Family Road Trip Hacks

When my daughter was born this past December my husband received four weeks of family leave. He could take it at any point within a year of her birth, and the policy states that he must take the full four weeks at once. Since she was born in December he had time off for the holidays anyway, therefor it didn’t make too much sense for him to use his leave immediately. Knowing we had to make a trip to Chicago for a wedding this past June, we considered the possibility of using his time off to extend that trip into an even larger vacation. We had never been west of Chicago (together), and both of our kids handle car rides very well. It was something that could easily be pulled off with a little planning. We started plotting ideas for where to visit, planning how long we intended to drive for each day, what attractions we could hit throughout the various areas of the United States, and how we intended to make this adventure affordable. In the end we ended up with an incredible road trip that lasted 30 days. It was absolutely amazing.

Our final itinerary ended up looking like this:

Cherokee, North Carolina
Mammoth Caves, Kentucky
Hodgenville, Kentucky (Lincoln’s birthplace and childhood home)
Nappanee, Indiana (Amish Acres)
Chicago, Illinois
Sioux Falls, South Dakota
Badlands, South Dakota
Black Hills, South Dakota
Devil’s Tower, Wyoming
Little Big Horn Battlefield, Montana
Yellowstone, Wyoming
Salt Lake City, Utah
Las Vegas, Nevada
The Hoover Dam (which is in both Nevada and Arizona)
The Grand Canyon, Arizona
Santa Fe, New Mexico
San Antonio, Texas
Houston, Texas
New Orleans, Louisiana
Atlanta, Georgia
Charleston, South Carolina

It was every bit as wonderful as I imagined, and we now have lovely memories to look back on. I also have a number of tips and tricks for lengthy car rides we might take in the future (though after living a month as a nomad, I think “lengthy” is relative).

So, how did we pull off a month long road trip? Here are the things I found most helpful…

Packing

Packing is perhaps those most frantic portion of any vacation. I’m a procrastinator, I’m always aware of the fact that I’m most likely going to forget something , and I’m a dreadful over-packer. Packing is chaos.

This time around I started preparing to pack early without actually packing. The first step began about a month before we left (we didn’t even have our itinerary worked out at this point). My mind isn’t organized enough to make a list in one sitting, so instead I kept a running list using a note taking app on my phone. When I randomly thought of something we needed, I jotted it down on my list. By doing this I removed the stress of trying to recall important items, yet I was able to come up with a way to help keep me organized while I packed. Also, I constantly reminded myself that if we were to leave anything behind we can take comfort in the fact that Walmarts are everywhere. Remembering that bit of information can bring a little calm in the storm.

Besides the basic clothes and toiletries, there were a number of items I wanted to make sure we had on hand. When packing for a road trip, I would suggest keeping these items in mind for a safer and easier vacation:

  • Plastic bags. We took a huge bundle of them, and they proved to be useful for a number of purposes.
  • Paper plates, cups, and cutlery. We picnicked a lot, so these were pretty necessary. I skipped out on plastic bowls, since cups could be used as both cup and bowl.
  • Lunch boxes and picnic blankets (you can find really convenient picnic blankets that fold into a neat portable carrier)
  • Paper towels. Whether it’s a spill or car sickness, paper towels can come in handy.
  • Wipes. I carry wipes with me at all times now that we have a baby again, but keeping a spare bag in the glove box is generally a good idea, as they are useful when the car is getting a bit grubby. Also if you’re traveling in a particularly secluded area (which is a huge chunk of western United States), you may need to pull over in order to let your small child use the side of the road as a rest stop. Wipes could be a necessity in those cases.
  • Placing a plastic bin on the floor of the back seat really assisted in keeping our car tolerable. Throwing in a plastic bag made it a very convenient trash can that we emptied whenever we pulled over for gas. I am particularly glad I remembered this.
  • Thermometer
  • First aid kit (band aids, antiseptic wipes, tweezers, etc.). Getting a kit from the medical section of a grocery store would be the easiest way to insure you have the majority of what you might need. I keep one in the car at all times, and it just so happened that we needed to open it for the first time during our trip (a bandage for a skinned knee).
  • Basic medicines such as tylenal (both for adults and kids), allergy relief, and Dramamine. Thankfully we had no need for any of these medicines (didn’t even have to deal with car sickness!), but it’s good to have them on hand just in case.
  • Cash
  • Flashlights
  • Umbrella
  • Bug spray
  • Suntan lotion
  • 1 out of season outfit per member of the family
  • I personally found that maxi skirts and dresses were the easiest piece of clothing to pack for this vacation. While I normally prefer trips that require hiking boots and a t-shirt, we were traveling with small children and therefor couldn’t do anything too strenuous anyway. Maxi skirts provided casual and comfortable clothes to wear while out and about, and yet they could easily be made into a nicer outfit if you wanted to do something slightly more formal, such as going out to dinner. Just throw on a necklace and put your hair up. A maxi skirt/dress could easily work for two different settings.
  • A good rule of thumb for packing children’s clothes: Take the number of days you’ll be gone and multiply it by 1.5. That will give you a rough guess as to how many tops or onsies you should pack. For pajamas divide that number by two.
  • A laundry bag and laundry pods (your laundry bag could be a roll of garbage bags. Just something to separate your dirty clothes).  If you’re going on a particularly long trip, you might end up using a hotel’s laundry room. If that’s the case, pods are significantly easier to carry than a container of liquid detergent.

Food

We did hit a number of great restaurants. Ri Ra Irish pub in Vegas, Gabriel’s in Santa Fe, and Medieval Times in Atlanta were places we splurged on (with no regrets). However, in order to make this road trip affordable we did try to avoid eating out. That meant I had to consider what meals we would bring with us in addition to the snacks we munched on during the drives. Bringing a cooler gave us more flexibility in what we could prepare. It became routine to empty the water and replace the ice every morning, which wasn’t too much trouble at all. Many hotels these days provide a microwave in some way. Most places we stayed had a microwave in the room, and when we didn’t there was usually one available in the lobby. That helped us significantly. Our ideas for food included:

Snacks:

  • Dried fruits and veggies
  • Mozzarella cheese sticks
  • Hummus (as well as carrots, pita chips, and anything else to dip)
  • Popcorn
  • Pouches of yogurt
  • Chocolate and/or cookies (something to settle the sweet tooth cravings)
  • Granola bars
  • Apples/grapes/clementines
  • Horizon milk boxes for the kiddos
  • Crackers
  • Pretzels
  • Animal crackers

Breakfast:

  • Baked goods. I simply grabbed some frosted rolls from the bakery section of the grocery store, and that was breakfast for the first few days.
  • Nature’s Path toaster pastries (especially good if you have a microwave in the hotel room, but also good enough unheated)
  • English muffins. Prepare them by adding turkey and cheese before popping them into a microwave.
  • Yogurt
  • Oatmeal: use the coffee maker in your room to heat up the water
  • Fruit
  • Bagels and cream cheese

Lunch:

  • Sandwiches are an obvious choice. Find different ways to change the flavors you’re eating throughout the trip so as not to burn out. Every time I went to replenish supplies, I choose a different type of lunch meat (turkey, shredded chicken, and then roast beef). Play with different ingredients to liven up the taste. Ideas for more interesting sandwich toppings and spreads include: sprouts, guacamole, hummus, salad dressings, horseradish (especially with roast beef), and herbs (such as fresh basil leafs).
  • Salads. To be completely honest, I simply grabbed pre-made (and pre-washed!) bags from the produce section.
  • Turkey rolls: Hawaiian bread with turkey, cheddar, and mayo (or mustard)
  • Quesadillas give you the option to make various sorts of wraps if you want to change things up from sandwiches. It can be as simple as turkey and cream cheese, or you can spice it up by making even more complex rolls (using the same ingredients as you would a sandwich). These are also easier for road trips since you wouldn’t need to worry about squishing bread.
  • Bagel pizza: Squeezable pizza sauce, shredded mozzarella, and turkey pepperoni.

Dinner:

With dinner we ate a lot of very cheap food to avoid going out. Most of the time I ended up using something from the lunch category, but I also had a number of foods to heat up in our hotel rooms.

  • Macaroni and cheese
  • Hot dogs
  • Soups that can be microwaved in their containers
  • There are any variety of microwave meals you can bring along if you’re willing to take a cooler with. Organic sections of grocery stores tend to have more interesting varieties (and more healthy options).
  • Frozen burritos
  • Frozen veggies

Also to keep in mind: Give your child his/her own lunch bag to keep in the back seat. It will keep them from bugging you about being hungry every ten minutes. You have control over portions, and they have the freedom of choice. When their inventory starts to run low, simply refill it.

Activities for kids

One of the biggest struggles parents face when traveling is, of course, keeping the kids entertained. I’m not going to lie about our use of electronics. The tablet definitely kept our driving easy and peaceful. However, there were other things we did to try and keep our son entertained throughout the trip. In between the two car seats I provided a basket with various activities he could access, which he was involved in helping to put together. We also tried to find ways to relieve any boredom that might have built up. Rest stops provided space to run around. Walmarts and grocery stores can be an excuse to get out of the car and walk around during longer stretches of driving. Public parks can be a wonderful release of pent up energy, and most major cities have some sort of children’s museum (we visited the Salt Lake City children’s museum while passing through).

Our activity bin included:

  • A cookie sheet with magnetized puzzle pieces. The preparation was simple. I stuck magnet strips to the back of puzzle pieces and threw them in a baggie with a cut out of the completed picture for reference.
  • A lego baseplate (also with magnetic strips on the back) with a small container of legos.
  • Rubix cube
  • Sticker sheets along with a small notebook to decorate (though most stickers ended up in various spots around the car)
  • Mess-free coloring sheets (Crayola color wonder) with their markers (markers were stored in a pencil bag)
  • An activity binder I put together. I printed various worksheet activities and slipped them into page protectors inside a binder. I also included a pencil bag with dry erase markers, which could be wiped off of the page protectors for reuse. Ideas for pages included: Activities from letter and number writing workbooks, a map of the United States so my son could follow along and keep track of our journey, various puzzles and maze activities I found online, and coloring sheets.
  • Glow sticks – they were a hit when we drove into the night
  • Books. Of course we brought a ton of books
  • Calculator. I  grabbed a cheap one at the dollar store (a wonderful resource!) before we left, and it turned out to be incredibly entertaining for my 3 year old. Particularly when his imagination turned it into a phone.

 

While road trips take time and require some preparation to pull off,  they are amazing experiences. These little details helped get us across America smoothly, with only very minor hiccups we can laugh about as we look back.  We returned home safe and sound, and we now have amazing memories to remember. I can’t wait to see how our next adventure goes!

 

 

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