When I was a little girl, my family made sure we took at least one vacation each year. We didn’t have a lot of money, so our trips were by car to campgrounds. It was a terrific experience, and it made for some wonderful family bonding and memories. I still love thinking about sitting around a campfire in the evenings, going to historic sites (oh, all the forts we visited!), and (once we got a pop-up camper), playing board games before bed.
My own family is lucky enough to have a timeshare that allows us to use points to stay all over the country. We’ve stayed all over the eastern seaboard, and we’ll even be going to Arizona for a long-overdue trip to see the Grand Canyon. But most of our vacations are, to this day, driving ones. Even our trip to the Badlands of South Dakota two years ago was a driving one. Our children have been road warriors since they were infants, and we’ve learned a few things about traveling on the road as a family over the last 17 years.
The first thing we had to learn as new parents was that we weren’t going to beat our best time on road trips any more. (This was a thing for my husband, really.) Before our older daughter was born, we would try to make the best time possible, making infrequent stops (do everything here – eat, bathroom, gas – because we’re not stopping again until the tank is empty!) But with a baby in the car, we learned to leave extra time for diaper change stops and feedings. As our daughters grew, we had to leave extra time for bathroom breaks. Knowing this ahead of time reduced a lot of stress when we had to stop two exits in a row because the toddler in the back seat didn’t know she had to pee 10 minutes prior. To combat this a bit, we made up “Road Rules.” Everyone would have to try to go potty at the gas stop, even if no one thought they needed to go. While this didn’t eliminate every emergency stop, it did reduce them enough to keep us from losing our minds!
When I was a kid and our family went on epic road trips, we would always have things to do in the car: books, hand-held games (Simon, anyone?), and, when we were older, Walkmans and lots of music tapes. My mother also made sure we had snacks galore! (We might have overdone the snacks sometimes.) I carried this on with my own children. Little kids’ tummies get empty and they get super-antsy as a result. I’d keep healthy snacks on hand for them so we’d be able to keep going without spending a ton of money on either fast-food or junk food at the gas stations. We’d have a box with fruit snacks, grapes, Cheerios, pretzels, and more, plus a cooler with water to refill sippy cups (or simply hand over when they got older). When my husband and I planned to leave super early in the morning to get a jump on things, we might splurge for coffee out, but we always picked up donuts or pastries ahead of time to eat in the car. And, of course, my car always has napkins in the glovebox – even to this day.
Once our kids started getting old enough to play games, we dusted off some old road trip games that I used to play. I never did the license plate game, but we did play the ABCs game. Everyone looked for the alphabet (in order) on road signs. No license plates were allowed, either. We did make exceptions for Q when the girls were really little and took more time to read signs; they were allowed to find Q ahead of time and save it for later. It worked well (as well as having adults only call about every second or third letter they saw), and we took the rule away once they were excellent readers. The Alphabet Game would keep us busy for a good while, and when the girls got old enough, we’d even add a backwards alphabet round! (Finding a pizza sign at the end was the ultimate!) Another game is to make up sentences where all of the words begin with the same letter. (Annie ate apples. Benny bit both burgers. Cathy crashed clown cars. … They don’t even need to make sense — the sillier, the better!)
Another game we would play (and sometimes still do, though it’s electronic these days) is Auto Bingo. We picked up a few sets of these little cards at Cracker Barrel, but they are available online from several sources. Auto Bingo would keep everyone busy for a long time, especially when we had to spot a pay phone! (We did find that there are some sets that are more conducive to country driving and others that work better when you’re closer to cities.)
Another favorite game to play is a story-telling game called “Fortunately, Unfortunately.” In this game, each person adds a single sentence to a story, and you must alternate between the sentences beginning with “fortunately” or “unfortunately” once you pass the “Once upon a time…” opener. For some families (like mine), a rule that you can’t kill everyone off in the third sentence must be in play. This helps the story last longer. The nice thing about this game is that you don’t need a certain number of people, and the more people there are playing, the better. We’ve told stories of girls who, as they walk to the library, sprout wings and fly. There have been stories of dogs that go on adventures with their people. We’ve even told stories that incorporate recent book or movie plots. Usually, though, the stories just get plain silly, and the people who wind up with “unfortunately” sentences work to derail all the things that have gone well for the protagonist.
Good music is a must on road trips, and everyone needs to have a chance to pick the playlist at some point. During the day (and early on in our trip), the song lists come from the kids and me. When they were little, our girls picked a lot of Veggie Tales sing-a-longs when their turn came. My lists tended towards ’80s Top 40, with heavy doses of Duran Duran, as well as classic rock. As the day wears on and my husband starts feeling tired, there are a lot of hair metal bands, cranked to insane volumes. These days, we get more requests from the kids that revolve around Panic! at the Disco and twenty øne piløts with heavy doses of Bon Jovi. (What road trip is complete without “Wanted Dead or Alive” blared at ear-splitting volumes while everyone sings along at the tops of their lungs? The answer is none. None road trips.)
Sleeping in the car is something that’s going to happen. When I was a kid and we were camping, we’d always have our pillows in the back of the car to make napping more comfy. When my kids were little, we used to grab some of the couch pillows for them; the little square pillows were easy to store when they weren’t using them, and they were the perfect size.
In this day and age, we have a million GPS options on our smart phones, but our family never leaves for a road trip without our road atlas. We tuck the behemoth book with its spiral binding between the front seat and the console, and we often refer to it to see the bigger picture of our surroundings. If there’s a huge traffic backup, I’ll pull the atlas out while my husband drives and I’ll search for optional routes. We do use Waze, which will direct us around traffic if necessary, but sometimes I need to see where the options will lead. Between Waze’s crowd-sourced reports that let me know where the accident is and my trusty Rand McNally Road Atlas, I can sometimes figure a way around the problems more effectively. Besides, everyone should know how to read a map, and when the kids were younger, we’d let them try to figure out routes using the atlas.
Finally, if we’re on a multiple-day trip to our destination, we try to make a stop or two at something interesting along the way. As we drove across South Dakota towards the Badlands, we stopped at Al’s Last Oasis and Wall Drug. When we were driving back from South Dakota on another trip, we stayed near St. Louis and took in the Gateway Arch. Heck, one trip I made with my girls from Florida back to Virginia, we stopped at every welcome station on the way home, ran a lap, and grabbed a free map or two. Sometimes, when we’re just rushing to get from one place to another, instead of stopping at the rest areas, I snap a picture of the welcome sign at the state border and keep family updated on our progress via Instagram.
Road trips can be a source of great fun for a family, even if your kids are really small. The most important thing to do with really wee ones is to make plenty of allowances for them. Plan on taking much longer than usual, then sit back and enjoy the ride. Look at the scenery, even if all you’re doing is estimating cattle as you drive through eastern Texas. (That was a hilarious activity, especially when we started saying things like, “Oh, there are definitely two million Longhorns on my side of the car! We win!” We were pretty slaphappy on that trip.) The best thing about taking long road trips is the time you get to spend with your family. Even if your teens are grumpy, they’re still going to look back on the time as well-spent. (Trust me, it might take a little while, but they’ll appreciate it eventually.) These are experiences that will enrich your family life and bring you all closer. Be not afraid! Grab your atlas and set out to see the world! Adventure is out there!
Copyright 2016 Christine Johnson