“Are we there yet?” my toddler asked. There was approximately nine hours left to go on our road trip.
“No,” I said, “Let’s talk about something else for a while.”
Against our better judgment, my brave mother-in-law and I decided to drive the entire length of California with two small children for a mini spring break adventure. Was it easy? No. But, was it worth it? Absolutely.
Because we are still living in a pandemic, our number one goal was safety during our trip. We wanted to avoid crowds, poorly ventilated areas and unforeseen circumstances where we would find ourselves stuck.
Air travel, even though more convenient, was out of the question. Two years prior, we were trapped in an airplane that parked itself on a tarmac in Canada for hours. My then eighteen-month-old took it upon herself to lick nearly every surface she could come in contact with and flop upon the ground under our feet like a fish. When I attempted to hold her still, she screamed for nearly half an hour—it was an experience I don’t think anyone on that plane will ever forget.
So, with our bags packed, we buckled ourselves into the car and began the 10+ hour drive. Here are a few hacks that helped us keep our sanity and maximize the fun during our long car trip:
1. Leave early and map out stopping points ahead of time.
“Gramma! Mommy! I have to go potttttyyyy,” said my youngest daughter.
Her voice rose an octave. She fidgeted in her seat. We were smack in the middle of California on highway 5. The closest stop was more than 40 miles away. My mother-in-law and I looked at each other, eyes widening in unison. We had no desire to stop along the freeway and find a rock or bush to sneak behind. I turned in my seat and began distracting my daughter. Thank goodness it worked. We made it to the next rest stop just in time.
Luckily, we did some research prior to leaving. Each stop was approximately 200-300 miles apart (or two to four hours). Our goal was to stay in the car for as long as we could to help reduce the length of the trip, but it was also important to keep our sanity in check. We found that making deliberate stops, in a variety of locations, helped reduce hungry outbursts, complaints and backseat fighting. Each stop meant a bathroom break, stretching our legs or finding food.
2. Pack an ice pack and cooler filled with food.
“Let’s have a picnic in Gramma’s car!” My daughter shouts.
“Of course!” Gramma responded. We were ready with sandwiches.
Food stops are notorious for two things: crowds of people and unhealthy food choices. Both of which we did not completely avoid during our trip. But, because we took the time to pack a cooler, we were able to sneak around most crowds and keep our tummies happy between stops.
The bonus was that having a cooler and ice pack gave us flexibility for daytime outings as well as made it possible for us to return home with our leftover groceries. Our cooler was also foldable, so it could be stored when not in use. Win-win.
3. Pack a small bag/box with cleaning essentials.
“I’m done!” she said. My youngest daughter sat up straight and beamed with pride. I turned to find her hands and face covered in ketchup. Crumbs dusted her striped shirt and bits of hamburger laid at the bottom of the In-N-Out lap tray. I bit back a laugh.
“Honey, what did you do with the hamburger?” I asked, impressed. I took the tray and placed it at my feet, and reached for our “emergency roadside dirty child kit”. We came prepared. The last thing I wanted was to have a ketchup-finger-painting-party all over Gramma’s windows. The carpocalypse wasn’t going to happen on my watch.
Our kit included cleaning wipes, hand sanitizer, paper towels, dish soap, compostable ziplocks and toilet paper. We were prepared for anything and we were able to bring the kit with us on all of our adventures. It was easy to make and a convenient tool for the car that didn’t take up any extra legroom.
4. Bonus Hack: Find a vacation spot with a kitchen.
Arguably, the best decision we made on our trip was staying at a place with a kitchen. After willfully being locked in a car with tiny humans for half a day, there was nothing appealing about getting back into the car and sitting still at a restaurant.
A kitchen gave us the freedom to relax in one place, let the girls play freely, reduce exposure to crowds and save some moola.
San Diego or bust. Mission accomplished. Memories have been made.
“Mama, when are we going back to San Diego?”
Mission accomplished. It’s been over a month and both of my girls ask daily when we can climb back into the car and do it again. Despite the long hours, traffic jams and bathroom stops, the road trip was part of the adventure. And, even though my mother-in-law and I don’t want to drive 10+ hours again any time soon, we both agree that our road trip to San Diego was 100% worth it.
These four easy hacks helped create space for ourselves to enjoy the time we had away even more. With some careful planning (and a dash of mental preparedness), our family road trip was safe and fun. Whatever adventure you might be planning with your family, I hope these hacks can also help you along the way.