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Children / Family Travel

How to Have a Fantastic Road Trip, Even with Kids!

Warmer breezes are blowing. The sun is lingering longer before slipping behind the mountains. Far off locales are tempting us with their siren songs, and even the places in our own backyard are whispering promises of a much-needed retreat.

The summer travel season is almost here!

Last year, we decided to take advantage of the last bit of the “off-season” as we could, and we took a 12-day road trip in May out to California via The Grand Canyon and back! We explored a mountain hot springs, the desert, some beaches, a theme park, a world-renowned zoo, bustling cities and quiet little mountain towns. We relaxed, hiked, camped, strolled, played and “picked shells” to our hearts’ content. Our trip was a fabulous success, sprinkled with just the right amount of challenges, and it was just what we needed to renew and recharge. We were filled to the brim with stories of our adventures and photos to share.

This year, our yearly road trip went in the opposite direction, as we headed back to the Midwest to visit relatives for a week.

Sometimes the destination is only part of the fun, and the journey from Point A to Point B can be just as exciting. When that’s the case, it’s best to skip the plane and hit the road.

Road trip!

If you haven’t figured it out already, we love to road trip. We wouldn’t have attempted The Great 12-Day Road Trip if we didn’t. Both my husband and I road trip well, and we always have. When the scenery is new, we don’t dread the drive, and that attitude has rubbed off on our daughter, Claire. She road trips well, too. We are lucky, and we know this.

We go on one or two road trips a year, and we’ve honed our skills. We’ve altered our approach over the years to accommodate our preschooler and the various challenges that arise. So, what are some tricks and tips to a tip-top trip?

Here are some of our favorites!

Be the Master of the Master List:

Everyone prepares for a trip differently. I am a list person. For me, behind every successful road trip is a Pre-Trip Master List. On this list is everything that we’ll need to buy, pack and/or complete before we leave, including camp-food-items, gear, or special To Do Items that range from “turn off the water to the washing machine,” to “call the vet’s office to grant authorization to our house-sitter in case of an emergency,” to “don’t forget to tell the dairy delivery service to skip our house while we’re gone.” (Granted, those aren’t things that will make the road trip go any smoother, but it can alleviate potential issues on the home front.) If it’s on the list, it will get done, and I don’t have to worry about it anymore.

Avoid the “No, I thought YOU packed it!” monster:

When you’re packing for a child, one person needs to take ownership of that project. In our situation, it’s me. I’m in charge of packing for myself and for Claire. My husband is responsible for packing for himself. He’s welcome to remind me of things that need to go on the Master List for Claire, but I’m responsible for packing her items.

Why? Because, the “No, I thought YOU packed it!” monster doesn’t have a chance to rear its ugly head when one person takes charge.

The “I never leave home without this gear, and I’m not even paid to say that” stuff:

(Just so you know, none of the items I mention in this article are part of a paid review…)

That being said, I cannot stress enough how cool the Eagle Creek Pack-It® Folders are. We have had ours for years, and we never go on a trip without them. They allow you to pack all your shirts in a way that they are compact and do not wrinkle. It saves space and keeps things organized. Now that Claire is getting bigger, we are definitely getting her one of her own.

On the other end of the spectrum, my second favorite piece of gear doesn’t even have a brand-name. I found it in the laundry aisle at Target years ago. (I’m sure similar stores carry them as well. Don’t look in the Travel Section. Anything with the word “Travel” in it is automatically more expensive. The laundry ones are just as good and much cheaper.) It’s a zippered lingerie bag. In this go all of those items that have a tendency to wander around a suitcase and fall out at inopportune times.

In fact, years ago, the look of disappointment on the face of the Security Official at the Security Checkpoint in Brussels was awesome. He was expecting to see a pile of shirts and unmentionables, and all he got was a Pack-It® Folder and mesh bag when he purposely dumped my backpack.

Whether you’re traveling through Europe or on a road trip stateside, these things rock! In the photo, you’ll see the Eagle Creek Pack-It® Folders (in blue and black) and the white zippered lingerie bag. You’ll also see one of my favorite types of shirts from REI. It’s made from a wicking-material and perfect for hiking and road trips!

No, we’re not there yet, but here’s a Surprise:

When traveling with a preschooler, it is imperative to keep her happy in the car. A perfect way to do that is to pack a surprise, something that she’s never seen before and that would keep her occupied for hours. For this trip, I found the perfect thing!

When we were well into our trip, and she’d already played with all the toys she brought, I dipped into my secret stash and presented Claire with a Color Wonder™ Stow & Go Studio™. It’s a travel set carrying case that doubles as a little clipboard-like table. Inside were some of the Color Wonder™ markers and pages to color (only allows colors on the magic paper and not her arms or car seat). I also put in some scratch paper, real crayons and a sparkly headband. (What? No adventure is complete without a sparkly headband.)

I also brought along an extra Color Wonder™ Princess Coloring Book, BUT I left the glitter-markers at home. (We had some extra Color Wonder™ regular markers at home, so I brought those instead.) Experience tells me that when you use the glitter-markers, they are goopy and require the pages to dry before flipping on to the next one, and that’s just not going to happen when you’re on a road trip.

Claire was THRILLED with the Color Wonder™ Stow & Go Studio™ ALL OF US benefited from HOURS of peaceful driving. Bonus!

Get into the swing of things, literally. Find a Playground:

After a long day of driving, it really helps to find a playground. We always like to pick up the free tourist maps of where we’re staying, and many of them have the playgrounds marked.

If there isn’t a beach to explore or a safe place to run and play, find a playground.

You’ll be into the swing of this whole vacations-are-for-having-fun thing in no time.

Embrace Technology:

Does your life have a soundtrack? Well, our road trips do. Before Claire came along, my husband and I would use the road trips to listen to some music and power through some books on CD. Now that we travel with a child, it’s harder to focus on a book, so, before we left on our trip, I put together a playlist of songs that all of us would enjoy. My husband found a magical device that hooked his iPod into my car-stereo system via the lighter. Shuffling through 757 songs kept the mood light as the highway slipped away behind us.

To plan for our road trip, I used a free mapping program (*cough* Google Maps *cough*) to calculate the distances on each leg of our trip. I know that we can easily do 5 or 6 hours in the car. We’ve done 8 or more when necessary. Mapping out our trip made it easy to plan stops and things we wanted to see in the area.

Speaking of mapping software, when we took our trip last year, we didn’t have a GPS, so I relied on the maps I printed and kept them all in a Travel Folder I compiled. As luck would have it, the people we visited in California had these wonderful GPS devices, and I dare say I’m hooked! We were exploring an area of town that was new to all of us, and what would make a stroll on the beach that much more enjoyable? I know! Smoothies! Well, with a few clicks and some pleasantly calm and automated directions later, we were able to do just that.

Here, let me hold that for you while you take off your sandals.

Last, but not least: Pack some extra patience with your sense of humor. Fold it up and tuck it insides the “Oh well, we’re not going to Mars” attitude.

What happens if you forgot to pack something? Repeat after me: “Oh well, we’re not going to Mars.” You’ll either buy it on the road or make-do. Wasting energy fighting over something that can’t be changed and certainly didn’t happen on purpose could ruin a vacation. Let it go.

Don’t forget to pack extra patience. Pack lots of it, and then pack some more. Even the smoothest of road trips can get long. No one likes being trapped in a car for hours on end, but make the best of it. Sometimes the preschooler is just vocalizing what the voices are already saying in your own head.

Laugh. Don’t forget to laugh. And then laugh some more.

But, most importantly…

If the car stops, use the potty, but if someone’s sleeping, keep on rollin’.

Are you headed anywhere exciting this summer? Share some of your own trip tips & tricks!

Author: JoAnn

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  1. These are all great suggestions. I especially love your title “even with the kids.” 🙂

    I have many tried and true tricks. We’ve never done CDs on tape so that is something new we’ll try.

    Last year, I had to go on a few road trips with the kids by myself. I loaded up a laundry basket with toys, games, snacks and books and plopped it in between them. It worked like a charm and I wasn’t constantly having to turn around and play referee.

  2. Another thing that works is splitting up the drive. When we’re driving to the EVO conference in Park City, UT, we’re going to take off right after Nathan’s evening baseball game and drive four hours, stay over night at a cheap motel, and then do the rest of the trip so I can arrive in the afternoon. That way we don’t have to take an entire day off work, Nathan can make his game, and the kids won’t get stir crazy in the back of the car since they’ll probably be sleeping.

  3. These are great tips! It helps that your perfectionist side speaks to my casual side.

    Keep a stash of plastic grocery bags so each person can take care of trash as you go, jettisoning it at each stop.

    Welcome home!

  4. A new “surprise” item I packed this year (for the shorter road trip to the Midwest) was Silly Putty. That stuff was a HUGE hit. HUGE. Cheap, fun, packs away neatly, and worth HOURS of fun? Sign me up! 🙂

  5. Another thing that makes traveling with little ones easier is to pack sandwich makings in a cooler (for cold stuff) and a box (for everything else) so that you can stop at a playground for a picnic lunch instead of keeping everyone cooped up in the car or a restaurant.

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