True confession: the night before we left for our national park road trip my husband and I seriously considered cancelling the whole thing. On a total whim (and moment of fantasy) I had planned a six day, 1700 mile family road trip to Badlands National Park, Mt. Rushmore, and Crazy Horse. Perhaps I was the crazy one? As we stayed up late packing the minivan, my dreams of teaching my kids history and watching family movies in the minivan turned to fears of incessant back-seat bickering and kids bored by national parks. But the meals were planned and reservation were made, so we sat our kids down for a lecture on road-trip rules and decided to make the best of this adventure.
We’re not new to road trips– my family lives in New England and we drive 22 hours each way to get there every summer. In the end our national park road trip was a fabulous success– a low-budget fun-filled time for everyone and well worth the planning. The best part– I got to spend more than 9 hours straight talking to my husband. I’ve learned a few tricks to cut down on the back-seat bickering, keep kids healthy, and avoid a National Lampoon’s family vacation.
Here are my ten tricks for a successful family road trip:
1) Make your own family first aid kit: Nothing will spoil a family vacation like a vomiting child or a trip to the ER. Yet every summer my ER fills up with families far from home. Here’s the good news– most of these ER visits can be avoided if you have a good family first aid kit. I recommend building your own first aid kit rather than buying a pre-made one. Here’s my list of what to include.
2) Have tricks up your sleeve for back-seat bickering: I saw a YouTube video that recommends the following intervention for kids who argue in the backseat: pull over and start making out with your spouse. Apparently your kids will stop arguing immediately. I was looking forward to using this trick, but I never got the chance. Before we left we warned our kids that back-seat fighting would result in loss of their in-car screen time for the rest of the day. That was pretty much the end of the bickering. I had to take one child’s screen away once.
3) Cut your budget and keep costs low: Financial stress and decision-making can squash the fun in seconds. Here are our tried-and-true tricks to keep the budget low:
- Avoid sporadic spending: Set the ground rules for your kids about souvenirs, meals out, and expensive activities. Don’t give in to whining or begging.
- Research deals and discounts in advance: Avoid doing mental math while your family waits at the admission gate. There is always some discount, deal, or membership on everything from national parks to food and accommodations. Research these things in advance and advance book your tickets and reservations.
- Plan your meals and invest in a good cooler: We make sandwiches for lunch and plan simple campsite meals for dinner. A couple of unusual snacks and desserts keep kids happy. It takes some advance planning, but packing food reduces costs, avoids junky fast-food, and saves time. I’m always delighted to skip the expensive fast food at amusement parks and hand out sandwiches while our family waits in line.
- Camp (or get a cabin): Nothing saves money like camping, and kids love it. I’d much rather sleep in my own sleeping bag than some cheap hotel that I booked off hotwire. If you just can’t envision yourself in a tent, consider getting a cabin at a KOA or other campground. We find they are much cheaper than hotel rooms, and our kids are happy at campgrounds. They can run around and catch fireflies, and there is generally a playground and pool. Most campgrounds have Wi-Fi now, too, to keep everyone happy. We usually tent, but we get a cabin if it looks like rain or if we are getting in late and leaving early.
4) Feed kids frequently: I try to feed my kids something every 2 hours while on vacation. It keeps them happy and helps avoid begging for the over-priced, unhealthy foods they see at vacation spots and on road-side advertisements. We pre-pack lots of snacks in little zip-lock bags, then put them in larger zip-lock bags labeled by day. We plan three snacks and three meals per day. We usually eat out for one meal per day as a vacation treat.
5) Make car-time fun: I actually look forward to long driving days. We watch family movies, play games, and sight-see. It’s nothing like the boring days I remember from my childhood road trips. Here’s how:
- Get streaming video in your car: Sling your tablet between the two front seats using a case for a car DVD player or tablet. Connect your tablet to the hot-spot on your phone and run the audio through your vehicle’s speakers using bluetooth. Even though we have an older model minivan, we bought a $200 aftermarket radio with bluetooth and a USB input. We charge our tablet while the movies play using the USB port.
- Collect old cell phones and load them up with new apps and games: Our kids have old cell phones donated by relatives that are not internet or telephone enabled. Before we leave, I load them up with new apps and games that I approve. They aren’t allowed to use the phones unless we are en route. We call this “phone time.”
- Plan an entertainment schedule: I used to pack lots of fun stuff to do and let my kids pick how they spent their time in the car. This if fine for a short trip, but for long hauls I find they get bored and don’t spend the time doing things together. Now we use an entertainment schedule. We alternate between family movies, “phone time,” reading time (workbooks and coloring for pre-reading children), and talking time. During talking time we’ll talk about the plans for the day, sight-see from the car, play the alphabet game or license plate game, or sing.
6) Get organized! Leave more time than you think you need to get packed and ready (this is where I failed for our last trip). I find the pre-trip organization is the hardest part. But in the end it makes everything go much more smoothly.
- Pack clothes by the day: Instead of having a bag for each child’s clothes, we pack children’s clothing by the day. We have a trash bag for each day that contains all the clothes for that day. Then, when it is time to get dressed, we only need to find one bag in the car. There is another trash bag for dirty clothes. The hardest part is getting the laundry done ahead of time so that you can pack.
- Prepack food: We pre-plan our menu for the entire trip, leaving space to eat-out for special treats. It takes time to shop and pack all the food, but you end up saving a lot of time and money during your trip. On-demand food keeps the kids happy, too.
- Get a safety inspection for your vehicle before you leave: It beats waiting in the hot sun for road-side assistance to show up.
- Write out your itinerary by the day: Have a packet of papers that includes your itinerary, reservation numbers, etc. I keep digital copies on my phone as well as a paper copy in the car. We often lose internet service while driving.
7) Start every day with an in-the-car family meeting: to discuss schedules, rules, and consequences: Kids do well when expectations are clear and frequently repeated. We start every morning with a meeting to discuss the schedule for the day, expectations, and consequences. We talk about gift shops and what they are permitted to purchase, belongings each child is responsible for (toiletry kids, water bottles, etc.), responsibilities towards younger siblings/buddies, and consequences for poor behavior (loss of screen time, etc.)
8) Make bedtime special: Bedtimes can be hard on vacation– kids and parents alike are tired and cranky. You’re off schedule and sleeping in an unfamiliar place, often all in the same room/tent. With some creativity and advance planning, vacation bedtimes can be fun and special. Here are some bedtime ideas:
- Bring a book and read a chapter aloud each night. Avoid screen time before bed as it has been shown to prolong sleep latency (time to fall asleep).
- Talk about your favorite/happiest memories of the day. Maybe even make videos of this part. You’ll appreciate it later.
- Make up a story and take turns adding the next part of the story. Before you know it someone won’t say anything when it’s their turn, because they’re asleep.
- Tell everyone to be very quiet so they can hear the sounds of nature. This is especially effective in a tent or cabin with the windows open.
- If all else fails, turn off the lights and offer a prize for the child who doesn’t make any make any more noise.
9) Give kids opportunities for family leadership: They will be so proud of themselves. Use the buddy system and give older kids responsibilities to help younger kids, especially while in the car. Expect kids to help with packing, cooking, unloading the car, etc. Give big kids their own job and make a little one their helper.
10) Remember that no trip is perfect: Be flexible. Even mishaps can become good memories. Embrace the adventure. Enjoy talking to your spouse. Embrace the mistakes.
A trip is more than just the time spent on vacation– it’s the excitement during the planning process, the work of packing, and the memories that will last a lifetime. Take lots of pictures– you’ll probably put them in a slide show for your child’s high-school graduation party!