Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Traveling with kids

In the recent few days I have been thinking a lot about our travels this year and in years past. I was asked the other day in an email if we travel every weekend. Well, no not every weekend but many and most weekends we are going somewhere or doing something.

So this got me thinking about how we travel with kids. As I said before we have been traveling for years with our kids and I think that since they know no different they have learned to cope with long hours in the car. They are easy to travel with for the most part. My kids are currently 11, 10 and 8. They get along with each other well. But that doesn't always mean that they get along well in a car for hours on end. I help the process of traveling out a bit too. Here are some of my tricks to help kids cope with long hours cooped up in a car.

1. Packing:
Clothing goes in one bag or a suitcase but the kids have small backpacks that they can stuff with other items to help them stay busy and entertained in the car. These smaller backpacks now are packed by them alone, and as toddlers and younger kids I packed their backpacks for them.

When they were little like 4-7 years old I packed a favorite stuffed animal, a new pack of crayons, a new coloring book or activity book (love these and get them from the dollar stores), a hand held battery operated game, a couple reading books and sometimes other small toys they could play with in the car.

Now as they are older they usually pack their MP3 players, Nintendo DS games, a coloring book or two, reading books, pencils and crayons, a stuffed animal and other little toys or entertaining stuff. One rule I have is that it all has to fit in that bag and the bag must close. We only have so much room, you know.

2. DVD player:
Oh my heavens! I was in paradise when we finally got a DVD player that was attached to the ceiling of our suburban. We had it installed last year before our big trip to Florida. This was wonderful because we opted to get the headphones for the kids as well. Now we can drive for HOURS in silence as they watch a movie. As toddlers we had a portable DVD player and before that a larger VHS player. This has been a godsend to our traveling. When we didn't have those we had those VideoNow hand held devices and as little kids they loved watching Dora the Explorer and Clifford the Big Red Dog episodes on it. They eventually broke and we upgraded.

If you are going to travel far this is a must have in a car.

3. Stop Often:
My kids need to get out and run every couple hours. They still do. And personally I need it too. When we are on long trips we like to stop every couple hours and have a bathroom break and perhaps get a snack or a drink. I will talk about food later. We try to find a place where there is a bit of space or a fast food restaurant where the kids can play in their playground area for a few minutes before getting back in the car. Now this will add time to your trip but the end result of having happy kids in a car will more than make up for this inconvenience.

Oh, also it is our rule in our family that everyone MUST TRY to go to the bathroom when we are stopped. There is no "I don't have to go" and then 30 minutes down the road they are complaining that they have to go "right now and can't wait".

4. Food and Drink:
One way to keep kids happy on the road is by making sure they have full bellies. We always always pack a bag of snacks for the road. We often will pack a cooler of drinks too. Even if we are driving an hour out of town a bag of snacks and a drink is a necessity. I pack several options, salty, sweet, healthy, junky. This way you hit all the possibilities. Oh, and pack more than you think you will need. It is amazing how much kids will eat!

5. Bag of tricks:
Yes you heard that right. I always pack a "bag of tricks" that I sneak in the car. I am not talking magic tricks I am talking stuff that the kids have either never seen before or haven't seen in a while. For shorter trips I usually try to save my stuff for the ride home. It can be the worst part of the trip and the kids can be very cranky on the ride home. This breaks up the monotony of the car ride and gives them something new to do or play with that they haven't done already this trip. For long trips like our trips to Florida I like to try to wait as long as possible in the ride there before I pull out anything new for them. Last year on our drive to Florida (a 14 hour drive each way) I didn't have to pull anything out of my "bag of tricks" until the ride back home. The kids were so excited to get there that they were great the whole ride down so I saved my stuff until our drive back. Sometimes I don't even need to pull anything out and I will then just save my stuff until the next trip. This is great too because then they don't know to expect new stuff because it doesn't happen on every trip.

What's in my "bag of tricks" you ask? Well for my kids a brand new coloring book or activity book for each of them is in there along with two or three packs of brand new crayons. I pack, for longer trips, a new DVD or two. We usually purchase them as we will want to own them but you can rent movies also. I love the new RedBox movie rental kiosks and love that you can rent a movie one place and return it somewhere else. We have rented a movie here before we leave and return it at our destination, then rent again for the ride home. At a buck a day, this is a deal for us. My kids love to write and draw so I often will pick up those little notebooks you can get at craft stores or in dollar stores for a $1. I also will put in a book that we haven't read as a family yet. When I pull this book out I will read it out loud from the front seat (not driving of course) while the kids listen. I show them the pictures as we get to them. I will save the longer books for this and it is great with toddlers if they enjoy listening to you read. We can read for a couple hours this way.

I don't spend a lot of money on my bag of tricks and often will include small toys that they have ignored for a while too. Now, I don't pull everything out at once. I save stuff and pull out one thing at a time. I let them play with that for a while and when they start to get bored again, pull out something else.

6. Pillows and blankets:
This is a must. My husband likes to keep the car cool even in the winter so a blanket will save a lot of fuss about who is too cold. They each have a blanket the size of a sofa throw in the car and so do I. Each child also has a pillow in the car that is accessible to them. If they want to take a nap, then they have everything they need. Often the will lean their head against the pillow to watch the movies too.

7. Traveling clothes:
Many years ago my grandparents traveled a lot. They are now deceased. When they traveled they had their "traveling suits" on. These consisted of a pair of pants that were comfortable, a shirt, and a matching blazer or jacket. A suit of clothing. But these suits were not like a suit you would wear to the office they were decent enough to go into a restaurant and have a meal and nice enough for you to not be embarrassed when others saw you. But comfortable enough for you to sit for long periods of time and not feel like your pants are cutting you in half. This was a different generation then but their idea is still the same.

For us the rule is that the clothes have to be comfortable but appropriate enough to be in public in. For our family that means that we do NOT travel in lounge wear, pajamas unless our next stop is a hotel or a place where we will be going straight to bed. Otherwise we wear clothing that is comfortable, sweat pants, or shorts, long pants that are not tight or binding. We wear layers on top. We start with a shirt and then add a sweatshirt or sweater. If we are traveling in the winter then we will bring our winter coats but not wear them in the car.

While traveling if we plan to be late getting in we will put the kids in pajamas around their bedtime and let them fall asleep in the car and carry them into the hotel or our destination for bed that night. But they do not start out in the car that afternoon in their pajamas. If you have really small children then pajamas may be more appropriate for traveling. But for us we wear our clothes.

8. Know your kids/Allow extra time:
When planning a long trip in the car, the best rule of thumb is to know your kids. You know their tolerance level and you know their escalation signs. You know how long your kids can tolerate being in their seats. Knowing these key things will help to diffuse any problems in the car. Don't wait until it is too late. When you begin to see signs of travel fatigue that is the time to change the situation. Don't wait until it is too late. Sometimes simply saying "We are going to start to look for an exit to eat dinner. Who can spot a sign for McDonalds on it?" That will give you a few more minutes of calm. Or pull out something new, start DVD, or begin to read to them. The idea is to change the situation. Sometimes at this point I will pull out the food bag and begin to hand out snacks even if they didn't ask for one.

Allow extra time for stops. We average with our family of 5 30 minutes for a bathroom and drive thru break. If we stop to eat in a restaurant we can add an additional hour to our travel time if not a bit longer. We have tried to shorten this time and the kids get too stressed out. So we know we can't rush this. We love Google Maps and GPS. Google maps is great because you can change your course of the trip with a click. It gives the travel time also. As an example, it takes 11 hours almost to the minute to get from our house to Disney World. But for us we know it takes us 14 hours. Our trip down is broken into two days. We start in the afternoon and drive as long as we can into the night. We stop twice, once for dinner and once for a bathroom and clothing change break. We switch the kids into their pajamas around their bedtime. We find a hotel (not always the best idea with traveling with kids to just leave it up to chance) and we carry them into the room in their pajamas and tuck them straight into bed. The next morning we pack up and continue on our way. We will stop two more times on the way. Once for a midmorning bathroom break and once for lunch. No matter how fast we try to go it still takes us 14 hours. On the way home, we travel in one very full day if we can. We stop for a mid-morning break, lunch where we get out and eat, a mid afternoon break and then dinner where we sit down and get served. Then usually we are pretty close to being home, well, within a few hours. In short, plan for breaks and lots of them.

Traveling with kids can be fun if you are prepared. I have heard horror stories of families on the road, kids fighting in the back seat or kids screaming and crying the whole way there. That is not a fun way to travel. It is better to be even extra prepared with your bag of tricks than to be caught short and short tempered.

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