I bet you can. Because I did. And I am not special. I’m not even patient. You don’t have to be rich, smart, or organized to do this. I drove 3,458 miles with a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old. And it was the best time I’ve ever had with them. Truly amazing. This article is the first in a series helping you plan for such an endeavor and getting on the road.
Sleeping and Waking Tips
When dealing with preschoolers, I’m a HUGE fan of the leaving-
in-the-middle-of-the-night at the crack of dawn (give or take) thing. From central Oregon, the kids (2 and 4) slept til breakfast time somewhere near Shasta Lake. That dropped my “travel with kids” daily obligation from 15 hours to 11. At 7, even my youngest won’t do this anymore. It disappears around kindergarten, and your mileage may vary.
Other parents swear by leaving in the afternoon and driving into the night. I personally think hauling them, asleep, with their stuff, into hotels late at night (then waking them up to use the bathroom and brush all those Moon Pies off their teeth?) is harder.
Not stopping at all is another option. It saves both cash and the kids ever getting to (having to?) survive traveling at all. I can’t imagine anyone being remotely nice the next day.
Food is Messy
At 7:30 when everyone was awake, I pulled into one of these forbidden places:
Sue me. And I threw orange juice and pancakes toward the backseat and didn’t look back. Meals that we can eat with our hands are huge hits on the road. I do not have good luck sitting in cars only to get out and sit in restaurants, complete with requirements to behave. Choose a picnic off the side of the road instead if driving straight through a meal is too hardcore. I like to trade off: eating in the car keeps them busy in the car for 20 minutes, which is a good thing. The kids have now begun protesting fast food (it’s a by-product of an Oregonian childhood), so we get a lot of these:
Not only do they supply a decently nutritious, peanut butter-filled bento box (that can be eaten with hands!), but they have organic milk for kids and caffeine for mommy. Breakfast, too:
If your kids are old enough, you might ask for a cup of ice. It makes its own fun for about 30 miles. Bonus: when they ask your name, use the name of your kids’ favorite celebrity. Picking up Michael Jackson’s latte never gets old.
I pile the front seat with a food box and cooler because I’m from the midwest and that’s what we do. There are always apples and carrots and yogurts. There are always plastic snack bowls so I never have to hand a child the entire box of cereal and see the backseat destroyed. There’s no need to pre pack snacks.
Toys and Entertainment
I split their carseats because they fight over air. Then I filled a box in the middle with time-filling toys (very few dolls!). The half-awake 4:00 a.m. stuff I just pulled on them also bought me a short, post-lunch nap.
Pack list for the kid box:
- baggie of colored pencils
- coloring books with mazes and dot to dots
- books, including two big ones to be used as lap desks
- LeapPad books (we were not entirely literate yet). I believe you can also get tons of out-of-copyright classics (free) and contemporary favorites (not free) read to you on audiobook/Podcasts to put right on their ipods or your phone for the whole family to listen to. It makes time go much faster.
- fans that spray water
- sewing and lacing games
- a handful of My Little Ponies
- Maps! I actually planned this terribly, and my kids followed to country using the Cracker Barrel location map we got at the restaurant. But once we figured out we needed to know where we were, we referenced this often.
- A cheap camera or iPad picture-taking capabilities so that they can shoot the state borders or sights out the window.
- two old school iPods. There wasn’t even video on those puppies. The beauty of driving instead of flying is that you can charge them all day long.
- and one of these:
If there are two adults in the car, eating and playing options expand wildly. I’ve never had that luxury, and I don’t particularly want to be on duty as the kids’ butler all day. There are lots of high-engagement options here but bringing bubbles, homemade gak, and balloons are *way* beyond my capabilities.
There weren’t handy apps to let me know where to stop, so I used Google maps to scroll through our route. I identified parks within a quarter mile of the highway the entire route. I printed these out and made my own AAA triptik, with all the important information (favorite restaurants and interesting stops, with an idea of where we could stop for the night). You could substitute playgrounds for natural foods stores, nature preserves, or places to stretch your legs like beaches or caves. I didn’t plan on visiting them all, but it was nice knowing that mid-meltdown, I was only an hour from a giant slide at any given point.
All my stops were free: places like playgrounds, but also giant Cadillac art installations, New Orleans cemeteries, and river trails. For us, these worked better to shake our road off than having to pay, go inside somewhere, wait in a line, sit nicely at tables, or otherwise engage with the civilized world.
You can find places like this using Along the Way, an app that has a good “search for recreation” (or “attractions”) feature that traces your route. It sometimes ignores obvious parks in favor of showing me the name of the city, or a golf course or gun range, though. For instance, what is that giant swath of green left unpinned? That looks promising. And closer to the highway!
However, this quirkiness means it will sometimes pull bizarre non-sights, like statues on a local college campus, that might actually be perfect for kids. Or a “boat ramp.” But, hey, maybe you have a boat, and can’t google “boat ramp,” or maybe you just think, hey, my 3-year-old would love to go wading. It’s powered by Foursquare, so you get reviews and pictures of the more popular attractions as well. It’s good to have choices.
Lesson: nothing beats scouring Google Maps the old fashioned way. And don’t underestimate a frisbee and the green space on the edge of the parking lot.
Sometimes that’s the best 15 minute break around. Try an o-ball. They take up very little space and will double as pool toys or sandbox toys later in the trip.
My preschoolers, with opposite personalities, made it through like champs. They learned that mom was willing to bend the rules on vacation, which resulted in Moon Pies far more often than usual. They sat with media a lot more than they do at home. And I would have *never* been o.k. with this slide if I knew where an alternative was. But the rule-bending made us both stretch a little bit in good directions. I learned my kids will not tumble backwards off the world’s tallest insurance liability. They learned there are rewards that with travel. Like GMO pancakes. And watching the sunrise. Win-win as far as I’m concerned.