My husband and I took our daughters (ages 3.5 and just barely 2) on a 10 hour car drive for our summer vacation last week. Yes, I said 10 hours. Each way.
To answer your initial questions, yes, we all survived, and yes, my husband and I are still sane. I think.
We’ve made the 3.5 hour drive down to New York to visit the girls’ great-grandparents three to four times each year since my older daughter was born. Between those drives and our most recent vacation, I have decided that I am now an expert on road trips, and well qualified to give advice to all of you idiots brave folks who have decided to venture forth on the great American highways this summer.
Now, don’t worry. I’m not going to tell you to make some fancy spreadsheet in preparation for your trip (although that does help calm my pre-travel anxiety) or buy some fancy-pants gadget (except the in-car DVD player). When the shit hits the fan (or the vomit hits everything, as the case may be), no gadget is going to save you. But there are a few things that may make the trip a little more bearable. So, in no particular order, here you go:
1. Know thyself, and thy children. I love car trips, I love driving and riding and heading out and being on the road. I’ve driven from California to Vermont and back by myself more than once, and I would do it again (especially the alone part). The girls can handle the car, which we learned by experimenting on shorter trips. If you hate car rides, or your kids do, you may want to consider other modes of travel, if possible.
2. Make sure the drive is worth it. Even if you and your kids love being in the car, long drives with little ones are damn hard. So, be sure that whatever is waiting for you at the other end of the car is worth the suffering you may have to endure to get there. For us, great-grandparents definitely make the grade, as does a week on the beach with good friends who have moved away.
3. Lower your expectations. Really, really low. Even lower. Imagine the worst, and then cover that in vomit and poop and set that nightmare to a soundtrack of screaming. All inside a tiny box barreling down the road at 65 miles an hour, from which you can’t escape. Hopefully that won’t happen, but if it does, you’ll be prepared. Anything even slightly better than that will feel like a success.
4. Prepare your kids. Talk to them about what’s going to happen and what to expect. A lot. For at least 24 hours before the trip. (But not for too long before that, because then you’ll have to hear about it constantly for the week before, and you’ll go insane before you ever set foot in the car.) Talking about it might not make much difference, but it probably will, and it’s worth a shot.
5. Music, music, music. Make a playlist of your little ones’ favorite tunes, and prepare to listen to it over and over and over again. And then one more time after that. And then just when you feel like your ears might start bleeding if you have to listen to that damn dizzy dreidel song even once more, play it again. Because it’s better than screaming.
6. Make sure the kids are well fed. And that you have lots of diapers and wipes in the car, as well as extra clothes for EVERYONE. (Also, plastic bags to hold wet or dirty clothes.) These may seem obvious suggestions, but let’s just say they weren’t always so obvious to me. Ahem.
7. If your little ones are forward facing, bust out the DVD player. Seriously. Even if TV is verboten in your house, I highly recommend you make an exception for the car. Explain that the Olivia videos are a special treat for long car rides, not for the house, and not for short trips. (Tip: If you haven’t already, preview the shows before offering them up. My head almost exploded by the third episode of Max and Ruby.)
8. Break the rules. Or at least flex them. You’re in survival mode here, people, and if you’re not, you should be. Let them watch hours of TV. Slap a pull-up on your potty-trained kid. Feed them the damn nuggets and fries (especially if they come with a toy–the novelty should entertain those little back-seat monsters for at least eight minutes). It may turn out that you don’t have a choice, and even if you do, these little exceptions to the rules will help make the trip feel like a special treat.
9. Don’t feel the need to entertain them the whole time. I’ve made this mistake too many times, and by the end of the trip I am completely depleted. Make sure each child has his or her favorite toy or lovey, turn on the music or the videos, and leave them alone. Switch it up–after an hour of TV, listen to music, and then back again. Or just let them stare out the window. But don’t start out the drive by entertaining them, as they will expect that level of attention for the whole ride. Save it for when you really need it, when things start to fall apart. Which they will.
10. Take a deep breath, go find your sense of humor, and remind yourself that this, too, shall pass. We’ve all survived road trips, and your family will too. Hopefully there will be some wine or chocolate waiting for you at the other end.