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Road tripping with kids: are you tripping?

I’ve got three girls, ages 9, 5, and 2. Ever since Sonya was a baby, I’ve been driving them all over the damned country. My family is scattered across America, and if I want to see them, I can either spend a billion dollars and drag three kids and 40 suitcases through multiple airports, dealing with security and strollers and car seats and delayed flights and getting stranded in Detroit, or spend a million dollars (still a lot! But a lot less), have all my shit with me, and only get stranded when I decide it’s time to give up the goat and get a hotel room. So we drive.

And because I have a lot more vacation flexibility than my husband, I am often taking them alone. Me and three kids, taking on I-70.

At least twice a year, we drive to my parents’ house, which is halfway across America. Last Christmas, we were short on time, so I got the kids up at 3 a.m., and drove straight through until midnight. By myself. I can’t say I recommend that as the best plan of action, but it was okay. Because I’ve been doing this for nigh on a decade, I’ve learned some tips to make it manageable.

  1. Start early. I don’t mean like 8 a.m., or “after breakfast,” or even “after I’ve had some coffee.” I mean like 3 or 4 in the morning, if you can hack it. If you manage to transfer the kids to the car and get out of the driveway well before the sun gets up, you stand a chance of being halfway to your destination while the kids are still asleep. Seize the opportunity, seize the morning.
  2. If the kids are sleeping, do not stop for anything. I don’t care if you have to sit in your own waste products or drive through a literal fire.
  3. Be sure you have gas before you get started, or if you don’t, get it right at the start, because if the kids fall asleep, see point #2.
  4. Plan your trip, mile by mile, and then be prepared for that plan to fall apart. You know what? Don’t have a plan. Plans never work with kids.
  5. When the kids are awake, you have to stop. Constantly. Kids are wiggly, and they need to get those wiggles out. I try to plan a decent-sized stop every three hours, although those plans always fall apart (see point #4), so it’s different every time. These days, I map out children’s museums in advance. Our Children’s Museum is a part of a program that gives you free passes to other kids’ places. We’ve spent hours at COSI in Columbus, at the Children’s Museum in Terre Haute, at the Science City in Kansas City. It adds a lot of time to your day, but it adds years to your life. Stop at a children’s museum for an hour and a half.
  6. If you don’t want to stop at a children’s museum, stop at playgrounds. There’s a playground just off I-70 in Effingham, IL, where I’ve peed behind a tree because I couldn’t figure out how to get my pregnant ass into a rest area with a dog I couldn’t leave in the car and also couldn’t take into a building. Kids need to wiggle. An hour at a playground will make it so that they can sit again for the next three hours.
  7. Stop for food. In between the bigger stops, I try to stop for food once or so. This means that we’ll drive for an hour and a half to two hours, stop for food (maybe a drive through, maybe a gas station), and then they are eating happily for twenty minutes, and by then, it’s only an hour or so to the next stop. I know. Drive throughs are disgusting. Gas station food is disgusting. I know I know I know but for purposes of our “get to the destination at any cost,” you have to let some shit go.
  8. Don’t let the kids drink anything except water or milk. Juice runs right through them and soda is made out of poison and the next thing you know, you’re stopping every five minutes to pee.
  9. Forget about having a clean car. I mean, if this was ever a consideration in the first place. If you’re getting your kids popcorn at the gas station, you know, you have to know, that at least 25% of the bag is going to be ground into the floor. Let it go. Keep your eyes on the prize.
  10. Screeeeeen time! I am a real bitch about screen time in our house, which means that when they have the chance to watch 18 hours of drivel in a row, they are excited to get in the car. Go for it, kids. Let’s just get through this.
  11. Lots and lots of practice. The thing is, we drive everywhere. We do small trips to my sister’s house every weekend (about 80 minutes). We drive to my brother’s house a couple of times a year (4 hours). We drive and we drive and we drive, so when we have the epic trips, it’s habit.
  12. If you need to, stay at a hotel. I like Choice hotels, because they almost always have a pool (see point about getting the wiggles out – if we stay at a hotel, we go swimming in the morning before checkout), and they have free hot breakfast, which saves me like $50. They also have a decent sign-up bonus with the Visa card, so you can get a bunch of free nights, and combine that with the breakfast and it’s like you’re getting paid to stay there. We try to make the trip in one day, but we always have this as a backup plan.
  13. Don’t bring the dog. I mean, I know you want to. You love that dog. But the dog isn’t happy driving 18 hours, is probably going to throw up on your front seat, is going to make it harder to find a hotel room and if you do, is going to bark the whole time you are at the pool with the kids, makes it impossible to go to the bathroom because you can’t leave a dog in a hot car even for a few minutes and you can’t bring the dog into the building, and really doesn’t care about seeing your parents. Board the dog.
  14. If you split it over several days, make your second day considerably shorter than the first. Everybody’s excited on day 1. Nobody’s excited on day 2. Make day 2 easier.
  15. Pack your bags in the following ways: 1) all the shit you need for the long-term trip in a huge bag. 2) All the shit you need for in the car in a small bag. 3) All the shit you need for a hotel stay/first night at your destination in a carry-on sized bag. You do not want to get to your destination and have to bring in all of your luggage just so you can brush your teeth, and you don’t want to be going into the trunk to get your car adapter to charge those sweet sweet screens. In your car bag: books, crayons, screens, adapters, water bottles. In your overnight bag: change of clothes, toiletries, diapers, pajamas, swimsuits. In your huge bag: everything else.
  16. Make sure you have a stroller and/or baby carrier, even if you don’t often use them. When you stop for the night or get to your destination, there’s a good chance that at least 1/3 of the crew is going to be dead-to-the-world asleep. You have to plan to get them from the car to the bed, which can be a challenge with three kids and one adult, but not impossible. If you’ve got a baby you can shove in a carrier, a toddler you can dump into a stroller, and an older kid who can be counted on to walk, you can then swing the carry-on bag over your shoulder and it’s good. If you don’t have a plan, you’re stuck trying to wake up everybody, or trying to hold a baby and a toddler and a bag all at once, and at that point, you might as well sleep in the car.
  17. Load up on podcasts before you go. I’m currently super into The Fairer Cents. I tuck my phone under my bra strap so the speaker is right next to my ear, I can still hear the kids if they need something, and we can play Kidz Bop over the car speakers because come on, this is not supposed to be enjoyable. If you have enough podcasts, 18 hours seems like…4 hours. Not bad!

It’s important to me that my kids see their grandparents, so we prioritize these trips. The hardest time (so far!) was when Amelia was a newborn and Sonya was 7 and not quite old enough to, say, go into a rest area by herself. Now it’s just gotten easier over time. Another 7 years, and Amelia will be able to go into the bathroom on her own, and Sonya will be able to drive while I watch screens! Just kidding, by then, we better fucking have self-driving cars.

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