A couple of months ago, my husband and I piled our youngest kids and the dog into the car and drove 1,500 miles to spend time with the rest of our blended family -- our big kids, who were with their mom and stepdad.
I'll be honest with you: I was really worried about the trip. I'm not big on camping, or on long drives, and knew that this trip would be a little of both -- way out of my comfort zone. But kenneling the dog and flying the four of us there would cost more than a mortgage payment, and our teenagers' schedules have become more complicated as they've gotten older, so in spite of my misgivings, driving seemed to be the best way to go.
The trip started ominously: Intended departure time: 4 a.m. Amended departure time: 10 a.m. Actual departure time: 1:51 p.m. Time of first "Are we there yet?": 1:57 p.m.
Because we left so much later than we intended to, we had to scrap plans to stop over with relatives along the way and ended up doing most of the driving while our 5- and 3-year-olds were asleep. Sure, we stopped to stretch and run around, and yes, by the time we arrived the kids were amped and the adults were wrecked, but you know what? The drive was fine. Fun, even.
School vacation week is looming, and if you're planning to travel, the ultimate goal is to arrive with your sanity intact. Here are a few tips that can help:
1.) Pack plenty of snacks. Junk food can double as a bribe, of course, but granola bars, string cheese, fruit, and even cereal work well in the car. Don't forget to bring munchies for Mommy and Daddy, too.
2.) Embrace the high-tech. A dual-screen DVD player makes the time fly, but don't forget about books on tape/CD, and even free MP3s of stories for kids. Bring your kids' favorite DVDs -- you might be sick of them, but they probably aren't -- and keep in mind that Redbox lets you rent movies in one location and drop them off at any of their other ones.
3.) Look for low-tech entertainment, too. Even kids get tired of the TV after a while. No, really, I swear, they really do. Wikki Stix and wipe-clean board books are fantastic when you're traveling, and can be put to good use once you're at your destination as well. Preschoolers and toddlers are too young for map-based games or road-trip bingo, and if their attention spans are tiny, "I Spy" gets frustrating fast. My preschooler reached again and again for a three-ring binder that I'd filled with coloring pages, blank paper, puzzles, and simple stories from NickJr.com and PBS.org.
4.) Stop to blow off steam. If a hotel isn't in the budget and you don't have extended family on the route, look for elementary schools and parks where the kids can run around safely for a half hour or so. Try to stop for meals and actually get out of the car to eat them. Emily Kaufman, a.k.a. The Travel Mom, swears that car trips don't have to be a source of anxiety; being realistic about how much you can handle is key. "Accidents happen when people are tired," she points out. "Mom and Dad bicker when they are fatigued. Make good choices about the timing of your drive."
5.) Focus on the positive. At Work It, Mom!, Sarah Lemanczyk writes that the difference between a delightful road trip and a disastrous one is mostly mental. "This is going to be fun," she says. "Tell yourself. Tell your spouse. Tell the kids. Tell the neighbors, the grocery clerk, random people soliciting for political campaigns at the front door, tell them all... really, talking -- especially about what's going to be fun -- will actually help it be fun." Last summer we drove to my uncle's house in Washington, D.C., with the kids, and it was... well... fun. Mostly. Really. For this (three-times-as-long) trip, I ended up revisiting some of the advice I'd gotten then.
In retrospect, I would have packed even more snacks and fewer toys (the kids tore through all of the special munchies I'd brought along for the ride, but played with the same couple of toys the entire time). And I would have packed more food for my husband and me; yes, there were plenty of fast-food joints all along the route, but after 30 hours (there) and 29 hours (back) of hamburgers, biscuits, and, well, grease on a bun, I was longing for a salad. Or sushi. Or anything that wasn't under a heat lamp. I'm pretty sure I ate more fast food during this drive than I have in the past six months.
Are you planning to hit the road during school vacation week? What are your best tricks for traveling with small kids?
Lylah M. Alphonse is a Globe staff member and mom and stepmom to five kids. She writes about juggling career and parenthood at The 36-Hour Day and blogs at Write. Edit. Repeat. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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