Friday, November 11, 2011

Traveling with children - lessons from more than 25,000 miles

Coming up on the holidays, a lot of people will be traveling to visit friends and family.  Traveling with a pile o' kids is - like everything else! - not the same as traveling with adults, or even the same as taking a trip with just one or two.  You get to that tipping point, and there is very little that doesn't have to change.

Since our family has been making cross country drives for years to visit family at Christmastime - plus occasional other trips - I thought I'd provide a few suggestions I've learned to make the road seem a little shorter!

First, know yourself.  And your kids.  There are a lot of sensible ways to manage a trip.  The most important thing is to know which way will work best for you.  Are you a night owl?  A lot of people like to tuck all the kids into their carseats at bedtime, and make as much of the drive as they can while the little ones snooze, quiet and immune to boredom, squabbling, and the urge to eat all the car snacks in the first hour.

This is a great plan, and can work quite well.  My husband and I, though, don't ever try that.  We know that we can't stay awake enough to drive when it gets late.  Our preferred approach is to get everything ready the night before, get up early, and leave as soon as possible.  (Taking all of us on a long trip, that seems to be 8:30 or 9).  We get donuts on the way out of town - this is very important! :)  Then we hardly stop until dinnertime.  We take quick bathroom breaks, and that is pretty much it.  To save money, we pack our lunch; to save time, we eat it without stopping.  Then, we stop for a late-ish dinner - maybe around 7 - preferably something cheap that we can take back to the hotel (like maybe several $5 pizzas).  We take dinner to the hotel and settle in for a good night's sleep.  Then, we get up early, eat the free hotel breakfast, and get on the road to finish out our trip.  The second day's lunch is packed, as well.  I like to have the first day's lunch be something from the cooler - egg salad, maybe - and the second day's lunch be something nonperishable indestructible, that can't have been destroyed by the inevitable rummaging and shifting that happens when you pack a lot of people in a small space for a long time, then unload and reload them and their overnight gear in the dark and cold.  Peanut butter and jelly and apples are good candidates for this.   I guess the main thing for us is that we dread the unload and load process (and the time it takes) so much that we plan to avoid it as much as possible.

I know that some other families prefer to plan more travel time, so they can relax and enjoy the sights along the way.  Again, it just depends on what you want out of the trip, and your own family dynamics.

Then, be proactively happy.  We're moms; we know that our mood is the trendsetter in the family.  There are times when it is ok to act happier than you feel - and traveling with young children is one of them.  Whether driving or flying, the total disruption of the routine is both exciting and unnerving to little ones, and they get a little overwhelmed.  Be happy!  Smile, chat, and don't complain.  They will be more influenced by this than you might think.

Our newest traveler
Decide in advance whether you will stick to normal rules about snacks, etc., or relax a bit for the trip.  In my opinion, either can be a good choice.  Knowing what you want to do ahead of time will reduce any confusion and aid discipline.

Pack diversions - but hide most of them.  You know that if you give a toddler twenty toys, they will all go on the floor.  Or, they might be tossed out of reach and be screamed for.  Instead, pack a few toy bags, and hand them out one at a time.  Save some for the second day - and hide them all away while you are staying at your destination.  They will be much more exciting on the drive home that way!  I pack a separate bag of toys for the destination, too.  (It has been suggested that I tend to pack too many toys and should know better by now.  I suspect there may be some truth to this...)  By the way, a box of band-aids is a fabulous diversion for the older toddler and preschooler set.  Get a little creative when you pack for them.

Know eating schedules and don't push them too much.  The littler the kid, the less able to withstand a late meal or snack.  A nursing baby is the toughest of all - but you will all be happier if you just wake her up to eat at the right time, rather than letting her sleep longer since she is lulled by the car.  She'll wake up at a very bad time, and in a very bad mood!  Toddlers and preschoolers need to keep their meal schedules as much as possible, too.  If dinner will be late, hand out snacks. Bring plenty of food and water.  Our rule is water only for children in the car, unless they are still using a sippy.  It keeps things simpler and cleaner.

Bring more wipes, towels or paper towels, diapers, and changes of clothes for on the road  than you think you will need.  Enough said.

If you will be stopping for the night, pack a "hotel bag."  I pack a single duffel that contains one change of clothes for everyone,  plus diapers and toiletries for one night.  This makes things a lot easier when you are trying to get everyone into the hotel at night.  There will still be odds and ends, but not nearly so bad as having to bring in separate bags for each person.

Have a pep talk.  Let the older children know that they will be expected to help out with the littles, if they don't assume it already, and that their participation is part of what makes the trip possible and enjoyable.  Let the littles know, as much as you can, what traveling is like and that you will still expect the same standards of behavior that you do at home.  Then, be willing to back it up!  Disciplined kids are much more fun to be around.

Have fun!  That is why you're going, usually.  Keep it light and enjoy your family.  Keep your expectations realistic - little ones have no understanding of  the value of a vacation.  They will still be children - wonderful, amazing little sinners.  If we expect that, our hopes for a picture-perfect vacation won't get in the way of enjoying the real thing.

Do you have anything to add?  How do you manage travel in your family?


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