Raising my family in the Northeast, but with strong ties back home to Virginia Beach (almost 400 miles away), we typically find ourselves making a long road trip several times a year. At this point, I like to fancy our family veteran road trippers, including our 5- and 1-year-old. It’s taken a lot of trial and error, but we’re at the point where we can roundtrip comfortably with the tots.
As we navigate the NJ Turnpike and US-1 corridor, we definitely rely on technology to bypass traffic, locate our favorite food joints, and sometimes pass the time. But beyond navigational necessity, for eight hours at a time, we try to enable the least amount of tech as possible. There’s not much glamour involved in road tripping with small kids, but that certainly doesn’t mean it can’t be enjoyable. Since we’ve never had a DVD player in our car, we have some of the most candid conversations with our older kid while making the pilgrimage to our hometown. We play into his curiosity and tell him all about landmarks along the way. We listen to music and have sing-alongs, and of course, we take plenty of naps.
With yet another trip to Virginia coming up, here are just a few tricks that we’ve learned along the way:
Ultimately, the success of any of our road trips relies on timing. Our area is known as a hotbed of traffic and never-ending construction. We’ve learned to take into consideration weather for the time of year, construction traffic, rush hour, shore traffic, and the kids’ sleeping patterns. Because our kids are young, the more sleeping time during driving time the better. So, for us, we’ve found that leaving pre-dawn with the kids in pajamas is much better than leaving in the middle of the day. If we’re lucky, we can get two to three hours of sleeping kids while we zip down a barren Turnpike. By the time they wake up, it’s breakfast! On the flipside, if we choose to road trip late at night, traffic tends to cooperate even more, as do the sleeping children.
Games and Toys
We try to fill the waking hours with games and travel-friendly toys. Because my 5-year-old is on the cusp of reading, we have fun with the Brain Quest flashcards both at home and on the road. The flashcards are tall and narrow, so I can throw them in my diaper bag or, better yet, stash them in the pocket behind the driver’s seat with other books and activity toys. Alongside our crayons and colored pencils, I also pack along those tiny toys that I collect from all those birthday party goody bags. Instead of letting these tiny toys accumulate in our playroom, I stash them for road trips and flights, making them ideal portable toys in the backseat, which give them a new novelty. Clipboards and lap trays are helpful tools for activity books and toys for older kids. Fun new hanging toys and board books are like baby gold for us.
Snacks are quintessential to our road trip algorithm. Before kids, my husband and I used to load up on pre-packaged snacks likely to be found in a gas station on our route. With small kids, I have to plan out healthier snacks and drinks that are not only travel-friendly for the car, but also for small hands and bellies. Cups of yogurt sound totable, but easily spilled snacks don’t always do well on our long trips. I’ve had much better luck with Annie’s Bunnies in snack pouches, as well as toddler-friendly pre-cut grapes and blueberries. Treat-like snacks that I don’t always buy are also fun distractions for us, such as yogurt-covered raisins, Chex Mix, and fruit snacks. I serve the snacks in a cup, which is a convenient way to hold the snacks in the car and still have them accessible when the kids put them in cup holders in their booster seats or in the car doors or console.
Travel at Your Pace
Our most important tip while road tripping with kids is to take time for stops. Actually, it’s simply best to take your time. When traveling with small kids, we’ve learned that time constraints end up backfiring. So, based on past experiences, we’ve learned to expect the unexpected and to travel at a pace that agrees with the whole family. Whether it’s a crying baby who’s unhappy with sitting in a seat for hours at a time or a potty-training kid, we calculate frequent stops into our travel time.
Sometimes there’s crying and tantrums, but for eight hours at a time, we make the best of our trip and embrace being in the present. Sure, it takes a lot of patience and creativity, but for our family, road trips are a great way to reconnect and take it all in.