My baby was tucked snuggly in the back seat of the car. She’d been changed, fed, and was now sucking contentedly on her pacifier. Glancing back in the review mirror, I made sure her small mirror was angled correctly, that her pacifier was tethered within reach for when she inevitably spit it out, and that both directions and toys were conveniently located on the seat next to me. Then I started the engine and set off on the open road.
This was my first solo road trip with a child: 550 miles with a five-week-old driving from Illinois to Tennessee. Since that time, I can’t even count the miles or hours I’ve logged in the car with my kids. Some trips go smoothly, others, not so much. Here are just a few tips I’ve picked up along the way to add ease to our travels.
1. Break all the rules & Surrender to the screens
When it comes to car trips with kids, it’s like the Wild Wild West. Rules and expectations get thrown out the window somewhere along the highway, and whatever keeps that van rolling down the road is fair game. There are a million reasons I don’t like to rely on screens for roadtrips, not the least of which is the small child inside me that screams, “Well I did it without them, shouldn’t they?!” But no, technology is a beautiful thing, so embrace it; even if that means Bluey for five hours straight. Similarly with snacks, pack the fun things that your kids don’t usually get at home. It will be an exciting treat that will ward off whines for another three minutes, and they’ll survive a daylong diet of goldfish and graham crackers. Tip though: No matter how much the kids promise to be on their best behavior in the car, don’t let your husband feed them an entire bag of sugar-coated donuts just prior to loading up. There is no reasoning with a sugared-up child trapped in a car.
2. Maximize Naptimes
Timing matters. Some people swear by waking before dawn to hit the road as their kids either fall back to sleep or gaze sleepily out the window. While this timing hasn’t worked for me, I do at least try to make sure we’re rolling down the road during nap time, because it’s so much easier when at least one child is sleeping. Even when the kids no longer nap, there’s usually a time of day when they’re generally happier. For us, it’s mid-morning. Our departure routine usually goes something like – wake up, eat a quick but substantial breakfast, move to burn off energy (i.e. – run around like a madwoman packing all the last minute things while the kids scatter in all directions), and get in the car at that sweet spot where everyone is calm-ish and content but not yet over-tired or hungry (Spoiler alert: they’ll be starving before you get out of the driveway).
3. Pack way more snacks than you think you’ll need
It’s a scientific fact: kids will ask for approximately ten billion more snacks when strapped into a carseat than they do at home. If you think this trend will wear off by hour three, you’d be wrong; their roadtrip stomachs know no end. Novelty is the name of the game. Pack some old favorites alongside plenty of new an exciting things to eat. Quantity over quality, variety and volume. Though it’s good to include at least a few substantive options to ward off the backseat hangry-ness. Some of our favorites include: peanut butter filled pretzels, trail mix, cheese sticks, and pea crisps.
4. Your local library is your best friend
I’m not just talking about books, though those are great, especially once you have readers on the ride. But libraries these days have So. Much. More. We get Wonderbooks when my kids are feeling vintage – physical books that have a small device attached that reads to them. Of course there are music and audiobooks too, though you no longer need to clutter your car with tons of CD’s. Most libraries have apps where you can download directly to your device – we use Hoopla. And no need to invest in a tablet for travel, the library will likely rent you one of those too. Various Playaway devices come pre-loaded with either videos or games (or both!). Libraries truly are magical, so make sure to visit one before you hit the road.
5. Map Out Safety Stops
On my first trip with my first baby at just just five weeks, I had no idea when or where I might need to stop. All I knew was that unexpected diaper changes and nursing sessions were inevitable, so I wanted to have an idea of where I could stop and feel safe and comfortable doing these necessary tasks while traveling alone with a newborn. For me, those places were Starbucks and Chick-fil-A. My husband mapped out every location between Illinois and Tennessee, meaning all I had to do was quickly glance at my map when I was panicked with infant screams reverberating behind me and pull off at the next stop on the list. It’s so much easier to deal with he unexpected when you have an exit plan.
6. Make your stops count
When traveling with kids, I like to make as few stops as possible. Even the simplest stops turn into an hour-long ordeal. So if I’m going to be stopping for an hour anyway, I like to make it count. Instead of just stopping at a fast food restaurant and doing the bathroom shuffle, go through the drive-thru (or pack a picnic) and find a state park that’s just off the highway to get out, enjoy new scenery, and stretch restless little legs. Or maybe there’s a small town a short distance from your route. You don’t have explore every aspect of it, but you could walk down Main Street and find a sandwich shop. Try to have a couple ideas in mind of interesting places to stop when needed (Pictured above: Claytor Lake State Park, our favorite spot when traveling from Maryland to Tennessee). I find it invigorating to do something slightly out of the ordinary to shake up the trip.
7. Have a change of clothes easily accessible
Traveling with kids is messy business. If your car was pristine before, it will look like a tornado blew through it after the first hour. More often than is convenient, the baby will have a blowout, the toddler will squeeze a pouch all over themselves, the pre-schooler will spill the water from their “no mess” paint set down their front, or someone will throw up. The last thing you want is to be caught at a rest stop climbing over suitcases looking for an elusive clean shirt. Save the hassle and make sure everyone, including yourself, has a change of clothes in an easy to reach bag.
8. Earphones will save your sanity
Safety is of course the first consideration when driving kids anywhere. Though I would not recommend anything that inhibits situational awareness, there are times when you may need to hear something other than sibling squabbles, Disney tunes, or dueling iPads. When I need a bit of a break, I’ll put in just one earphone, maintaining full ability to hear and respond to any issues within or outside of the car, while allowing me to perk up with a podcast or some favorite songs. Because I find that I’m a safer driver when I’m sane and focused.
9. Con your kids into liking your music
Admittedly it was a long time before I fully embraced kid music, and now I love the magical power it has to soothe them, the invigoration of belting out the words together. But sometimes I want to listen to my music, too. It helps if the kids already like that music. If, when they hear it through the car speakers, they can recall the dance parties you’ve all enjoyed with Taylor Swift, or the hours spent cooking and cleaning with The Head and the Heart, or dinners around the table with the sweet sound of folk and bluegrass, they’re more likely to accept it on the road. At least this is true for two-thirds of my children, and those are odds I’ll take.
10. If you can, rest and relax when you arrive
Most often, when I’m traveling solo with kids, it’s to visit a friend or family member. Though I don’t like to impose on others or assume they’ll take care of my kids, I’ve discovered I do need to accept any offers of help given. I constantly underestimate how much the trips take out of me, and I find that those we’re visiting are so grateful we’ve gone to the effort, that they’re more than happy to take a little burden off my plate. So if you’re lucky enough to arrive to someone who can cook you dinner or put the kids to bed or watch them for a moment so you can walk outside alone, graciously accept assistance. Even if you’re on your own, try to take a few minutes to breathe a sigh of relief and give yourself a pat of pride for a journey well done.
What other tips and tricks have you picked up for traveling with kids? I’m curious to know what works for your family!