in use. The same goes for electronic items—devices and charging cords go in the bin when not in use. If food is eaten, the trash goes immediately in a garbage bag. That way, everyone knows where their items are at any given time; plus, clutter in a crowded car just makes everyone grumpy.
*Each person begins the trip with a reusable water bottle that is rinsed out each evening and refilled throughout the day. Drinking fountains are usually available at gas stations/travel centers.
*Try and be on the road by 8am so that you don’t have to drive in the dark in the evening. It is crucial to have time for some good swimming at the hotel each evening—it gives the kids something to look forward to and, as mentioned above, combats TBS.
*I always schedule the longest driving day for the first day on the road when nobody’s road weary yet and our butts are fresh.
This summer I have only one major road trip scheduled with the kids and without my husband. It will only be twenty hours of driving and 1,250 miles each way, which seems like a breeze compared to other trips we’ve taken. The trip isn’t for another six weeks, at least. But I’m already thinking about play lists, road trip prezzies, and route options. The Amazing Road Trip System actually enables me to look forward to the time on the road with my kids instead of dreading it.
It doesn’t hurt when you’re able to schedule a pit stop for a gas station next to an In ‘N Out Burger. One of their shakes makes a great Junk Treat.
Don’t forget to ask for a hat.