While I don't love the actual driving and sitting still for hours on end part of a road trip, I inevitably love the destination, and the commitment of time spent with family and/or friends. Also, the flip side of being trapped in a small space with someone else is that a good conversation is an almost inevitable byproduct. Some of the best discussions happen on road trips, and if I am completely honest, that is one if the few opportunities I have these days to really catch up with my husband in any meaningful way.
My daughter has always loved going on trips. I think the adventure of it appeals to her, and I am sure that she also relishes the extended amounts of quality time she gets to spend with us - not dissimilar to a friendly hostage situation. As he grows older, my son also seems to be enjoying trips more. However, for most of his short life he has enforced a strict anti-car seat policy. Therefore, we have had to be extremely strategic in terms of how we plan and execute the driving portion of our trips, so as to avoid a screaming kid or unsafe practices.
We just completed a pretty successful 8-hr drive as part of a week-long vacation we are taking. As we cruised along I queried my family about what they thought made a road trip with a young family doable and fun. Aside from non-sequitor tips from the back seat such as "bring a unicorn and grass", here are some of the road trip essentials that we collectively came up with:
Time the drive to maximize sleeping
As we always tell our kids, the fastest way to get anywhere on a road trip is to fall asleep. As such, we always schedule the majority of our drive time during nap time or bedtime. If the drive is long enough that we can't quite make it work that way, we will break it up in chunks (a driving stretch during nap, then a rest and dinner break, then another push after dinner). This latter option can mean that a 4-hr drive will take 6 hours, but if no one is crying that is relative bliss. By my calculations, 10 minutes of crying feels like eternity. You do the math.
Make the car conducive to sleeping
If we have timed it right, see above, then the kids are usually amenable to a little shut eye. We do our part to facilitate them napping by making sure that they are in car seats that recline and comfy clothes that won't make them too hot (remembering that the car seat keeps them quite warm). We also tend to offer them warm milk, shade them from any sun, and play soft music as background noise. We then drive as fast and as far as we can, which brings up the most important rule of road trips: When the kids are sleeping, stopping is not an option. If there is even an remote chance that they will fall asleep during a drive, make sure you fill up on gas, get snacks and pee before you go. The alternative is ugly.
Get your workout/play in before, during and after
If at all possible, I try to get in a good workout, or at least something active, before getting in the car. Starting a drive feeling like you have recently moved your body helps to mitigate that icky feeling that comes from sitting for hours, inevitably snacking, and seeing my thighs close up as they spread out over the seat. Also, depending on where or how long we stop en route, a brisk walk, or a couple of downward dogs go a long way. Once we have arrived at our destination, a little yoga and stretching unfurls the body and better prepares me for sleeping. For the kids, the more they can move before, during, and after a long drive the better, just to get the energy out.
A variety of things fall into the category of "treats" that make a road trip more bearable. These include snacks, movies, and trashy magazines. As far as snacks go, we generally try to stick to more healthy stuff like fruit and veggies that create satisfying crunch without the risk of a sugar high. That being said, we also always pack some chips, as well as a small cooler filled with ice cold drinks. This chips and cold drinks routine has gotten so ingrained that I can't even get into our minivan for a trip without craving Lay's cheddar ruffles. This is part of why I make sure to exercise before I start a trip :)
For our kids, getting to watch a movie or play a game on the ibabysitter is a huge treat and novelty, since they get little to no screen time on a regular basis when at home. As a result, they are usually thrilled when they can watch something on the road and this can buy us at least an hour of relative peace as the miles tick by. We feel no shame in relying on electronics to some degree, but because we don't want to lose the magic, we don't pull them out as a default, but rather as a close to last resort to keep the peace.
Master the art of in-car game playing
Besides the family sing-a-long, and the reading out loud of multiple books, we are also big fans of playing games in the car. My daughter is a big fan of I Spy and my son enjoys his monosyllabic game of spotting farm animals and making the animal sounds, or identifying the various types and colors of vehicles on the road (i.e., "red truck", "bus", "bike"). The Boy's Life website is a treasure trove of kooky all-family participation car games. They are campy, but fun, and playing them together avoids the relative isolation of instead having everyone buried in their own electronic device for hours on end.
Scope out good places to stop along the way
The advent of GPS and a series of useful apps has been a game changer in terms of avoiding the old should I take this exit? routine. Now you can find almost immediately avoid traffic (Waze), find a delicious meal (Yelp), cheap gas (Gas Buddy), fun parks, clean restrooms (Charmin's Sit or Squat) or anything else you might be desperately searching for. It takes some of the guesswork and adventure out if it, but when you have two kids clamoring at the top of their lungs in the back seat the last thing you need is the added stress if uncertainty and getting lost. The BestRoadTripEver app has the added bonus of being able to direct you to over 7,000 kooky, cool, and otherwise offbeat destinations.
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Driving, navigating, and sitting can be hard. Hold hands with your partner. Give love to you kids. They are doing a good job.
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