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How to Survive a Long Trip With Children

Well, summer is here and while moms everywhere are enjoying not having to get up early every morning to get their kids out the door with backpacks, water bottles, papers signed, homework done and lunches and snacks ready, a whole new set of challenges lie ahead. Keeping the children busy while still encouraging them to self-entertain. Making memories with them while keeping the (false) mom-guilt at bay for not doing MORE.  Deciding how much work to give them while still making sure they enjoy their break.

By the way, if you haven’t read my blog on summer schedules,  please scroll down to my previous post.

But one of the events that tends to come with summer, and one that we both anticipate and dread in equal parts is . . . TRAVEL!

Sure we want our kids to have fun vacations and see their grandparents and make incredible memories!  But the thought of spending 2 hours, much less 8 or 10 or 14, can be a little (or a LOT) daunting.

Each summer, we take a 14 hour trip one way to visit grandparents. In fact, we will be leaving very soon for this year’s trip.  Our boys look forward to that trip each summer, and my parents make those trips very fun and very memorable!  But in order to survive 28 hours of car time, I’ve come upon a few tips that have really helped make it bearable, so I thought I would share!

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Get an early start


By early, I’m talking it is still dark outside and it is still going to be dark for awhile.  We usually leave around 4 o’clock in the morning.  Yes, you read that right– 4am.  The boys will usually nod back to sleep, but even if they don’t, there is something about the dark that keeps them relaxed and quiet for the first leg of our journey.  We can usually get at least 4 hours down the road with minimal activity in the back of our minivan!  At most, I will have had to feed them breakfast, which we will discuss in a little bit.

I had a friend who took my suggestion on this, and she said 3 of her children slept ’til 8:30 and the 4th one slept until 10am!


Have them sleep in their travel clothes


If you are getting an extra-early start, and you are wanting them to go back to sleep, a minimal of activity should be required of them prior to starting the trip.  We will have everything loaded, including their shoes, pillows and blankets, and even have the car running, before we get them out of bed.  If they seem awake, we MIGHT have them go ahead and use the restroom, but I won’t even expect that if I’m carrying them to the car and they are still sleeping. If you have one still in diapers, I recommend double-diapering the night before.  And throughout the trip, for that matter!


Take breakfast to go


You may be a meal  planner with every thing you need for feeding the kids the entire trip. And if so, kudos!  That is awesome!  But if you are like me . . . at LEAST consider taking breakfast with you–poptarts, granolas bars, banana bread, muffins, etc.  I usually make a banana bread or some muffins, and then have fruit and juice boxes.  That is one fewer stop you have to make.  Due to the early start and the fact that it is at the beginning of the trip, this first leg of the journey tends to be our longest before having to stop. There is a sort of victory in making it down the road at least 4 hours, but you can’t expect to make it that long if you don’t have breakfast ready in the car for them.


Use meals as an in-car time-killing event


I know that meal-time can seem the obvious time to take a break on a trip, however, if your experience is anything like mine has been in the past . . .

You stop at a fast-food restaurant with a playground so they can “get some energy out.”  By the time they eat their food AND go play, you will have been at the restaurant a minimum of 45 minutes, and you risk your dawdler pitching a fit because he sat at the table longer than the others to eat his food and therefore didn’t get as much playtime as he thinks he should get.  You check your GPS and it is so discouraging to see the new ETA, especially since you are dragging cranky children away from the play area.

Here is a new scenario that I’ve now been using for at least 4 years: You run through a drive-through (or if you are good, you already have lunch in the car with you), get back on the interstate, and hand out the food.  Instead of 45 minutes of dead time at the restaurant, you now have 15-20 minutes of a time-killing event as they munch on their food.  Extra trash and possible accidents in the car?  Yes.  But in my opinion, totally worth it!  So, how do you get their energy out?

Make your stops at rest areas

Don’t stop at restaurants. Don’t let them get out at gas stations (unless they have to go the bathroom). Rather, stop at rest areas and make them RUN!  I take balls, bubbles and anything else I can think of to encourage this energy outlet.  But mostly, when we get to a rest area, we do the bathrooms and then I set up races or obstacle courses with the trees and picnic tables available.  This is HIGH-energy consumption in a short amount of time.  I can make them RUN all out for 5-10 minutes, and they will consume more energy than they did in 45 minutes at a fast food play area.  AND they are usually happy when they get back into the car, to say nothing of ready to rest!


Give them a few dollars each to buy their own snacks at vending machines


My husband’s grandmother usually gives our boys “pocket change” when we go on trips like this–a few dollars to spend however they like.  So one  of the “treats” on these trips is to get to buy stuff from a rest area vending machine.  They can buy as much or as little as they want within the “budget” given them.  They can spend it at one rest area, or spread it out between stops.  It is THEIR MONEY, and they think it is so much fun!  BUT, they may not open any of it until we are back in the car–I don’t want it interrupting our races and, you got it, it is a time-killing event once they get back into the car!


Don’t use the DVD player and devices as the exclusive entertainment


Obviously, I’m talking about longer trips here.  If you have a 2 hour trip and want to pop in a movie, that is probably ok, but unless you want your children to arrive at your destination cranky, brain-fried messes, I would suggest taking regular breaks from “screen-time” and having some simple alternatives.

Plan on having a “quiet time” after lunch–this summer I have some audio “Adventures in Odyssey” that we are going to try out.  Another option I used last year–I took a book that we were reading a chapter a day and I read one of the chapters to them in the car. Obviously, older kids can take books to read or activity books to work on on their own.

Have them take a few toys, but think it through–a really big toy, will annoy the person next to them,  a toy that makes noise will annoy YOU, and a toy that comes apart (like a lego set) will cause frustration when the pieces get lost in the seat cracks.  Simple toys like cars, characters, dolls with clothes, things like that are best.

Last summer I discovered an idea on Pinterest that was a big hit with my boys.  I bought a few cookie sheets from the Dollar Tree and then I ordered a set of magnetic shapes.  They made designs for hours. Once we got home, I put it away, and it has only come out a few times over this past year, so I’m hoping it will still be a hit on the trip this summer.  I’m considering adding numbers and letters this summer so they can make each other spelling words and simple math problems . . .

Play games.  I can’t do this for super long periods of time, but every once in a while we will play simples games like the alphabet game–you have to look outside the car and find letters in alphabetical order on car license plates, billboards, etc. You can make it a competition or (like me) just have everybody do it together and avoid the competitive spats. It is simple and fun, and unless you are in Quick Trip country, the Q can really take awhile! A variable we have added is to do numbers.  It can get interesting trying to find 2-digit numbers! Another game we play is “I’m thinking of a person/place/thing.”  One person gets someone/somewhere/something in mind and everyone else takes turns asking yes/no questions until you narrow it down and somebody guesses the correct answer.

Growing up, my family did a LOT of traveling and one of the things some of us did was memorize the “Gettysburg Address” and then we would sit in the car and quote it, but we would take turns saying the next word–my dad would say, “Four,” my brother would say, “score, ” I would say “and,” and so forth.  Is it silly? Absolutely, but do you think it killed time and entertained–YES!


Take extra snacks and drinks in an easily accessed cooler


Food is always a good thing to have on your trip!  Take small snacks that are easy to hand out, or have a box of snack-sized ziplocks so you can hand out portion-sized snacks.  I highly recommend fruit, since trips can cause constipation in children (and adults).  Go with something that is nutritious, but feel free to add in a “treat” that your children will be excited about.  You can always use it as a prize for good behavior during a leg of the journey!

I recommend having drinks, but maybe not offering those out as much, since the more they drink, the more you will have to stop for bathroom breaks.  Of course, I don’t recommend allowing them to get dehydrated either!


Take styrofoam cups to use as barf  buckets


This is one that up until last summer, would never have crossed my mind, because my boys tend to be good travelers.  BUT, last summer, due to an accident that totalled our van while we were out of town, we were forced to rent an SUV to get back home.  Ugh, worst trip ever.  We found out later, when another adult sat in the back, that the SUV swayed back and forth continually, making one of my boys VERY sick the entire way home!

At first, as he was nauseated the entire time, we tried to calculate when to keep going and when he had had it and was going to barf, at which point we would do our best to get off to the side of the road in time for him to get out of the car.  Needless to say, it was a VERY stressful time.  Finally, we stopped near a store, and I ran in and bought a dozen large styrofoam cups.  My poor child ended up chafing his little nose because he kept the cup up to his face the entire way home, including sleeping with it stuck there!  But, the problem was solved.  He could actually throw up without us having to stop, and he didn’t spill a drop anywhere in the car or on himself! He would then hand the cup up to me and I would replace it with a fresh cup, then I would stick napkins or paper towels into the top of the cup and place it in a cup holder near the floor until our next stop.  It sounds awful, but we got our “barf system” in place and it was a well-oiled machine by the time we made it home!

Sometimes the car ride itself is the memory a child brings up when talking about a trip.  With a little planning, it can be fun and memorable, not just an event to be endured!

What are some traveling tips that you use to make your traveling easier?