For our family road trips aren’t just a means of going from point A to point B. We aren’t venturing out for a one time trip where the end goal is just survival. We want to develop habits to make traveling in a car not just possible, but also enjoyable. We want our kids to learn to sit in a car seat. To entertain themselves. To know how to hold our hand across the parking lot in a busy place. To look out the window and count cows.
We got used to long road trips while living in the USA, three states away from our extended families. A trip to visit them ended up being a four day round trip journey. Now we are fortunate to live in Tuscany where we venture out on day trips, a few hours distance to our destinations, without much planning at all. In the time it used to take us to cross Missouri, we can now drive to France, Austria, Switzerland, Slovenia or even Croatia. An added plus is that as a family of four, driving is often the most convenient and economical way for us to travel.
How do we make sure our road trips are not a disaster? Here are 5 road trip tips we’ve learned along the way.
1 - Know your road trip style.
It seems to me that this critical step is often forgotten, overlooked amidst the packing frenzy and other preparations to get on the road. However, it is key to ensuring success. Exactly how do you want to get from point A to point B? You need to define your overarching theme and both partners need to be on board. We can’t have a “stop and pee every 45 minutes” mom with a “I’ll drive until my eyes fall out” dad. It’ll be a disaster.
Some people chose the style of “leave at bedtime and travel through the night”. Though effective for some, I find this style problematic for our family for a few reasons. Poor night vision, hesitation to be alone with small children in roadside stops at night, and a desire to be awake and functional at our destination are negatives to this style.
So what is our family’s road trip style? We drive in the day. We set realistic expectations for ourselves and our children. We stop when when somebody has to pee. We break the drive up in to doable chunks. We get a hotel along the way if we need to. We try to make the road trip a part of the vacation too, not just the part that has to be survived before the fun starts.
2 - Keep the driving time to a limit (and never underestimate a well planned stop)
This is key to success for us. We don’t rush, we stop when we need to, and we try to make fun stops along the way. From trial and error we’ve learned that our maximum travel day needs to be about 8-9 hours. This is around 7 hours of driving plus required stops. I measure in hours and not distance, because 100 miles on an interstate in Iowa is not equal to 100 miles on the country roads of Tuscany or the 100 miles from central Tokyo to the mountains. You get the idea.
Stops need to happen every 2-3 hours. This ensures the kids don’t get too frustrated in their car seats, everybody gets fed (hungry kids = cranky kids), and the adults can switch drivers if needed.
As for stops, there are two categories they seem to fall into: “The rush and pee and get back on the road ASAP stop” and the “let’s stretch our legs, eat a meal, and enjoy being out of the car” stop. If you’re entire trip is only the “rush and pee” stops I can guarantee you that your kids are going to end up cranky and you’re going to be frustrated as well. For everybody’s sanity, even if it means a slightly later arrival, take a longer break.
If you’re in the USA, my favorite easy stop is Chick-Fil-A. Politics aside, this restaurant is the most family friendly fast food joint I’ve ever seen and they have awesome play areas to let your little ones blow off steam. Other great options lie off the interstate. Take the extra 5 minutes and get away from the exit and into the town. Grab fast food (or pack a lunch from home) and find a playground. Use your smartphone, I prefer google maps, to find a restaurant off the beaten path. We still remember the awesome El Salvadorian restaurant we found in a small town in Missouri. It turned into a little adventure in an unexpected place. Seriously it was so good. (El Quelzle Restaurant & Bakery, 129 S Main St, Carthage, MO 64836, USA).
Here in Italy we typically travel on the Autostrada, which is a toll-road system which has some amazing roadside stops that don’t require us to leave the paid toll area. Some of these places have fresh made pasta and bread, playgrounds, and always some espresso for the adults. Even though there are some awesome options on the Autostrada, we’ve still enjoyed using our “venture into town” method. One memorable stop was in Ferrara, Italy. We explored the town a bit, stumbled upon a lovely Christmas Market, and even met new friends we still keep in touch with while eating lunch. It ended up being a 90 minute stop, at least, but it turned into part of our trip.
3 - Utilize, but don’t count on naps.
You know your kids best, so this will totally vary from family to family. Our 2.5 year old still naps most every day and will fall asleep in the car. Sometimes our older daughter will nap too, especially after an exciting busy day or to catch up on missed sleep from some later than usual bedtimes (which happens frequently while traveling).
We know this nap happens after lunch, so we always try to be on the road during this expected naptime. If all goes well and they nap, then we have a solid 2 hours without needing to stop. Sometimes more if we drive for an hour or so before they fall asleep. Use this naptime. Plan for it. But also don’t expect it. Be prepared to entertain kids the whole trip without the nap. Be prepared to deal with a “I skipped my nap” kid upon arrival at your destination. But if the nap happens- put the pedal to the metal and take advantage.
We took a rather impromptu trip that had a 3.5 hour drive when our youngest daughter was just 3 weeks old. We expected this trip to have a least 2 stops to feed her (she was insatiable at the time) and we also had a 2 year old in the car who wasn’t going to want to be driving for 3.5 hours nonstop. After about 45 minutes they both slept. And slept. And slept. The whole drive. We never once stopped, and it was glorious. But we were ready if we had to.
Pro tip: stop asap when they wake up. Potty trained kids will have to pee and diapered babies will need a change. We may have learned this one the hard way a few times before we stopped being so stubborn about stopping. They also wake up hungry so it’s a great time for a quick stop for a snack/bottle/nursing session.
4 - Resist over-packing.
Not having the weight restrictions of flying can easily turned into an overpacked car, packing things you’ll never need or use and just become a hassle as you have to unpack and then repack the car at your destination. We pack a lot of toys and books for the kids to play with that we wouldn’t pack for a plane trip, but I try to keep our suitcases reasonable and not let the extra space of a car trunk allow me to go overboard with stuff. I may throw in some extra jackets, additional shoes, or toiletries that are a hassle to have while flying but don’t be tempted to bring everything you and your kids are accustomed to at home just because it could fit in the car.
I remember our first road trip as parents with a 2 month old. The amount of stuff we packed was laughable. Since then we’ve learned that less is more. Our kids learned to eat dinner without a high chair/booster chair, our babies survived without their vibrating bouncy chair, and they don’t need every toy or comfort from home while on vacation. In fact, our 3 week old once slept in laundry basket in a hotel room so we didn’t have to haul the pack n play around. It was seriously fantastic as a makeshift bassinet and we packed it full of her diapers, wipes, swaddle blankets, clothes, etc so it all was easily accessible in the car too.
5 - In car entertainment
We may be the oddballs here, but we don’t rely on screens for our in car entertainment. In fact, this winter was the first time our kids were allowed to watch iPads in the car and our daughter was 4.5 years old. Not to say it's not a fantastic tool to keep cranky kids happy, but its more of a last option for us than a go-to. We initially decided to use it this winter, because it got dark so early and our kids were stuck in a dark car at 5pm, not able to see their books or toys but still very much awake.
So if our kids aren’t staring at a screen for 7 hours, how do we keep them happy?
Books. Books. Books. I have a box between the car seats with books and the more the better. Also books with flaps or any “Search and find” style books keep their attention for a while.
Magnadoodles. Those little tablets with magnet pens to draw with. We even have one that has little animal magnet stamps. They stay in the car all the time.
Notepads and multi-color pens (for older kids). One pen with 4+ colors is easy and entertains our artistic 4 year old daughter for quite a while.
Music. We get some kid CDs from the library, I have a few Disney soundtracks on my phone (we will all know the lyrics to 'Let it Go' and 'You're Welcome' for the rest of our lives) and sometimes we go old-school and sing songs like “Down by the bay (where the watermelons grow)” or “There was an old woman who swallowed a fly”. Yes its corny. Yes we may prefer to listen to a cool podcast. But the kids are happy and its sometimes sort of fun for us too.
Podcasts. There are a few kid story podcasts out there. My kids favorite is Disney Central Story Podcast. Because they are narrated stories they are already familiar with, it was a great step into some of the story podcasts that introduce new stories. Audio-books could also fit in this category.
We let the kids listen to some music they like because this is their road trip too. Then we switch and listen to some music for the adults. Sometimes we have to talk with them, laugh, tell stories. You know, parent. We’ve had some really fun and insightful conversations with our kids while in the car. Give your kids some time and attention and they’ll likely be happier to sit quietly and play with their toys and books later.
iPad batteries die. Download glitches happen. Prepare to be screen free and then the screen time becomes an awesome extra.
I hope these tips help you venture out the on the road with your little ones. Car travel is a great way to not only spend time together as a family, but also to vacation on a smaller budget than air travel. Start small. A 2-3 hour drive in the morning, sightseeing during the day, and a drive back home that evening is a wonderful way to take a little trip with your little adventurers. As you get more comfortable and confident with your kids in the car, you’ll be traveling greater distances in no time.