Everybody loves a road trip, at least in theory. Whether the word conjures up a solitary motorcycle ride, a cross-country trip with best friends, or even childhood family vacations, there's something about hitting the road that we just can't resist. And a lot of us, when we build our own families, jump at the idea of taking our kids on a great adventure.
Lots of family vacations are about the destination -- whether it's a theme park or a national park -- but a road trip is just as much about the journey. That's a big responsibility and a very ambitious trip. But with a little preparation, you can head off complications before they happen. This list will give you some of the pointers that seasoned travelers know can take a good trip and make it a great one.
The Importance of Checklists
One of the best parts of a trip is often the daydreaming, discussions and planning that precede it. Brainstorming ideas, doing the research and putting together your itinerary are all just as fun and relaxing -- for some, even moreso! -- than the trip itself. By keeping a checklist of mundane details as you go through your regular routine, you can be inspired in the weeks before your trip to remember all the little things that make your life easier.
While it's impossible to forget that your child has allergies or gets carsick, for example, just noting it somewhere means that when it's time to create your master lists, you'll include extra supplies for those not-quite-everyday complications. If your youngest wets the bed, remind yourself to bring extra clothes or wipes. Picky eaters? Keep a secret stash of healthy food in case they shut down completely. Anything that happens, all day long, can inspire a list item that will make things easier when it's time to fill the camper.
There's no shame in writing down even obvious things: You're bringing your family's entire life along with you, and everybody knows you can sometimes forget important stuff in that last-minute dash.
Family Dynamics and Trip Goals
It's important to keep in mind your goal for the trip. If you're packing your family into an RV and driving somewhere far away, you're going to be dealing with a lot of chaos -- some of it normal stuff, some of it specific to being crammed into a tight space -- and a clear goal is a good way to keep your head on straight. Nobody wants to remember a trip where you yelled the whole time, so it's important to be clear-headed about where you're going and why.
But it's equally important to be realistic about your children's behavior and needs. While a disciplined and well-behaved family is everybody's goal, nobody actually achieves it. There will always be miscommunications, grumpy days, boredom and rivalries complicating things. For most of us, this is only intensified by the close quarters and sometimes lifeless landscape that we're crossing on our journey.
It's important to be honest with yourself, and factor in those little upsets that make family life so exciting. While it's nice to hope for the best, asking the impossible from your family is asking a lot of yourself, as well. Nothing ever goes perfectly smoothly, but thinking seriously about how your family is going to interact in the space you've given them is a great way to head problems off before they present themselves.
Fitting It All In
It's also important to be realistic about exactly how much you can do. Be generous with your timeline -- your travel times from A to B to C -- and you won't feel pressured to keep driving after the whole family's exhausted and crabby. Nobody remembers how tiring travel can be until about halfway through a trip, and by following conservative estimates and keeping your expectations down, you can make sure that every part of your family vacation is as leisurely and relaxing as you wanted it to be.
Likewise, remember that it's not a scavenger hunt. A family vacation means making memories together that you'll all remember forever, and that means taking your time and enjoying every part of the trip. You wouldn't waste a trip to the Louvre by rushing past every exhibit, just to check things off your list: The same goes for your family adventure. Flexibility is necessary, and if you need to skip one monument or state park in order to get somewhere more exciting for the family as a whole, make it a family discussion so nobody feels left out.
It's easy, in times of stress, to assert your control over the situation: A quick "I'm the one driving!" can calm things down in a hurry, if necessary. But remember why you're doing this in the first place. It may not be the adventure you planned, but it can still be the adventure you wanted.
A Family Process
Say you have a kid at that certain age, who just wants to be left alone to read her book and listen to her iPod. Congratulations! You've got a voracious reader on your hands. But in the thick of things, when you're already stressed out about life on the road, it can be maddening to see your child opting out of this great gift you've given her.
Likewise, trying to plan around kids of varying ages can be its own minefield. If your oldest loves museums but your youngest gets bored easily, you're looking at a fairly annoying situation if you haven't balanced out those facts.
That's why it's important to make sure that every member of the team has a stake in the trip as a whole. Sometimes a little downtime -- even splitting into teams for an afternoon -- is not only necessary, but can make your kids feel even more special and loved.
By involving the whole family in these decisions -- from where to go and what to see, to when it's time to get out and stretch their legs -- you ensure that everybody feels ownership of the trip. It'll solve more arguments than you might think.
Document Your Adventures
Of course, you'll want photos to look at years down the road. Luckily, we have technology now that can preserve those memories in other ways. Don't forget the video feature on your camera -- or at least your teenager's camera -- and don't be afraid to get creative about keepsakes.
Kids love to buy touristy souvenirs as a memento of their journeys, but there's no reason to waste money when you can bring home better evidence of your adventures. If you're collecting spoons or other artifacts as a family, it's easy to add those to the pile. But what about making a place to remember all the wonderful stories that happened on the road?
Getting each child to tell his or her favorite part of the journey, and putting those into a scrapbook -- along with the fall leaves you collected, say, or brochures from a strange roadside attraction -- is a wonderful way to keep those memories alive. Mementoes hold onto our memories for later, and making the process fun and creative while you're still on the road will keep those memories all the more vivid and delightful.
Even the most egregious obstacle, during the course of a trip, can become a hilarious story once you're home. Remember it's those funny, oddball moments -- the ones you didn't plan for, the ones that truly represent your family as they are today -- that will be the ones you cherish most.
For more great tips for the road, check out the links on the next page.
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- Fritscher, Lisa. "Where Are We Going? GPS, Maps and Old-Fashioned Common Sense." Tots & Travel. Feb. 1, 2011. (July 5, 2011) http://www.totsandtravel.com/2011/02/3894/where-are-we-going-gps-maps-and-old-fashioned-common-sense
- Hamm, Trent. "Saving Money on a Road Trip with Kids." The Simple Dollar. March 22, 2009. (July 5, 2011) http://www.thesimpledollar.com/2009/03/22/saving-money-on-a-road-trip-with-kids/
- O'Shea, Kaitlin. "A True Road Trip & a GPS." PreservationInPink.com. March 24, 2009. (July 5, 2011) http://preservationinpink.wordpress.com/2009/03/24/a-true-road-trip-a-gps
- We Just Got Back. "Tip Sheet: Road Trips." We Just Got Back. 2011. (July 5, 2011) http://www.wejustgotback.com/default.aspx?mod=tips_road