“Why aren’t we flying? Because half the fun is getting there. You know that.” – Clark Griswold, 'National Lampoon’s Vacation'
The scheming starts while we are driving to Pittsburgh for Thanksgiving. On my lap is the National Geographic road atlas that we keep in the car. It is the “Adventure Version,” the one that highlights all of America’s National Parks.
I flip from page to page, throwing out ideas. How about a three-week adventure in the Pacific Northwest? The kids haven’t seen the Grand Canyon yet, how about the desert southwest? What about Yosemite? We can drive all the way to California!
My husband just nods his head. He knows that none of this is reality until we agree to go for it and I break out the computer and start Googling hotels, routes and restaurants.
There is something about a packed car and the open road, especially when the compass is pointing west. The great expanse of the road stands in contrast to our cramped row house in the city.
My first grand road trip was a two week odyssey with my soon-to-be sister-in-law a few weeks before my wedding. We hiked the Grand Canyon, and stopped off at Zion, Bryce, all the big parks in the southwest. The trip whetted my appetite for the National Parks and for further treks around the country.
I knew that when my husband and I had kids, I wanted to share the fun and adventure of travel with them. Our first road trip as a family was when my oldest two were 3 ½ and 1 ½. Our destination was Acadia National Park in Maine. We drove up to Long Island, took the ferry to Connecticut, and headed north along the coast of New England.
Acadia was a great destination for a young family. We biked on the carriage roads, hiked in the mountains, explored tidal pools, and played on the beach. The trip also gave us a taste of traveling with kids, and gave me the confidence to plan an even bigger trip next time.
The following summer, I was six months pregnant with our third, but I had the itch to head out west again. People thought we were crazy when we pointed the minivan toward the setting sun and made for the Badlands, Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons. Instead of barreling straight to our destination, we made many stops along the way. We took six days to drive out, spent a week in Yellowstone, three days in the Tetons, and spent five days driving home.
A few summers later, we drove south with three kids. We listened to music in Nashville, took a ride on a steam train, visited family in west Texas, toured the bayou, and visited space camp in Huntsville, Alabama.
Now let me stop to say this – going on a road trip with small kids is not a “vacation,” at least not a kick-your-feet-up-and-relax-on-the-beach sort of vacation. We look at these trips as adventures. On an adventure there is hard work, pain, and tears, but also hopefully thrills, laugher, and fun (with a little bit of puking in the car thrown in). I like to look at it as a character-building experience for kids and parents alike. We learn to be patient, flexible and resilient, and come out on the other side with many shared memories and funny stories.
Here are some general tips for taking a road trip with kids:
1. Plan ahead, but be flexible. When planning for a road trip, I build a large binder with a spreadsheet of options at each stop. I usually book our hotels in advance, so I can be assured that the hotels have a pool (another tip) and we can get out and stretch after a day of driving. I might find a few restaurants in the area, but the idea is that these are just options and if we see some other place we might want to stop, we go there. I also map out where the urgent care centers are, because when travelling with kids, you just don't know when somebody is going to need a doctor.
2. Keep driving times short. I usually front-load our first day of driving, maybe 9-10 hours, but then after that I keep our maximum driving time to under 6 hours a day. We packed a bunch of food too, so that we can stop and picnic for lunch. That way, the kids aren't spending their breaks sitting at a restaurant. Honestly, if we wanted to power through, we wouldn't see much and might as well fly.
3. Stop often. Scout out some fun stops along the way. We try to make sure that the kids had at least one thing to look forward to each day.
Weird U.S. is a good resource for roadside oddities, as well as
Roadside America. Curiosities also make the road trip memorable. I’ll never forget the first time I walked into Ye Olde UFO Store in Sedona, AZ.
4. Get off the Interstates. I try to blend interstate driving with scenic by-ways. America's Byways is a great resource for planning scenic drives. There is more to see in America than just Mickey D's, Exxon stations and Walmarts, but we wouldn't see it if we stuck to the main roads.
5. Adjust your focal length. Little kids notice the small, the up-close. They aren't going to necessarily comprehend the magnitude of seeing the Grand Canyon or Old Faithful. When we took our kids to Yellowstone, all they wanted to do was play in the lake and throw rocks and make them go "bloop" (see video). We joked that we had driven 6,000 miles to have them play in a lake. We had to adjust our plan and allow them to take in the park at their level and not just check-off the major attractions.
Ideas for keeping the kids occupied on the long stretches of nothing but a sea of corn
1. Books on CD. This is our most potent boredom fighting weapon. The DC library has a great roving collection of books on CD. Bring along short stories and longer novels too. They can listen to the stories and see the sights at the same time. We try to avoid videos or video games in the car, because of the car sickness factor. Plus, they aren't really looking out of the window when they're staring at a screen.
2. Art/Drawing/Writing Supplies. Paper. Crayons. Pencils. Have composition journals where they can draw pictures of what they're seeing. We learned the hard way not to have anything in the box that you wouldn't want to be used on your car. We had some marker minivan cave art after our first road trip.
3. Presents. For the big trip out to Yellowstone, we wrapped little surprises for each day on the trip. Nothing big, just little items like books, art supplies, magnet games, Colorforms, travel games.
4. Good old fashion car games. I Spy. License plate alphabet. Scavenger hunts. Counting Cows. Auto BINGO (vintage sliding boards are available at Amazon). There is a reason these games are still around.
5. Auto tours on CD. Getting the kids prepared for what they are going to see is a good way to spend time in the car. It also makes the sights more interesting when they get there because they're more prepared with questions. Many tours are available online as MP3s. When we were driving through Louisiana, we listened to the Creole Nature Trails Byway tour.
Taking a road trip with kids is hard work, but the payoff is great with many shared memories and experiences. Next year, we plan on taking an even bigger adventure to China with all four kids. They have never flown so it will be interesting to see how the road trip experiences translate to the airplane and a big odyssey to the Orient.