The Secrets of Our Travel Success (or Maybe We Just Got Lucky)

So the trip is over. We arrived back home Wednesday evening while it was still light out. There are a good many more weeds in the backyard than before, but the sheets were clean and ready for us to go to bed after two long days of travel.

Our fridge was pretty bare when we got back, though. “Good morning, kids! Would you like jalapenos or hummus for breakfast?”

We’ve made this trek once before, back when we had only three kids. Before our 2010 trip, as in 2007, we got a lot of, “Wow, that is going to be hard,” and “Better you than me!” comments when people heard we’d be driving cross-country with young kids.

I’m feeling pretty good about the fact that not only did we survive the trip, but it went well. I will knock on every bit of wood around me in the hopes I didn’t just jinx all of our car travel for the rest of our lives by saying that.

I’d like to think my fabulous preparation and other-worldly mothering skills played a significant role in our success, but I think it’s just as likely we got lucky, both with easy(ish)-going kids and with weather and catching everyone on good days.

That said, here are some things I think we did that helped tip the scales in our favor:

1. Lists, lists, lists. I am a big-time procrastinator. As I mentioned before, I did the bulk of our packing the day we left. That might seem insane to some, but it works for me – when I do it all at once I can see whether I have everything or not. I had an Excel spreadsheet with areas for each person, plus the family as a whole, spelling out exactly what we’d need to bring. As I put things into one of three suitcases or the camera bag or the diaper bag, I highlighted them to show it was packed. I did forget Grant’s beloved blankie, though, and business cards. Maybe I shouldn’t have admitted that.

2. Be flexible. When we’ve taken road trips before we made hotel reservations in advance and talked about where to eat. This can be good (especially if you’re planning a stay at a hotel in a busy town and/or on a weekend), but with kids it helps to be flexible. You just can’t plan gas station breaks for when the car runs out of gas – someone always needs to go to the bathroom, or snacks need to be eaten, or you realize you can either not go another mile before you need a hotel or you discover the kids are asleep and you can drive 100 more miles. We used our handy GPS device (the Garmin 765T, if you’re wondering) to search for upcoming gas stations, restaurants and hotels and it was a fabulous resource, even if the Garmin did direct us to a closed gas station in the middle of nowhere, where we ended up at a seriously sketchy service station with only one working pump. But that’s another story. Where was I? Oh, yes. Be flexible. Don’t say no as often to the kids. If they need drinks, to pee, to play another game on the Leapster, let them.

3. Be firm. And by this I mean, lay out your expectations for the kids weeks before you go on the trip. I don’t agree with telling kids that vaccinations don’t hurt, and I don’t agree with white lies telling them “We’re almost there, honey!” when you’re still 400 miles away from your destination. We told the kids months in advance that we were going on a long car trip and that it would be boring. Someone else gave me the great advice to tell the kids in the morning that we wouldn’t be stopping until bed time, and I think that really cut back on how often we were asked, “Are we there yet?”

4. DVD players are awesome, but use movies sparingly. Our first road trip we broke out the DVD player before we were even out of the driveway, we were so nervous the kids would flip out and be bored. But the kids soon grew weary of cartoons, and so did Zachary and I. This time we came more prepared. Leapsters for each kid over a year, a Doodle Pro, books, a magnetic puzzle thing, etc. We’d start out with each kid playing something like that, and when they started getting squirrelly, BAM!, on with the movies to work their hypnotizing magic.

5. Stay away from McDonald’s. Okay, yes, my kids eat fast food. And yes, they get Happy Meals from time to time, probably more than I care to admit right now. And McDonald’s is, like, THE sponsor of the American road trip, judging by how many of them dot the exits of every major freeway. But there’s only so much grease and salt you can ingest before you start to feel like a chicken nugget yourself. We brought a loaf of bread, peanut butter and honey to make our own sandwiches. We sought out other places to eat. And once when we took a wrong turn on our way to a rest stop we let the kids get McDonald’s and Happy Meal toys.

6. Pack wisely. I would say “Pack lightly,” but I am not very good at that. If I’m going somewhere for five nights, chances are I’m going to pack eight shirts, just so I have some options. But I really did try harder this time. After all, there’s only so much room inside a minivan already full with six people. Chances are there will be laundry facilities at or near where you’re going, so if you’ll be gone more than a week, pack enough clothes to get you through 6-7 days and plan on washing stuff. It was so much easier to pack just six shirts for each kid instead of twelve.

7. Relax. This can be hard, especially when you have little kids. But remember this is a grand adventure for them even if to you the travel is just a means to an end. They are loving that they have so much of your attention, with everyone in the same close quarters and away (usually) from household chores, grocery shopping, work schedules, and the time suck of the internet. Tickle your baby’s feet and play peek-a-boo. Gush over your daughter’s drawings. Point out semis carrying race cars to your car-loving boys. Play “I Spy,” even if your kid gives hints like, “I spy with my little eye… something TRUCKY!”

In a couple of years your car trips might be quieter, yes, but that will be because your kids are engrossed in their iPhones and think you’re embarrassing.



  1. I wish my fridge was that clean!!!

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