The prospect of a long car journey doesn't always fill me with excitement and anticipation. Sure, the destination, yup. But there's this whole big bit between travel planning (fun!) and arrival (fun!), and that one bit, it can be a whole lot of terrifying.
I've found that our best bet for ensuring long-distance travel goes smoothly has everything to do with how well we plan. And it's not just the travel either. Taking kiddos away from their daily comforts and routines can be super challenging for everyone involved, but with a little bit of preparation, the transition can be managed without too much drama. Some drama, yes.
Before the trip: I've learnt (the hard way) that a prepared child is a happy child. Rather than springing it upon them as I have done in the past ("Hey kids! Today we are traveling for 8 hours so that we can sleep in a different house for the next five days!" - admittedly they were younger then, but still), I now know that a little forewarning can make the world of difference. Particularly if a little emphasis is placed on certain appealing aspects - cousins they'll get to see, exciting activities, car treats etc.
Packing is something I dedicate a fair amount of time to (or over-packing, as I generally come to realise halfway through the trip when I can no longer zip my suitcase closed), with emphasis on those special few items that will make them feel cozy and comfortable in their new abode. Favorite soft toys, books and other items related to nighttime rituals are the. most. important things I will pack. Most things can be replaced, if needed (though preferably they won't), but heaven forbid I ever leave Bubba behind...
Timing our trip is also important, if this is something we have control over. Certain parts of the day are easier to travel for a variety of reasons (road-works, traffic etc etc), and it's worth considering the optimal travel time for your babies too. Ensuring that they can fit in a full nap before you need to stop for gas or food will save you a headache, or consider traveling at night so they can just sleep on through...
For the car trip: Food and entertainment, basically. Perfect road trip food for our whanau includes: fruit (particularly soft fruits that pose less of a choking hazard), juice boxes (novelty + no mess), organic sachet baby food (this is the best road trip food EVER! My kids love it and it's mess/choke free), one square meal muesli bars and dried fruit. Sandwiches and pizza slices work for us grown-ups, but generally don't appeal to my kiddos when we are traveling.
In-car entertainment is quite a balanced art, I have found. Garland in particular can lose. the. plot during long road trips, so some serious preparation is needed to ensure he is kept occupied. Of course, a well-timed nap will save everyone's sanity, but it's not something you can totally rely on, unfortunately. Still, our last few roadies have gone without a hitch, and without, I might add, the use of electronic devices. Wiiiiiin!!!!!!
'Happy kid, happy car-trip' strategies: Dole out your chosen entertainment little by little. Audio books are the shiz for road trips, but I use them sparingly, for maximum effectiveness. By holding off for as long as possible, I have a sure-bet mood lifter waiting up my sleeve for that ever dreaded moment when I will need it most. I'm talking about the in-car-sibling-fight. Worst. Also, def have some favourite music ready for when everyone needs a little pepping up. Our last trip included a lot of Daft Punk. It kept everyone happy.
And definitely, definitely, pack equal and if possible, identical entertaining items because there's nothing more frustrating (for everyone) than scrapping over a toy. Tried and true in-car entertainment for us includes: Audio books, actual books, colouring/activity books, kid magazines, pads of paper, coloured pencils, pencil sharpeners (a whole bunch of entertainment right there, for reals), stickers, small toys (cars, Schleich, little dolls etc), simple puzzles, pinball type games, toy cellphones, playing cards (esp. Happy Families and so on). Basically, plastic crap, which I am mostly opposed to. But desperate times, people, desperate times... Keep your bag of toys & snacks at your feet, ready to hand out one by one when needed.
Water and toilet stops are essential, because DUH. But, for a newly toilet trained child (or even in the past six months), you may want to give them a nappy to wear for the trip to avoid any accidents. On longer road trips you will probably want to stop for a walk at some point, but do not - I REPEAT, DO NOT stop too early. It will be super hard to get your kids back into the car after this, and you will probably need some extra incentive, so save something special for this very moment.
Arriving at your destination: The first night is always the worst, so it's best to prepare yourself for a rough sleep. We find it helpful to have our kids assist us in unpacking and making our sleeping space cozy, using this as an opportunity to talk through what will happen. We emphasise that everything will be just as it is at home, we'll be very close at hand and all the normal bedtime rituals will be kept to. Having a calm and quiet first night will help your babies adjust, making subsequent nights much easier and more relaxed.
This next tip is super hard to stick to, but so, so worth it. Most of us start planning for a trip by making a long list of all the things we would love to do. With small kiddos in tow, it's best to plan for far fewer activities than you would actually like to achieve. For preschoolers, one big thing per day is more than enough, and even possibly too much, depending on your chosen activities.
If you are visiting a spot with lots of attractions, I fully recommend spacing out the most exciting/exhausting ones with some smaller activities in between. Walks to local parks, botanical gardens, cafe visits, things like that. My biggest piece of advice would be to keep your afternoons 100% free for resting, and trust me, the kiddos won't be the only ones who need it.
Returning home: Whatever you do, don't overlook the planning of your return trip. This is possibly the most important part to have a contingency for. Your kids will be tired, you will be tired, and you won't have the prospect of a fun, exciting holiday to keep you feeling chipper. Sanity-wise, you will all be on the very, very edge. Save some toys for this bit, find some novel snacks, keep a favourite album or two in reserve, and if all else fails, make sure your phone/tablet has a full battery. It can be nice to plan a quick, fun stopover for your return journey, just to give everyone something to look forward too.
Plus, don't forget your own entertainment! I managed to read a huge chunk of this Laini Taylor instalment, while we journeyed home from the Hawkes Bay. It was like, the best long-boring-drive evah. And sometimes(often) I take really boring photos of things we are driving past. YOU KNOW THIS ALREADY! I love to post these photos! I am cool!!! Hehe! It's why you love me, right?! Don't... answer that...
And plus, plus, plus, don't forget to look after your driver. There will come a point when they really need you to play that one album that everyone else hates but they really love. Suck it up. Also, they like fun little snacky food too! And coffee! Probably. If they drink coffee. Well anyway, you know your driver better than I do. In fact, maybe you are the driver! So look after yourself! Get hold of a really great, exciting audio book, or like, pretend you're in a movie travel montage (also a fun game for passengers, fyi).
So that's it, that's my 'traveling with kids' tips for y'all. We don't travel that often, but when we do, our journeys are fairly lengthy (I mean, that's all very relative, but I think anything more than 3 hours in a car with kiddos and you are gonna need a plan).
These are my tips for traveling with pre-schoolers, but I would love to know your tips for traveling with older children. In particular if those tips eliminate the need for iPads and other devices. Favourite car games? Audio books? Snacks? We'll have a five year old soon, and we'll need to up our game, I think!