Written by Deborah Hackett
Edited by Becky Tankersley
Ever since our littles were nothing more than dreams my husband and I have been road-trippers. He flies at a lot of airshows—occasionally he flies there, but most of the time he drives. And of course the venue is never just 10 minutes away! In almost 20 years we have put a LOT of miles behind us.
When it was just the two of us, road tripping wasn’t difficult. Soda, candy, a bag of chips and we were off. Then came the children—and the needs of the backseat far outweighed those in the front. Our first road trip as a family of three was from Fort Worth, Texas to New Mexico—about 10 hours. On that trip we took a bottle warmer that plugged into the AC adapter, diapers, wipes and some jars of baby food. The only time we stopped was for one of us to use the bathroom or to change diapers.
When our daughter was just over a year old we drove from Fort Worth to Winter Park, CO. That was a two-day event and required a basket of Elmo toys (how the Elmo cell phone didn’t get “lost” in the Rockies remains a family mystery), and more frequent stops to eat and use the restroom. Months later we spent a week touring the Midwest. For that trip we went high tech with a portable DVD player, a bag of pretzels and wall to wall DVDs of Elmo’s World (Elmo and I have a love-hate relationship).
Our second daughter arrived later and brought with her the added element of raging acid reflux. Vomiting babies and car seat straps do not play well together! Now our trips involved disinfectant wipes, a scented trash bag and yes, a travel potty for our eldest. Parenting is many things—glamorous isn’t one of them. Now came the rise of the to-go coffee shops in our needs. Picking places to grab a meal moved from being whatever was convenient and looked tasty to its proximity to a place that would sell us good coffee.
Now our girls are in elementary school and are seasoned travelers. From the suburbs of DC we have driven to Florida, Wisconsin and Maine—and we’re all still on good speaking terms by the end. Here are a few tips—all thoroughly tested!—for family road trip survival (note: I assume you will plan to meet your family’s physical needs so I won’t list having snacks, drinks and trash bags, plus extra patience for all the bathroom breaks).
1) Involve the whole family in planning. This has been a game changer for us. When we plan a road trip we ask the children to research places they might like to go. We do our utmost to put one each onto our itinerary. When they were too little to Google, we helped them by asking the sort of place or activity they’d like and then looking with them.
2) Traditional car games. We play fun or silly games while in the car. “I Spy” is a great one, or “I Went to the Store” (each person takes a turn to name an item in alphabetical order while remembering all the other items mentioned too). We also play “Guess Who” with everyone from movie stars, TV characters and people we know.
3) Paper and Pencil activities. This is where Pinterest becomes your BFF! There are so many sites about road trip activities. We love the road trip Bingo pages that come with words or pictures and different options for city, country or highway driving. There are worksheets for any subject you may be studying. My girls have clipboards and pencils in the backseat and can do a couple of math activities or some fun games that teach about the state or city we are visiting.
*Note: We always require at least thirty minutes of paper activities before any electronics come out!
4) DVDs. Yes. We do have portable DVD players and a great collection of DVDs plus headphones. You have to pick your battles and trying to make our girls agree on a movie isn’t worth the emotional energy. I’d rather buy a pair of headphones. If we are crossing a state line we have them pause whatever they’re watching, then let them get right back to it if they’d like. The inside of a car for hours isn’t a child’s sweet spot. They need a little understanding and distraction.
5) Tablet games. Again, non-electronic activity needs to be completed and good behavior maintained to earn the tablet, but then a set amount of time is allowed. We realized a long ago that we plan vacations that suit us adults but we don’t always consider children. I’m thrilled at quietly looking out over the mountains—my girls are bored inside of five minutes. I get it—scenery bored me witless as a child, so we try to engage with the children but also give them space to relax and make their own choices.
This is just our blueprint—I hope you’ll take what’s useful and ignore what isn’t. What works for us won’t necessarily be useful to a different family. Last summer we managed 3,500 miles in 10 days touring the Wild West. There were odd moments of irritation (mostly mine at the mess in the back seat) but on the whole we did extremely well. This summer we are tackling the Pacific Northwest and can hardly wait to hit the road!