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Motherhood Matters: Tried-and-true road trip tips for families

By Saren Eyre Loosli

Power of Moms

Published: Wednesday, July 16 2014 6:00 a.m. MDT

Updated: Tuesday, Sept. 2 2014 3:08 p.m. MDT

Saren Eyre Looslie shares tips for making family road trips less stressful.

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Whether you’re traveling to see relatives, to explore new places or to revisit old favorites, road trips are an important part of life for most families.

My family does several big road trips each year. We’ve always lived several hours’ drive from relatives, so five- to 12-hour drives have been part of every family reunion (and we really value getting together with our families). We also love to do a big, family road trip somewhere new and exciting for spring break each year.

I used to see road trips as a necessary evil. The packing was stressful, and I often ended up bringing too much of some things and too little of others. And the time in the car was exhausting as I tried to keep babies, toddlers and preschoolers happy with songs, games and snacks. I felt like I was keeping a three-ring circus going for hours on end, and sometimes, despite my best efforts, there was crying and bickering galore.

But as with so many things, “That which we persist in doing becomes easier, not that the task itself has become easier, but that our ability to perform it has improved” (Ralph Waldo Emerson). I’ve persisted. I’ve learned a lot about what to pack and how to pack it. I’ve learned about how to make car time not only bearable but actually quite wonderful. And the kids have gotten older, which has certainly made many things easier, but adds its own challenges as well. I’m pleased, and somewhat surprised, to be able to report that those once-dreaded car trips are now some of our favorite family experiences.

And because road trips became such good experiences, we decided to do a three-week road trip all the way across the United States last summer. After that big trip, I have to say we’re pretty much experts on road-tripping.

Of course, different things will work for different families, but here are some hard-won tips that work for my family and that might help make your road trips less stressful and more joyful:

Packing

  • Less is more: No matter how long our trip is going to be, I’ve learned that it works great to bring just two to three pairs of pants/shorts and three to four shirts per person (four for the child who tends to spill and get dirtier) and plan on doing some laundry somewhere. Most motels have coin-operated washers and driers, and we often stay with people for part of the trip and can use their laundry facilities. The less stuff we’re lugging around, the better. I try to pack things that don’t show much dirt, including denim, medium-darker colors, plaid and other patterns. And if the kids’ clothes are only a little dirty, I spot clean or simply ignore non-obvious, non-smelly dirt. Super clean clothes just aren’t worth the bother on vacations.
  • Packing method: I use a big duffle bag to pack all the kids’ clothes together, but I organize the contents by sorting things into smaller bags that fit inside the duffle. Plastic grocery store sacks work fine; loosely tie the handles together to keep things from spilling out. I put all the kids’ underwear (three to four pairs each) and socks (three to four pairs each) together in one bag so I can quickly grab underwear for kids in the shower or bath and socks for all the kids as we head out the door each morning. I put all the kids’ pajamas together in another bag. You often need them so kids can put on their pajamas in the car before they fall asleep and then easily be transferred inside when you arrive. I pack all the swim suits together in another little bag (everyone will likely want their swimsuits at the same time). I sometimes pack all the kids’ shirts and pants together in the duffle and sometimes put each child’s pants and shirts in their own plastic bag to keep them separate and easier to find. I use a sharpie to write on the bags, “underwear,” “Ashton’s clothes,” etc.
  • Shoes: I pack a separate bag that contains everyone’s hiking/running/closed-toed shoes if we’ll be needing those. I don’t like dirty shoes mixed in with the other clothes in a bag, and most of the time the kids will be wearing flip-flops or sandals in the car when we travel in the summer so it’s nice to keep the bulkier shoes separate.
  • Sweatshirts/jackets: I pack a separate bag with everyone’s sweatshirts and/or rain jackets and keep that bag in the car all the time during our trip. Then, when it gets chilly and everyone wants a sweatshirt, we can easily grab sweatshirts without rifling through everything else.
  • Nice clothes: If we’ll need Sunday clothes, I pack everyone’s nice stuff (shoes, socks and clothes) into one shared garment/hang-up bag. Because we all need that stuff at the same time — and likely just once — it’s great to have it all together and put it away all together at the bottom of the pile in the car when we’re done with it for the trip.
  • Overall baggage summary: When all seven of us travel, here’s what we bring: a large duffle with all the kids’ clothes (three to four shirts for each child, two to three pairs of pants or shorts each, a bag of underwear and socks, a bag of all the kids’ pajamas, a bag of everyone’s swim suits); a small duffle bag for me and one for my husband (I don’t like anyone else messing with what’s in my bag); and a garment bag with everyone’s Sunday clothes if needed. We often bring sleeping bags for each child as well because we are usually packed into one room at a hotel or a guest room at the home of friends or family, so we need those sleeping bags. We can carry all this into a hotel or wherever we’re staying in one load quite easily. Of course, we used to have a stroller and port-a-crib (or two, thanks to the twins) to bring along and needed to add a couple baby blankets and quite a few diapers in their own plastic bag in the kids’ duffle bag — but, still, we traveled relatively light.
  • Checklist: I have a checklist of what needs to be packed and done that I use for every trip. You can make a list and then tweak it after your first road trip. Then every time you’ve got a road trip coming up, you print out your list and follow it, and it’s so simple. Click here to see my list.
  • Helpers: I have the kids help me pack. I send one child to get three pair of underwear for each person, another one to get all the socks, someone to get the pajama, etc. When they come back with each item (and I check to be sure it’s the right stuff and pack it into the bag), I cross it off my checklist.
  • Where to pack: I do laundry the day before a trip and put the stuff I’ll be packing into piles as I fold the laundry. Then I usually pack in the laundry room so that I can pack the freshly folded laundry for each person right there in one place rather than having to go room-to-room to gather everything needed.
  • Prep for dirty clothes: I pack a draw-string laundry bag or trash bag so I can keep dirty clothes in one place, and I check clothes to see if they are actually very dirty before they go in the bag. I really like to minimize laundry. This bag often fits inside the kids’ duffle because clothes from the duffle end up in the laundry bag.
Car time
    • Snacks and meals: We have a small collapsible cooler that we fill with fruits and veggies (baby carrots and grapes are staples), plus a few other healthy snacks like almonds, Kashi crackers and cookies (the Original 7-Grain Crackers are our favorite), Trader Joes honey whole wheat pretzels, etc. I used to pack sandwiches and other healthy meal food, but that ended up being a big hassle. But we decided that because we pretty much only have fast food on road trips, and there are somewhat healthy and cheap options at Subway and Taco Bell, we’ll generally just go with fast food on road trips. We give out the fruits and veggies from our little cooler to tide people over until a meal break to be sure they’re getting better nutrition than fast food alone can provide and to keep them hydrated. We also bring a refillable water bottle full of water for each person, but we like to minimize the drinking that happens in the car in the car because random drinks equal random needs for bathroom breaks, and we try to get everyone needing to use the bathroom on close to the same schedule. If we’re thirsty, grapes or carrots help without making the bathroom need imminent. We make a point of having everyone drink quite a lot about a half hour before we’ll be stopping for gas or for a meal, then they can use the bathroom during a scheduled stop. For drinks, we only allow water in the car, which means no messy spills. I’ve found that the more sugary stuff the kids eat in the car, the more on-edge and fidgety they are. Sugar gives quick energy — energy kids don’t really need in the car.
    • Screen time: Back when our kids were little, our road trips were revolutionized when we bought a little portable TV with a built-in VCR, and "The Wiggles," "Veggie Tales" and "Bob the Builder" became welcome parts of our road trips. Later on, we upgraded to a nice built-in DVD player and enjoyed grabbing a DVD or two at a Redbox as a special treat during road trips. But even when the kids were really young, we played lots of games in the car and held off on screen time until we’d done other fun stuff first. Now that the kids are older, we’ve decreased screen time in the car and increased the reading time, family game time and discussion of the scenery and history of areas we drove through. Then, last year, our in-car DVD player broke, and we decided not to bother fixing it. It’s been great to not even have the temptation. The kids enjoy some limited time playing on a smartphone or on our Kindle Fire. Check out the points system we came up with that allows kids to earn screen time in the car here, but we really limit screen time in the car these days. We have an absolute “no screen time” rule when we’re passing through an area with interesting scenery or when we’re reading or listening to a chapter book together or something like that.
    • Car supplies: Along with snacks, we try to keep the car constantly stocked with these things in easily accessible places (door pockets, under seats, cup holders, etc.):
      • Water bottles — One for each person with names written on it in permanent marker. We refill at each stop, so we have fewer bottles to lug around.
      • Wet wipes — They’re not just for babies!
      • Tissues and paper towels or all the extra napkins you don’t end up using at a fast-food place
      • First aid kit with Band-Aids and medicines you might need (stuff for upset stomachs and aches and pains).
      • Bug spray and sun screen
      • Pillows for kids to sleep in the car more comfortably. We use small pillows or camping pillows in old pillow cases. Regular-sized pillows take up way too much space.
      • Books to read
      • Journals to write in
      • A tablet for kids to play games on when they’ve earned some screen time. They can earn screen time through reading or writing in their journals. Check out details on how we do this here if you like.
      • Chargers for phones and electronics
    • Car activities: Here’s a sampling of what we do in the car. (For more car time activities, check out this post on my blog: A glimpse into our car time.)
      • We play "I Spy” and the alphabet game (where you find each letter of the alphabet on signs or cars) a lot.
      • We tell stories where each person gets to add a part to a silly story.
      • We read from chapter books together or listen to audio books from Audiobooks.com or from the library.
      • Sometimes Jared or I sit in the back so that one of us can do story time or a fun game and one of the big kids sits in the front with the driver to enjoy a little one-on-one time up there.
      • Thanks to our smartphones, we have the big kids look up information about the area we’re driving through and give a little report to the rest of the family.
      • We listen to favorite songs. My big kids love making playlists for road trips or playing their favorite songs for us in the car — and certain songs end up becoming theme songs for our trips, which is fun.
      • The kids are extra motivated to read and write in their journals when we let them earn treats like candy bars or 30 minutes of screen time on a phone or tablet by reading or writing a certain number of pages. My son Ashton explained our whole “car points systems” on my blog here. I have to say it works quite nicely.
      • Getting the wiggles out: Whenever we stop for food, gas or a bathroom break, we make a point of doing something active. Sometimes we can find a park right on our route (thank you, GPS). But usually we just find an open area (even an empty part of a parking lot works fine) and do some races, play tag or simply run around the car 10 times or so (timing kids to see if they can beat their time for 10 laps around the car the last time we stopped can be a good incentive). Kids seem to behave much better in the car if they get a chance to run around every few hours.
Hotels

On our recent three-week road trip across the United States, we found that it worked beautifully to book a hotel via Priceline or Hotwire the day of rather than booking in advance. We usually were’t sure exactly how far we’d get each day, so it was great to just hop on the mobile Hotwire or Priceline app on my phone toward the end of the day and see which nearby towns had good Express Deals on hotels for that evening. With the Express Deals, you get to see the number of stars and what amenities a hotel has and a price but not the hotel name. We liked the 2.5-star hotels because they were generally very nice and always included free breakfast, free Internet and free parking (the three-star hotels seemed about the same as far as how nice they were but didn’t offer free breakfast, Internet or parking most of the time). So we’d look for the 2.5-star hotel with the best price and highest reviewer scores. We go for something with at least a 7.5 on reviews on a scale of one to 10 in Express Deals. We’ve always found a good place to stay using this method, and we’ve paid much less than what seemed to be typical had we booked in advance. Including taxes and fees, we paid from $65-110 a room per night for a nice 2.5-star hotel.

I hope some of these ideas will help reduce the stress and increase the fun and enjoyment on your next family road trip.

Please add your own tips and ideas in the comment area below, and good luck with your upcoming trips.

QUESTION: What works for you when it comes to packing and enjoying family road trips?

CHALLENGE: Decide on a few things you’ll do to make your packing experience more effective and less stressful and make your car-time more fun and meaningful.

This article is courtesy of Power of Moms, an online gathering place for deliberate mothers.

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