Last week, I did a 14-hour solo road trip with my 2-year-old and my 4-year-old. And I didn’t go insane.
I didn’t start off insane, either, thanks. I was nervous before the trip started, for sure. And there are definitely some things I’ll tweak before we hit the road to go home again. But all in all? It was unbelievably painless for a long road trip with kids, and one I think I’ll make more often.
Here’s how it began: A few times a year, I pack my kids up and we fly from NYC, where we live, to Northern Michigan, where my parents live.
Since I work from home and my eldest isn’t in school yet, I typically stay 3-4 weeks at a time. My husband will stay back in NYC to work, coming up for a long weekend in the middle of our trip. It’s great- we have tons of time to hang out, let the kids run around in the fresh air, and spend time with my family in my hometown on Lake Michigan.
Back when I had just one kid, the flight from NYC to Traverse City wasn’t fun, but it was pretty straightforward.
And after my second was born, the flight got a little more hectic, for sure, but by breastfeeding him on the plane I was usually able to stop any drama before it began.
However, that nursing baby is now 2. Our breastfeeding days are behind us. He’s old enough now that I have to buy him his own plane ticket. And I am over. it.
Between the TSA, the packing (and worrying about the weight limit), the running to catch connecting flights with a slow-moving toddler while babywearing and dragging 3 pieces of carry-ons, someone always poops at a really inconvenient time, I constantly stop the kids from kicking the seat in front of us, there was time my son knocked a huge cup of hot coffee all down the lap of the lady next to us and then cried for the next hour because his ears hurt, the time we got delayed in Detroit for 4 hours and it was midnight and there were no restaurants open, the time we had two blowout diapers and I didn’t pack a change of clothes….. yeah, I’ve come to dread the flight part of our trips up north.
It had gotten to the point where I would get an anxiety-induced stomach ache 24 hours before we flew.
The stomach ache wouldn’t go away until we left baggage claim.
Eventually, I didn’t want to pony up upwards of $400 per plane ticket just so we could be miserable for 24 hours, and then pay to rent a car once we arrived to Michigan. (We don’t own a car here in NYC, so we rent a car or use Zipcar when we need one.)
My mind was made up: I was done with flying.
So when my husband and I decided on another trip up north before my daughter started school this fall, I told him I planned on road-tripping instead. I also started praying it wasn’t the dumbest idea I’d had yet.
Know what? The drive, even 14 hours long, was so much easier than flying.
I hereby consider this my declaration: we are never flying again (unless, obviously, we’re on a time crunch. And even then I’ll probably consider driving!)
I’ve learned a few things after making this last road trip, and I’m sure I’ll learn more as time goes on.
1. If you’re renting, get the car the day before you leave.
We picked up the car the day of, and while I was pretty organized with packing, I wish I had more time to get used to how the car handles and the little ins and outs like, does it play music via bluetooth or an auxiliary cable? What are the wipers like when it rains? How hard is that brake pedal? I had to figure too much out while I was also managing traffic jams leaving the Bronx and passing snacks to the backseat. Next time, I’ll pick up the car the day before we go and take it for a test spin before hitting the open highway.
2. Always keep a bag of snacks where you can reach it.
I used a filing box from Thirty-One, and it was perfect- I packed it full of more snacks than we knew what to do with. My favorite road trip snack is fruit leather, which takes a while for my kids to eat so it keeps them quiet and occupied.
3. Keep a toilet bag handy, including a portable potty.
I kept a bag of diapers, wipes, toilet paper, wet wipes, hand sanitizer, and a portable potty seat like this one. This saved my life when my son was napping and my daughter needed to pee. She could squat on the side of the road and I didn’t have to wake him up to take us all to a rest stop.
4. Tablets are amazing
Don’t feel shy about utilizing the wonders of a tablet for keeping your car quiet and distracting the kids. I recommend you load up way more movies than you think you need. There isn’t a ton of space on a Kindle Fire, which is our tablet of choice, so use SD cards to add extra room. Before you go, turn the wifi off and double-check to make sure everything will be accessible when there’s no signal. And bring baby headphones so you don’t have to listen to 14 hours of Little Baby Bum like I did.
5. Get awesome back-of-the-seat toy and drink holders.
These were inexpensive and perfect for our trip. The kids had a place to put their stuff, and I could slip their tablets into the top so they could watch handsfree.
6. Take the exits that don’t go to truck stops.
We pulled off the highway to tiny Midwest towns and villages to use the bathroom or grab lunch, instead of always hitting the truck stops. It was nice to see places other than Burger King and Waffle House.
7. Then, take the truck stop exits and embrace the BK playspace.
The best part about a Burger King or McDonalds Playspace is it’s enclosed, so you can relax and let the kids run around and blow off some steam while you gather yourself for a bit.
8. Load up your own podcasts and playlists.
Living in the city, I get so used to having strong data wherever we go. But when you’re in the middle of nowhere on I-80, that data streaming station turns silent. I only loaded a handful of podcasts and playlists on my phone, and I wish I’d given myself more of a selection.
9. No data leads me to: Real life maps.
Google Maps is great but get a road map, just in case.
10. But speaking of data use, if you’re not on the streaming train just yet, hop on.
Using the hands-free voice-to-talk Alexa option on my Amazon Unlimited Music was great for making my phone play DJ while we drove. Then I could spontaneously request “Little Past Little Rock” and sing at the top of my lungs while the kids looked at me like I was crazy. Amazon Music/Spotify/Google Streaming is your BFF while driving if you get enough signal. And can I suggest country music? It’s made for these kinds of trips.
11. “Hand on the car!”
Again, we’re city folk. My kids aren’t used to cars and parking lots; they’re used to standing behind the yellow line at a subway stop. I made it a rule that whenever we’re in a parking lot, they must keep their hands on the car at all times while I gathered my purse and diaper bags and made sure the car was locked. It stopped them from running around in front of traffic.
12. Juice boxes for the kids and a ‘juice box’ for your phone.
My kids don’t get juice very often, but I bought a few boxes as a road trip treat. But mama’s juice box is what I really came to depend on; not the drinkable kind, the battery kind! We have this hardcore chargeable “juice box” for charging phones, laptops, and tablets, and it is amazing. I charged it fully before we left and it gave enough power that I didn’t have to charge it again till we arrived in Michigan- despite having to charge all 3 devices on it at some stage. If you want a more affordable option, this one is great, too.
13. Make-your-own surprise bags.
My kids love those packaged ‘blind bags’ with small toys in them, so I took that idea one step further for the road. The day before we left, I made each of them 2 or 3 “surprise bags” in gallon ziplocks using toys we already had. Each ziplock held things that went together; a handful of Hatchimal toys for my daughter, a few matchbox cars for my son, playdough, etc. When they piped up from the backseat, I handed back a ziplock bag and they stayed quiet for another hour or so.
Our 14-hour road trip in actuality took about 28 hours to make, including a stop at a hotel and 4,000 bathroom and food breaks. But all in all, it was super painless and I felt in control of our day- unlike when we’re flying. I’ll definitely be making this trip again in the future!
Have you traveled long car trips with kids? What are your best tips for my trip home? I’d love to hear them!