A few years back, vacation time usually meant boarding a plane. However, since the start of the pandemic, we’ve traded wings for wheels, rediscovering the joys of a good old-fashioned family road trip.
This spring break, our family of five is gearing up for our fifth drive from Connecticut to Kiawah Island, South Carolina. This gives us 3,520 miles of road tripping experience in just under two years. Below I’ve shared some lessons learned along the way.
When To Leave
The 12 a.m. Departure
We tried this once. We packed the car the day before, slept a couple of hours, then carried our kids from their beds to their car seats. After thirty minutes of screaming from the toddler, everyone fell back asleep. My husband and I toasted with energy drinks and reminisced about late nights in college – which was very much what that trip felt like, right down to the hung-over exhaustion we experienced when we finally put the kids to bed that night.
Wins: The kids slept until we hit Southern Virginia, meaning no stops until North Carolina. This gave us plenty of quiet time for driving and podcasts. Also, we were on the beach by 2 p.m., making the drive feel shorter.
Fails: Any change in speed risked waking the kids, so, besides a quick break for gas, we didn’t stop for six hours. That meant no coffee, switching drivers, or bathroom stops. The early hour also meant many hours driving through darkness.
The 3 a.m. Departure
We’ve done this twice. Each time our kids have slept until D.C., and our first stop has been in Northern Virginia. This is great because we get through the worst traffic hotspots before daybreak, and the kids feel like we’re far from home by breakfast. However, this also means they’re awake for the majority of the drive.
Wins: Slightly more rested parents—more driving during daylight.
Fails: About ten potty stops before North Carolina. Increased opportunities for sibling spats and hysteria after spending ten waking hours in a small space.
The Mid-Afternoon Departure
This one has been growing on us, especially now that we’re not avoiding roadside hotels. In this model, we leave before dinner, drive until we get tired, then look for lodging along the way.
Wins: Breaking up the drive makes it feel less daunting, and a full night’s sleep always sounds good.
Fails: If you don’t plan a midway destination, you may drive longer than expected. Like this past Christmas break, we tried to stop and found no room at the inn. Any inn. For 80 miles. Spending the night also means that unless you plan on unpacking the whole car, you need a bag of overnight essentials. According to my kids, I always pack the wrong things.
What To Pack
Everything, right? That’s the joy of a road trip! Well, that’s what we thought too. But after one trip with a roof cargo bag and bike rack, we changed our tune. The roof cargo slowed us down and burned more gas. Also, the bikes needed considerable disassembly to get them on the rack, which made accessing the trunk challenging. You may think this doesn’t matter, but when you’re nine hours in, and your toddler is screaming for the sunglasses she packed in the top pocket of her suitcase, that bike rack can be pretty annoying.
PRO TIPS: If you bring bikes, take pictures of what you take apart and how they look on the rack. Also, pack an Allen wrench set and bring it on your bike rides for the inevitable pedal that falls off after you fail to screw it on correctly.
When to Break
Remember going out at night and trying not to “break the seal?” Stops with kids are similar. Stop once, and it becomes all they can think about, especially if you mention treats. Start this too early, and you may find yourself like us, searching for a Target at 8 p.m., desperate to buy the squirrel Calico Critter because it is the only thing in the entire world that will get your three-year-old to stop screaming. Also, beware of the gateway treat of ice cream. The last time we bought ice cream at hour six, it led to a stuffed animal at hour 10 and then another stuffed animal at hour 13.
To not repeat these performances, we now pack snacks in the car, limit drinks to water, and don’t promise anything exciting until we’re a few hours away. That way, if things escalate, there’s still only time for one stuffed animal.
On the Great Outdoors
During the height of the pandemic, most rest areas were closed, meaning most of our pitstops took place outside. This led to some very entertaining memories, like when my husband pulled off one night behind a defunct flea market in Virginia. To keep my youngest asleep, we listened to a classical radio station playing something that sounded right out of ET. With the music blaring, I ushered the kids to the edge of the woods, aglow with fireflies, just as a tree began to shake. Expecting ET himself, I screamed. The kids still laugh about it. And ask to visit the great outdoors, especially on those long stretches of road where rest areas are luxuries.
PRO TIP: Even though rest areas are open, pack a roll of toilet paper and a bottle of sanitizer just in case. Because when it comes to little kids, sometimes you have to stop, even if there isn’t a toilet.
I created goody bags for the kids for our first road trip with coloring books, markers, and stickers. This kept them happy for the first hour. And then it began.
“Why did so-and-so get more stickers?”
“Why does so-and-so’s coloring book have more pages?”
And then the dreaded, “I dropped all my markers on the floor!”
We now limit entertainment to books and Kindle Fires loaded with favorite TV shows and movies. This has proven to be fairly successful, despite a few arguments over movie selections and who gets the charger first when the batteries run low. To combat this, we make the kids rotate Kindles and have designated charging times when they all have to talk to us.
PRO TIP: For low-tech fun, the Where’s Waldo! books can provide great entertainment. This last trip, we got the (same) book for our elementary kids, and they spent hours finding not just Waldo but witches, mermaids, and other hidden characters. This worked so well I’ve already ordered more for this next trip down.
On Making Good Time
Almost 4,000 miles in, and I can say making good time has less to do with the number of hours and more to do with the number of smiles. The keys to success are being flexible, staying patient, and having low expectations. There have been times we’ve wanted to make the drive in one day and stopped overnight. We’ve lost hours walking through Walmart because the kids felt cooped up. We try to see the drive as part of the adventure, finding fun along the way. One ride, we tried to see how many fried chicken joints we could stop at, then ranked our favorites. On other trips, we’ve made games out of finding billboards. And every ride home, we promise the kids their favorite pizza when we make it back.