If you are thinking about taking a cross country road trip with your kids this summer, the best you probably think you can hope for is that it doesn’t turn out like the movie Vacation. That’s where you’re wrong. I’m here to tell you that it CAN BE FUN!
Every year, my friends think I’m crazy because I take my two little ones (now not so little at ages 7 and 8) on a long distance car trip halfway across the country. At some point during the summer (that’s what I love about the car trip, you don’t need to plan ahead), I drive from Massachusetts back to my home state of Minnesota. Even when they were toddlers, I would drive alone with them cross country to a wedding in Kansas or to spend a few weeks down in Florida before they were in school.
My husband went along with these trips begrudgingly not wanting to spend valuable vacation days driving in the car. I get that. But, I think I have finally persuaded him that the drive is half the fun. Yes, that’s right–THE DRIVE IS HALF THE FUN of the whole trip. The kids talk about the car trips all year long. My daughter is right now compiling a list of the “surprises” she would like to get on the car trip–most of which she won’t receive but it’s like Christmas you don’t always get everything you want.
They especially love staying in hotels–from playing in the pool to eating the free “hot” breakfast (which includes choosing their own cereal or manning the waffle maker). It’s something we only do during the summer and they think it’s awesome. I have now successfully imprinted in their DNA a love of car trips. Mission accomplished. If you just follow a few simple steps, you can do it too.
My father loved to plan family car trips. Growing up, he would meticulously plan out our car trips–the sights we would see, the places we would stay, and even places to eat. If he were alive today, he would have loved the GPS and a smartphone with an unlimited data package, it would have made his job so much easier. Technology does make things easier but that’s not the only secret to a successful car trip.
So, the vast majority of you are, at this point, wondering if I’m not just a touch delusional or addled in the brain somehow. Maybe you suspect I’m on some kind of drugs–ones that still allow you to drive because all the good ones don’t. The question is how could I possibly enjoy what amounts to 24 hours in the car with two small children (and that’s just one way!).
As with anything else, the key is setting expectations and a schedule. Yes, a schedule. Here’s what you need to do:
1. Invest in a Dual Screen Car DVD player: You can find them at Wal-Mart, Target or Amazon for under $100. They are a godsend, along with the iPad, iPhone, Kindle, etc. However, don’t get lulled into a fall sense of security thinking that technology alone will do the trick.
2. Find some Used Kids Books: I buy used kids books at thrift shops, library sales, and garage sales. Every morning, I put new books in their seat pockets to read. I dole out two new books a day. At about 50 cents a book, it costs me $10 to $15 dollars for the whole trip.
3. Maximize the FIRST Day: Drive the farthest the first day when they (and you) are the freshest and make each day progressively shorter. I’ve only driven three days straight (before getting to our final destination) and I make sure the last day is only around 4-5 hours. On that last day everyone is ready to “get there”, so we make one quick stop and then I can finally say “the next time we stop, we’ll be there.” Which brings me to stops….
4. Set a schedule for stops: I try to push them the longest in the morning (as long as I can!) and then make the stops shorter as the day progresses-say every 2 to 2 and 1/2 hours. Tell them the schedule and make sure you stick to it. For example, if I say our next stop is at 3:00, they can look at the car’s digital clock to see if it’s getting close to the stop.
5. Reward good behavior and make them earn it. My kids earn a “surprise” at each stop for good behavior. I pick up things throughout the year at the dollar store, yard sales, you name it. The surprises are then put in brown paper bags that they can select from. They love it! It’s like they get a birthday present at every stop. I also warn them that they will not earn a surprise if they behave badly. The first time they did not earn a surprise, I had to endure a 15-30 minute tantrum but it was worth it because I’ve never not given a surprise since. Every trip, I remind them of the time they did not earn a surprise. Believe me, they remember!
6. Set their expectations. Tell them whether that day is going to be a long drive or a short drive. Give them benchmarks. Maybe you tell them how many stops it will be until you get there or tell them whether you are going to be there by lunch time or by dinner. Be honest. Talk up the stop (get them excited) and make sure the hotel has a pool. Plus do your research, you don’t want to get to Wally world and have it be closed!
7. Snack Box and Treat Box: Put together a snack box and a treat box and set a schedule for when it comes out and they know that schedule. That is the key, setting expectations and breaking the day into manageable little chunks. Don’t just bring it out whenever they whine for a snack. Set a schedule and stick to it. You can say, “It’s still 25 minutes until the treat box comes out.” Kids respond to a routine–like they have at school everyday. Make sure your snack and treat box is filled with things they ordinarily don’t get during the year. If you want to stay nutritious, go to Whole Foods or somewhere you don’t ordinarily shop and find some new nutritious snacks to try. It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it feels special and different.
By doing the things I’ve listed, the days actually fly by. The kids have fun and Mom and Dad also have fun. Although the excitement is not on the same level as going to Disney World, it’s pretty close. I would love to hear your great tips and tricks for surviving (and enjoying!) a car trip such as car bingo, puzzle games, I Spy and the like. Mom always likes to have a few new tricks up her sleeve!