I grew up going on long road trips, when my family would drive from Oregon to California to visit relatives or friends several times a year. Back then we’d all pile into an old beat-up station wagon, pack some sandwiches and pray we wouldn’t end-up broken down on the side of the freeway (which we almost always did).
So when I became a parent it seemed logical that driving would be the way to go if I needed to take my family less than a thousand miles. I made a few such trips back when I was married with one child, but when I became a single mom with three kids… that’s when it became interesting!
Travel matters to me, a lot. I think as parents, one of the most important things we can do for our kids is show them the world, even if it’s just a few hundred miles from home. And so I committed to sharing this experience with my children from the very start of this single parent journey. Over the past eight years we’ve made an annual road trip as part of our summer vacation, and I’ve learned a few tips that might help you make traveling with your kids a little less scary and hopefully fun!
Tip #1. Drive through the night.
If you have young kids that will easily get bored, and cranky in the light of day when their stuck in the car for hours on end; then prep a day or two before so you’re not exhausted and drive as much as you can that first night. I did this the first few times I made the twelve-hour drive to Monterey California (to visit my Noni) from Portland Oregon.
I’d leave Portland in the early evening, stop about five hours into our drive in the adorable little border town of Ashland (where I spent my freshman year of college as it happens). There I’d get them dinner and let them play in the park for a bit, then get back on the road. They’d wake up as we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge into San Francisco. I’d park under the bridge and let them run around, grab them a snack and then we’d finish our drive to Monterey (about two more hours).
That routine saved many trips in the early years, I don’t think there’s any way I’d have been able to do those drives if my twins (who were two on my first trip), didn’t sleep the majority of our drive.
Tip #2. Be prepared to get creative!
One of the biggest challenges of a long road trip as a single parent, is the fact that you are the only adult. This is least handy when all your kids are sleeping, but you need to stop and use the restroom. You don’t want to leave your kids alone in the car, and you don’t want to wake them up… so what’s a girl to do? I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve pulled over, (where it’s safe) and popped-a-squat! Hey if you’re taking on a journey like this be prepared to think outside the box! I’ve also done the same when my kids need to go. Another trick, if you have older kids that are potty trained, but have small bladders, make them wear a night diaper, this saved me on many trips.
Tip #3. Pack lots of food and water.
I learned this the hard way as a kid, you never know when a perfectly good car will start having issues, or when you find yourself an hour or two between towns, so be prepared. As a general rule I like to pack big water bottles for everyone and then two gallons of water in the back of the car just in case. Also don’t forget lots of paper towels, trash bags and baby wipes to clean sticky hands.
AND fill up your gas tank every chance you get! I’ve almost run out of gas more times than I care to admit because the next town was farther away, or because small town gas stations are often closed at night. So keep a close eye on your tank at all times. Oh! And bring an extra quart of motor oil… you never know when you might get the warning light that you are low.
Tip #4 Make it an exploring adventure.
I like to stop in new little towns and find local places my kids will enjoy for a treat or lunch/dinner. Like an old-fashioned drive-in hamburger joint.
There’s this great dive drive-in ice cream shop along I5 at the Rice Hill exit, that’s been open since I was a little girl. They scoop the most enormous ice cream cones, and my kids love it the same way I did when I was their age.
Last weekend I drove my kids to Reno NV from Portland and we took a new route that cut through some adorable historic towns along the base of Mt. Shasta. We stopped at an old diner and had lunch, then checked out the shops and walked around a bit, it was the perfect way to break up our long day in the car.
But I also like to time my drive so we can make traditions, especially if it’s a route I know we’ll take more than once. For example, on the Oregon to California drive, I always stop in Ashland and let my kids play at the gorgeous Lythia Park. They have played at this park and ran along its creek bank since they could walk. I was a little nervous this year because I wasn’t sure if they’d still be all about it (considering they are now 9 and 13), but they loved it as much as ever!
Tip #5. Do a family activity in the car.
Participate mom (or dad)! Don’t just tune the kids out, but actually be part of their experience. On our last road trip we practiced our Italian (we are learning it for a family trip to Italy in October) in the car as a group. We made it a game whoever could get the translations correct the fastest. The kids loved it and we all learned something.
Tip #6. Limit screen time and make memories.
I think it’s easy now days to just give our kids a device to play a movie or a game, and a headset, and let them go at it. Trust me I know my kids would probably rather do that then participate, but I made it a rule to limit screen time. When we traveled on the “boring freeway” they could be on their devices, but when we were taking the back scenic routes or driving past something worth noting, I made them all unplug and take notice.
I also made them unplug every so often to just listen to music, I think that quiet car time is a great opportunity to let their imaginations run free and encourage them to dream. This is also a great time to play games or get them talking about their life or what they are seeing as you drive. We talked a lot about how we imagined the people lived in the little towns we passed, we’d make up a little life for them… my kids loved doing this and it kept them interested in seeing something new and having an appreciation for the fact that people live differently then we do and imagining what that might be like.
Tip #7. Give them responsibility.
I’ve found that kids love to be helpful, when they are encouraged to be and given positive feedback when they are. So I assign roles to my kids now that they are a little older.
My 13 year old son, I put in charge of packing the car. I showed him how and now expect him to be able to do it on his own (I’m proud to say he does a great job of it, and takes a lot of pride from doing so). My 9 year old twins have several roles, including watching for road signs that say how far it is to our destination, double checking a hotel room to be sure we didn’t leave anything behind, being on “trash duty” (car trash police), and everyone takes a turn at being the DJ!
Tip #8. Always praise good behavior.
Acknowledge how good your kids are being (when they are!) and be understanding. Even us adults get fussy after being in the car for hours, so try to be kind (even when your losing patience), realize that it’s asking a lot of them. Reinforce how proud you are, that they are stepping up to the challenge and allowing the family to have a nice trip. Praise can go a very long way to achieving peace and happiness on long rides.
Don’t be afraid to get out there and travel with your kids, you got this! It’s so worth it. The memories you build, and the self-confidence it gives to you and your kids is amazing.