Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Road Tripping with Kids- Part 1: Survival and Sanity on the Road

Thanksgiving to New Years Eve of last year was the first of (hopefully) many extended family roadtrips for the Griffith family. So many of my best childhood memories are of roadtrips, from small ones like a week spent at Mackinac Island Michigan, to the epic RV trip I took to remote corners of Alaska when I was 10, to a summer mom-and-daughter adventure to Texas with my freshly minted drivers permit at 15. We've taken many smaller roadtrips with our kids, working our way up to this. We still have daydreams of someday taking our clan on the road for a couple of months or more.
This year was our maiden run. For the better part of 6 weeks, with a few days stopover at home between the Indianapolis leg of the trip and the Western leg of the trip, we traveled across 15 different states visiting family and friends and having many amazing adventures.

I love to travel and I'll take it any way I can, but the beauty of roadtrips is in learning to enjoy the journey and not just the destination. For that reason, and it was a controversial decision amongst family and friends, we chose not to buy the in-car DVD player contraption and I really don't regret that.

Preparing for the trip I was about 75% out-of-my-mind excited and 25% sure we were completely insane to be traveling that long and that far, pregnant and with four little kids in tow. Crazy like a fox. The trip went astoundingly well. Having bested that challenge, I feel qualified to offer a few tips for anyone attempting such a feat, including what I would do differently in the future.

Tip #1: Halfway through a long drive, get out and do something.

Something active. Something where both you and the kids can just get out and run. Childrens museums, parks, beaches. When you are researching your trip try to come up with a couple of spots along the way that you can stop if the troops are getting restless. In my opinion, 70% of success in doing anything with kids involves finding the balance between rest and activity. Add 10% for adequate nutrition and you are 80% of the way there. The other 20% involves forces I do not understand; probably equal parts alignment of the stars, particle physics and Divine Providence. Kids start out the day excited about travel. By the middle of the day the novelty has worn off. Getting out and doing something awesome refreshes the novelty, rewards their patience and wears them out. There is no downside. It helps small children to nap and older children to focus on quiet activities for the latter part of the drive.

Tip #2 Quiet Time

This is the Yin to #1's Yang. Whether you are in the car, or out sightseeing, down time is essential. Travel is exciting, but it's also tiring. Downtime gives kids (and adults) rest for their bodies and a chance for their brains to process all of the cool things they've seen and done. I have found that when we don't get enough down time we get something I call Sensory Overload. Believe me, that is something you want to avoid if at all possible. Audiobooks are a good way of inviting the kids into quiet time. We downloaded two or three books at a time for free from Librivox to listen to in the afternoons and as we settled in for bed at night. It was so successful that we have continued to use classic audiobooks for our afternoon quiet time even after we arrived back at home.

Tip #3 Family T-shirts

This is a tip I learned when I worked at a preschool. Groups of people, and that includes families, are easier to keep track of if they match. We bought a bunch of red t-shirts in various sizes and had the kids decorate them with fabric markers. Instead of writing the kids' names on the shirt, which is not recommended for safety purposes, we had the kids number them like sports jerseys. #1 for Cheyenne, #2 for Bella, #3 for James and #4 for Travis. The older kids drew pictures on the shirts and I wrote our cell phone number on the hem.

One thing I would do differently in the future is to keep the back of the shirt empty and bring a fabric marker with us. Then as we traveled, we would ask all of our newly-made friends to autograph our shirts. It would be a great way of remembering what, to me, is one of the coolest parts of traveling; the people you meet.

Chinese guys who wanted to take a picture of a big American family. Lovely, lovely people.

Tip #4 On big travel days, spring for the hotel with the pool

You won't be sorry. Enough said.

Tip #5 Plan ahead, but be flexible

An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is an adventure wrongly considered. G.K. Chesterton

That is our family motto. Planning is good. Know ahead of time what attractions are on your chosen route and get some ideas of good places to eat. It's even good to have a Plan B in case the kids get squirrelly earlier than expected, but also know that some things just cannot be planned for. Keep your sense of humour and remember that many things that look like disasters in the moment make some of the best stories.

On a long ago visit to Fillmore, Utah I arrived, exhausted and overheated, past the cows grazing by the Welcome to Fillmore sign, to a tiny motel. In the all-but empty parking lot a 12 year old kid rode in circles around tumbleweeds. Noticing me, he ran inside to man the reservation desk he was tending for his mother. I walked into the lobby, ready for a good night's rest, only to find a 5 foot long iguana between me and the reservation desk. I screamed and ran outside. The kid ran after me, irritated at my girly fear of man-eating lizards, and assured me that Godzilla was his pet and it was harmless. He coaxed me back inside, past the scaly beast, only to tell me that they had lost my reservation. Suddenly I had a second wind. If they kept man-eating lizards in the lobby I wasn't in the mood to find out what they kept in the rooms. I made it to Mesquite, NV that night. It was a pain in the hind end at the time, but it amused me enough in the retelling that I bothered to snap this picture eight years later as I drove through for a second time. Keep your sense of perspective.

Up Next: Roadtripping with Kids: Good Cheap Fun


  1. Your family visiting adventure does sound fun, almost like a “National Lampoon” trip. I remember visiting Mackinac Island as a kid and how magical it seemed, as though I were going back in time. My favorite part was the boat ride. Now we think we have the traveling thing down with kids, but I like to check to see if there are any better ideas. My wife and I have stopped at a park while traveling, for several years now, and we also pack some outdoor games in the car for rest stops. A lot of them have a grassy area where we can all get some exercise and have some fun. The other thing we bring is our tablets becasue the kids have their favorite shows stored on our DVR at home and they watch them through the Dish Remote Access App on our iPad and Galaxy Tab, sent from our home with our Sling Adapter. I’m telling you, the kids have almost no boredom with those two aids in the car.

  2. Road tripping is great. It is always better to spring for the better hotels if you can. I made sure that the older kids all had cellphones. I got them cheap Tracfones at $10 each. It was worth it to be able to round the herd up when necessary.

  3. gman, I considered bringing our iPad on the trip but I was afraid it would get broken. I love the idea of bringing outdoor games. I am going to remember that for next time.

    Francis, the cell phone idea is great too. Our older kids are just a few years away from being old enough for that. I'm sticking that idea in my file for later too.

    Thanks to both of you!