Lessons learned from a nearly 3,000-mile road trip … with kids

Life really is about the journey.

And this spring I discovered that road trips — even ones where you thought the destination was the whole reason for going — are mostly about the journey as well.

The last time my family of five went to Southern California to visit my husband’s family, we flew. Sure it’s expensive, but it was shorter and way easier on little kids than a multi-day car trip with long stretches of driving. This year, though, our kids are a little older. They entertain themselves a little easier in the car, and it’s been awhile since any of them had gotten car sick.

So we thought we’d brave our first long family road trip.

When we first started planning for the two-week trip, I did the first thing I always do when I’m trying something new — Google it to find out what other people do! There’s a ton of advice out there for road tripping with kids. Some good. Some not so good. One thing we latched on to was the idea of driving through the night and letting the kids sleep through large portions of the trip. We thought that would be easiest on the kids. So why not?

We originally planned to drive straight from East Wenatchee to San Diego with stops for meals and stretching our legs. Thankfully we nixed that idea and opted for a two-night stopover along the way. We stuck with the drive all night idea, though, departing after my husband got off work at 6 p.m.

That first night was nothing short of living hell. Long hours of driving through central Oregon and northern California in pitch blackness while the kids slept uncomfortably in the back seat. There were few places to stop and stretch our legs or take a potty break. The yellow and white paint stripes on the roadway started to look like a crazy video game. Neither of us slept while the other drove because we were afraid the other would fall asleep at the wheel.

We’d given so much thought to the impact the trip would have on the kids and not any thought to the impact it would have on us parents!

When we reached Santa Cruz, we were too tired to do anything fun. We collapsed into bed and slept while the kids watched cartoons in our hotel room. Once we caught a few hours of sleep, though, that two-day layover ended up being one of the best parts of our trip. Eating overpriced food on the boardwalk, hiking in the redwood forest, beach combing at Natural Bridges State Park, exploring my husband’s alma mater UC-Santa Cruz, introducing our children to a great used book store and local coffee shop. It was great family bonding time with just the five of us — away from home, our friends, all the demands of our daily lives — before we reached Southern California and all the activities with extended family.

As we got back on the road to southern California, we opted for an early-morning departure. We went to bed early the night before and had a decent night’s sleep. The kids still slept a few hours in the car, but we didn’t subject them to a whole night of it. We brought along electronics — iPads and computer — but didn’t want the kids to be plugged in the whole trip. So we limited them to a couple of half-hour sessions. In between, we listened to audiobook of The Hobbit we got from the library, played the road-sign alphabet and I Spy games, talked about the scenery we were passing and how it differed from home, listened to music, and planned a long ice-cream break in Santa Barbara before diving into L.A. traffic.

We had planned the all-night driving routine for our return trip, but opted for the early-to-bed/early-to-rise idea instead. We got the kids up at 4 a.m., nestled them into the backseat half asleep, and they snoozed until somewhere in central California. We took a long breakfast break, then powered through to Ashland, Ore., where we planned a two-day break and vacation debriefing with just the five of us.

It was an amazing trip that hopefully created lasting memories.

So, here are some of my lessons learned:

  1. Let your kids help plan the trip. Give them a range of options for activities and let them choose one thing that’s important for them to do/see.
  2. Don’t. Drive. Through. The. Night. It’s hard on the drivers, it’s not restful for the kids, and that awake-time on the road can be valuable stuff.
  3. Enjoy the journey. Don’t get too hung up on being somewhere by a certain time (unless you’re going to miss the last ferry if you don’t). When the drive from Santa Cruz to San Diego was taking longer than expected and we were going to hit L.A. traffic in the mid afternoon, we opted to hop off the highway at Santa Barbara for a long ice cream break. That meant getting to grandma’s house late, but it was a sanity-saver for us.
  4. I printed out sections of maps of our entire journey for the kids, so they could keep track of where we were, point out landmarks such as mountains and lakes, and locate cities on the map as we drove through them.
  5. I packed all the things we’d need for our two days in Santa Cruz in one bag (a couple changes of clothes, swimsuits and goggles for the hotel pool, flip-flops for the beach) so that we wouldn’t have to unpack all our suitcases.
  6. On our travel days, we limited the number of stops, but allowed plenty of time for them to stretch our legs, use the bathroom, and get the wiggles out.
  7. When we’d pass interesting sites along the side of the road, we’d look them up on my phone to find out more about them.
  8. I downloaded a trivia app on my phone and we took turns asking questions.
  9. If there’s a movie or two the kids really want to see, hold off letting them watch it on Netflix or DVD until the trip.
  10. Get an audiobook from the library.
  11. Don’t schedule every minute of your trip. It’s tempting, especially if it’s your only vacation all summer and you want to cram in as much as you can. Some of the best moments of our vacation were unstructured play time with cousins or cartoon watching in the hotel room (we don’t have cable at home, so this was a treat for my kids).
  12. Build in some hang out time with just your nuclear family, when you have nowhere special to be and no one to see. It’s invaluable time when you’re away from the demands of your daily life at home.

Bon Voyage!

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