Dismayed by the increasing costs of airfare, missing a series of friends stretched across the country and longing for the open road, my husband and I embarked on an impossible journey last summer. We took our toddlers, ages 3 and 2, and departed Mountain View for a six-week road trip across the U.S.
While I would love to say that it was the most incredible bonding experience of our lives, I’m more likely to tell you that it was, as all things are with small children, a learning experience. What follows is a proven list of how-tos that you can chuckle at as you race to the nearest computer to book your summer airfare.
• Pace yourself. When planning your great American road trip with littles, don’t plan to drive more than six hours a day. Our typical day started with a free hotel breakfast (eliminating an early stop in the day) and included a midday destination where we could, in the immortal words of children’s singer Raffi, “shake our sillies out.” We planned our midday stops around areas where we could burn off toddler and adult energy, not around eating. We found college campuses to be great places to walk, scooter or picnic, and we kept a cooler in the car full of picnic items we could break out daily for those breaks. Although they took up valuable space in the car, having scooters and helmets meant that even at rest stops, we could get the kids moving, which made for less whining when we were on the road.
• Do not pack a suitcase. When you’re in and out of hotels nightly, unpacking the entire car can be a real drag. We packed all of our clothes in a laundry basket, which made changes of clothes simple. Accident in the car? Reach back and grab a fresh pair of shorts. Need to grab clothes for tomorrow? Within easy open reach. We packed one overnight bag for the kids and one for ourselves with toiletries, pajamas, nighttime books and swim stuff. At each stop, I grabbed outfits from the open laundry basket for the next day, and we grabbed the two overnight bags. The kids each carried their own backpack with water bottle, snack cup, toy and hat.
• Arrive early enough to swim. Swimming and hotel pools were our saving grace. We arrived early enough at each destination to spend the majority of the afternoon and evening swimming. The pool was a great way to let out stress from the day, and became a nightly ritual that geared us up for sleeping together in the same hotel room every night.
• Keep beds consistent. We traveled with blow-up toddler airbeds with their sheets from home. We weren’t left negotiating beds (two queens? one king?) in every city, and when we stayed with friends, we were able to pretty much set the kids up in any room. The beds were part of the kids’ comfort and security, and stuck with us the entire trip.
• Pack melatonin. I’m not a big fan of sleep aids, but I’m also not a big fan of never sleeping again. As a 38-year-old woman, I still struggle to fall asleep in new places. Our kids are the same. Melatonin saved us. The American Academy of Pediatricians encourages discussing its short-term use with your pediatrician before trying it during travel. One milligram per night resulted in well-rested kids who could enjoy the road-trip life during the day.
• Do not expect kids to sleep in the car. I went into this trip thinking that my kids would konk out 1-3 p.m. every day, and my husband would gloriously complete two New York Times crossword puzzles while we drove. Never happened once. Kids have to be worn out to sleep. Keep your expectations low for sleep/naps and you’ll end up being a lot more satisfied on your trip.
• Hire babysitters. Once we mapped our itinerary, we found a trusted sitter in New Orleans. We set up our handy-dandy Nest cam and went out for some of the best seafood of our lives. With little separation from the kids the entire trip, the sitter was a godsend. Don’t be afraid to find trusted sitters – use your network and see who you know in towns you visit.
Finally, remember why you chose to travel this way in the first place. At its core, the great American road trip is about togetherness, tradition, spontaneity, adventure and flexibility. Did I discover all of the best margaritas south of the Colorado River? Yes. But I also discovered how much I love our little family, and while 83.7 cubic feet may not be enough room for us to live in forever, it was the perfect amount for us to create some pretty incredible memories.
To read more of Sarah Morford’s parenting experiences and advice, visit her blog at whininganddiningblog.com.