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Every Last Thing I Know about Traveling with Kids

Late last night we pulled into our driveway after a 3,600-mile drive to the West Coast in a mini-van which, remarkably, seemed to grow smaller the longer we drove. (I’m kidding. It was a great trip, and our four kids were real sports about the long drive. Still, the van is smaller.)

We’re a fan of long road trips. We enjoy the stops and scenery along the way almost as much as we enjoy the final destination, and we feel like the time together builds unity (even if it occasionally sacrifices sanity). Even when our kids were really little, we weren’t afraid to pile in the car and drive long distances. It was sometimes challenging in those preschool days, but it also helped them learn good traveling skills from the earliest age.

Over the years, from our little spot in Middle America, we’ve driven to the East Coast, West Coast, Gulf Coast, Florida, and Great Lakes. We’ve driven to deserts, mountains, beaches, and lakes. I think we may have visited nearly every rest stop on Interstate 40. And -- I won’t lie -- even though we’ve done this many times, and even though our children are older now, it’s still sometimes tricky. Here are a few of the things we’ve learned over the years (some of it the hard way):

Don’t expect flawless behavior. This is a hard one, which is why I listed it first. I still struggle with it on every trip we take. When you combine the excitement of a road trip with the 24/7 togetherness in confined spaces, you’ll see more of your kids’ warts (just as they’ll see more of yours). When kids are road-weary or overly excited, even the most disciplined of them will get overly wound up or grumpy. It’s normal. Address it when it happens, of course, but giving your kids (and yourself) a little wiggle room will make for happier travelers. Along those lines…

…keep the mood light. Traveling is hard work, especially for the parents. But the more you can inject humor and silliness the less likely you are to see bad attitudes surface -- from the kids or from yourself. The intensity of a long car trip is actually a great opportunity for your kids to learn lessons about cooperation and developing their own sense of flexibility and humor.

Look for ways to help your kids remember what you’re doing. Encourage them to take their own pictures or keep a trip journal, and frequently ask them to share their favorite part of the day.

Stopping isn’t the enemy! While it might be tempting to barrel down the highway until every bladder is positively bursting, it’s not especially fair or pleasant. When you travel with kids, you’ll have to stop a lot. You just WILL -- expect it, and don’t get twisted up in knots when it happens. It will actually make the time you are in the car more efficient and agreeable if you allow for a reasonable amount of stops. And use the time well. If you’re stopping for fast food, find a restaurant with a play place. Keep a soccer ball in the back and have the kids kick it around at rest stops. Even on days when we need to make good time, we’ve noticed that allowing a nice, long lunch break will actually refresh everyone enough to allow us to make better time in the afternoon.

Laundry baskets are your friend. We pack our clothes in laundry baskets instead of suitcases, because the baskets can serve a dozen practical purposes along the way (picnics, beach trips, toy storage, etc). Once we reach our destination, we can use one to keep all the dirty clothes together. I always do laundry at the halfway point (it means we don’t have to bring as much stuff). Before we leave, I measure up some single scoops of powdered detergent in plastic bags, as well as a bag of quarters. I tuck this in the bottom of the basket, and it makes for a quick and easy laundry refresher.

Bring your own snacks. The initial expense feels hefty, I know, but we saved a fortune on this trip having all our own snacks and drinks already in the car. We try to stay in hotels with small fridges, and we freeze a few bottles of water during each overnight stay. Tossing those in the cooler will keep the rest of the drinks cool -- dealing with bags of ice is too messy!

Stick with the same hotel chain, if possible. We always look for one hotel chain in particular, and we’ve joined their rewards program. It’s always surprising to me how quickly those reward points add up, and you can trade them in for free nights on the way home. While you’re at it, look for one with a continental breakfast. This saves time and money, and it allows weary travelers to sleep in a little later, which is worth its weight in gold!

Enjoy each other. It should go without saying, of course, but I still sometimes have to remind myself. Occasionally I’ll find myself getting so wrapped up in creating a moment that I’m too busy to enjoy the moment. There’s no such thing as a perfect trip. Do what you can, and know that every trip will have huge successes and a few disappointments. Just like in life, getting there is half the fun.