I reach up to close the trunk of the van, packed to the gills with everything we could want or need. A sense of excitement and anticipation, alongside a bit of nervousness, runs through my body as my legs run back and forth to the house to grab “just one more thing.” The kids are strapped into their carseats as I buckle myself in, looking over to my co-pilot in the passenger’s seat: a bag full of snacks and a basket full of toys.
We’ve always loved adventure, always lived far from family, and always been open to the road ahead. Though my husband is able to join us on some trips, work constraints mean he often gets left behind to hold down the fort. So it’s just me and the kiddos and the road that lies ahead. Over the years, here are some truths I’ve gleaned from our time trapped in the car together.
1. You will overpack.
As much as you might fancy yourself a minimalist (I try), as much as you’ve given your kids limits (no, we do not need to pack 17 stuffed animals), as much as you convince yourself that using smaller bags will limit the amount of stuff you bring, it won’t. You will inevitably overpack. Kid’s never worn that cute outfit you bought them two years ago? Bring it! They definitely won’t wear it this trip either. There’s a possibility your child could come down with the flu, allergies, stomach bug, and a rare skin rash all at the same time. Might as well pack your entire medicine cabinet, including those medicines that expired three years ago! As much as I think traveling solo with kids is a bold move, there’s an element of fear that overtakes me and I think: I’ll bring this, just in case.
2. You will forget something essential.
Despite all your planning and prepping and over-packing, you will inevitably forget something rather important. A child’s favorite stuffed animal, the travel high chair that means you’ll be able to eat in peace, underwear. You’ll be too far gone before you realize it, though at least one member of your party will probably try to convince you to turn back for it. (In some cases, you might have to). Yet, travel is all about adaptability. Necessity is in the eye of the beholder and you may find that thing really wasn’t that essential after all. You can make do without, you can get creative, or in our modern society, you can usually buy a new one and have it shipped to wherever you’re going. (Though we’ve traveled to some passenger-only islands where this wasn’t an option). In any case, you’ll figure it out.
3. What worked last time won’t work this time.
Every time I travel with my kids, I convince myself that I’ve finally cracked the code and this time the trip will be easy. Last time they colored happily for an hour, so I’ll pack every coloring book I can find. Last time Goldfish kept them quiet, so I’m buying the largest box of Goldfish possible. Except suddenly they have no interest in art and Goldfish repulse them and they’re bored and hungry. Like the scenery that surrounds us in the car, kids are constantly changing. So I try to pack a few old favorites, a few fun new things, and accept the things that I cannot change, adapting accordingly.
4. You’ll get to know your kids better.
One thing I’ve always loved about roadtrips is how they allow time and space for conversation to unfurl as we roll down the road. Though being trapped in a car with kids for hours on end can often be mind-numbingly overstimulating and annoying, there are moments when I’ll overhear comments or conversations that make me laugh. They’ll see something out the window that reminds them of some amusing anecdote, and I’m right there, all ears. They’ll ask questions and tell me facts and teach me things, and I’ll think to myself: Where did they learn that? When did they grow up so much?
5. Disney soundtracks will become your anthem.
There have been few rough moments in the car that haven’t been at least somewhat salvaged by cranking up a favorite song from a favorite movie. It’s hard to stay upset with the uplifting tunes of Encanto, Frozen, or Moana (our current personal favorites). Gone are the days of thought-provoking podcasts and indie rock bands filling my ears. Admittedly, I tried to avoid “kid music” for many years. But now? Now I’m belting “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” louder than anyone, and we’re all happier for it.
6. Pinterest all you want, but screens and snacks will save you in the end.
Sometimes I’m on top of it and come up with really great ideas to keep the kids busy for a long car ride. Pencil case legos! Printable puzzles! Goodie bags! All those things are amazing and the kids will love! For about five minutes. I’ve always found that when push comes to shove and everyone is screaming, screens and snacks are our saving grace. Put on a show, hand them something to eat, then something else, and enjoy rolling down the road until the next request is thrown your way.
7. It’s all about the journey, but sometimes it’s really just about getting there.
I dream of a day when our trips can be slow and meandering. Where we can stop for every roadside tourist attraction, get out to take a scenic hike, eat at random restaurants and explore quaint little towns on a whim. But so far, that hasn’t been the reality for our trips. While traveling alone with young kids, its a bit more survival mode. Every stop will take far longer than you anticipate. And when you’ve driven a tenuous five hours already and have three hours left and are racing against the bedtime clock and everyone is already on the verge of a meltdown, you just need to keep going. As your capacity and kids grow, you can work in those stops in the future.
8. Some trips will be really freaking hard.
Some trips, even the ones that are long and you assume will be tough, end up being a breeze. Others, even those that are just 2-3 hours, can feel brutal. There are so many unpredictable stars that must align to make it a smooth trip, and often you can’t control those. Last year, in the midst of the pandemic, the kids and I were all sick, I was exhausted, thanks to sleepless nights up with a baby who couldn’t breathe, and there was literally a hurricane moving through our route. We couldn’t delay our trip because we had to be out of the place we were staying, so we drove on, and it was pretty miserable. I’m lucky enough to have a lot of flexibility in schedule and try to use that to my advantage when planning travel with kids. But sometimes, despite my best efforts, the stars don’t align and it simply sucks.
9. There will come a time when you’re convinced it’s not worth it.
Especially on those bad trips, but even on those overall good ones, there will likely come a moment when taking to the open road with kids feels like the worst idea ever. This moment will come when one or more child is screaming inconsolably in the back seat and there’s no good place to stop. This moment will come when you’re tired and have to pee and are just ready to be there. This moment will come when you’re more than halfway there, too far away to turn back, but not yet close enough to your destination to see the light at the end of the long winding road.
10. It will be worth it.
I’ve never returned from a trip with a sense of regret. After I’ve rested, once I bring out my phone and scroll through the pictures, when I hear the kids recounting our adventures, I know that all the hardship was worth it. For even just those rare and fleeting moments of exploring somewhere new with my kids, seeing the wonder as they wander down new trails, watching their faces light up with joy as we visit the far-flung people they love. It’s all worth it in the end.