On the Road Again! Tips for surviving (and even enjoying!) family road trips
Ah, the dreaded/dreamed-about family road trip.
Looking back on trips we took as a kid, all I can remember is getting to eat french fries, watching “Fried Green Tomatoes” on the tiny TV in our family van, and going to places I thought were really cool (fancy hotels for my dad’s conferences, camping sites in national parks, the beach, etc.). But looking back as an adult… those trips were literal nightmares for my beleaguered mother. My younger sister and I oscillated between fits of uncontrollable giggles (the bain of every parent’s existence) and bickering, whining, sibling nonsense (the other bain of every parent’s existence). When my kids are so hyper they aren’t in control of their own bodies and when they are picking at each other and asking me to intervene in meaningless disputes… those are my lowest points. And yay! Road trips not only have those things but they have those things while trapped in a virtual elevator with these people! What could possibly go wrong?!
To help you survive, here are some tips that Biff and I have developed over the years to help us cope with road trips. And we’ve had some mega successes and some horrific failures.
In the success department, I took the big kids to Crater Lake before Leo was born. On the way there, our check engine light came on so we had to pull off and go to a mechanic, delaying our arrival so substantially that we had to spend the night at an actual hunting lodge in the middle of the mountains. We all crammed into the tiniest bed while listening to other motel guests drink, smoke, and swear right outside our window. In the morning we actually made it to the famed Crater Lake, and we had an amazing time. Hailey ended up getting sick and slept on my lap as we took the bus tour around the lake’s rim and learned all about the geographic and indigenous history of the area. Once we headed back to our campsite to set up the tent, Riley helped me build a campfire and we had smores. We all bundled up and I read to them from my grown-up book (because I forgot a kids’ one) and they slept while I tossed and turned on the cold, rocky ground. Overnight it snowed and we had to pack up and leave at 6am to miss the snowstorm that would have trapped us in the park. Everything that could have gone wrong did. In other words— we had a blast. Success!
But then there was the trip where Biff tried to take a “fun road trip across America!” as he and the kids drove all of our stuff from Portland to New York City, where I’d moved a few months prior for a high-paying job. Biff envisioned camping to save money, but their very first KOA in Washington was right next to the train tracks and no one but the dog got ANY sleep as trains barreled by every 20 minutes. The next day, Biff got so frustrated about the kids asking to stop for the potty every half an hour that he told them they weren’t going to stop for the bathroom anymore— they would just have to hold it. A few days later, somewhere around Detroit, Riley started complaining of a tummy ache. After asking him several questions, it became clear that Riley thought he wasn’t supposed to poop at all while they were on the trip. So he’d been holding it the whole time. “Oh yeah, the disaster trip,” Biff says when asked about it. “I’d rather not talk about that.”
From those successes (and failures!) here are some general tips we’ve come up with.
Manage expectations— yours and theirs.
Listen. If you’re hoping for some scene where you’re all singing The Indigo Girls with the windows down, eating lollipops you got at a sketchy gas station, pulling off at the “Geodes Sold Here!” road sign to discover an off-the-beaten-path shop you’ll fall in love with and post about on Instagram…. that ain’t happening. Make realistic goals for yourself and the family. Maybe your goal for yourself is not to yell in the car. Or to be kind to your partner. Or to remember your own headphones. Maybe your goal is for the kids to not kick each other or to not ask “are we there yet?” a hundred times. You can also set specific goals for each kid— Riley has to not complain and Hailey has to not ask for sweets. Set increments of time, say an hour, and at the end of that time if everyone has hit their goals they all get an M&M (including you). Realistic goals, low expectations, positive reinforcement. I like to discuss the expectations BEFORE leaving home. Our kids do much better when they know exactly what is expected of them before entering a tough situation.
You also want to hold lightly to your goals for the road trip. There’s a chance that when you get to that national monument, the kids will be more excited about the dead bugs on the front of your car’s grill than they are the natural wonder before you (which is what happened to Biff on the disaster trip). That’s okay. You can be stoked about the national monument AND look at the bugs with the kids. If you go in knowing that they might not be interested in the same stuff you are, you won’t be disappointed and you won’t try to force them to be excited about something that they think is boring.
Undersell the destination.
This is critical. Downplay the whole trip. It’s just “a little getaway.” Don’t say “vacation” because they might have associations with the word that you can’t fulfill. Don’t boast about the roller coaster because it might be shut down. Don’t mention dolphins because maybe it’s the wrong season to see them. I’m not saying your kids can’t handle disappointment— I’m just saying a vacation isn’t the time for them to learn those lessons, because you will be the one suffering the most when their faces fall and they face the reality that their dreams aren’t going to be fulfilled.
Also— make sure you’re really clear with them about where you’re going and/or what you’re doing when you get there. Once when Riley was five, I took him to Seattle and we went to the Space Needle. I thought it was this incredible thing he would never forget. And when we got there, instead of being wowed by the views he was actually really disappointed because we didn’t “blast off into space.” If I had told him, “We’re just going up in a tall building. The views are cool, but it’s no big deal,” then his disappointment never would have happened. Show them pictures of where you’re going but don’t hype it. That way they’ll be surprised and stoked when there’s a hot tub at your AirBnB or Grandma is meeting you there or there are sharks at the aquarium.
Attempt road trip games.
Warning: this won’t work for every family. We have bought countless “car bingo” games and inevitably the kids end up stealing each other’s boards, cheating, whining because Biff won, etc. We always try to play “I Spy” but Riley doesn’t understand that he can’t pick something outside the car because it will be out of our view in 10 seconds and then we will never guess it, and we all end up frustrated and he ends up laughing and somehow I always end up crying out of exasperation. However, you might have a magical family that never fights and so car games might work for you! But don’t go in expecting it to be fun. If you expect them to fight and be rude, you’ll only be pleasantly surprised if things go well.
Bring mini M&M’s. You can shake the little tube as a warning/reminder to behave if things start heating up back there. Set expectations for behavior before you even leave and THEN pass the tablets back when they behave well. The default shouldn’t be candy and tablets— that’s what they get when they show good behavior. Focus on positive reinforcement when they hit their behavior goals, which is SO MUCH MORE EFFECTIVE than a negative consequence when they don’t behave.
Figure out your travel style and communicate it to your partner.
Biff wants to buckle down and just GET to our destination. He doesn’t want to mess around and get there late (he hates driving in the dark). He doesn’t want to be stuck in the car any longer than absolutely necessary. I, on the other hand, want to take my time and allow the trip to unfold organically. Let the road speak to us. Hop out once we hit the coast and smell the ocean. Maybe look for dolphins. Ooh! They’re selling fresh oranges at that stand! Let’s turn around and buy some! Neither style is better than the other (although mine is better than his); they are just different. And it’s infuriating to have to ignore exciting potential adventures (if you’re me) or to constantly deal with your partner getting distracted by stupid things everywhere (if you’re him).
Try to find the core values in each style and honor those. Biff doesn’t feel safe driving in the dark, so I can commit to limiting distractions that will cause us to be late enough that we’ll be driving in the dark. He also hates being late, so if anyone else is expecting us to be somewhere at a certain time, I make sure we don’t make anyone wait for us. I think the kids do better if they get out and stretch their legs and get some wiggles out every couple of hours, so he relents and lets me find the occasional park to chase the kids around in. Compromise and honoring each other’s differences are the name of this game.
If it ain’t broke… don’t fix it.
If things are going well and the kids are getting along and you’re all listening to a great musical or podcast or audiobook, keep going even if you had hoped to stop. Similarly, if you were hoping to barrel through and everything in the car is a disaster… be flexible enough to pull off at that park or gas station or co-op or lavender farm and have a little rest/adventure before piling back in again.
Snacks snacks snacks (including gum).
If they’re eating, they’re not fighting or whining. And gum can help with ear popping if you’re dealing with pressure changes going through mountains. Tic-tacks or the mini M&M’s I mentioned earlier are great too, but don’t give the actual containers directly to your kids because they’ll inevitably spill them everywhere and you’ll be stuck with clean-up. Hand them back one at a time as you go.
The radio is your friend.
Set expectations for who is DJ, what you’re going to listen to, etc. At times, we allow each person to choose a song and rotate around the car for several rounds. Other times, a parent unilaterally decides that we are listening to a beloved musical or new kid-friendly podcast or audiobook and we do that. Occasionally we listen to the actual radio, skipping through to see if any stations are playing music we love. Remember that cell service is still non-existent in huge swaths of the country, so download your favorite songs ahead of time.
Don’t ask for input if you won’t actually use it.
I do this all the time. I want the kids to be engaged and involved in basically every family process, so often I’ll ask them for their input even when I have no intention of following it. Like asking them where they want to go for dinner. They don’t know what restaurants are in the area, they might say fast food at a time when I don’t feel like eating fast food, they inevitably end up bickering with each other about it, and on and on. Just don’t ask for their input unless it’s something you can actually incorporate their input on. They can decide what ONE song to listen to next (unless it’s a song you’ve been listening to nonstop for weeks, in which case you should tell them that song is off-limits). They can decide which car snack they can eat next— reasonable decisions that you can honor.
Swimming pools are your best friend.
If you’re staying in hotels along the way, pick a hotel with a swimming pool. I have never regretted this decision. Whenever you get there, throw the kids in swimming clothes and chuck them in that pool (just kidding— do it safely in a way that aligns with their swimming ability). This will serve the dual purposes of getting them clean so you don’t have to worry about baths/showers AND using up all of the pent-up energy they didn’t expend while in the car. They’ll drop into bed soon after and you’ll get a little peace. Also sometimes hotels with swimming pools have hot tubs, which are YOUR best friend as a parent. I also like to stop and play catch and chase everyone around while getting gas, but that’s just me.
Pro tip: a hotel with just a hot tub WILL NOT DO THE TRICK of tiring out your kids. They will try to get their wiggles out in the hot tub which will just anger other hotel guests and frustrate them. You need an actual pool for this tip to work.
Divide and conquer.
You’ll notice that in our two road trip examples above, they were single-parent trips. Biff and I often split up for road trips, not only because we like different things (I like camping, he doesn’t) but also because a change in family dynamic is often a really great thing for a road trip. The parent on the trip can exercise some parenting muscles they don’t usually get to use, while the other parent gets a little rest at home. Don’t be afraid to take a road trip without your partner! You’ll need to use our tips, but it’s definitely doable and sometimes allows the kids to step up in ways they otherwise don’t need to. And your partner, if applicable, will probably be super appreciative when you get back. :)
And those are our road trip tips!!! We took these tips on our trip to Seattle recently and had a blast! We drove everywhere in a gorgeous 2019 Chevy Equinox that was loaned to us by the awesome folks at Chevrolet. Check out that trip in this video!!!