Whenever I mention that I took my two little kids (7 months & 3 years) on a 3 week driving journey by myself, the most common response I hear is “Wow, you’re so brave!” And while I love to entertain the thought that yes, I am the brave one here, and everyone else fails to compare! … that is certainly not how my perception of what happened looks like. And the long driving part was really the only time I was “alone” with them – once I arrived at my destination I also had my mom around to help.
Was it going to be painful torture driving across 3 provinces? No. No it wasn’t. I did not set myself up to make a prophecy like that come true, starting with my mentality.
So I’ve compiled a list of 8 tips that worked for me for multiple-day travel. If you’re contemplating traveling by yourself with kids, perhaps they’ll work for you.
1.Know Your Kids
Perhaps this seems a little unenlightening, but it’s true. If your kids hate the car, I’m truly no expert in helping you make that better. You know what works and doesn’t work for your kids.
2. Don’t set high expectations
I traveled quite a bit when I was younger, all via driving. I don’t remember when I was, say, younger than 8, but I think the principle is the same: when on long journeys, boredom will ensue. Kids will be kids, and I will still be their mom. We did not sing happy-go-lucky songs the whole way, and yes, there were screaming matches. Several times. In a day. It really wouldn’t be much different than a normal day in those regards.
3. Map, map, map
I had 2-3 plans per day of travel depending on how the kids and I were doing at each particular hour come end of day. While I anticipated making it to certain places, I knew it would also depend on whether there was a ton of screaming and crying in the car (the kids too). It may have cost a bit more (not getting internet rates for hotels), but it was worth it to not be tied to a strict schedule.
4. Break it up
If you know someone in a city en route (or close to route), consider making a stopover of a couple nights. We did this on the way back to SK and I would definitely do it again. It meant one less day at our destination, but the kids welcomed the break and the next travel day began like Day 1 rather than Day 2 (of 3).
5. Constructive Distractions
I would say that there is a mentality out there that says something like, ‘kids can’t stay sitting for 5 minutes, let alone 8 hours in a car.’ Reality is this: we train our kids how to travel. If they’ve never done it before, it does not mean that they can’t, but your attitude towards it will shape their anticipation of it. You do need to know your kids and what they respond to. My son loves reading, so I made a book pouch for the back of the seat that he could reach that was filled with books. Along the way, I bought him a new book from the author Richard Scarry (one of his favourites). This helped once he had made serious rounds through all his books. He also loves cars (Hot Wheels style), so we packed about 10-15 of his favourites to play with. Interacting with him wasn’t great (needing to focus on the road and all), but we had silly faces contests through the rear view mirror and occasionally I attempted to tickle him. We also had a portable DVD player. I used this as a last resort, when even staring out of the window in complete boredom had taken its toll. I would recommend that it is worth purchasing one, even if you don’t intend on using it. When you just want to pull out your hair and throw the kids on the side of the road with a “Take me!” sign, this thing might just save you (and possibly your kids from your wrath). While I inherited ours from my grandfather, kijiji and craigslist would be two other places to look for cheap ones.
My daughter was a little harder to please. After our first 7 hours of driving, I detected a rhythm: sleep, happy, unhappy, hungry. This would repeat over and over. Occasionally a poopy diaper would mess up the routine, but this pretty much summed her up. Because she was relatively easy to predict, I just adjusted our driving to reflect that. She was (and is) still breastfeeding, so we would have to stop, I would get her out (Spencer would complain that he couldn’t leave his seat incessantly), feed her, burp her, change her diaper, jump her a couple times, then plop her back in her seat. This worked for her, but every baby is different. A couple things usually stay the same though: they will need to sleep, they will need to eat, and they will need diaper changes. Account for the feeding and diaper changing time when considering your driving.
6. Meals in the car (make me) go round and round
We generally made 2 meal stops per day. For the life of me, I could not make it shorter than 1 hour. They usually tied in with Cassia’s feeding and diaper changing too. So after my first day, I sucked up my pride and admitted that I just couldn’t make it shorter and stopped feeling angry about it. It wasn’t worth the stress (truly, there usually is enough).
We went to fast food places (yes, judge me all you want, but I did come back alive. I think the kids are too). While at first I was all “Yeah, we’ll go to ones that have a playground” this turned out to not be smart. If I wanted the stops to be as short as possible, 1 hour did not include playing. My son was extremely unimpressed with me (read: tantrum) that I was not allowing him to play at our first meal on the road. I avoided them like the plague after that.
Perhaps you’re thinking, ‘if you wanted it short, why didn’t you just eat in the car?‘. Great question. It comes back to my second point: don’t set high expectations. Kids will be kids, and the change of scenery kept my kids happy. It gave them a chance to stretch their legs (mine too), I could retrieve thrown items from unfathomable car places, and also not feel like I was completely neglecting my kids. It just worked better for us and where my kids are at.
7. Bring snacks or die
This is literally how it felt in the car. I’ll admit: I used snacks as a distraction for my son to keep him happy longer. Were they uber healthy and good for him? Nope. Too much work (and too perishable, usually). The one time I bought him a little snack pack of things like hummus, veggies, and healthy crackers, he just ate the crackers and tried to throw the rest on the floor. Yup, not impressed, so it didn’t happen again.
8. Exhaustion is expected
I expected that I would get tired while driving. I don’t drive a terrible amount for long periods. I knew there would come times when I would realise I would be a hazard on the road if I continued without a nap. My advice: suck it up, pull over, and have a nap. Even an interrupted nap should help, and don’t set a time limit on when you think you ‘should be up by’. Your life, your children’s, and other drivers’ are on the line if you drive while sleepy. Not. Worth. It. And if you are truly, truly having a hard time continuing even after your nap, find the nearest town and pull in for the night. Often we take driving for granted when the majority of what we do is city driving and short-distance driving. I find long-distance driving is like a marathon but we have no training or practice for it, so be prepared to take naps when you feel you need it. Better to make it to the end slow and steady than pretend you’re fine and not make it.
(Greater Vancouver Zoo with a new friend [for Spencer] and catching up with an old friend [for me])
I know my experiences will not be for everyone. However, I would encourage you to not be daunted by the idea. I mean, really, if Cassia had it her way she would never put food in her mouth with the purpose of eating it, but I smile at her and encourage her to do so, and even though right now she spits everything out, eventually she’ll learn to enjoy the experience. This is how we learn things. We train our kids how to travel. Arm yourself with knowledge of your kids and you’ll have the best chance of having a great time. We certainly did.
There are also resources for the research-inclined parent:
Have you traveled with small kids? What things have worked for you?