Driving across the country for two weeks with your children will either sound like the epic family adventure of a lifetime, or a B-rated horror film that you can’t believe you just found yourself in the middle of as you drive. A road trip with my kids was certainly not high on my list of trips to take. Sixteen-hour flight to Hong Kong? No problem, but stuck in a car with my kids for 5-10 hours a day was what my nightmares were made of.
When we decided to move from Seattle to Maryland in October 2014, we knew a road trip was in order. We hadn’t seen a lot of the west coast yet. My husband was eager to see Yosemite before we headed east. Instead of just doing one park, we decided to see the Redwoods, Sonoma, Yosemite, Zion, Bryce and the Grand Canyon before booking it to Maryland so my husband could start his new job.
I’ll be the first to admit that I did not plan activities for the kids very well for this trip. I was so busy trying to pack up our lives, book hotels for our journey and get us out the door that their entertainment was just about the last thing on my list. It really should have been the first. Luckily I had been collecting so many travel activities over the years that I just threw them all in a box in the car and said, “OK, time to go gang.”
While on the road we figured out what worked and what didn’t. Tech was a no brainer, but we couldn’t have the kids plugged in for 10 hours a day. Music, quiet time, naps and activity books became a usual part of our day as we settled into life on the road. Some worked, some didn’t, but here is what we found made our lives bearable and turned my idea of a nightmare trip into one of our best family adventures to date.
Movies and tech
We are a tech and movie family. I am not ashamed of that. My boys know that when we get on airplanes and in the car for long trips that they get Kindle screen time. We started off giving them unlimited screen time but this quickly backfired and we limited it to a few spaced out hours a day. They would get to play a few Kindle Fire apps for a little bit, but then had to do other activities. We watched at least one movie a day usually, but that was more because I was going batty and needed to be entertained than anything else.
Music and books on tape
Music is a road trip essential, and in our car the driver rules the radio. We do have family ground rules for music though, especially since my husband Mike likes prog rock and heavier stuff. The house rule is that there can be no music on in the car that has a singer growling at my kids. I don’t need to hear that coming out of my boys mouths anytime soon. There are enough annoying noises to deal with right now.
Books on tape are an absolute must. Pick out age appropriate books from the library to borrow or rip them to your iPhone for travel. A few of our favorites include:
- Diary of a Wimpy Kid
- Nate the Great
- A to Z Mysteries
Before taking off head to Target or Costco to grab coloring books, maze books, dot-to-dot books and hidden picture books; anything that your kids express interest in. We also had a few preschool workbooks that practiced tracing letters, picking out matching items, etc. If the boys wanted screen time they needed to either color or do an activity book first.
Just because you are in the car doesn’t mean you can’t play with your favorite toys. Both of our boys built with LEGOs, Ty played with his airplanes and Dek played with dinosaurs and cars. Bring your toys on an adventure and have your kids build their own stories, or tell their toys where they have been.
Sometimes you just need to have some downtime in the car that includes little noise and lots of looking out the window. Dek would get cranky and not want to do anything we suggested because all he wanted was screen time. He knew the rules, so he opted to just look out the window. This brought up some interesting conversations about what we were seeing as we drove down the highway. We saw hawks, ravens and buzzards, and some pretty amazing trucks carrying windmill parts.
If you have a nap age child, it is essential that you figure out how to get them to nap in the car. My boys have never been car sleepers unless it was absolutely necessary. It wasn’t that we didn’t want them to sleep in the car; they just wouldn’t do it.
We soon got into a routine with Ty where we would be active in the morning, have lunch and then get in the car right around naptime. He had to have his favorite CD on, Front Line Assembly’s AirMech soundtrack, which was one of Mike’s favorite bands and happened to be an instrumental album that Ty called the “Robot song.”
We played it endlessly until he fell asleep and even afterwards to make sure he wouldn’t wake up. Ty soon began to request it when he was just too tired and ready to tuck himself in. It was a true road trip miracle and one we never expected but happily accepted.
Running out energy is essential at rest stops. They are also great spots to picnic and of course to go to the bathroom. Plan on stopping for at least 15 minutes so your kids can run out some energy. Grab that soccer ball that you packed to kick around on the grassy lawns many rest stops offer, or head to a local park if you are in a town. This may mess with your timetable, but it will make everyone in the car infinitely happier, including you. No one was meant to sit for hours on end. We were meant to move.
Crocheting became my lifeline when I was overly bored in the car and not behind the wheel driving. I had to set a good example and not watch a movie while the boys were doing other activities, but I had to keep myself busy too. I packed up a blanket I have been crocheting for seven years (yes, seven) and added a few more rows every day. It wasn’t exciting work, but it kept me entertained. Next time I may teach myself how to knit. Older kids can easily knit and crochet in the car too. Car rides are a great time to pick up a new skill.
Being stuck in the car with your kids will make you go mad. I’m not going to lie. Even being in the car with your husband for too long may make you go insane. Offer to go to the grocery store to restock your car snacks and lunch provisions. Announce to the family that you are going out for take out and have your husband get the kids bathed while you are out.
Use any excuse possible to get yourself some alone time. If there is a hotel gym, go down for a 30-minute walk on the treadmill. If you have the budget and your hotel has a spa, book yourself a massage. It will be worth the expense. Trust me, anything you need to do to survive a cross-country road trip with family is worth the money.