The Great American Road Trip: Lessons Learned


If you asked me a year ago, I would have told you that I hate road trips. We didn’t drive many places outside of Missouri when I was little and when we did, I had to deal with an eye-watering stench from my three brothers in the back of a maroon early ’90s Toyota Previa, where I suffered from massive bouts of carsickness. To this day, my father’s favorite travel music, the soundtrack to Beverly Hills Cop, makes me queasy.

Even as an adult, I haven’t been that into driving places. I went to grad school five hours from my house and that was stretching it. If I am being honest, the journey was about four hours too long. Fast forward to marriage, children, and living in Italy, where we’d drive nearly everywhere in Europe. I’d half-heartedly tell my husband that I tolerated the driving, often through mountains that made our Rav4 move like a carnival ride, jarring me to the point of a near-second appearance of the morning’s caffe and croissant. My tolerance was rewarded, though, because the result was a trip to a cool European destination. Also, driving was “fiscally” superior to other modes of transport.

We have a special spot in Florida where we like to spend time and go a couple of times a year. After the birth of our third, and with four other people old enough to need airline tickets, my husband suggested we drive for our summer trip. This is a long trip. Without accounting for hundreds of potty breaks, Google Maps estimates the trip to be almost 19 hours. My husband’s argument was that we could stay longer if we didn’t have to pay for flights or a rental car, and we could bring our bikes. Reluctantly, I said yes, even though I tried to talk him out of it all the way up to the day before we left. All in all, that trip was “mostly uneventful.” The soundtrack was our newborn screaming, which is how he spent most of his time in the car. The other kids were tired of traveling by the time we got home, but we had a good time at the beach.

So you can imagine my husband’s surprise when it was I who suggested the road trip this summer. There were several places I wanted to go and events I wanted to attend, and the only logical way to do it was to drive. Thus, The Great American Road Trip was conceived: 30 days, 4,556 miles, 10 states, three small children, two adults, and most of the driving resulted in an amazing and memorable experience. Beach time, swimming, family bike rides, morning runs to get donuts, sightseeing, splash pads, extended family, fishing, playing at the farm, a first birthday and a 95th birthday celebration, zoo camp, and dozens of Popsicles…we hit it all. I can tell you that we had our moments but also had a great time, and I am already dreaming about next summer.

Here is what we learned along the way:

Some things will be funny eventually, right?

About 30 minutes into Day Two of driving, our five-year-old asked my husband for her baby doll. He told her that he didn’t know where it was, and she replied that he put it on top of the car when she was getting into her seat. Silence. Even though we immediately pulled over to see if the doll happened to be hanging from her tiny plastic hand or foot in the roof rack, you can imagine the fate of that doll. My daughter actually handled it fairly well but did proceed to bring it up any chance she had for the rest of the trip.

Well-laid plans were thrown out the window (or maybe left on the roof of the car?) midway through the trip.

Just like last year, I spent a good amount of time preparing the perfect snack choices for the trip. I had peanut butter, bread, fruit, cut veggies, applesauce pouches, water bottles, and tiny treats neatly organized in an insulated bag. I memorized the location of each item so that I could easily reach behind me to find exactly what I needed. Well, guess what? Children strapped in seats for long periods of time can eat indefinitely, and adults who just want to make it to the destination don’t care. Not only was the bag a mess before we were out of Bexar County, but most of the food was gone by that night. As we set off on the second big leg of our trip, I resigned to throwing pretzels over my shoulder when the first complaint about hunger was mentioned. And they were just fine with that.

TV and comedy radio are a win/win.

My kids don’t watch a lot of TV or movies. This isn’t because we have some highly researched opinion on it; instead, they don’t typically have the opportunity. Even when we are home, the TV isn’t in an obvious place, so they rarely ask for it. Scratch all of that when it comes to road trips. I am convinced that my older two would not fall asleep if given the option of another movie, no matter how many they had already watched and how tired they were. It is mildly disturbing. The upside was that with the kids wearing headphones, my husband and I were able to listen to hour after hour of raunchy comedy. The consequence is that the rear-facing one-year-old now has a potty mouth. OK, that isn’t true. Actually, he was bored out of his mind, which leads me to my next point.

Don’t forget your relaxation in all of this.

More than 60 hours in the car is not comfortable, no matter how you look at it. Add in a one-year-old who insists on holding your hand for the majority of his waking hours in the car, and you now have a shoulder problem. Remember that he is sitting backwards in the back seat. Here’s the take-away: even though this is a family vacation, find a place for a massage or something else that is fun for you.

Kids still value schedule.

I like to think of vacation as a time where we can do whatever we want whenever we want; however, we always seem to get into a little routine. For instance, when we were in Florida we went to the beach after breakfast, played until it was almost time for lunch, took a quick dip in the pool, and then went home for lunch and nap. We did this almost every day, and my kids wouldn’t have had it any other way. This is a good thing. Kids do well with structure. Plus, the more we were out of the house during waking hours, the less likely they were to rip apart the various non-kid-friendly places we stayed.

kids on beach

You really can pack for four people for a month in two small suitcases.

My husband needed his own bag, as he ditched us halfway through the trip (don’t worry, it was a planned departure), but I managed to pack for the rest of us in two carry-on suitcases. That included a few pair of shoes for each kid along with diapers and toiletries. Really, I could have packed for all of us in a tiny bag, as they only wore swimsuits at the beach, the same t-shirts for the whole week of camp, and a handful of other things. The same was true for me. I actually think the three-year-old would have been fine if all he had were a swimsuit and some underwear. Who am I kidding? He’d be happy wearing just a smile. Less is more when it comes to vacation clothes.


Capitalize on kids’ interests.

You don’t need or have room for a lot of entertainment. Each kid was able to bring a small backpack with fun stuff. My five-year-old loves to draw and kept herself busy with markers and paper. In addition, she kept a daily journal in which she wrote a sentence and drew a picture about the day. It was a great activity, and I highly recommend it. Can you guess what Day Two featured? Again, it was important to me to limit the amount of junk that we were toting around, so I aimed for getting the biggest bang for my buck or things that were disposable. Kids meal toys, anyone?


Post vacation letdown is real.

It seemed to hit us all differently. Actually, the one-year-old was so happy to sleep in his own bed that he slept 14 hours the night we got home. I did hear several comments the first couple of days we were back about having to do “boring things.” My daughter came in the kitchen as I was addressing an envelope one morning and asked if that was our “boring thing” for the day… I am not sure that there is a way to prevent the letdown. Good thing school starts soon.

Memories were made.

When it comes down to it, you can’t beat family time. Even though there were a few hiccups and things didn’t always go according to plan, we were together and that was what mattered. I hope that the kids remember all of the fun that we had on The Great American Road Trip 2016. And now it is time to start kicking the tires, changing the oil, and planning for next year.

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