Hollywood loves to glorify the Great American Road Trip. Characters like Thelma and Louise or the Griswold family make embarking cross country on four wheels look adventurous and exciting. Before we had children, my husband and I agreed it was our favorite way to travel. We loved the wide open road highlighting the country's beauty, a soundtrack of music and our favorite snacks to keep us company, endless time to dream and share stories with our favorite co-pilot. It was in that dreaming that we declared when we had children, we would be a family that road-tripped.
And then we had kids.
We quickly discovered adventuring on the open road with children looked entirely different than we imagined it would. The country’s beauty would often go unnoticed as we constantly turned to the backseat to meet the needs of whiny passengers. The soundtracks keeping us company were a steady flow of “are we there yet?” and “can I have a snack?” and “she’s bothering me!” We had to learn a new system of divide and conquer as one kept the car steady and the other kept the moods of the bored travelers steady, exhausting us so much that if we actually did achieve a moment of quiet, we didn’t dare talk for fear of disturbing the peace. It appeared we were keeping the dream alive by road tripping as a family, but the dream looked more like a nightmare.
But just like any new adventure in parenting, over time road tripping got better. Through trial and error, we learned what strategies worked for our family, and what didn’t. We now have a suitcase full of tips and tricks to help our family make adventuring on the road what we dreamed it could be.
Here are my top ten tips for making road trips work for your family, too:
- Know your best hours for driving. Some can drive through the night and choose to do this method with children. Our family found this impossible for the drivers to recuperate the next day. Instead, we are best in the morning so we choose to go to bed early and then leave as early as we can, usually in the 3:00 AM hour. This can get us hours down the road before anyone makes a peep. Also we have learned everyone melts down by the witching hour so we like to be off the road by 5:00. Avoiding the cranky hours works for everyone.
- Home rules are different from car rules. While we set age appropriate limits for screens and snacks in our house, our children understand that one of the joys of travel is getting to break these rules. We want our kids to be just as excited as we are about getting into the car. And when they know they will get to watch their favorite movie on repeat and eat nothing but applesauce pouches, they cheer. It is not shocking to learn that happy children make for smoother travel.
- Provide easy access to snacks. Nothing is more annoying than the constant begging of snacks, so we started providing more independence over the snack bag. For bigger kids we leave a small container of easy snacks for them to eat as they wish. For little ones, we like to make up a snack mix of their favorites–goldfish crackers, cheerios, raisins, etc–in a handled snack cup, and refill as necessary.
- Rotate on and off screen time hours. While, as mentioned above, we like to allow freedom from typical screen limitations, we have learned the children do better when they alternate hours on and off the screen. We save the off hours for reading, new games and toys, audio books, or staring off into the open range and listening to music, my favorite car activity. Somehow the time goes more quickly when we go hour by hour.
- Take turns playing DJ. Set a 10 minute timer and let each member of the family pick the music. This allows everyone to hear their favorites. It also provides an opportunity to muffle any annoying whining that might (will) ensue.
- Make use of your local library. Stock up on not just favorite books but also audio books, new music, or puzzle books. Some libraries even offer other surprise activities for check out. Novel is always the key to keeping boredom at bay and the library helps rotate new things in and out of your travel activity bag.
- Create a surprise bag just for road trips. For new activities, dollar sections offer fun options. Saving happy meal toys works well. Even things you wouldn’t expect to be car toys like pipe cleaners, stickers, or a pencil box of legos can pass the time quickly. Will it be messy? Well, yes, but that is just part of the trip. The car will need a good scrub after the trip anyway.
- Use visuals to indicate distance traveled. To help your children understand the “how much further” question, take a cue from the airlines and show the car moving across the road. Set up a string across the backseat of the car with “start” and “end” signs. Attach a cut out shape of a car and slide it along the string as you get closer to your destination.
- Plan for picnics. While fast food is, well, fast, bringing along a cooler full of snack lunch options is just as easy. If weather allows, we love to find a local playground to let everyone work out some pent up energy, but you can also take a picnic lunch into a rest area if you must be inside. Save the happy meals for when you really need it at the end of the trip.
- Make the drive part of the adventure. Having interesting stopping points along the way helps to break up a long day of driving. Even a goofy landmark or a new playground can spark joy in a child cooped up in a car seat all day. Give children clues as to what they should look for as they go along the drive. You are teaching them to enjoy the view out the car window, just like you used to do.
So sure travel does look different than it did when we were just two young adventurers. But with the right strategies, road tripping as a family is exciting in a new kind of way, one we could never have dreamed of, one, I venture to say, is even better because we are adventuring together. Happy travels!