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We’ve all been on those family road trips. You know the ones. They start off pleasant enough. The windows are down, a nice breeze circulating. The Black Keys are churning those good vibes and (miraculously) no one is complaining about the music. Your hubs seems to know his way and isn’t arguing with you in the passenger seat or Google about the directions. Your little kids are enthralled with the latest episode of Spongebob, headphones on, not making a peep in the back seat. You’re feeling good, relaxed. So you start to go for your Kindle, eager to dive into the juicy gossip rag posing as Jessica Simpson’s memoir.
And then, you reach the end of your neighborhood.
And the bubble effectively bursts.
Your husband forgot something so you have to turn back. Your data connection cuts out, sending Spongebob into oblivion and your young children into a tailspin. Your son already has to go potty because he drank all of the Capri Suns before the car even left the driveway. And you’re trying to recall if you were medicated or slightly intoxicated when you agreed to this long trip in the first place.
Girl, we’ve all been there. And while we don’t pretend to be road trip whisperers, we do have a few hacks for how to make your long road trip with kids go as smoothly as can be expected when you cram multiple people into a single car for a long amount of time.
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First off, a great idea is to think about creating a packing list. Then, go into Google Maps and map out your long drive in advance. This is the best way for you to determine travel time and when you will arrive at your final destination. Place pins where you plan on making rest stops for food and bathroom breaks. A good idea for If you have tech-savvy or older kids, is to share the map with them so they can follow along on their phones or tablets. It’ll make them feel like they’re an active part of the trip and will at the very least save you an “are we there yet” or two during your long car ride.
But things won’t always go according to plan – so have a trusty “prepared for anything kit”
The universe loves nothing so much as a good plan it can totally upend. So, accept the fact that no matter how much you strategize and organize your next road trip, it will inevitably have those moments when you’re sitting in gridlock traffic on the highway and your 8-month-old has a blowout or your fifth grader gets car sick and needs a new change of clothes.
That’s why I never go anywhere without one of my favorite road trip hacks: “prepared for anything kit”, which includes a car trash bin, disinfectant, paper towels, a water bottle, baby wipes, diapers plus an extra outfit, a first aid kit, band-aids, and Tylenol (for you, of course).
Be the keeper of the snacks
Unless you want to be stopping every half hour for bathroom breaks, a great tip is to control the flow of food and drink for your fellow family members.
If you want to save the upholstery in your car seats, maybe limit the snacks to exclude those that melt or are covered in the unnatural looking orange powder that coats your fingers (i.e. Cheetos, Doritos, and pretty much any Hostess product). Also, limit the amount of juice boxes to avoid sticky fruit smelling seats. And pack more water than you think is necessary. Without fail, that’s always the first thing we run out of.
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Don’t worry too much about screen time
Screen time – is it a good thing, is it a bad thing? If my kids spend too much time on their screens, will they turn into vegetables and lose all sense of imagination and creativity? If they don’t have enough, will they fall behind in the world, act in different ways, and not be able to function in society?
That’s a much larger debate that we can’t even begin to unwrap here. But what I can say is, whatever your feelings on screen time, consider fudging the rules a little bit on long car trips. There’s only so much you can do when you’re strapped to a seat and driving through the flat, unending cornfields of Indiana’s open road for hours on end. The important thing is that it’ll keep your kids occupied, it’ll save your sanity, and it will help keep the peace.
These days, there are plenty of educational options to make the screen time a little more beneficial, like digital flashcards, games for language learning (Duolingo is a family favorite), and word puzzles.
But plan for some non-screen (or screen-lite) activities as well
If you don’t want your kids to be on their screens the whole time, plan non-screen activities. Road trip bingo, the license plate game,or scavenger hunts (with prizes) always fan favorites in our house and it’s a great way to get the whole family in on the fun. Another great option is to download classic audio books everyone will enjoy (think Harry Potter, Nancy Drew, or something by Roald Dahl) and listen together. Bring along age-appropriate trivia cards and have a trivia competition. And you can never go wrong with a good old-fashioned coloring book.
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Pack road trip goody bags
This was a tradition my mom started when we were kids and I remember always being so excited for a road trip because of it. She’d pack goody bags, one for each of us, and fill it with some of our favorite things, like sticker books, doodle pads, colored pencils, Pokemon cards (because this was the nineties and I had brothers), small toys, and car-friendly games like Uno. In the morning, when we were ready to leave, they’d be sitting on our seats in the car and we couldn’t open them until we were on the road.
I’ve continued the tradition (though with a few turn of the century modifications) because it’s a good way to get my kids excited about the trip, and also keep them occupied for at least a few hours.
Remember that the journey (no matter how insane) is half the fun
As an adult, with a family of my own, I often reflect on the road trips I used to take as a kid with my parents and siblings. They were nothing short of a circus, and with six of us crammed in a bright red Chevy Suburban, with a Thule luggage carrier on the top and a bike rack on the back, we certainly looked like a Barnum & Bailey caravan. We often didn’t make it out of the driveway before we all wanted to kill each other. But looking back, some of our best memories and amusing family anecdotes came from those road trips. Our trips were never perfect, but they’re some of my most cherished recollections from my childhood. And I sincerely hope in thirty years, my kids will look back and say the same.
So try not to sweat the mishaps. They will happen. Laugh them off and remember that twenty years from now, those moments will be the stuff of family lore, the stories your kids will tell their kids. And maybe a therapist or two.
Our trips were never perfect, but they’re some of my most cherished recollections from my childhood. And I sincerely hope in thirty years, my kids will look back and say the same.
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