When I was 18-years-old, I packed up everything I owned into the backseat of my rickety Volkswagen Jetta, and I drove across the country, from South Carolina to Oregon, with my pug in the passenger seat and a bunch of mixtapes made from friends. I had never been to Oregon, but I knew it was very far away from the insanity that was my bizarre childhood. I had no phone, barely any money, and I used one tiny road map that I bought on sale at a Books-a-Million to navigate me from coast to coast. Crazy, right? But because of that impulsive decision, I saw the entire country from the car window, I met amazing people along the way, and I eventually ended up in Portland, OR where I went to college and made a life for myself. Looking back, it was definitely one of the riskiest things I have ever done, but that one cross-country road trip sparked an endless wanderlust in me that I’ve never been able to shake…even four kids later.
“But you’re married to a pilot; why do you drive everywhere??”
“FOUR KIDS IN A CAR. I’D LOSE MY MIND!!”
“Your kids won’t even remember this. Why waste your time?”
I could probably write an entire novel answering those questions, but essentially, I think there’s magic in the American road trip that you can’t experience from an airplane. I think it shapes your view of the country, which is important for little minds that are always learning. I think it gives you a sense of home, even when you’re wandering around. And let’s be real, flying actually stinks–try taking four tiny kids through airport security by yourself one time, and then you’ll know why we love road trips.
Living in North Carolina, we are essentially in the middle of the East Coast, and it has given us the amazing opportunity to drive as north as Maine, as south as Texas, and every stop in between, many, many times. We’ve learned a lot of tips and tricks along the way, and without jinxing myself, I can honestly say that the kids really do well in the car for at least 90% of each drive. Obviously, with children and even some ornery adults, meltdowns happens no matter what–so it’s all about focusing on controlling the controllables. So, here’s my Top Ten Tips for a great trip:
- Never drive more than 10 hours a day! If it’s a location that’s 12 hours away, split it up for 8 hours and 4 hours. Don’t push yourselves, or it sets the tone for a really awful trip. We always start our vacations by leaving our house at 4 AM and doing the bulk of the drive on the first day, while the kids are still sleeping in the car that morning. We’re early risers anyway; so adjust that to your normal morning schedule, if 4 AM scares you just to think about.
- Make your stops count. If we stop somewhere for the night, we try to make it a vacation in itself. Don’t stop at midnight and get back in the car at 6 AM the next day. Find a cool new town to explore between your starting location and final destination, and book a cool hotel there for a few nights. It breaks up the monotony, and it gives you a few days to refresh before getting back in the car.
- Sit in the back seat. If you’re lucky enough to have a co-parent with you, one of you needs to sit in the backseat with the kids while the other one drives. We drive a Honda Pilot with third row seating, and I put the two oldest in the very back, the two youngest on the middle seat, and I sit between the two youngest so I’m in reaching distance of everyone to pass out snacks and pick up toys that fall.
- Pack your own healthy snacks and meals. Nothing screams meltdowns like loading your kids up with junk food and sweets and sugary drinks for several hours, while having them strapped into a seat. We pack as many healthy options as we can, snack throughout the day, and unless it’s a total meltdown emergency, we do not let the kids go near a convenience store’s food section because Holy Junk Food Overload. Candy is a last resort, my friends. Save it for absolutely unavoidable briberies.
- Dollar Tree is your best friend. I hate clutter and trinkets, and I try my best to keep the kids’ toys to a minimum, but when we are going on a long road trip, I pack each child a tiny bookbag full of new knick-knacks that they’ve never seen from the Dollar Tree (coloring books, little toys, stickers, etc). We stopped letting our kids have screen time many years ago because we found it was leading to a LOT of tantrums and over-stimulation for them; so if you can avoid that in the car, I highly recommend it. Small toys, little games, and playing I Spy out of the car window are always our go-to source of entertainment.
- Align potty breaks with gas stops. My husband is admittedly an extremely frugal man when it comes to certain things. I’m pretty sure his most-used app on his phone is the one that tells you where to buy the cheapest gas, and it drives me bonkers. He used to always make us stop in the shadiest places he could find to pump gas, and then we’d have to stop again for a bathroom break because we couldn’t go inside the place where he stopped for gas; and that just doesn’t make sense. Find a very nice, clean gas station and take the kids in for diaper changes and potty breaks, while the other parent pumps the gas and walks the dog. It’s worth the few extra pennies, I promise.
- Toddler Tunes. I used to be a musician. I used to be somewhat cool. I used to play shows and listen to obscure bands and think I was awesome. And I would always tell myself that my future kids would NEVER listen to toddler songs on the radio because that was SOOOO LAME. But y’all, it’s a lifesaver. Luna’s attention is held for hours just by this one toddler CD that we have. There are NO stations on XM that are specifically designed for toddlers (Kidz Bop and Radio Disney are definitely geared for older kids), so either forfeit your phone and link it to bluetooth OR buy a Toddler Tunes CD. Totally worth it.
- Brace yourself for meltdowns. I say this in every trip guide that I make–there is no such thing as a perfect vacation, with or without kids. Someone is going to get tired or hungry or overwhelmed at some point, and you just have to be prepared for that. It might ruin 15 minutes of your day, but it doesn’t ruin your vacation. There is nothing you can do to stop a tantrum; so when it happens, just know that we’ve all been there, and it is not a reflection of your parenting. Pull over the car, let everyone stretch their legs and clear their heads, and then try again.
- Be prepared to lose phone service. You’d be really surprised how much of America doesn’t have phone signal or WiFi. When we were in Tennessee last summer, we spent 4 days without any connection to the world, and it was glorious…and kind of strange. Check your weather before you leave (no weather app without Wifi) and have all directions printed, just in case.
- Pack lightly for legroom. We have four kids, two adults, and a pug (yes, the same pug from my first trip to Oregon!) that all have to fit into the car. Add to that a double stroller, a dock-a-tot, and the other baby/child/dog necessities, and it does not leave much comfortable leg room for your trip, if you stuff a suitcase with ten billion outfit changes. Either invest in a cargo rack for your roof (these make me weirdly uncomfortable, so not for us) or pack light. We try to book at least one night in the middle of our trips at an AirBNB with a washer and dryer so we can wash clothes and reuse them!
I’m probably leaving out a lot of Road Trip Rules, but I think those are definitely the most important ones that have really helped us with the kids. There are so many gloriously gorgeous places in America, and when you travel slowly by car, it makes you really understand that saying “The journey is more important than the destination”. ❤