Traveling with Young Kids 101

This is the third summer we’ve packed up Robbie (5 year old) and Anna (3 year old) and road tripped from the middle of Texas to Pennsylvania to visit my in-laws, a 24 hr drive with no stops. Over these years, we’ve made lots of mistakes and lots of good memories. Here are ten lessons (not in any particular order) we have learned about traveling with young kids.

1. Take your time

The first year we packed the kids into our minivan, my husband, Matt, had very limited vacation time. So the plan was for him to drive me and the kids up to PA over a long weekend, fly back to Texas and vise versa for the drive back. We started driving right after Matt got home from work on a Friday night and drove in shifts through the night and the next day until we got to Roanoke, Virginia with a break in Knoxville, TN. The idea was, drive while the kids slept.

We made it to PA in one piece, and kept the crying and potty breaks to a minimum because the kids slept through most of the drive. We on the other hand, were completely spent. We thought we could take turns driving and sleeping, but we were so tired, we had to both stay awake to ensure the driver stayed awake. We’d drive by these car accidents and pinch ourselves to wake ourselves up. There was one accident where it looked like one semi had rear-ended another. And as we inched by, we realized there was a car smashed in between. The drive back from PA wasn’t much better, and we vowed never to do all-nighters again.

2. Pack a Potty

Yup. I’m going there. Between the ages of two and five, there is lots of “I have to pee” and “I have to poo!” I dread taking my kids to gas station bathrooms because my kids touch everything! Robbie’s a boy, so we’ve taught him to pee in a bottle. Anna’s a girl, and the bottle just won’t cut it. So a kid’s potty comes in really handy especially when we are driving on long stretches of highway and we just past a sign that says “next gas stop, 38 miles.” This year, we’ve managed to not use the potty so far, and there has been minimal screaming in public bathrooms. (Me screaming, not the kids.) Perhaps we won’t need it next year. *sigh* Our kids are growing up.

3. Limit screen time

It may seem like the easiest solution to keep the kiddos entertained, but between the ages of two and five, my kids has zombie brains whenever they watch TV. They are all happy and content when the show is on, but the moment it is turned off, they whine and cry like the world is ending. Anna describes it as, “my body doesn’t know what to do.” We still let them watch some TV especially on really long stretches of the drive, but we just know we’ll have to pay a steep price for those hours of peace and quiet.

4. Let the kids jump on the beds

My kids love hotels. It is a whole experience for them. They love running down the hallways looking for our room number, they fight over who gets to slide the key card into the lock, and they LOVE jumping on the beds. I’m always amazed that my kids are entertained by the most mundane parts of our trip because I always forget that every part of the trip is a grand adventure.

5. City Parks Rock!

After that first road trip, we took a much more leisurely approach to traveling between TX and PA. We would drive between 5 to 8 hours a day, usually in the afternoon when it is hot outside. In the mornings, we’d try to find a good park for our kids to burn some energy. Some of our favorites are:

  • Little Rock’s Julius Breckling Riverfront Park would have to be our all time favorite with a splash pad and a rockscape with tunnels! Robbie’s true cheetah comes out. It also has a farmer’s market on the weekends and lots of food options close by. We try to go through Little Rock every summer just for this park.
  • Raleigh’s Pullen Park was this trip’s win. It has a great playground, and you can purchase very reasonably priced tickets for carousel and train rides and paddle boats.
  • Indoor playgrounds at churches. We discovered these in Indianapolis on a hot day. Just google indoor playgrounds and whichever city you are in. Here’s the one for Indianapolis. A church in our hometown, Bryan/College Station, TX just opened one as well. And when the temperature is over 100 degrees for ten days straight, you bet we are taking advantage of indoor air conditioned space where our kids can burn some energy! These indoor playgrounds seem extravagant, but we really do feel blessed and ministered to through these playgrounds, especially on a hot day.
  • The list goes on and on, but even the smallest parks seem to entertain my little ones pretty well.
  • 6. Snacks and comfort food
  • Constipation can be a major issue on long road trips. (Yes, I went there too.) You are sitting most of the day and eating junk food most of the time. My best advice is to stop at a grocery store and pick up fruits and veggies like grapes, apples and carrots to snack on. Save to candy and lollipops as rewards.
  • We try to only eat out once a day because restaurant food is heavy and hard on the wallet. Instead, we do a light breakfast of fruits and breads. Lunches sometimes consist of cereal bars and more fruit. I’m Chinese American, so finding a Chinese or Asian grocery store to grab a cheap and delicious bite and stock up on baked breads is a nice treat.
  • Sometimes, we have to pull over for interesting landmarks especially if there’s good food and a playground involved. Lane Southern Orchards in Georgia had the best blueberry soft serve ice cream and tractors for our kids to climb all over! We didn’t get any peaches because they were really hard when we were there, but we did buy some peach wine.
  • 7. “Stuffies”
  • As babies, my kids didn’t have attachments to objects like a blanket or stuffed animal, so I never brought any of those things on road trips till this year. I didn’t know how much I was missing out! Chico and Uni has made this road trip so much more enjoyable for my kids. It’s as if they each got to bring a best friend they can talk to and play with. We’ve spent quite a bit of time making sure we didn’t leave Chico and Uni behind, and we haven’t lost them yet (Can’t even imagine…), but they are definitely worth bringing along.
  • 8. Pack light
  • The first year we roadtripped, we brought anything and everything that would fit in our van. I wanted to make sure we had the bikes, wagons, strollers, a change of clothing for everyday and occasion. We ended up not using most things and with a big mess we had to dig through whenever we needed to find something. Looking back, I think I had high expectations of what we can accomplish with a one year old and a three year old.
  • With each passing year, be pack less and less, and we have not missed anything we didn’t pack. This year, we have:
    • Swim bag
      Overnight bag for pjs and next day’s clothes
      Laundry bag,
      A bag of clean clothes for each person we keep in the car
      Toiletries and medicine bag
      Electronics bag
      Games bag
      Snack bag
      Cooler
  • This packing list has worked pretty well. One thing we’ll ADD next trip is having a wet bag for wet clothes and a stink bag for really dirty laundry we don’t want to mix with other laundry.
  • 9. Airbnb It
  • When we can, stay at Airbnbs. Staying at a home gives us a different perspective of a place a hotel doesn’t. We get to be in neighborhoods hotels usually aren’t located in, and meet locals who love their homes and communities and know hospitality.
  • On this most recent trip, we stayed with Chintia in Montgomery, AL. She’s an international artist who has an art house to host international artists. The day we arrived, she was opening the second Expose Art House, a place to showcase and host regional artists. We got to experience the avent garde art scene and meet some amazing people. It is experiences like these that makes our trips memorable.
  • 10. Do History
  • While in Montgomery, AL, Matt and I really wanted to visit the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. The memorial documents the history of lynching in our country. I was hesitant to take our kids to it because I was worried the experience would traumatize rather than educate my young children.
  • I am so glad we took them because it forced me to see history and violence through their eyes. When we approached the wall fountain toward the end of the memorial, Robbie asked to touch the water. On the fly, I told him that if he touched the water, he had to promise to be just. He nodded his head, touched the water, and then asked, “What does just mean?” “It means to treat people fairly, to love others.” I answer. Robbie nodded his head. Days later, out of no where, he says, “Mommy, remember when we promised to be just?” #parentingwin
  • Kids surprise us with their ability to see and understand the world. Our job as parents is not to keep them from the world, but to guide and equip them with the tools to process and engage with it.
  • There are lots of other great traveling with kids out there. But the greatest one is: GO! I hope you will also carve out time to travel, meet new people, and make memories with your kids!
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