Growing up, family road trips meant a max of two hours in the car. It didn’t matter if we were heading on vacation or visiting family, two hours was our driving limit. As a kid, that time dragged on forever. (I was always stocked, though, with plenty of snacks, toys, and a Discman with at least 12 CDs so I wouldn’t get bored.) Full disclosure: the college I selected was also a two-hour drive away — so I really had no experience with “real” road trips until I married my husband and his career moved us all over the country. We’ve moved four times, two of which were cross country only seven months apart, in almost six years. And since we don’t live near family and friends anymore, 12-hour road trips have become the norm. With each trip, there are new challenges and new lessons to be learned, especially as we add pets and babies to our growing family. While you can never fully prepare for the open road, there are some things you can do to help keep everyone (mostly) happy and limit the number of “are we there yet?” questions from the back seat. Here are five tips for traveling with kids:
1. Snacks On Snacks On Snacks!
A car full of hangry kids (and adults) is not fun for anyone. Take some time before your trip to grab snacks for all traveling family members. In my early road tripping days, I would get chips, chocolate, and soda to “treat myself” during a long drive. I’ve come to realize that there really needs to be a balance of treats (a lifesaver for when you hit traffic and kids are crying) and healthy snacks that are going to provide substance for everyone. Our snacks normally include applesauce pouches, sandwich crackers, dry cereal or puffs, nuts, cheese sticks, fresh fruit and raw veggies. We also pack lots of water for everyone, pets included, and usually some kind of pre-made ice coffee drink for my husband and I if it’s an especially long drive. On our most recent trip, we opted to bring lunch with us in a cooler, so that we didn’t have to worry about where or when to stop for food. This was a time saver and way easier with my and my son’s gluten allergies
2. Plan Your Stops.
You never know when your baby is going to have a diaper blowout or when your toddler is going to exclaim that they have to go potty, but you can at least try to plan your stops. (Keyword try, because life with kids is anything but predictable, ha!) This is especially important if you are traveling on highways that don’t have rest stops every few miles. When we are trying to travel 12 hours in a day, having to detour off the highway to find a gas station or bathroom can add 30 minutes to an already long trip. I recently started Googling the rest stops on our route ahead of time and it’s been a huge help. I usually decide which ones we should stop at based on nap schedules and bathroom breaks. If you’ll be traveling a long distance over a few days, pick fun and interesting places to stop along the way as a welcomed diversion for everyone.
3. New Toys And Favorite Movie Soundtracks For The Win.
Trapped in car seats for hours on end, long road trips can get understandably boring for your little ones. A new toy is exciting and can really help pass the time. Before a big trip, I like to pick out a few small toys for each kid. They don’t need to be anything crazy either, a matchbox car, activity book, or any small toy from the dollar store can be really fun for kids. And babies will be happy with a new teether or rattle. I keep these toys hidden until necessary — “are we there yets” or seemingly endless traffic are great times to spice things up for your kiddos. We also download movie soundtracks to play on repeat. Our toddler gets just as excited as if he were watching the movie and we aren’t putting a screen in front of him for hours on end.
4. Establish A System.
Traveling for us these days involves A LOT of small bodies. We have two dogs (who think they are human), a toddler, and a baby. Every time we stop, the dogs have to be walked, the baby needs to be changed and fed, and the toddler needs to go to the bathroom and use up some of his energy. Some rest stops also include eating a meal. This could easily take hours without a good plan. After logging a number of long trips, I think it’s safe to say we’ve mastered rest stops with our “divide and conquer” method. My husband and I split up kid and pet responsibilities, so that each stop works the same way. Our routine is as follows: Hubby takes the dogs out, while I change the baby (I change him in the car to limit germ exposure and save time), then he takes the toddler to the restroom, while I feed the baby. When they are back, he straps both kids back into their seats while I run inside. We then switch drivers and are back on the road in 30 minutes. This helps us get through everything quickly and easily. Obviously, your family routine will vary depending on the needs of your travelers, but work as a team and your stops will be pain free.
5. Remember To Make The Most Of It.
Road trips can be stressful, especially with kids. Tight quarters, traffic and/or bad weather are all factors that’ll make you wish you had just stayed home. When we were new to traveling, we often saw it as a “chore.” Don’t get me wrong, we looked forward to arriving at our destination, but we really didn’t enjoy the rides getting there. Before our last trip, I told my husband that I wanted to approach it with a positive attitude. His job can take him away from us a lot, and while a road trip can be work, it’s still family time — more importantly, family time without interruptions or distractions. That shift in mindset (and our recent minivan purchase) made all the difference. We still had our moments of frustration and stress, but we actually enjoyed talking, telling stories, and singing along to the Moana soundtrack on repeat for three days in the car. We made memories that I know we’ll be laughing and thinking back fondly on for years to come.
Jackie is a mother of two and military wife. Originally from New York, she and her family now enjoy the slower paced living of the South, thanks to military relocation. She taught in elementary schools throughout the country for five years before taking a hiatus to raise her two little ones.
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Photos provided by author.