This post is written by Michele from Imperfectly Wonderful World.
Mark and I are teachers, and since we have the summer off we love to take road trips. We took road trips before we had children, and we didn’t let having kids stop us from having an adventure every summer. I’ll admit there were times I’ve looked back and thought we were crazy, but I can honestly say I’ve never regretted any trip we’ve taken. I’m going to try to tackle the subject of taking a successful family road trip without losing your sanity. Mark and I have traveled with our boys since they were babies. We never let their age hinder us from setting off across country. I know the motivation for traveling has often been to see family or friends, but even if family or friends isn’t what motivates you to travel, let me encourage you to take the leap of faith and travel with your children.
The reason is simple. My husband always says, “We’ll never get these years back.” Time is precious. We won’t ever have this opportunity again so take advantage of the moment and make some memories. You’ll always remember it, and so will your children. I promise you won’t regret it!
Recently our family took a 5,500 mile road trip. I shared our journey on Instagram (@redbirdblue), and I had several friends ask about how we managed to take such a long trip. They wanted advice and tips on traveling with children. I’m always hesitant to tell others what will work for them, but I’ll share with you what works for us.
This is how we travel with our children
while having fun and still keeping our sanity.
Have realistic expectations.
Mentally prepare that traveling with children is way different than being single or just a married couple. That may be stating the obvious, but think about that for a moment. When Mark and I didn’t have children we could drive for longer distances, we were more spontaneous, we didn’t have to have a schedule, packing wasn’t that big of a deal, and we could travel much cheaper. Traveling with children doesn’t allow for a lot of adult alone time (for example, quiet meals in nice restaurants) unless you have family or friends to watch your little ones. Prepare yourself that there will be meltdowns. Things will not go as planned. Your children (and you) will get tired and cranky. Despite all of that, IT IS WORTH IT! Some of mine and Mark’s favorite memories of growing up are taking road trips with our family. Sure, things happened that weren’t perfect, but now that’s what we look back on and laugh about the most. One of Will’s favorite memories from our last road trip was the big mess we made at the hotel breakfast. Orange juice and syrup were everywhere on the table and chairs. It was so bad that they had to bring us a new chair, and both boys had to change clothes. I was not a happy camper in the moment, how embarrassing! But now that it’s a memory, we can all laugh about it.
Long road trips = Frequent Stops
When you travel with children, expect frequent stops. I feel like we should have a sign like an 18-wheeler, “This Vehicle Makes Frequent Stops”. You either have to stop for diaper changes or feedings. If you are traveling with a child who is potty training, then you’ll have to stop continually to avoid accidents. Sometimes you need a “sanity stop” because everyone needs a break from the car. Factor in stopping more than you planned, and that will help you avoid frustration. Don’t expect to make great time when you are on the road with little ones. Try to make your stops efficient. We try to refuel, get something to eat, and have a bathroom break all at one stop. One a side note, public restrooms are gross. That’s all there is to it, and the sooner you can accept that and know that it’s a part of your road trip, then the more peace of mind you will have. Sorry!
Choose a family-friendly activities.
That’s why we have attended so many MLB baseball games on our vacations. Those events are fun for my husband, but also very welcoming to families. We love nature, and we like to visit National Parks and take hikes. Obviously beaches and the mountains are a favorite. We enjoy the outdoors, but we’ve also been to big cities, New York, Chicago, St. Louis, Baltimore, Indianapolis, Austin, Seattle, and San Francisco. Cities offer so many great options. We’ve visited children’s museums, aquariums, and zoos. Our oldest is almost 8 and we didn’t tackle those all at once. Our first road trip with Will was to San Antonio, Texas. Our destination was only about 5 hours away and we stayed on the River Walk. So our first family vacation was small compared to some, but it was good practice for us. The following year we drove across country to visit family and friends on the East Coast.
Location, Location, Location
We usually select our hotels based on location to what we want to see or do, but sometimes we select it because it looks like it’s in a family-friendly area. This is a crazy way to do things, but go to Google Maps and look at what businesses are located around the hotel you might stay in. Mark jokes about this, but he says if there’s a Panera Bread, Starbucks or Target near it, then he knows I’ll be happy. We also use reviews from websites like TripAdvisor to get an idea about the hotel we are thinking about staying in.
Make a Plan
Even if you’re not a planner, I encourage you to make some kind of basic itinerary for your vacation. It allows you to maximize your travel time. Honestly, it’s one of the best parts for Mark and I. We love talking about where we’ll go and how we’ll make it happen. Mark and I share the responsibilities. Mark usually researches and books our hotels. He looks at the best travel routes and purchases our tickets for whatever we are going to visit. I read online travel guides and websites to help get an idea of things we want to see and do. Frommer’s is one of my favorite travel website with one-day itinerary ideas. Fodor’s is also an excellent resource. Obviously I read blogs, look at Instagram, and Pinterest for ideas, too. When we plan a vacation we have some days that follow an itinerary and others that allow for downtime.
Like I said in #5, we do allow for free time. Sometimes the best memories are made from the spontaneous adventures you end up on when you least expect it. Don’t be so rigid that you miss those opportunities. When we plan our vacations we have some hotels booked in advance, and then we allow for days in between that aren’t scheduled. We have a general idea of what we’d like to see and do, but nothing set in stone. We let the day happen and see what unexpected fun we can find.
This is probably my least favorite things of the road trip. It always stresses me out when I pack for vacation. I’m always afraid I’ll over-pack or under-pack. Mark likes to remind me that wherever we are traveling, there will be a Walmart or Target in case we forgot something. He’s right, but it’s still stressful.
So here’s how I do it.
I make piles all over my house of all the clothes we are going to take. I think about all the things we are going to see and do, and I pack clothes based on that. Next I select outfits for each person for each day (including underwear and shoes), and then I include extra outfits. Seriously, when the boys were small, they would go through several outfits in one day! Since a lot of our vacations have been spent with family and friends, we have usually been able to do laundry which helps. This last road trip was a challenge. We had temperature extremes, 32 degrees in the mountains and 108 degrees in the desert. We were hiking in national parks and hanging out in cities. Somehow it all worked and we had enough clothes. Don’t forget swimsuits, too. Usually we have two huge suitcases and two smaller ones. When we’re headed to our destination, so we don’t have to take the enormous and very heavy suitcases into the hotel for a single night, I pack clothes for one day in the smaller suitcases. The bigger suitcases can stay in the car and we only have a small amount of luggage to take in while we are traveling to our destination. That takes some planning but it’s really nice when you are tired and unloading the car.
Packing the Car
I’m not a very creative mom who comes up with fun road trip games or special gifts to help pass the time. I try to pack things that will keep them preoccupied. We always take the boys’ favorite toys, blankets and pillows. When they were smaller, I had a lot more toys. Now that they are older, they watch movies on the DVD player in the car, play games on the iPad (which we try to limit to 30 minutes at a time), they have sticker books, they draw and color, or they listen to music with us. Sometimes I find random junk in the $1 section at Target to preoccupy them, for example glow sticks saved the day on our last vacation. It kept the boys happy the last few hours when we were all tired. Nothing fancy, but it was a distraction.
Be warned that if you are in the passenger seat, then you’ll be turning around a lot to attend to the needs of our children. It’s an ongoing joke between me and Mark that he’d rather drive because the boys are constantly asking him to hand them something or turn on the DVD player. I’m used to it, but he’s not since he usually drives.
Pack snacks in the car and pack them where you can reach them without stopping. My favorite snacks are goldfish crackers, granola bars, raisins, apple sauce squeezers, Capri Suns or juice boxes. For more great suggestions, click here.
Travel at Night
This was a first for us on our last road trip. We drove through the night on the first day of our trip. We’d never done it before, but we made such great time and the boys were asleep. The first 8 hours we only made one stop for gas and they slept through it. We were mentally prepared for it, and Mark and I took turns driving. If you and your spouse are up for it, then I highly recommend it. We didn’t do that anymore for the road trip, but it helped us make great time the first day when we needed to drive a long distance.
It gets easier! Don’t give up!
Last year we drove thought the Midwest and down the East Coast. There were parts of the road trip that were a real challenge. We tried to cover a lot of miles in one day. The boys really struggled (and so did I). Ben was 4 and Will was 6 and a half. There were moments on that vacation where I thought I’d never take another road trip again. It’s amazing the difference that one year can make! Ben is no longer in a 5-point harness car seat and he can move around more. Both boys are better travelers. We seriously didn’t have a bad meltdown the entire trip. Sure, there were cranky moments from all of us, but that’s to be expected. I still can’t believe we pulled off the road trip that we did. I’m not sure we’ll ever recreate it.
Here are the stats:
5, 515 miles
16 days on the road
5 National Parks
3 Rangers baseball games
2 National Monuments
1 trip to Disneyland
Here are a few photos from past road trips.
Doesn’t it look easy here where my sweet babies are sleeping peacefully?
If only! Also notice how packed our car is.
This was from our road trip to Chicago in 2010. Ben had just turned one and will was three and a half.
Mark and I are country bumpkins but we’ve taken both boys on mass transit in the big city.
Will and I are about to board the subway in NYC in 2007.
Mark and Ben waiting to board the ‘L’ in Chicago in 2010.
Seriously! Traveling with children! This was from our Midwest road trip in 2010. All of this for 4 people. Please notice we always traveled with a Graco Pack ‘N Play for our little ones to sleep in if they weren’t big enough for a bed. We also took a portable Fisher Price highchair. I took a plastic shoebox that was new and packed dish soap and bottle brushes in it to wash out bottles and sippy cups so I didn’t have to put them in the hotel sink.
This was at Cracker Barrel on our road trip to the Smoky Mountains and Georgia in 2011.
This photo is from our road trip to New Mexico in 2012.
Ben’s first road trip! 2010
Ben on our last road trip. 2014
Will’s first road trip! 2007
Will on our 2013 road trip.