I often speak to people about our traveling lifestyle and one of the first questions they always ask is how can I stand to be in the car for over an hour with my children? When they hear me preface my response by saying that my children are now 14, 15 and 17, they assume it must be a breeze. Yes, it is easier now that they are older.
However, we didn’t begin traveling with our children when they hit the ‘magical number’ where they could suddenly behave in the car. We started traveling with kids when ours were infants. Yes, it was more work. Yes, we had to stop more frequently for feedings and bathroom breaks. Yes, sometimes the kids were cranky and sometimes we were cranky. But I never thought about missing out on an opportunity because of the length of time we’d be on the road. Some trips just took extra planning.
Like so many other skills in life, I believe that traveling with kids, happily can be taught. Today I hope to share some tips with you that have helped my family as we’ve adjusted to life on the road, at all stages and for all ages.
Babies and Toddlers
The biggest challenge at this stage was to make sure that I was able to pack everything that I could possibly need for me, my husband and my baby for the duration of our trip. A fresh diaper change starting out, plenty of food and drinks, a few baby toys, car seat attachments and soft, squishy books, were normally enough at this stage. Our babies always slept a lot in the car so this stage was relatively easy.
Our firstborn experienced Washington D.C. , Niagara Falls and Mammoth Caves before he was a year old. He traveled very well and was very content. If we kept him in a dry diaper, fed, smiled and talked to him occasionally, we could drive all day.
As my babies grew into toddlers, it meant that I now had an infant and a toddler to occupy. This became more of a challenge because my toddler loved to touch the baby and with car seats close together, he was often trying to share his toys with his brother. We had to make him understand that when his brother was sleeping, he really didn’t need to have all those toys thrown in his car seat!
Going from one to two children was quite an adjustment for me, especially since they were close in age. It didn’t matter if we were going outside for a walk, or on a road trip to the zoo, as soon as I had changed one and diapered the other, I always had a messy diaper as we were walking out the door. I had to learn to give myself some extra time to go anywhere.
- At this age, you could keep a tub of ‘car only’ toys in your vehicle so the kids have some special toys to look forward to just for time spent on the road.
- Take a potty break immediately before leaving the house and limit food and drink for your child while on the road.
- If you are taking a long road trip, stop frequently so they can stretch their legs and run off some energy. You may consider taking a ball to chase after at rest stops.
- Keep a selection of silly children’s CD’s for your child to listen to.
- Pack those DVD’s! (When my kids were this age, the portable DVD’s were not yet available, but now your child can watch their favorite cartoon while you’re on the road).
One thing that really helped at this stage was to have Car Rules and consistently enforce them. This made it easier as the kids got older.
Elementary Age and Up
Even though the kids may be older, they are also more vocal and more opinionated. This could be the most stressful stage to go through. Some parents choose to drive at night while the kids are sleeping, this never worked for my husband and I. We tend to get sleepy, too! Here are some tips that did work for us at this stage:
- Keep a road trip journal to document your adventure.
Be creative with this. You can allow your kids to journal whatever they want- my daughter loves to keep lists and documents everything. She’ll jot down what the weather was like, what time we crossed a state line or how many bridges we drove over. If that’s not the case with your children, you can give them specific ideas to get them started.
- What was the funniest billboard that you saw?
- The most boring state to drive through?
- The biggest disappointment?
The last prompt may seem odd to you, but it can help turn a very ugly situation into a laughable one. Several years ago, my kids and I planned to drive to Virginia to join my husband. We weren’t even an hour away from home when I was pulled over by a police officer! Imagine my horror when the officer told me that my tags had expired! I’d forgotten to renew them on my birthday 6 months earlier! Luckily, he was very nice, ticketed me and directed me to the nearest BMV.
After sharing the news with my husband, he suggested that we go home and wait another day to join him. We were all so disappointed, but my daughter excitedly exclaimed that it wasn’t so bad, they now had something to record in their journals!
Even if the thought of keeping a journal doesn’t appeal to your child, they will treasure the completed journal later and will also have a neat keepsake to show Grandma and Grandpa, especially when they add in their own drawings, photos, post cards and travel brochures.
- Give your children a scavenger hunt.
One summer, my nieces had stayed in Ohio with their grandparent’s over the summer break. My sister-in-law asked if we would be able to drive them half way back to their home in Tennessee. We agreed, and to make the trip fun, I thought I’d prepare a scavenger hunt for the kids so they’d be occupied. They were having so much fun, they kept adding to it.
This can be really simple for younger kids, find a red truck, find a yellow car, find 3 cows, etc. while older kids would appreciate something more challenging. Find 5 out of state license plates, find a city that has 8 letters in the spelling, Can you spot 6 semi’s in a row? Make sure that you have crayons or pencils so the kids can record their answers. It may also be helpful if they have a clipboard to write on.
If you don’t have the time to make one up on your own, you can do a quick search online and find travel games. I’ve created a Road Trip Games Board on Pinterest to get you started.
- Put together a ‘SURPRISE BAG’ or Goodie Bag
Before one trip, I snuck away alone for a few minutes at our local Dollar Tree (everything in the store is $1), chose a gift bag for each of the kids, and filled it with trinkets to occupy them on the drive. The kids received the bags after we’d been on the road for awhile and they were just beginning to get restless. Some of the items I included were coloring books, travel games, handheld games, simple craft projects (not anything messy), stickers, etc. Book Outlet has some amazing deals- save up to 50% off on travel journals, coloring books an books for your tween or teens to read on the road- or by the beach.
A variation to this idea would be to pick up a few simple items, wrap them individually and distribute them along the way. This gives the kids something fun to look forward to.
- Give your kids a map or children’s travel atlas so they can follow the route on their own.
Or give them a list of the towns that you will be driving through so they can mark them off along the way. This will take a bit of time on your part, but in exchange, your child can track your journey and you’ll potentially cut down on the “Are we almost there yet” question.
- Play the memory game.
You’ve probably all played this game or a similar variation. Someone begins with: I’m going on a camping trip and I’m going to take a tent. The next person has to repeat what you’ve said, plus add their own item and the game continues until someone forgets what everyone’s taking. This is actually a great game for pre-readers, although older children will enjoy it as well. Almost every time we’re in the car, one of my kids will suggest we play this game…doesn’t mean we always agree…
- Don’t forget to pack magnetic board games, the Nintendo DSi, iPod, iPad and other electronic necessities.
Need I say more? These inventions are high on my children’s list which you can read here, Roadtripping with Teens: What they Consider Essential.
- Pack the audio books!
Listening to audio books is a favorite way for my family to pass time in the car. We’ve spent many hours listening to recordings by Jim Weiss and many books on CD that we found at the local library. Now we listen to podcasts and audio books like The Screwtape Letters and Pride and Prejudice.
Don’t stop with the audio books though. My kids also love to listen to their favorite CD’s. If they can listen to my favorite music, I figure I can listen to theirs as well.
- Give your kids their own camera.
The first time I did this, was when we went to The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island with the kids. I couldn’t wait to get their cameras developed to see their pictures and couldn’t believe it when I saw what caught my oldest sons eye! He didn’t take one picture of the Statue of Liberty or Ellis Island! He used all of his film taking pictures of the inside of our vehicle when we were stuck in traffic!
I guarantee you’ll get a fresh perspective when you view your trip through the eyes of your child!
- Set realistic expectations for yourself, traveling is always an adventure.
- Finally, no matter how old your kids are, accept the fact that sometimes, you may get annoyed.
That’s okay, we are not perfect people. It’s how we handle that annoyance that can and will affect our trip.
What tips would you like to share that make travel easier for your family?