When I was growing up, summer meant at least one road trip with my family. We lived 2.5 hours from the nearest airport and so most of our vacations involved a lot of driving and with five kids in the car, it was always an adventure. In retrospect, I mean.
Now that we live several hours away from both sets of grandparents, road trips have become a way of life. I thought I’d share some of what I’ve learned about surviving a road trip with kids.
You can survive – you might even like it – so long as you follow these helpful suggestions:
1. Plan as much as you can. As you’re figuring out the best highways to get you to your ultimate destination, you should keep three things in mind:
a. Bathrooms. This one is especially important if you are travelling with young children. Know where the exits are when your 3 year old starts to yell that she has to poop “RIGHT NOW!!!!” And be warned: if you have kids under 7, you are almost guaranteed to have a fake-out bathroom stop, where “I HAVE TO GO!!!” turns into, “Actually, I don’t have to go.”
b. Gas stations. Not all of the dots on the map have one of these, and in smaller centres they might not be open when you need them to be. That’s something you’d rather find out about beforehand. Trust me.
c. Break spots. Everyone gets stir crazy after being in a vehicle for a while. Stop at a tourist attraction along the way, or find a playground and let the kids run around for fifteen minutes. If you can spare the time, let them expend enough energy so they’ll fall asleep before you’re even back on the highway.
2. Pack a potty. Sometimes your child won’t be able to wait until you can find the next public washroom. We found that travelling with one of the cheap plastic potties was a sanity-saver. Make sure to keep it within easy reach. If you’re potty-training, this is almost a necessity.
3. Make sure your wheels are road-worthy. When I was 11, our family set off from Saskatchewan to St. Paul, Minnesota in a used minivan that my parents had bought several months prior. Our route took us through South Dakota, to see places like Mount Rushmore and Wall Drug. Wall Drug is located in Wall, South Dakota, a town of less than 1000 people on the edge of Badlands National Park and 50 miles from anywhere else. So of course, that was where the minivan broke down. On a Sunday night. My mom sat with her four kids on a bench outside Wall Drug for hours until a stranger came by and got the van running well enough to get us to Rapid City. Unless you thrive in those kinds of situations, I’d take your vehicle into the shop for a quick tune-up before you hit the road. If you want to be extra careful, purchase an emergency roadside assistance plan.
4. If the kids are eating they are less likely to cry. Having snacks on hand is important. There are two things I’ve learned the hard way. First, make sure whatever snacks you have for the kids to eat in the car are easy to clean up. Second, make sure the snacks are within easy reach for whoever is going to be handing out the goods. Maybe your kids are patient enough to wait for the driver to find a safe place to pull over and unpack the back of the vehicle so that he can locate the cooler hidden somewhere between the life jackets and a suitcase, but mine weren’t. People who don’t allow eating in their car should reconsider taking a road trip with small children.
5. Give them something to do. It’s helpful to keep the kids occupied (when they’re not eating, of course). How you choose to do this depends on a lot of things: your comfort with giving your kids electronics, their ages, and their personal interests. When the kids were toddlers we relied a lot on movies. As they’ve gotten older, we’ve graduated to various members of the LeapFrog family (no, they didn’t pay me for that mention), colouring and ‘regular’ books. Earphones for any device that makes noise are highly recommended. And music! Don’t forget the music.
With most road trips, the journey itself is as much a part of the vacation as the destination. Hopefully everything will go exactly according to plan, there will be no meltdowns and you will arrive on time. But even if none of that happens, you will have the kind of stories that become part of family legend. And isn’t that what vacations are all about?