The American road trip – beloved pastime of lonely poets, biker tribes, motor home retirees, young couples fresh-faced and in love. But what about that frazzled family with 2.5 children and a closet full of butt wipes? Is this adventure truly for us, the exhausted parents with diaper-wearing, life-sucking tiny humans?
It can be. Maybe not in the I-have-a-full-face-of-make-up-and-take-beautiful-selfies way presented by those traveling sans kids, but it can happen. And it can be enjoyable, wonderful even, if you are willing to compromise and follow the rules.
Rule #1. Lower your expectations
This is, by far, the most important and intrinsically simple rule. Just lower your expectations…like set the bar really low…car seat full of diarrhea low. Then, you can be happily surprised when the trip goes pretty darn smoothly (except for that little fender-bender and the vomit incident) but other than that, smooth. If you start out with a vision of perfection, you will be disappointed. Guaranteed.
Rule #2. Plan Ahead
So it takes some spontaneity out of it, but trust me – have a plan. Pre-booked hotels are a must to survive a road trip with children. You never know when that tiny spot-in-the-road-town will be booked for its annual Brook Trout festival. The next motel could be an hour down the road. Do you have another hour in you? Doubtful.
Even with pre-booked hotels, it is a good idea to call ahead and confirm your reservation the morning of arrival. Request any cribs, extra pillows, blankets, etc. that you require, and ask that they be placed in the room prior to check-in. This makes a world of difference when transferring sleeping babies from car to hotel undisturbed. Those extra 30 minutes it takes for housekeeping to deliver a pack-n-play (that will inevitably be broken in some fashion) will break you. Call ahead and politely ask that this be set up in advance.
Rule #3. Create a Snack Bar in your Car
It is not always possible to provide three square meals on the road. Even when it is, the kid who only ate ketchup for lunch will be hungry as soon as you’re back on the highway. Be prepared.
When we travel, we bring one food bag and one small cooler. I pack healthy options as well as fun, highly coveted junk snacks that fill multiple needs including distractions for grumpy children, rewards for awesome behavior, a quick binge for Mom, and the ever-important bribe.
Rule #4. Book Hotels with Onsite Dining Options
Free continental breakfast? Yes, please! Whether the meals are paid or complimentary, I advise selecting hotels offering early morning and late-night food choices.
Mornings are tricky enough when you need to get everyone bathed, dressed and packed for the day. Take the guess work out of the a.m. routine and stay at a place with onsite breakfast. A quick run downstairs is much easier than loading up hungry children and tracking down pancakes and sausage elsewhere. Plus, you can have the kiddos eat in their jammies, and you don’t have to find them a new outfit for the day when they spill orange juice all over their pants.
Arriving late-night after a draining day? Call room service. It may seem expensive, but the delivery charge takes the place of the enormous tip you will feel inclined to leave the server after your exhausted children cry through dinner at the Applebee’s across town.
Rule #5. Research the Route
Always know where the nearest zoo is. Actually, it doesn’t have to be a zoo; our kids just seem to feel at home there. Playgrounds, parks with open space, children’s museums, beaches, McDonald’s PlayPlaces – all of these things can change the trajectory of a day quickly spiraling out of control.
There are a couple of great apps that I use to stay ahead of the game. TripAdvisor is my favorite by far when it comes to finding the best a city has to offer. Snag the app, plug in the places you plan to spend time, and search for the highest-rated ‘Things to Do’ for each area. Save the ones of interest and easily pull them up when it’s time to plan your day.
Roadtrippers is another option if you find your crew getting a little restless mid-journey. This app explores your route and finds unique stopping points along the way. Who doesn’t want a pic with the world’s largest concrete totem pole?
Rule #6. Do not go Tech-Free
…not completely. Portable DVD players are not inherently evil. They have been our key to salvation on many a road trip. I’ll admit, I was resistant to accept the gift when it was presented a year into my first kid. My mom had to force it on my husband and me, but thank God for her persistence. You cannot and should not for any reason try to drive your small children out of state without the assistance of a few Pixar classics. It’s just not safe – or sane!
Learning tablets like the LeapFrog or the InnoTab are also solid options for young ones needing a distraction from the road. These gadgets can provide educational entertainment that will allow the adult travelers an opportunity to have a real, uninterrupted conversation or maybe just some welcomed silence and a nap.
We also bring crayons, notepads, books, and a selection of small toys, but for long stretches on the road, nothing helps relieve Mommy’s pounding headache better than a solid 1 hour and 23 minute movie and the silence it commands.
Rule #7. Take it in with your Eyes, not your iPhone
I know this kind of goes against Rule #6, but Rule #6 is really more intended for the kiddos. The all-important Rule #7 is focused on the adults, since we tend to be the biggest culprits of the blank-stare scroll.
Snap your selfies, shoot a quick video, check your travel apps and weather forecasts, and then put the phone away. You will not regret missing the Instagram post from the girl you went to high school with 14 years ago (you’ve seen a plate of nachos before), but you will regret if you are only half-present on your family vacation.
A road trip provides you with a pretty captive audience, all tightly strapped down and facing forward. Take advantage of it. Talk to those cuties in the backseat. It’s amazing the things our little people have to say when we tune in and actually listen.
These seven rules are not meant to be all-inclusive. You will find that as you embark on new adventures, your family will need to adjust these or create its own set of “rules.” This list just offers a place to start.
Like anything worth doing, the family road trip takes a lot of planning and researching and saving and sacrificing (mostly your high expectations) to complete successfully – so be flexible with what you consider “successful.” For our family, it’s simply arriving back home, grubby and tired, with another chapter of stories, good and bad, painful and wonderful.