It's no secret our family loves a good road trip. When my daughter was almost two years-old, I drove to Newfoundland with her - just the two of us. People thought we were nuts, but it was one of the best times I've had with her. When her little brother came along, we wondered if he'd be as content in the car as she was, and thankfully, he was a born road-tripper. We've driven to Florida, to Newfoundland, and all places in between, so we're well-seasoned road warriors.
Here are our tips for not going absolutely shack-whacky when trapped in a moving sardine can with your young children:
1. Plan Well
Map your route and know where your ideal stops will be. Small kids use the washroom often, and everyone needs a good leg-stretch every few hours, so aim to stop every three to four hours, allowing for unexpected stops in between. We’re CAA members (also a REALLY smart idea when you’re on a long road trip!) and I order their TripTiks which are extremely helpful. Knowing distances will help everyone feel less like the trip is just one big drive to an end-point, if there are places en route you’re excited to stop and see. We also love the Waze app, which is super helpful for knowing current (and ever-changing!) road and traffic conditions.
There’s little worse than feeling unsure of how much things will cost, or by realizing you’re blowing far too much money on the road. While we certainly eat well when we travel, we spend wisely by choosing healthy meals instead of fast food, and we pack snacks in the car (and buy from grocery stores we come across on the journey) to lower the cost of eating while on the road. We also tend to stay at the same chain of hotels that generally offer a pool (early morning, pre-car swims are the BEST!), continental breakfast buffet and inexpensive price-point so we know how much to add in for our accommodations. Pre-kids, I was known to stay in anything under $50, but that doesn’t fly anymore. Ha.
3. Get your car checked out
This is very important. Nothing spoils a fun vacation like car troubles, and having something like your brakes fail while descending through the Cabot Trail would be terrifying. RIGHT, MOM AND DAD? (Yup, that happened to my family when I was a kid.) As mentioned, having some kind of roadside assistance is always a great idea, but at the very least, get ole Bessy in to the mechanic for a once-over and an oil change. Let them know you’re about to embark on a journey so they can tell you if there are any concerns. I had a tire blow on the road once and it was less than fun having to find someone to give us a fair price in an unfamiliar place.
4. Embrace the screens
I know, I know, screen time is the devil. But there is nothing quite like the silence obtained by a preschooler on a Leapster or a kid on a Nintendo 3DS. Pack extra batteries, make sure you have all the necessary chargers and game cartridges. Pack a portable DVD player (if you're like us, and drive a vehicle without onboard screens) and movies, or an iPad loaded with family favourites. Share your mobile devices and even stock up on some new apps the kids will love. It’s worth your sanity, I swear.
5. Sneak in some surprises
I always buy the kids a couple small toys I know they’ll love, to give them randomly on the trip. My son loves Lego minifigures, my daughter is elated when she gets new art supplies. I buy new washable markers and crayons, pretty new paper, and present them with exciting new stuff when there’s true boredom on the horizon. It can be something as small as stickers from the dollar store, or a candy they don’t usually get to eat. Surprises are just fun for everyone.
6. Make time for fun
Often, road trips focus on the end destination. I know that for my kids every summer, arriving at Nana and Papa’s house is their ultimate goal, but we’ve always got lots of fun planned along the way. Take the time to stop at a roadside market or fruit stand. Take in a local site of interest. Peruse a kitschy gift shop. These are the things we remember. Don’t forget to stop and enjoy things on your way.
7. Make the kids stare out their windows
Boredom is a good thing (in moderation)! Let the kids have the quiet time they need. They don’t need entertainment 24-7 at home, so the same can be said for in-car time. Let them have quiet time looking out the windows. Point out the trees going by, the cows (I’ve taught my family all the different breeds of cattle and what they’re used for, thanks to my Dad teaching me on these same kinds of trips). Engage the kids in their surroundings and they’re much more likely to take an interest in it. Point out the changes in scenery, play I Spy, look for cloud animals. It's a beautiful place outside those windows. Books are great for quiet time, unless you get carsick (like me).
8. Create a special playlist (or three)
This is my favourite part of any road trip! I love compiling a wicked playlist to enjoy. I plan them very carefully… energy rises, peaks and falls through my playlist, with fun stuff from my childhood right through to today. When my kids were younger, they loved stuff like the Barenaked Ladies’ Snacktime CD and now they love all the new pop stuff. We also stream music through the Songza app on our iPhones through the car speakers, and that’s just plain awesome. You can choose your genre/theme/mood, and away you go! So cool.
9. Write a packing list and check it twice (and three, and four and five times)
As soon as we decide we’re taking a trip, I start a packing list. Sometimes this is a month or more in advance, but it’s always worked out well for us. I add to it whenever I think of something we’ll need, and then I pack each suitcase by checking off items as they’re packed. Before we leave, I check to be sure everything’s been checked off our list and away we go. Take note of the things your family uses daily, in order to formulate a list. This isn’t something you want to leave to the last minute.
10. Bring a first-aid kit
This is also very important. Pack BandAids, pain reliever (for kids and adults), Gravol, and any medications family members require in an easy-to-access container or bag. My son needs to have his EpiPen or Allerject on hand at all times, and we also carry Benadryl wherever we go (a good idea for anyone). If you remove medication from its original packaging, BE SURE TO LABEL IT CORRECTLY. And be sure to bring enough to last you the length of your trip if anyone is on prescription meds. Don’t forget the sunscreen and bug spray.
11. Get the kids some car lap trays
These are a total lifesaver for us in the car. They’re great for playing games, colouring, eating, everything. I found plastic ones at Michael’s, but when searching for some photos of the ones we have, I stumbled across THIS incredible idea! What an awesome project. Super smart, because the edges ensure stuff won’t roll off the edges, and the metal is perfect for some fun magnet games.
12. Stock up on baby wipes
Sticky fingers? Baby wipe. Spill? Baby wipe. Snotty nose? Baby wipe. Marker on the leather seats? Baby wipe. Dirty hands? Baby wipe. Nature pee/poop? Baby wipes. See? You need lots of baby wipes, regardless of your kids’ ages.
13. Monkey see, monkey do
It doesn’t matter how happily my son is playing with something, if he sees his big sister with a fun toy, he wants to try, too. This is how we ended up having to buy him a Nintendo 3DS, why we have two iPads, why my husband and I both have the same apps on our iPhones that our daughter has on her iPod. Sometimes giving them each their own just makes the most sense. Or the most quiet. Whatever. Sense = quiet when you’re trapped in a metal box with your kids for hours on end.
14. Pack an easy access Oops Bag
Take some freezer Ziploc bags and store them in a larger bag. You can use these for any accidents the kids have along the way. And they will have accidents. (Baby wipes!) In your Oops Bag, have a few extra changes of clothes handy, under your passenger seat for easy access. It makes the whole experience a whole lot less traumatic if you act like it’s really no big deal, and clean them up easy-peasy right away.
15. Bring reusable water bottles
And fill them wherever you can. I realize this means kids will have to pee more, but let’s remember that dehydration is bad, and peeing takes next to no time. Water is important, so avoid other sugary drinks while you’re in the car.
16. Roll your clothing to pack
Seriously, this trick will change your life. Roll your clothes before packing them and you’ll save a TON of space. Match outfits (I tend to stick to stuff that all more or less matches for the kids anyhow, for sake of ease) before you pack them, then roll them together. They stay wrinkle-free and take up way less room, so maybe your kids can share a suitcase like mine do.
17. Bring their favourite toy
Sometimes kids feel homesick, and that’s totally ok. Small comforts from home make it easier on little kids to enjoy their time in unfamiliar places, and the best part is that those car naps are a lot easier when that special stuffy is there to snuggle! Just keep a close eye on that lovey wherever you go. Losing one is often devastating.
18. Bring pillows & blankets
There’s nothing quite so comforting as my own pillow. I hate the hotel ones — if only because I can’t get the idea of someone else’s head having been on it the night before mine out of my brain. We take our pillows on every trip. They’re perfect for snoozing in the car, and great for hotel stays. And cozy blankets from home are also perfect for the same, and double as awesome picnic blankets should you decide to have one on your way (and I recommend you do).
19. Don’t forget the snacks!
Visiting Bulk Barn before road trips is a family tradition for us. We stock up on granola, dried fruits, and treats. (My son has food allergies so we stock up on his safe snacks elsewhere.) Little bags of tons of different options are a huge hit in the car! Although ours is a nut-free family, if yours isn’t, taking nuts along is such an awesome way to stave off The Hungries when you’re between meals. They pack a perfect protein punch. We also take fresh fruits, cut up veggies, breads and some pre-made sandwiches before we leave.
One set for each kid. An absolute MUST. There is only so much kid content one parent should ever have to endure.
21. Plan some fun car games
Google is your friend! Search for in-car games and you’ll find some awesome resources out there like THIS and THIS. A favourite for our family is a game Story made up called “Who says What?“. . . we say a line from one of the kids’ favourite movies, and they have to guess the movie and character who says it.
22. Double-check your meds
Make SURE you have the meds you need. I always have a little panic that I’ve left the EpiPen behind, or that I don’t have my beloved Advil Migraine when I’m on the road. It’s not as easy to find these things as you may think sometimes.
23. Gather all your gear
Camera? Phones? Chargers? Games? Batteries? Gather all your electronic gadgetry together in one bag and have all the accouterments with them. When the Leapster runs out of batteries at half-past naptime, you want to know how to solve that problem pronto. You also don’t want to end up at your destination with a camera and a dead battery. Not that I’ve ever done that before. *shifty eyes*
24. Double-up on socks and undies
Always. I have kids’ socks and undies in my purses, that’s my super power: being ever-prepared for accidents. Kids hate being wet on their butts and feet, that’s a fact. Keeping them dry and comfy is key.
25. Account for the unaccountable
When possible, be generous with your time estimates to allow for someone to barf a little, or for wrong turns, or for stops at beautiful viewpoints. We leave a margin of error of a few hours each day and rarely (if ever) arrive anywhere with too much time to spare.
26. Be Zen
Stay calm, this is a happy adventure. It’s so easy to get super frustrated with the kids because they’re being, well, kids in a car. It’s not a great thrill to be strapped into a car seat for hours on end — you’re up front with next to no temper left, so try to remember that they’re back there with the same issue. You’re making awesome family memories, and they won’t remember those frustrating moments. Take deep breaths, appreciate the beauty, enjoy your family. The times they’re willing to take these vacations with us are short, and we’ll look back so fondly on them all.
27. Get creative
Pack paper, colouring books, crayons, markers, stickers. . . any and all age-appropriate art materials. Challenge the kids to create something relevant to your trip. What colour was the sky this morning? Draw a picture of something you saw on the trip. This can be tailored to any age and at the end, a fun vacation scrapbook of their on-the-road creations can be made for them to treasure.
28. Take advantage of wifi hotspots
Remembering that if you go roaming, you’ll pay those roaming fees. So be aware, and turn your data off when you need to. Look for places with free wifi (McDonald’s, Starbucks, hotels. . .) and use it! We often sit in the parking lots and hook into wifi signals to search for the nearest hotel we want to stay in, or to search Hotwire.com to see if we can score a sweet deal on a hotel there. Save money and search smart!
29. Pack a night bag
When you drive until dark, the kids are often exhausted (and so are we!), and nobody wants to lug the full-sized suitcases into the hotel, only to drag them back out at 9am. So pack an overnight bag (like, backpack size) for everyone that includes a toothbrush, toothpaste, jammies and a change of clothes, and whatever else you’ll need overnight. It’s much easier to sling on a small bag and drag everyone in to sleep.
30. Notify your credit card company
Before you leave, call your credit card company and let them know your destination, general route of travel, and length of trip. If you don’t, there’s a good chance your account could be flagged for suspicious activity and frozen. Once, many years ago while in New York City, my account was frozen, I had no available cash, and the credit card company wouldn’t release my credit card until I called them from a number listed on my account. Which was, of course, my home number in Toronto. Not awesome. Thankfully, my friend spotted me money for the remainder of our trip, but if she hadn’t, I’d have been outta luck.
Most of all, enjoy! Take lots of photos, print them, and make a book of your travels. These are the best trips, and with just a little preparation, they really are wonderful!