Ten tips for a successful road trip with your kids
In the summer of 2000, I was just beginning six months as a Solo Mom while my husband was deployed with the U.S. Navy. With a sigh of resignation, I popped a tape into the VCR player and collapsed heavily onto the sofa grasping a sweaty glass of water, meditatively chewing on ice. We were a “no TV” family, and my kids were about to watch Cinderella for the second time in one day. Trapped indoors by the sweltering July heat with two little girls under the age of three and the family dog, I decided I needed to head north.
Everyone doubted me. “How are you going to manage rest stops and hotels all by yourself?” my mom asked. “Do what you need to do, but I’d be happier if you stayed home,” my husband wrote in a terse e-mail from his ship in an undisclosed location in the Middle East. Undeterred, I set about packing everything we would need into my Volvo station wagon. This Yankee girl craved the feeling of a cool breeze on her face, and that wouldn’t happen in Jacksonville, Florida, for another five months. I couldn’t wait that long.
Our trip was a success. We made our way up the East Coast, stopping to see friends and family along the way. All in all, we were on the road for about six weeks. This was to be the first of many Solo Mom road trips I took with my kids over the years. Over time, I developed the following routines and coping mechanisms that made the trips far more enjoyable for everyone:
1. Safety first! Before heading out, take your car to a trusted mechanic and have him or her check the brakes and tire pressure, and if you haven’t done so lately, have someone check that the kids’ car seats are installed correctly, the straps are at the right height, etc. Take a look to make sure that your license, registration, and insurance papers are all in order, and join AAA or some other emergency roadside service so you don’t find yourself stranded in case of a breakdown or flat tire.
2. Packing. Aside from clothes and shoes, there are some items that can make your trip easier: I seldom went anywhere without a potty seat, box of wipes, roll of paper towels, cloth towel, and gallon of water. All these items can be kept in a bin in the back of the car, and they really come in handy in a variety of situations. Let the children each bring one doll or stuffed animal from home, but leave the rest of the toys at home so you don’t have too much to keep track of.
3. Rest stops—use them! State welcome areas are often very nice. If you’re driving on interstate highways, plan to stop at several rest areas each day. The bathrooms are usually clean, and many have a designated area in which to walk the dog. You can teach the kids a geography lesson by looking at the big maps that are posted and feature a brightly marked “You are here.” My best rest-stop tip is to seize the opportunity to get the kids’ bodies moving. We did rest-stop calisthenics: running races, jumping jacks, hopping, and skipping competitions. Anything to get the blood circulating after long hours of sitting is beneficial.
4. Sing and tell stories. My solo road trips with the kids were before the days of electronic devices in the car, but even now, your children will enjoy the novelty of your taking the time to tell them stories from when you were little or when Grandma was little or the story of when they were born. And they’ll love it if you sing with them. Mine especially loved those animal songs where you make all the animal noises over and over again—the sillier the better!
5. Car food/road food. Eating helps pass the time in the car and keeps everyone from getting too cranky. Packing a small cooler with snacks for the car is always a good idea. Carrot sticks, cut-up veggies, little raisin boxes, a choice of sandwiches—these basics are easy to pack and won’t make the car too messy. We tend to avoid fast food, but what else is there when you’re on the highway? With a little planning, you can find some places you can count on for a good meal that won’t break the bank. IKEA stores have great cafés and are extremely child-friendly. Let your children blow off some steam in the ball pit. Some grocery-store chains have wonderful cafés. We always stopped at the Earth Fare in South Carolina to enjoy its yummy hot-food bar and splurge on treats for the car, such as sweet potato chips and dried peaches. Wegmans’ café never disappoints, and health food co-ops are another good option. College towns reliably offer a variety of affordable eateries as well as nice parks for picnics (and it’s never too early to start visiting colleges with your kids). Nowadays, with all the great phone apps, such as TripAdvisor, it’s easier than ever to find interesting places to eat. You can make it a cultural experience for your children, sampling something distinctive from each region.
6. Ice cream. In my book, ice cream is so important it gets its own category. A well-timed stop for a cone can save even the worst day from total disaster. If you can find places that serve homemade ice cream, all the better! I’m generally not a fan of bribing kids, but bribing kids with the promise of ice cream while traveling solo? Heck, yeah! It’s called survival.
7. State parks. State parks are great for camping, and some have cabins. During the week, they are often quiet and pleasant. Some have lakes or swimming pools in which you can cool off after a hot day.
8. Car games. When I was a kid, our favorite car game was the license-plate game. We often drove through New York and New Jersey with our grandparents and would keep our eyes peeled for license plates from other states. Our grandparents would give us money: a penny for nearby states, such as Connecticut or Pennsylvania, and a nickel for states that were further away but fairly common, such as Maine or Virginia. The jackpot was Alaska or Hawaii, which were worth 50 cents! Other great games include the alphabet game in which you search for words that start with all the letters of the alphabet, going in order, on road signs; and the cows and horses game in which those sitting on one side of the car compete against those sitting on the other side for number of animals spotted. You can assign more points to rarer animals such as deer or goats. A cemetery on your side means you lose all your points. There are many variations of this game, so create your own set of family rules.
9. Hotels. Often you can get coupons or deals online, especially if you travel during off-peak times. If you’re traveling during peak times (such as Fourth of July weekend), be sure to have a reservation. I learned this lesson the hard way! My kids were in heaven if we got a hotel that had a pool and served free breakfast.
10. Pace yourself. When you’re going to travel solo with the kids, be kind to yourself. Make sure you aren’t trying to do too much. Some days, you might be able to drive for eight hours, but other days, four might be too much—but that’s OK. Embrace the journey!
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