When we have a choice between flying or driving, and the door to door time is the same, we choose to drive. The miles of freeway, raiding the grubby gas stations for tubes of chewy sprees, and even the cold metal toilets at rest stops stir up a nostalgic wanderlust for me that doesn't come with air travel. The warm fuzzy feelings stem from my childhood memories of driving cross country in my family's Volkswagon Vanagon. The radio's volume was barely heard above the hum of the VW engine as my dad explained "amplitude modulation" and "frequency modulation" to me as we moved through miles and miles of desert. I love road trips. Nobody is there to micromanage the size of your shampoo bottles and you are free to eat, sleep, stretch your legs, and loudly talk about your feelings to your co-pilot whenever you want. Road trips rock. For some people they are the hillbilly cousin to air travel. While I get that car driving does have you moving at a slower pace and it doesn't afford you the same bragging rights as flying, allow me to offer another perspective on this undervalued mode of travel.
We have family all over the country so a few times a year we load up the old Cr-V and visit everybody on a semi-rotating basis. The one downside to driving cross country is of course the fact that you are confined to a very small space with at least a few people. The risk of tediousness increases by day 3 when you just want to be done and that 2:00 pm sun starts bearing down on you and your 4 year-old starts to say that his sunglasses don't work- it probably does cause a slight uptick in cortisol. Be that as it may, I would take that meltdown over a 4 hour delay under the florescent lights of O'hare airport any old day. Fortunately, with some planning and strategy road trips can be so monumental and fabulous you'll be ready to send the airlines packing with their dry air and skimpy $5 snacks. (For continental flights, obviously.)
While I like to plan ahead I'm definitely not the type of mom who raids the library for The Phantom Toll Booth on audio book and portions out healthy snacks like coconut La Croix and carrot sticks for miles on end. I firmly believe that road trips are for indulging in seeing obscure historical sights and eating yogurt covered pretzels.
Obviously, traveling with kids changes the freewheeling dynamic of a road trip. And, yes, inevitably the overindulgence of hydrogenated fats and sedentary-ness does lead to some sassy attitudes that need to be managed. A few years ago I developed the "Road Trip Schedule" that ended up saving our sanity when it came to long car trips. It all went down somewhere across the Mojave desert when I got a horrible, crippling, nasty neck spasm (to the point I could not turn my head) because I had been turning around in the front passenger seat to attend to some very whiny toddler/preschooler kids in the back seat. It was horrible. Finally it dawned on me to not be the one constantly fighting communicating when it was and wasn't ok to have a juice box or to watch another show on the portable DVD player (This was in the pre-tablet era). So I created a written and fully illustrated order of events for the car and taped it to the back seat for reference. Need I say it was a game changer? Yes? Ok. It was a game changer.
We have used one ever since. The magnificent neutral party that tells us when we corporately listen to music, nap, read, watch a show on tablets. Glorious. Limiting screen time is all the buzz these days, while the health benefits are numerous, I will also say that not taking a screen for granted makes it all the more special (quiet) when the occasion finally does roll around. We try to be sparing with "tablet time" at home and on the road. That is not to say that I haven't indulged an extra 30...er...45...er...100 minutes of watching Story Bots and playing Angry Birds on those final miles before we finally arrive home. Even with the tablets we have tried to remain pure to the essence of road trips and there have been scads of hours that the kids made up their own backseat car games or enjoyed listening to a Sawbones podcast (the Poop and Vinegar episodes are a favorite) with the family.
For non-tablet entertainment we like to use the Crayola markers that only mark on the special Crayola paper, and Melissa & Doug Water Wow painting books. I try to keep the front pockets of the carseat stocked with favorite Look & Find books as well as picture books. My oldest son is of reading age so I try to make sure he has a fresh chapter book to look forward to when we are on the road. Old iPods have also become a source of wonderful amusement. When snooping around Scott's office one day, Charlie found these funny little rectangles that could play music. Once I loaded the iPods up with clever music the kids have been hooked. Having control of their own music was so empowering for them that on many occasions the comparatively ancient iPod shuffles have held their attention longer than a tablet. The only catch is to remember the silly little chargers when we are on the road.
We try to do a shake down of the car's trash at every rest stop to keep the detritus at bay, and I totally carry a can of Tide scented febreeze in the car when things get manky. We also have found this back of the seat trash can to be the only trash containment system that works for us. Rest stops ultimately do triple duty for us. We use it for the obvious bathroom break, car clean out, and the quick energy burn. This trick I learned from my parents. As kids my parents would find any open field, KOA pool, or ramps at a rest stop to have my sister and I go run and burn off our energy before getting back in the car. This is a genius practice, and it really does help to keep the Day 3@2pm freak outs away.
Sometimes a rest stop isn't always the cleanest or safest or even convenient place to let our family manage their bio-issues. For a while I would keep spare diapers on hand for the kids to pee in should we be stuck in traffic when they really needed to go to the bathroom, we have also used a large cup in a pinch (having boys does have its advantages). At some point or another I figured there had to be a better way to manage the "I know I pee'd 20 minutes ago and I really have to go NOW!" factor. Thanks to the amazing world of Amazon we found this awesome travel kid urinal. (And bonus, they make one for girls as well.) While, yes, you do have to manage the dumping and the rinsing of the pee it has been a serious stress reducer for our family.
Neither one of the kids have ever been car sleepers. Even so there are the late night drives and rest time that do call for us to break out the pillows, Aden & Anais muslin swaddle blankets (They are huge and lightweight- perfect for travel. I don't wash them in the week leading up to us leaving so they smell like home), and travel white noise makers. The boys usually snuggle up on the soft sided cooler that is usually perched in the middle seat and have a nice rest.
And speaking of coolers...
I have a love-hate relationship with those things. At first I like them. Then as the trip progresses the vessels that once chilled the BabyBels and clementines now has turned into a soupy mess of melted ice and waterlogged baby carrot bags. Scott and I have come to somewhat of an understanding to keep the ice changed out often enough to avoid this. Even still... I have to talk myself into using the thing.
I don't plan a ton for us in the way of food. Obviously, we make an effort for healthy sorts of things like travel size hummus, apples, chips that were once vegetables, and granola bars. Otherwise, we eat on the road. I never could get the hang of planning "on the go meals". Plus, the fun of road trips is spontaneous fried things from a chain restaurant. Sometimes it is fast food, other times we can manage a nice deli sandwich from a local grocer, and sometimes we make do with some string cheese and wheat thins.
Road trips don't have the be the sad, cheap second place option to flying. With some planning and the right perspective it can result in some of the best miles traveled.While it may not earn a lot of travel-brag points, it certainly makes a lot of memories. The lack of stress, the long drives that invite good conversation, and wheat thins really makes slow travel special. Once I read a quote that was about how kids don't remember their best day of watching TV, but they remember the days of playing outside with friends. The same is true for road trips for me. I don't remember my best flight, but I do remember the belly laughs and magnificent sunsets across the American southwest when driving. If air travel is utilitarian and boat cruises are luxury then a road trip in a vehicle is the happy middle ground that mixes business with pleasure.