Last week I embarked on a cross country trek with my cousin and her three youngsters — ages four, two and 11 months — as they relocated from the pines of East Texas to Washington D.C. As a late twenty-something with an affinity for road trips, I thought it would be a summertime cakewalk.
My journey started with a four-hour drive to Tyler, TX that had all the makings of a perfect road trip, economy rent car and co-pilot included. We took turns at the wheel, listened to Bob Marley and made an obligatory stop at the DQ (steak fingers and Texas toast for everyone!).
While the first leg of the trip whet my appetite for the longer journey, it didn’t accurately prepare me for the five days that lay ahead. Traveling cross-country with kids requires a different road map, one laced with creative strategies for maintaining sanity — namely patience, snacks and wine.
As I decompress from my flight home, I’ll share with you a non-mom’s guide to kid-friendly car travel. Hopefully what I learned from my 1,500 mile trek will save you — and your kids — some sanity the next time you hit the road.
Add two hours to each travel day
Driving from Texas to D.C., we had a long road ahead and our ETAs required constant adjustment. Getting kids properly strapped into the car and then out for necessary bathroom breaks, gas stops and food adds up quickly. Each day on the road took two hours longer than we expected, and that was without traffic.
Stock up on snacks
Snacking is a necessary road trip pastime, especially for picky eaters during oh-so-long days on the road. Apple sauce, fruit snacks, granola bars, Pirate’s Booty, Ring Pops and Dum Dums were the preferred flavors of our summer trip.
Invest in LeapPads
LeapPads are better than candy. The kids were way more entertained by electronics than by any of my poor attempts to point out cows, silos, scenic lookouts or landmarks. Let each kid pick one new game to download for the trip; it will add to the novelty, and your sanity. And bring backup batteries; it’ll save you some tears.
Make time for fun
Even if you’re on a tight schedule, take some breaks from the road. If at all possible, add a day of fun between each long day in the car (we had one at a beach near Birmingham, AL). If you can’t swing a full day, find something worth getting out of the car for.
There weren’t any “World’s Largest” landmarks on our route, but we did check out the Chattanooga Choo Choo, a kayaking site from the 1996 Olympics and downtown Asheville, NC.
Plan a trip to "Old McDonald’s"
Chances are you’ll have to set aside your hatred of fast food when spending days on the road, probably for more than one meal. McDonald’s is still a magical stop for kids — even the healthiest ones — so suck it up and enjoy some French fries and a Coke. Just this once.
Get used to "Are we there yet?" and "I want out!"
Even the most well behaved kids can get fidgety and have outbursts on the road. Expect those extra two hours you accounted for earlier to be peppered with questions of “How close are we?” and proclamations of “I want to get out!” When the whining starts, it's time to create a diversion — gum, candy, headphones... any will do the trick.
Give up your DJ dreams
Unfortunately, kids aren’t as into your perfectly mixed playlist as you. Though you’ll be able to sneak in a few of your favorite tunes, prepare to learn some Wiggles songs and become reacquainted with old childhood favorites like Raffi.
Lose your cool
Kids need constant entertainment, so you'll likely end up acting out the motions to "There's a Spider on the Floor," singing silly songs or playing along with a two-year old’s inside joke. But, it's worth it. A car full of giggles well outweighs the sacrifice of being a dork for a few days.