This post is part of my special HAVE KIDS, WILL TRAVEL series to give you advice and wisdom on traveling with kids.
We recently completed a road trip from Seattle to San Francisco and back, with one five-year-old and one one-year-old, and here are some of the things I've learned and can pass along about traveling by car with little kids. I know everyone has different ages of children, different tolerance levels for misery, and different personalities when it comes to children enduring car seat jail, but here's what worked for us.
Slow down.Everything will take a lot longer than you think it will (just as it does at home). If you were used to powering through a thirteen-hour drive in a single day, let your land-speed records go and adapt to a more leisurely pace. We broke our trip into two longish days of driving to get down there, and three more moderate days back. It seems, with naps and plenty of stops, that eight hours in the car is about the max for our kids before the screaming ensues. And you don't want the screaming.
Take breaks.When it was just you, a cooler of snacks, and your pre-birth, adult-size bladder, you could probably drive several hours without a stop. Not so once you factor in the needs of multiple people of varying ages and pee-holding capacities. Acknowledge that you're going to have to stop more often than you want to, and avoid acting like the father who makes his kids pee in a jar in the back seat in lieu of slowing down the pace. (I know that father; do you?)
If you're on U.S. highways in the summer (and I hereby apologize that this post is supremely U.S.- & summer-based), rest stops can actually be a pleasant outdoor break, like little public parks. The ones we stopped at all had trees for shade, and many had green spaces for running around. (The one that didn't had brown dirt for getting filthy in, which suited my kids fine as well.) There are picnic tables, decent restrooms, vending machines, and travel information. We were able to pop the little potty in the grass and give Alrik a serendipitous chance to poop. Woo!
Rock out.Pack a good supply of tunes for the car. We brought several CDs as well as our smartphone and iPod. I was able to tune into Pandora radio and the Amazon cloud for some of the trip; when we lost internet connection, having some music preloaded was a boon.
The biggest hit for us: The soundtrack for The Muppets. Well, tell me: Are you a muppet or a man?
Keep kids amused.Pack a lot of easily accessible toys, books, and activities for the car. We had a stockpile of chew toys and rattles for the baby, and small action figures, vehicles, and Transformers for the big boy. They often swapped, which is fine, too.
I have a post of a bazillion (37, to be exact) ideas for activities and toys to bring along on a trip, so I'll refer you to that.
Now, as someone who gets vilely ill if I do anything in a car but look out the front windows, make sure your kids aren't prone to motion sickness before encouraging them to look down for too long. Ideas that worked better for someone like me were listening to music, singalongs (in harmony!), audio books (Check out our sponsor, Sparkle Stories!), and spotting games. We even found little car bingo boards that Mikko loved (we got these exact bingo cards, though we found them much cheaper at our local independent toy store; these and these look cute as well), or you can do it freestyle. Look for letters of the alphabet, in order; as many state license plates as you can; different types of trees or animals; etc., or play "I Spy." We also had a couple electronic helpers, including some play laptops that let Mikko enjoy preschool-level games.
For part of the trip, whenever Alrik was particularly screamy or Mikko was overly bored, Sam sat in the back with the boys. That way, he could hand over toys, answer questions (oh, living with a five-year-old), and look directly into their faces.
Eat sensibly.I'm not even going to pretend we followed this one that well, but it's worth putting out there. You can save money and preserve your intestinal comfort by continuing to eat much as you do at home. While it's fun to eat out and splurge when you're on vacation, your body and wallet will thank you if you at least alternate excess with more or less home-cooked meals. Visit the grocery store and buy ingredients that go together well in hotel rooms. If you're staying with family and friends, volunteer to cook some of the meals if your eating styles differ greatly. If you're staying elsewhere, some hotels offer kitchenettes (particularly ones with "extended stay" or "suites" in the name), and even most economy hotels offer a mini-fridge and microwave. At the very least, you can bring a small cooler and take advantage of the ice machines.
Good options for hotel picnics are foods that are fresh but that last all right if not refrigerated. Here are some suggestions. (Thanks to my Facebook fans for adding to this list!)
- Bread, whole-grain crackers, bagels, tortillas — for sandwiches, breakfast, and snacking
- Lunch meat, if you eat it up that day or have a fridge
- Peanut butter, jelly, honey
- Hard cheeses (bring a small, sharp knife with you) or string cheese
- Fruit (apples, oranges, and bananas are particularly hardy, though grapes or pre-cut containers with melons or berries can be a good pick if you have a fridge or will eat them up quickly)
- Prepared salads
- Single-serving soups or pastas to heat in the microwave (or in a pot if you have a kitchenette)
- Pre-cut veggies with hummus or ranch dip
- Dried or freeze-dried fruits and veggies
- Fruit bars, granola bars, rice cakes
- Trail mix or granola
- Beef jerky
- Pretzels, tortilla chips, veggie chips, animal crackers
- Muffins, pancakes, or popcorn (made ahead of time)
- Cereal, shelf-stable/aseptic milk containers
- Immersion blender and cup (the above & this are Thomasin's idea) for whipping up smoothies on the go
- Take advantage of any free continental breakfasts, being sure to grab some fruit. Mikko was particularly taken by the waffle irons at most of the hotels we stayed at.
- Breastfeeding! Ha ha. Always the right temperature, always portable. But: If you need to store pumped breastmilk or formula, or for chilled medicines or the like, be sure to bring along a cooler and ice packs (I like the smaller gel ones) and make sure the hotel you're staying at offers mini-fridges or can assign you a room that has one.
If you're eating out, here are some ideas to keep things fresh:
- Try a restaurant with a salad bar to stock up on raw veggies and fruits. If you ask ahead of time, they'll often let you give bites to a baby; for older kids, they usually have a kids' price. Options I know of: Round Table Pizza, Marie Callender's, Zoopa, Ruby Tuesday, Old Country Buffet, other buffets (including Chinese).
- If you need something with a drive-thru, fresher fast food can often be found at smaller, regional chains, such as Taco Time, Del Taco, and In-N-Out Burger.
- Subway is a good chain option for raw, fresh veggies. They have kids' meals as well.
- Try local eateries for a small adventure. We had mixed results (sometimes amazing, sometimes blah), but you might just find your new favorite teriyaki joint or Thai place.
Use fast food to your advantage.Awhile back, we decided to stop eating fast food. However, when we're on the road, drive-thrus can be the key to successfully keeping a napping child asleep. I can understand if your own family's ethics prevent you from using fast food restaurants at all, but here's what we found helpful as we drove.
McDonald's has an almost universal new pricing policy for coffee and soft drinks, where any size is $1. When we were short on caffeine … woo!
Many McDonald's and Burger King restaurants also offer play spaces with big tubes and slides. Since we don't get to go to those at home, Mikko was intrigued, to say the least. Obviously, they also have (generally clean) restrooms. Outside of cities, there's no policing, so you don't even have to buy something to use the facilities as long as you can get past the social-embarrassment factor. We typically bought a drink and sometimes a treat: cookies or a soft-serve ice cream cone. When we got back home, it was only a brief psychological transition back into people who don't stop at fast food restaurants. Having them be something only on the road made them seem pretty distant.
Splurge on swimming.Depending on which area of the country you're visiting and when, it might not be hard at all to find an affordable hotel that boasts a useable pool. We found that northern California hotels almost all tended to have outdoor pools, which ended up being chilly but doable in the weather we encountered. As we moved back farther north, we opted for a budget hotel that happened to have an indoor pool. Both Mikko and Alrik appreciated this break from the ordinary, a fun way to wind down and stretch out after a long day in the car. If you have a smartphone or other internet access on the road, try scouting Yelp.com at or near your stopping point to find hotels with decent reviews, then looking at the hotel chain websites to determine what amenities are available at which branches.
Pack smart, not necessarily light.It has been a blow to my pre-child, minimalist-packing self to discover just how bulky my packing needs to be now that I have small children. When you're driving and have the space, however, there's no real reason to be stingy. So I just sigh and get over the packing shame I feel at having so many bags and suitcases crammed into the car.
The smartest thing we did was to pack multiple small suitcases. We have three carry-on size suitcases, as well as a soft-sided travel bag. Since we were staying in a different hotel nearly every night, I made sure we wouldn't need to bring every suitcase into every hotel. Since we'd need fancy clothes at only one hotel (where we were staying two nights), I put all those clothes for the four of us (including underthings and accessories) into one suitcase. The soft-sided bag held our swim gear and towels, to pull out if we had time for a swim. The other two carry-on suitcases had an assortment of outfits divided among them, with tops, bottoms, underwear, and so on, for every person, in each. Obviously, our toiletries had to go in just one suitcase, but as our clothes got dirty, I swapped clothes between the two. That way, at most hotels, we needed to bring in just the one carry-on suitcase and all four of us had what we needed overnight.
In addition to that, however (ahem), we had to bring in: extra pillows, foam bumper, little potty, toys and books in Trunki, snacks, pillow pet, diaper bag, hanging wet bag, laptops, etc. So my next piece of advice is to locate a luggage cart if you can!
Cloth can travel.I feel like this could be its own post, but we did manage this time to use cloth diapers exclusively on the trip. Since we use a diaper service, in the past we've resorted to disposables for travel. This time, however, I used our personal stash ahead of time to save up diaper service diapers for the week and a half we'd be away. Then I popped them all into two Hanging Wet/Dry Bags from Planet Wise (one I got for review, and then I bought another along with two diaper-bag-size wet bags, a wipes pouch, and a mama cloth wet bag; I'm hooked).
I took along a plethora of wool covers, a travel-sized bottle of Eucalan wool wash (also good for hand washing delicates, or anything, in hotel sinks), and our little potty (which has been discontinued, wah!). We didn't use up our covers, because we caught almost all the poops in the potty — yea!
We chose not to do laundry on the road, but it would have been possible. Every hotel we stayed at had a coin-op laundry room, and you could obviously ask to use the machines if you're staying at someone's house. In the past, I've simply brought our preferred powder laundry detergent, divvied up into baggies of one load worth each. (Save the baggies to reuse for the next trip.) Wash everything on cold/cold so you don't have to sort. Bring a few wool dryer balls along.
I also used a DivaCup and mama cloth panty liners as backup, rinsing the dirties in the sink and then popping them in my mini wet bag.
Everything survived just fine, and it was convenient and comfortable.
Sleep soundly.With four of us sharing a hotel room, we made some choices to keep our sleep safe and comfortable. We booked rooms with two queen beds. Alrik and I slept in one, and Mikko and Sam in the other. I brought along a foam wedge bumper that slips securely and easily under the bottom sheet to keep Alrik safely contained next to me. Our bed at home is a mattress on the floor, and Alrik is actually really good during the day about safely sliding down from heights on his tummy, feet first, but I didn't want to test out his awareness of the edge at night. Good thing, too, since Mikko fell off his bed twice!
We all went to bed at the same time (well, Alrik often fell asleep first, but not Mikko), so that all the lights could go out. Sam and I could get up before Mikko (who sleeps like the dead) and often Alrik, so we could start getting ready and grab some free breakfast before working on the boys and packing up the room for checkout.
Keep expectations low.When you get to your destination, keep sightseeing and partying light. Gone are the days of darting into three museums in one day and seeing a play that evening. Accept that your daily plans will need to be child-friendly and bite-sized. We did best when we scheduled no more than one outing a day, and allowed space for naps. If you're meeting up with a group, this might mean cluing in the other members that you won't be attending all the activities or will need to take breaks; just be gracious and firm and encourage them to go ahead and do what they'd like without you when it's time for your family to rest.
As for where to nap on the go, little babies might fall asleep in a carrier. Alrik would generally consent to a nap in the car, sometimes with me holding him in a parking lot while Mikko and Sam went elsewhere. If you're still checked in to a hotel, you can reenter when the cleaning staff have left, or use the "Do Not Disturb" sign to your advantage. If you're visiting family or friends, ask if there's a quiet room you can use.
Have fun.There's nothing like having a child along on a road trip to reconnect with the wonder of tooling down interstates and entering new lands. Mikko was thrilled with everything: the hotel key cards, the ice machines, the bedside phones to call other rooms (we made a lot of calls to his grandma and aunt's room!), the vending machines at rest stops, the new restaurants we stopped at, the cities we explored, the redwood forest we hiked through, the gift shop at the end. It doesn't have to be anything big, and not everything has to go perfectly. Even if you decide to scale back your plans (as we did, a few times), little kids tend to enjoy whatever it is you manage to get to. (So enjoy it now, before they're teenagers, heh.) See the world through their eyes, put on your road-trip music, and enjoy the drive.
What are your tips for road trips with little ones?