Summer is a great time for family vacations or for visiting relatives who live a state or two away. Thinking of taking a road trip instead of flying? Here are some tips for surviving the trip.
Break Up Your Travel Time
Our family has close relatives that live on the East Coast. The girls, their Nana, and I drive to see them a few times per year. Prior to having kids, we always drove the trip in one long day that took 10-12 hours of driving time. We mistakenly thought we could still do the trip in the same way with babies and toddlers in the car. Because we wanted them to sleep, we tried driving at night or leaving shortly after midnight. Regardless of when we left, there were several hours (yes, hours) of screaming at the end of the trip.
After a while, your baby just wants out of his/her car seat, period. Stopping for 30 minutes or an hour doesn’t cut it. You have to wrangle them back into their car seat kicking and screaming. As you try to explain to them the concept behind taking a road trip to visit family, you realize that they don’t understand anything you are saying. They are really miserable, and in a short amount of time, you are really miserable too.
After two frustrating family trips of this nature, we decided to stop halfway at a hotel to break up travel time in the car. This worked wonders. The last hour of the drive and the second day of driving are still a little whiny, but it’s usually doable without excessive crying and screaming.
I highly recommend only driving five hours per day with a baby or toddler. That’s pretty much the most they will go unless you are willing to take a four or five hour break in the middle of the day before starting again. In addition, try to spend the night at a hotel with an indoor pool. This incentive doesn’t work with a baby, but it really goes a long way with a toddler or preschool-aged child. Most kids love to go swimming, and it gives them something to look forward to after a long afternoon stuck in their car seat.
Synchronize Car Time with Nap Time
On the first day of the road trip, we get up an hour earlier than normal. There is no nap before lunch unless you have a small baby that still takes a morning nap. In the morning, we encourage the girls to be as active as possible: running, playing, jumping, riding their bikes, etc. We want them to get their wiggles out in the morning and be tired in the afternoon. After eating lunch around 11:30, we clean up and head out on the road. I put a movie on the iPad or portable DVD player, and the girls are asleep in no time. (It’s hard to resist falling asleep in a moving car if you are a tired kid.)
On the second day of the trip, we wake our kids up early. (You want them to be tired. On the second day, you need them to take a morning nap. Yes, this will mess up naps rest of your day, but your number one goal at this point is to safely get to your destination as quickly and quietly as possible.) Play with them in the room while the adults take showers and get ready. Hopefully, your hotel has a complimentary breakfast. Go downstairs and take a long breakfast. Let your kids run around and play for a while after eating. Take them back up to the hotel room to play some more as an adult packs the car and refills the gas tank. We try to have the kids up and moving around at least three hours before putting them in the car. It is really hard to be strapped in tightly to a car seat for a long time when you are an active toddler!
Do Not Stop While Your Kids Are Asleep
This tip is critical to your road-trip success: DO NOT STOP WHILE YOUR KIDS ARE ASLEEP! Do not stop for a drink, a snack, or to go to the bathroom. In fact, all the adults in the car should plan ahead and not drink too much a few hours prior to leaving to avoid having to use the bathroom on the road. Once they wake up on the road, someone will have to work really hard to entertain them for the remainder of the drive. And stopping the car makes sleeping kids wake up!
Make One Stop or Less
Stopping for a break along the way with babies and toddlers is counter-productive. You really need to drive as far as you can without stopping at all. If you have to stop, it will cost you at least an hour. Making good time isn’t really the issue; getting your baby or toddler back into their car seat is the problem. Remember that your child just wants out of the car. Once you get them out, they do not want to go back in their car seat. You can’t explain the situation to them, and you can’t reason with them. Just get to your daily destination as quickly as you can with as few stops as possible. Your child will be happy when they can get out of the car and stay out of the car. (Note: If you are a nursing mom, you will have to stop to nurse when your baby wakes up from his/her nap. Hopefully, by that time, you are at least halfway to your destination.)
We take three snack bags in the car. We have a lunchbox of cool drinks, cheese, yogurt, and fruit. Then, we have two large bags of dry snacks. Try to pack favorite snacks or special snacks for the trip. I always buy a few foods we don’t otherwise eat at home. For example, my girls know they will get blueberry mini muffins on the road trip to Grammy and Pappy’s house. That is the only time I buy them, and the girls look forward to eating them after their nap in the car. Eating snacks in the car makes them happy and passes some of the driving time.
Pack Fun Toys
I hope you weren’t dreaming of traveling light for a car trip! In addition to snack bags, we pack two toy bags. One bag is full of their favorite books, puzzles, coloring books, crayons, games, and Play-Doh. That bag is mostly for the destination. The other bag has puppets, stuffed animals, Barbies, an iPad, play phones, and Little People plastic toys (or whatever your kid likes).
After the girls wake up from their nap and finish their snack, you will have to entertain them with whatever is in the bag. Choose wisely. (Helpful hint: Download favorite songs and children’s books to your tablet. We really love the songs and stories on PinkFong. They work off-line once downloaded. Some are free, but the bundles of songs and stories are reasonably priced. Our girls will listen and watch those for a while in the car. You can also download digital movies to your tablet for the long drive as well.)
You can survive a long road trip with babies and toddlers if you follow my tips above. The key is not to drive more than five hours per day. In addition, try to drive those five hours straight through. You want those kids to sleep the whole way or close to it. Remember that this time of life is very short. In no time, your kids will understand language, grow out of their car seats, and be able to tolerate long driving distances on a family road trip.
Q: Do you have any tips for taking a long road trip with toddlers, babies, and preschool-aged kids?