Pack the Car the Night Before
Loading up the suitcases, stroller, portable crib, and other travel essentials the night before you plan to leave allows you a more restful sleep and prevents you from starting the trip short-tempered and sweaty from wrestling suitcases into a limited cargo space. Try to pack one small bag with toiletries and essentials that we will need before heading off in the morning. If you pack all the toiletries last, they will be the first things you pull out when you reach your destination. It's also a good idea to fill the car up with gas and check the oil as well as the tire pressure to avoid any automotive surprises.
A little preparation goes a long way. We have made several cross-country trips with our three kids, including one time with a newborn who was nursing every couple of hours. The key to success is being ready for anything and everything. Our daughter gets carsick on windy roads, so we always make sure to have a change of clothes easily accessible. (A roll of paper towels and Febreeze also comes in handy). I like to pack our kids' clothes in gallon Ziploc bags. That way it is easy to grab a complete outfit with pants, shirt, socks, and underwear.
It's also great to have Ziploc bags to store wet bathing suits or dirty clothes in case someone does get carsick. I make it a rule to bring two more outfits for each person than I think we'll need (which comes in handy if a toddler gets a little too excited about the puddles at the rest area or someone spills a full super-size drink).
It's also a good idea to have a small bag of essentials for dealing with an illness. Don't plan to transport an entire pharmacy, but take along a thermometer, a children's pain reliever and fever reducer, some Pepto Bismol, and an electrolyte solution, as well as your insurance card and your pediatrician's phone number.
Lower your Expectations
We often think of a vacation with this idyllic picture of our kids romping through the ocean waves and building sand castles. We don't picture temper tantrums at the seafood restaurant and napping children as we get out of the car to see the Grand Canyon. But when kids are thrown out of their comfort zones and nap schedules have flown out the window, you have to expect some repercussions. Be realistic about what you plan to do.
If you have a long road trip on the agenda, plan to stop every couple of hours. Let everyone stretch their legs, take a potty break, and refill water bottles.
It's great to have a bouncy ball to play soccer or kickball with at a rest area. If you are heading to a big amusement park, plan to hit the park when it opens and head back to the hotel for lunch and a nap before returning to the park in the early evening. Hopefully with this plan you will miss most of the crowds as well as the hottest part of the day.
Keep the Kids Busy
Unless you want to hear, "Are we there yet?" fifty-four times before you get to Grandma's house, it is paramount to keep the kids distracted. Have an assortment of activities at your disposal. We always bring a few surprises for our kids for the car when we make a big trip. They don't need to be expensive. A trip to the dollar store will get you stickers, crayons, coloring books, and a ton of other distractions that you can hand out when things get a little crazy.
For our first cross-country trip we purchased a portable DVD player. While I am not a proponent of letting kids watch TV for eight hours at a time, a cartoon can be a real lifesaver when you are a little lost and your kids keep whining about wanting to stop. I also like the portable DVD player because you can bring it into your hotel room. Sometimes your kids' favorite TV shows aren't available with the cable selection in your hotel and it's great to have a few minutes to get dressed and re-pack while Dora entertains everyone.
Other great things to have on hand are books on tape, Doodle Pros (they make a small version), window clings, disposable cameras, books, a favorite stuffed animal or doll (we have a one-per-child rule), and travel games.
Have Healthy Food on Hand
One of the most difficult things we face when traveling is the change to our diet. Eating fast food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner can cause stomach distress, especially with young children. Bring healthy food that your kids are used to and separate the food into snack bags and small snack containers to keep the portions in control.
I like to pack snacks that won't melt (no gummy bears or chocolate) and plenty of water. Juice is okay to have on hand, but you want to make sure you don't overload your kids with sugar. We have found that the best snacks are: grapes, pretzels, graham crackers, raisins, cheese sticks, carrots, granola bars, and fruit cups. Pudding cups are also a good bet, but make sure you have plenty of napkins and baby wipes to deal with any messes. Make the trip easier by bringing along your child's favorite fruit snacks or the goldfish crackers he eats every day with his lunch.
While there are some essentials that you never want to be without, like sunscreen and a jacket, sometimes our effort to prepare for anything and everything leads to packing up every outfit your child owns. Save space by not packing beach towels if the hotel provides them for the pool. Limit the number of books and toys your child can bring. We have found it helpful to give each child a backpack for his or her dolls, cars, books, etc. Bring a pillowcase or a couple of plastic sacks to store your dirty clothes.
Using duffle bags instead of suitcases can be a space saver. Duffle bags can be squished in as clothes are removed while suitcases will stay the same size regardless of how much stuff you have in them.
Plan to Do Less
We try to pack as much as we can into our vacations while our kids are content to swim in the hotel pool and check out the gift shop. We have learned that a little planning is good, but a lot can frustrate everyone. You don't have to stop at every scenic sight or fill your day with museum visits and tours. Plan some downtime in your day.
Have the Right Attitude
During one of our cross-country journeys, we stopped in a city in Wyoming very late at night. We were all exhausted and cranky. We became even crankier when we couldn't find a hotel room. We finally found a room at a motel that seemed on the verge of being condemned. The next morning, the place looked even worse in the daylight. But we all laughed about it and whenever we talk about that trip, everyone remembers that lovely motel. So much of how your trip turns out depends on the attitude you have. Realize that everything will not go smoothly, and that's okay.
By doing some work ahead of time, you can make sure that your summer road trip is one to remember, for all of the right reasons.