The most recent stamp in my U.S. passport is dated 2005, which is before I had my first child. The last time I packed my purple Kelty interior-frame pack and hiked on a trail? August 2004. These two facts depress me a bit. Thankfully, we are getting to the point when we can at least imagine taking our older child, who’s now 8, on some of these extended adventures, and it won’t be long before we’re ready to venture out with our younger one too.
But what about now? What can we get out and do, right now? Like, this weekend? This Christmas break? Well, we can travel by car, and you can too, if you follow the seven tips below. Most of the tips in this list apply to traveling domestically by car, whether for a single day or a multi-day trip, but some may be applied to air travel as well. I hope they help you!
Tip # 1. Expect your trip to suck.
Where child-free packing used to be a flurry of laundry after work, it is now a 3-day ordeal of buying socks and jackets that fit (when they all fit fine up to last week). Trying to clean and then deciding a little fuzz in your coffeepot when you get back won’t kill you after all. Pre-children, you might get a little stiff in your knees or lower back after a few hours in the car. With kids, a straightforward trip from, say, Washington DC to Raleigh NC becomes a blur of interminable whining hours punctuated with stops to pee, play at a park, just plain freak out, or if you have a 3-week-old like I did on such a trip, multiple stops to breastfeed.
I want to be nice and say, “Expect traveling with your children to be, well, different from when you were child-free!” or something even more vague, like “Manage your expectations.” But what I really mean is suck. If your trip is meant to be a vacation and “vacation” looks, in your mind, like a relaxing thing that you return from feeling refreshed, you need to forget that and replace it with suck.
Because when you expect the suck, you can plan for it.
Tip #2. Base your travel decisions on the person with the special-est needs.
This could mean the youngest person, or it could mean the person who needs the most specialized care and consideration when out of his or her usual environment. If that person is not happy, no one is.
Say the big people want to go wine tasting. We found that this works OK with an infant, as long as the adults involved can pass said infant back and forth in between tastings, if the infant is fussy. Wine tasting with toddlers and twos? Probably not. They need to move; they might break a jar of artisanal mustard. Our kids are past toddler stage and they generally do well if we sit them down with iPhones. Tasting sessions don’t typically go more than 15 minutes anyway, and if there’s a place to run around outside afterwards, you’re good for a little while longer.
Tip #3. Oops, did I say iPhone? Is it OK to let your kids be plugged in to the glowing rectangle when they should really be looking outside, chatting, singing, and using their imaginations?
Yes. Yes, it is OK. Most other kinds of toys or coloring books end up on the floor, fumbled by little fingers, but curiously, never iPhones. Conversations fizzle or morph into arguments, but not when electronics are involved. We ration our kids’ screen time when we are not on vacation, but rationing ends when the car door opens.
Tip #4. Of course you can still have conversations and sing songs.
We play I Spy and the license plate game. We like to tell our kids “When You Were a Fetus” stories. But those can get me sad, because Robin’s fetus months coincided with a job loss and move (away from a community and house we really liked). When Camilla was a fetus we went on a trip to Cuba and that, as I mentioned above, was the last time I traveled to another country and now my life is all different and…oh.
So, sometimes we delegate the story telling to someone else. We’ve enjoyed the StoryNory podcast in recent years. It has classic fairy tales and Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories, as well as chapter books, including The Secret Garden, and a series of original stories called Katie The Ordinary Witch.
Music we actually like that the kids like too? That would be the Putumayo world beats, Dan Zanes and David LaMotte’s folk songs, and oh, yes–Sesame Street. When The Count starts counting sheep and it goes with this Latin rhythm that’s supposed to be like Lambada but is really Lamb-ba-baa…let’s just hope I’m not driving when that one comes on.
Tip #5. Pack plenty of adult-centric entertainment for when the kids go to sleep.
I’m mainly thinking of the racier episodes of This American Life or a funny audio book such as Lamb for in the car, and a bottle of wine for in the campground or hotel, but you know. Whatever YOU like, make sure you can get that in.
Tip #6. Have a grand vision, like I mentioned in my previous post on travel planning.
We like to collect National Parks, primarily because we live near a lot of them and they are more or less on our route to my parents’ house anyway. We also ritually get out and photograph ourselves in front of state capitols. When in Texas this rule extends to county courthouses too.
So maybe it rained all day and the rest stop bathroom stank and you wrenched your back carrying a tantrumming kid away from that one attraction you really wanted to see. At least you got your picture of Topeka’s capitol dome.
Tip #7. Be open to side trips, distractions, off days, and last minute changes of plan.
Last year we wanted to visit my Aunt Betty after Christmas but, a few days into the trip, we learned that she wasn’t well enough for visitors. So we decided to use those days we’d planned for visiting for an alternate route home instead. Let me just say, Death Valley is much nicer in winter than summer. We came back north via the eastern Sierra Nevada mountains, which was a wall of snow that turned to rose in the setting sun. Way better than the quick and dirty I-5 return we had plotted out before.
I’ll leave you with this “be open” moment, which happened in the Oregon steppe in 2009. We were on a gravel road, constantly braking for deer and jackrabbits, and our 3-year-old was stuck on repeat. This is the definition of suck.
But at least we now have a fun, idiosyncratic family word for that particular variety of suck.