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The Do’s and Don’ts of Road-Tripping with Kids

I have just completed my third annual trip to Southern California with my girls for Fall Break. Solo. In the car. With both of my girls. For eight hours. Each way.

For perspective, my girls are 6 and 3, which means they were 4 and 1 when we started this little tradition. So I have a few things I’ve learned along the way that I thought I’d share.

DO let go of any expectations. The map on your phone may say you will arrive in 6.5 hours, but there is no way you are getting there in 6.5 hours. Also, you may never find time to blow dry your hair. It’s OK. You also will be the one taking photos, so you won’t be in any of them. 

DON’T make too many firm plans. Kids are out of a routine, in a new place. They’re a little unpredictable, and it might be hard to get out the door on time. Keep things loose as much as possible. 

DON’T overschedule. For the same reasons as above, the kids need downtime – if you’re staying at a house, time in the backyard to run around. If not, time at the beach, or time at the park. Going from activity to activity to activity is a recipe for a meltdown. 

DO set expectations. The more details my kids know about our itinerary, the better prepared they are for new experiences. My oldest, especially, gets worked up if she doesn’t know where we are going. Surprises don’t usually result in the reaction I’d hope for – she needs time to mentally prepare for what’s happening. It’s better for all of us if I remember this going in. 

DO throw out the rule book (within reason). Relax the screen time limits so they can watch movies while you drive (bonus:when their headphones are in, you can listen to the music you want without an argument). Let them have as many snacks as they want. Agree to a sweet treat every now and then. Whatever it takes to keep the peace. But, if you threaten a consequence, DO follow through. Otherwise you’re toast. 

DO keep things interesting for the drive. Stock up on all kinds of snacks. Pack a mix of old and new items to entertain in the car – favorite books and stuffed animals, plus a new game or coloring book, or even some fresh window clings on windows in the backseat. Let the kids help choose snacks and pack their activity bags. 

DO keep a travel potty in the back. Just trust me on this one (especially if you have girls). 

DO come up with a tradition. Now that we’ve made the same trip multiple times, we always stop at the same place on the way there (the gas station with the coin-operated rides) and the same place on the way back (the dinosaurs in Cabazon). This gives the kids something familiar to look forward to and breaks up the drive. It also gives you something you can threaten to take away that gets their attention. Because leverage.

DO have fun. Your kids will test your patience. You will be tired. Laugh anyway. Play games anyway. Sing anyway. 

DO let them do something silly. Before checking out of a hotel room, let them jump on the bed to get the wiggles out. Before getting in the car, let them scream really loud so they get it out of their system before the drive (only works for the first 7 hours with a 3-year-old, but better than nothing). 

DO plan your trip to give yourself a day when you come home to plan for the return to work and school. I never do this. I always wish I had. 

DO not feel guilty when you walk in the door, and immediately hand the kids over to your husband. You deserve a break. And wine. 

When you’re settled back at home, the trip will be worth it, and the memories made together, and with loved ones who live elsewhere, will be treasured for years to come. 

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