My family recently took a two-week trip to Philadelphia. From Illinois, it was a long haul. And when I say long, I do mean long -- like two separate days of driving to get there long.
But, I have to say, the drive wasn't so bad. We usually take driving vacations, so I have a few tricks up my sleeve. Fortunately, they are tricks I don't mind sharing...
Trick #1: Do your homework.
When I plan one of our drives, I involve the children in the planning. We talk about which states we'll be going through and what that state will be like. Our last trip was a 5 state trip. So, we learned about Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. But the state which captured my children's imagination, at least during the drive, was West Virginia. We were only there for about 30 minutes of the drive, but the kids knew that it was a state of mountains and coal mines. It was there that the roads first got winding and that we saw our first tunnels. Knowing the road ahead helped them to have something to look forward to and gave them a sense of place along the way.
Trick #2: Make the most of your stops.
I remember, when I was a child, we would stop and eat around roadside picnic tables, with expressway traffic shooting by. I never do that with my kids. (Sorry, Mom & Dad... I know you're reading this...)
When we are planning the trip, I use Google Earth to check out towns we will consider stopping in. So many communities across America have invested in beautiful parks (with amazing playgrounds!) If we're going to stop for lunch, we make it standard practice to get the kids out of the car and running around. It lets them be loud and run off all that extra energy and it's a nice reward for their patience in the car. If we're taking an unexpected stop, we ask locals where to find the best playground in town, or we look for a local school playground. It doesn't take a lot to satisfy the kids; if it's new to them, they will love it. And, they're more likely to nap in the car afterward if they're nice and tired when they get in the car.
Trick #3: Eat smart -- good for the waistline, good for your wallet.
When our family takes a road trip, we are more likely to get a loaf of bread, fresh fruit, and sandwich fixings at a local store than to stop for lunch at a fast food place. Providing lunch at the park is more satisfying and laid-back (you don't have to expect a 4 year old to mind his manners), not to mention more nutritious. And in this economy, the most important thing is, you save money. There is nothing worse than paying too much for bad food that your child does not eat. When we're on a trip, we set a maximum of one (yes, I said one) restaurant meal a day. That way, when they do get into the restaurant, a) they are hungry, b) they are willing to mind their manners and c) you can afford those special foods they (and you) don't get all the time -- a good steak, seafood, that beautiful chocolate cheesecake or sundae at the end of the meal.
We find that the one restaurant meal a day rule makes us more portable, too. We can be selective in what we eat by carrying fruit or carrot sticks or fresh water and eating on the go. We can take a walk in the morning, get good coffee and give our two-year-old her first raspberry croissant or take a hike and open our backpack to apples and cheese and juice boxes at the top of a mountain. There is something satisfying about food that is fresh, light, and well-earned. We find it keeps us from feeling that ugly "I've been traveling too long" feeling you can get from eating rich food at every meal.
If you're worried that you may be caught without something appropriate, you can always repeat what I tell myself when packing -- I live in the United States of America. There is nowhere you can go in this amazing country that you cannot find something to sustain your family.
And some of our neatest discoveries have come during a stopover "food search". On our trip through Pennsylvania, we stopped in a small farm town and went to the local store. My seven year old decided it was time to try sardines for the first time (that was a shocker!), but the rest of us had some fresh fruit, crackers, cheese, and large cartons of milk. And while we sat on a grassy hillside adjacent to the store, here came buggyful after buggyful of Amish men in brightly colored shirts right past us. It was a neat moment that gave us a chance to teach our children and to see something we don't get the chance to see everyday.
Trick #4: Never underestimate the power of something new.
Every mom searches her brain for which toys and books to bring on the trip. We ask ourselves how much to bring and which toys or games are best. I like toys that are based upon imaginary play (so action figures or dolls are good), ones that are small (so magnetized games are great), ones that are low-tech (no loud sounds or annoying lights, and no need to bring batteries). I like small puzzles that can be done and re-done, or toys that involve something to figure out (my boys love transformers), but they can't have too many pieces. We bring a large number of small paperback storybooks and usually a chapter book for me to read when the ride seems long. We like mysteries or adventure stories, but classics are fun, too. On our last trip, we read a children's version of Treasure Island. For boys who love pirates, it was something they never tired of listening to.
That probably seems like a standard list of basic ideas, but the trick is this: pack your toys and books into a few separate packages and introduce them to your children in stages. And be sure to reserve a small bag of totally new books and toys for the ride home. If we're planning on being away for two weeks, and my children have had the same 10 books the whole time, they are so sick of those stories by the ride home, that all I hear is complaining. So, I try to keep a little mystery in the ride for them. At the end of each day, I pack up some toys and put them away until later in the trip. On our last vacation, I even packed one brand new toy into each of their suitcases. It was "the hotel toy", and they could only play with it in the hotel room. (It was my smart idea to avoid having to schlep everything up from the car all the time.) It worked beautifully. Never underestimate the power of something new.
If you and your family are going away for the long weekend, please have a safe and pleasant trip. I hope you come across some exciting new things along the way. Hopefully, you'll discover what we have discovered -- that the art of the long car trip is not lost, and that there's no reason to dread the road that takes you where you're going. If you can discover new things along the way and treat yourself to the joy of getting OFF the expressway for a while, you will find that getting there can be just as much fun as the rest of your vacation.
Happy Fourth of July!