In our twelve and a half years of parenthood, we’ve embarked on a lot of road trips. Up and down the eastern seaboard, between Wisconsin and the east coast innumerable times, and from Wisconsin to Montana (twice), we’ve hit the road with an increasing number of children and usually a pet or two. I’m writing this blog post from the passenger seat on an epic road trip that started in Wisconsin, went through Maryland/Pennsylvania/New Jersey, to North Carolina, currently has us in Georgia, with a border crossing in Laredo, Texas and a final destination of San Pancho, Mexico.
My oldest two kids are currently fighting in the row behind me, a fight which apparently started with Chief licking Hoss in retaliation for Hoss stealing his pillow. I’m ignoring them because I’m tired of their bullshit, but pretending it’s because I want them to learn important lessons about settling disagreements on their own. Bunny is in the 3rd row yelling that he has to pee and we’re currently stuck in bumper to bumper traffic in Atlanta. Pickles, for reasons unspecified, poured her entire bottle of water into her cup holder about an hour into the day, so now her booster seat is a wet mess. And she’s thirsty. In short, long road trips with kids kind of suck.
In the spirit of pretending I have this all figured out, I shall offer tips for surviving and even thriving (hahahahahahahahaha) on long road trips with kids and pets.
Healthy snacks. I always pack a small cooler with ice and healthy snacks (string cheese, carrot and pepper slices, yogurt and fruit) for the road, then forget about it because the kids just want to eat goldfish crackers and granola bars and find everything floating in hot water several days into the trip.
Organization. We get a little obsessive about our packing organization. We pack minimally and strategically and that means it takes a frustratingly long time to pack the car and I get annoyed a lot. The kids each have their own zippered packing pod and we put all of them in a larger duffle bag. This is helpful because we don’t have to have four separate suitcases or a giant explosion of the kids’ clothes in one bag. We rarely bring enough clothes for any trip and do laundry instead. We also never pack enough beach towels for any water-related activity. That’s less of a “travel hack” and more of some strange oversight that happens every single time we go swimming. Four kids, three towels. Perfect. That won’t result in fights between cold, wet kids.
Hotels. Choose affordable, but not cheap, accommodations. We learned this the hard way. Scott and I went through a period in our 20s when we tried to find the cheapest hotel/motel in any town or city we visited. It was an adventure, and we didn’t participate in any high-risk behaviors otherwise so it felt exciting. It was kind of fun/scary when, on our way home from college, we stayed at a motor lodge for $24/night in Billings, Montana that had heavy police action at 2am. It was less fun/scary and just gross when we checked into a $22.95/night place in Connecticut on our way to a camping trip in Canada that had visible bugs jumping on the bed and what appeared to be a 3-foot wide bloodstain on the carpet. We learned that it’s difficult to get a good night’s sleep when you’re being bitten by bed bugs and you’re concerned a homicide may have occurred in the room a few nights beforehand. These days we always look for a good deal but focus on family-friendly amenities (we have a soft spot for the affordable suite hotel with a free hot breakfast, pet-friendly policy and a pool – LaQuinta, I’m looking in your direction), and try to balance out hotel costs with austerity measures like eating homemade (car-made?) PBJs for lunch, sipping the free coffee in Styrofoam cups from the hotel rather than stopping at Starbucks, and drinking warm water from a giant BPA-filled jug in our trunk. As Chief would say, #choices. Some people have success asking for a cheaper than advertised rate on their hotel room, because it’s all negotiable, but we ask every time and always get an “I’m sorry, that’s the lowest rate we have available” response and both of us are really uncomfortable negotiating so it ends there with Scott and I thanking them profusely, apparently, for not giving us a discount.
Urination. The issue on all of our minds. Anyone who travels with kids knows about the hassle of frequent bathroom stops. Stopping is not always feasible or convenient and gas station bathrooms can be disgusting. The boys used to pee in our empty water bottles when it was inconvenient to stop. Recently, however, that came back to haunt us when one of our blessed children spent a day drinking from an expensive, stainless steel, reusable water bottle that he said, “tasted funny.” We came to realize it was urinated in previously and then sat for over a month in the car while we visited family in the hot summer months, causing the urine to ferment and soak into the plastic straw. So apparently the little rinse out before refilling didn’t quite cut it and -name withheld- paid the price. We decided to invest in portable urinal jugs – you can buy them at those home medical stores where they sell toilet chairs and cushions with the hole in the middle for your hemorrhoids – because peeing in name brand, insulated, stainless steel water bottles that you then need to throw out isn’t cost-effective. We now have two of them stashed under the seats in our van for urinary emergencies.
Entertainment. The options are endless these days. Between iPads, WiFi hotspots, Audible, and Spotify, there really is no shortage of entertainment options for the overstimulated little ones in your life. I’m of the old school crowd, though. When I was a kid, we took long, multi-day road trips in a big, barreling passenger van with vinyl bench seats and no A/C. We had to crank the side windows open and sleep our misery away aided by the white noise of the rushing hot air flowing through the car. No video games or YouTube or even those cool activity books with mazes and search and finds they make for kids now. I was super bored and spent most of the ride in a wordless, but fierce, battle for elbow space with my younger sister. I dream of a world where my kids get to be as bored and infuriated over elbow space as I was as a child. Therefore, I am a tad incredulous when the kids claim they are bored with their car entertainment options. We have two iPads, which the kids share with a headphone splitter, for games and movies. We also listen to books on tape (Matilda, Land of Stories, and Wonder are my family-friendly recommendations), podcasts and music. We limit their iPad time in the car, though, because we find the kids are more relaxed, and therefore more likely to do something quiet (like sleep), when the iPads are off-limits. I also spend a good amount of energy shouting “I am not your cruise director!” into the back of the car.
Schedule. When our kids were toddlers we had to limit our road trips to a few hours a day, broken up with stops for the kids to run and play. Uncomfortable toddlers are just the worst and it was in all of our best interests to keep the driving time short each day, even if it meant a longer overall trip. Now that the kids are a bit older and therefore their discomfort is not entirely our pain (see the above “cruise director” retort), we can push it a bit more. We like to kick out after breakfast, drive through lunch (car PBJs), stopping only occasionally for gas/stretching/bathroom breaks (this is when the portable urinals come in handy), so that we can finish the drive by 5:00 or 5:30pm, which leaves us time for a real dinner, some pool action, and a good bedtime. This is our ideal schedule, so, therefore, doesn’t account for flat tires, diarrhea, or our cat running away at a gas station (we found him!).
In summary, if you’re about to embark on a road trip with kids, you must have no other option. Godspeed.