Picture this, you could spend 10-14 hours trapped in a small metal box with your children. You can see the outside but you can’t go there, and someone perpetually has “to pee SO bad.” Sounds fun right? Nope. Not at all. People often ask us how we road trip with our four kids, what I think they really want to ask is why. We drive because were are a family of six and we can’t afford to fly. We also have one child with an anaphylactic allergy to peanuts and another child that could potentially react to ANYTHING, and using an EpiPen at 40,000 feet doesn’t appeal to me.
Sometimes I do wonder; Why am I putting myself through all this work and stress? Especially right now, we are coming off a week in Michigan, and we were previously there less than three weeks before for my brother’s wedding. I’m not going to lie, I’m a little road tripped out, and I am sure that Mark would agree. I didn’t even put my suitcase away from the June trip and I was packing again for the 4th of July trip. Efficiency or laziness, you can decide. But then I remember that these are the things my kids will remember, the experiences we are giving them. I love when we are in the car and the kids are shouting out about the landmarks as we drive. “There’s Pilot Mountain!” or “We’re almost to the Tunnel!”
As I have said before, our kids are really good travelers. I don’t have a lot of (serious) complaints. Sure, they can be annoying, but what kid isn’t when they’re trapped in the car for hours on end. We are finding that as they get older it’s getting easier. Those first few trips as a family of six were really rough. I think the first trip back to Michigan we took, the 10 hour drive took us 14.5. Part of that was having a nursing infant, it made our stops take much longer and we were stopping every 2-3 hours. The other part was just figuring out how to coordinate all of us, there is a learning curve for sure. What works for us may not work for you, and that’s OK. Here are a few things that we find work for us.
This was something we learned the hard way. Some combinations of the kids sitting next to/near each other just doesn’t work. The boys can not sit where they can touch each other. The oldest two can’t be next to each other because they bicker. Eli can’t sit in front of Zoe because he throws stuff over his head so it hits her. (Admit it, you laughed a little at that one.) We want an older kid next to the baby so they can entertain her. Thankfully I get to drive a hawt van so we have lots of options on how to put the kids.
What we eventually ended up with is putting the girls in the third row next to each other. That way Zoe can hand the baby stuff and play with her. Also because the screaming that Isabel tends to start about hour eight (to annoy Zoe) is harder to hear when she’s all they way in the back. A good rule of thumb is that the loudest traveler gets banished to the 3rd row. Then we put the boys in the second row so they can’t touch each other. It’s still not perfect, but it works for us.
I am not a morning person, not even a little, so getting up at 5am kills me a little inside. We’ve come to find that the earlier we leave the better. We try to shoot for between 5:30-6:00am, in reality is it’s usually about 6:15 when we roll out of the driveway. Because of our my rigid travel prep, all we have to do in the morning is get dressed, make coffee, and pack the cooler. Mark and I get up and do those last few things, then we wake the kids when we are ready to walk out the door. They use the bathroom and get into the clothes I laid out for them and we are on our way.
Leaving early does a few things for us:
- The kids are still half asleep so they tend to be pretty chill for the first few hours.
- We get to our destination at a more reasonable hour. There were a few trips when we rolled in at bedtime and of course the kids were too keyed up to calm down and go to sleep. After a whole day of togetherness in the car, I am more than ready for them to go to bed.
- The kids are tired from being up so early in the car so at least the younger three will nap and that’s a good break for us at about 3pm. This is all along with the other obvious benefits like missing rush hour traffic, etc.
For the most part, I feel our kids are pretty unplugged compared to their peers. Our van doesn’t have a DVD player, we own exactly zero kid iPads/tablets, and they generally don’t use our phones for kid apps (because we don’t have any). It works for us. Because of this, they have to find non-electronic ways to entertain themselves. Each kid has a bag that they bring in the car, usually a few days before we go I have them pick things that they’d like to bring with them. Sometimes they need a little guidance, Oliver always wants to bring a football (that sounds like a grrrrrreeeaaat idea!), but for the most part they do pretty well.
I always encourage books, coloring stuff (color pencils only, they don’t melt in the heat and you can’t lose the caps.), sticker books (We like these), activity books (like mazes, hidden pictures, dot to dots) and small non-annoying toys. The big kids also have MP3 Players that they’ll share with the younger two which is a big treat for them and keeps them quiet for a good chunk of time.
Of course, the first thing the kids want to do when we get in the car is rip into their bags and DO ALL THE THINGS. We tend to not let them get that stuff out until a few hours into the trip. No one wants kids that have blown through all their activities before we hit the first state line. The unspoken rule is they can’t get all their stuff out until after breakfast.
I do keep a few tricks up my sleeve in case someone is losing their ever loving mind (almost always Isabel). In my bag up front I keep a few “emergency” cool toys for the baby, we also will let the baby watch Netflix on my tablet if she’s hysterical. Usually one show and she’s reset and can make it the rest of the way. On particularly long, traffic-y trips I have let the boys take turns watching the tablet as well, but I would say that’s only every 1 out of three drives. When all else fails I offer the snacks, it’s harder to cry with your mouth full. Also because in our family, most meltdowns are due to being Hangry.
Planning Your Stops
This will really depend on where you’re going and how well you know the route. Obviously since we go to and from Michigan several times a year we know the route well, but a lot of this can apply even if you don’t. Every time we stop, we try to make sure that it’s sort of a “one stop shop” sort of deal. Somewhere we can get gas, use the bathroom, and get coffee or food (if needed, but who am I kidding, we always need coffee.) We’ve learned that even if we have 150 miles worth of gas left, it pays to just top off the tank anyway so you avoid needing to stop again at an inconvenient time.
Some places we like to stop are Sheetz, Travel Centers of America stations (TA), Starbucks that have easy on off and that are near gas stations, and we also really like the big rest area/travel centers on the turnpikes. These tend to be cleaner and are easier to access. Random gas station bathrooms are typically pretty nasty. Although, we stopped at the nicest gas station bathroom I’ve ever seen in Hocking County Ohio this last trip. I seriously would have let the kids sit on the floor, it almost sparkled and smelled like hopes and dreams (it may have just been bleach). I actually stopped an employee and told him how much I appreciated it. I think he thought I was crazy.
Everyone gets out to pee, every time. NO EXCEPTIONS. It’s now or in three hours. Any time we have broken this rule, we’ve had to stop 20 minutes later, because “have to pee so bad”. We have a “divide and conquer” approach to this. Since the baby is still in diapers, one of us will get out and take 2 kids with them to go to the bathroom, while the other gets gas then pulls around and changes the baby. Then they take the last child in while everyone buckles back in their seats and settles in. We can usually do it all in about 20 minutes, which seems like a long time, but there’s six of us, that’s like 3 min per person.
Pack your breakfast and lunch. This is something we just figured out. Previously, we were just packing breakfast, but found that in the afternoon we were really disorganized and it seemed like we were stopping a ton. Packing lunch means we could hand it out as soon as they started asking “Is it lunch time?” (Oliver’s favorite phrase ever.) This last trip we got away with three stops total which was AMAZING. High five, Team Wilkinson.
Remember to Breath
This is one we all sort of struggle with. Usually about hour eight we all start to get cranky. Its probably because we’ve all been in the car a billion hours. It’s easy to start snapping at the kids when they get loud or whine or act like what they are, kids. I have to make a conscious effort to remind myself that we are all tired, cranky, and done. I’m going to be completely honest, we are not perfect parents, so sometimes at this point in the trip there is some yelling and arguing. It is what it is, and every trip I promise myself we’ll do better and it works for the most part.
It makes it all worth it when we get to our destination….