As we planned and executed this trip, it became very clear that people thought we were a little crazy to try such an ambitious travel venture with two small kids. As we managed to pull it off, I had a couple of people ask me our "secret"—and by that, I assume they meant, "How do you stay sane?" A very fair question, indeed.
I think the bottom line is that we were blessed with a couple of really great, roll-with-the-punches kind of kids. Ellie has always been a great traveler, and E.J. seems to be improving his travel skills after all our time away from home this summer. We started traveling early with both of them and it's just a thing we do, so I hope they'll just get used to it. Or, better yet, learn to enjoy it as much as we do!
That being said, we did do some careful planning to make this trip as easy as possible on our kids and thus, as easy as possible on us parents. I don't know which of our strategies were most effective, or if it was some combination thereof, or if the kids would have been fine regardless, but something seemed to work because we not only all kept our marbles, but we even had some fun. These are some of the things we tried:
Stop often and stretch
We broke up our trip in such a way as to minimize driving as much as possible. Of course, when traveling a distance such as Jacksonville, Florida to Cleveland, Ohio (our furthest destination), there are bound to be some long stretches on the road. No matter how you divvy up the driving time, it just has to happen. So, we tried to stop approximately every two hours for a break. We often stopped for meals, of course, but we'd also stop just to let the kids get out and run off a little energy. Chick-Fil-A Play Places were great for that, but even just having a picnic lunch at a rest stop was sufficient. The kids enjoyed the fresh air and then got to run around in the grass afterwards, and everyone felt pretty refreshed.
Taking a break at a rest stop!
Keep the kids entertained
The key to staying sane while in the car, in addition to frequent stops, is distraction. Snacks are ideal! E.J. ate nearly his weight in crackers and Cheerios, and we had a lot of applesauce pouches, string cheese and animal crackers on hand for Ellie. I also hit the Dollar Spot at Target and the Dollar Store before our trip and picked up lots of little toys for each kid to keep them busy. We also lucked out and our library had a huge book sale the weekend before our trip: we were able to get a whole brown paper shopping bag-full of children's books (roughly 45 books) for $10. The kids loved having new books to look at, and that kept them occupied for a huge portion of the trip. We also had a contraption to hook up my iPad to the back of the headrest so Ellie could watch movies, but we really only used that two or three times the whole trip, and only on our very long driving stretches. The rest of the time, books, toys, snacks and frequent stops were all we needed.
Buried in books and new toys!
Consider accommodations carefully
We were lucky to stay with family and friends for many nights on our trip, but when we had to find our own lodging we sought out places with two bedrooms. This was ideal for us for several reasons: in addition to offering a kitchen for food prep at "home," two bedrooms allowed us to give each child their own bedroom (so no waking each other up at night). Additionally, having a separate living area meant that Eric and I could put the kids to bed then unwind ourselves in the living room before retiring ourselves (we generally shared a room with Ellie). This way everyone got what they needed. Of course, two-bedroom hotel suites can be pricey and sometimes hard to find, so for two of our three stops like this, we found a place to rent through AirBNB. It ended up being a really great way to go, because we got the space we wanted for significantly less than even a much smaller hotel room would have cost us. Do your research, of course, before booking (I talked a little about that in my Philadelphia post), but this is a great option.
Of course, a hazard of staying in someone else's home with your toddler: don't expect a baby-friendly environment. Be prepared to babyproof on the fly! Here is E.J. helping himself to a glass of wine at our Philadelphia AirBNB. Yikes.
Try not to move around too much
This point seems a little silly when the whole point of our road trip was to see a whole bunch of places. But we tried to make it so that, with the exception of one night, we always stayed more than one night at any destination. That way, after a long day of sightseeing, the kids could go "home" to a place they were already somewhat familiar with. I think that staying in a new hotel night after night would be hard on them, not to mention the physical toll it probably would've taken on us to load and unload all of our junk every night. Children do not travel light!
I mean, right? You do not want to do this dance every single night.
Bring as much consistency as possible
This is related to my last point, but we extended consistency beyond just where we were staying and actually brought along a lot of things that could be constants for the kids. For example, they each had the same bed every night. Ellie had a little cot and E.J. had his Pack-N-Play, with their own sheets/blankets. We also carted around a cooler full of their favorite foods, which not only allowed us to eat on the go (those rest stop picnics I mentioned) but allowed the kids to have familiar food on their plates at every meal.
That cooler rode in the middle seat for the entire 2500 miles and served us well!
We have white noise going for the kids whenever they're sleeping at home, so this just tied in with consistency for us, but who knows what noisy variables might be present in an unfamiliar place? We used a fan app on my iPad for one kid and a small sound machine for the other and they did great.
I tried something new when I packed our suitcases this time: I bagged up the outfits the kids would wear each day into individual Ziplock bags. This meant that at each stop, we didn't have to drag in the entire "kids' clothes" suitcase; we could just reach in and grab the bags for the days we were there. (Pajamas and toiletries were packed in our suitcase or with their bedding, which would definitely be unloaded from the car at each stop). We also found it helpful to have all our toiletries packed in a separate bag that would be easy to toss in the car at the last minute (and we added our pajamas to it, too). That way we could close up suitcases and load the car at night and then just toss all the last minute stuff into a bag before we left the next morning.
Minimize where you can
Kids require a lot of stuff; this is a given. But try to find places where you can cut back to save space. For our last road trip, we brought an actual box fan for Ellie. This time we brought a much smaller sound machine. The other biggest space saver for us this time was just bringing one single umbrella stroller. It folds up relatively small, so it didn't take up a ton of room in the trunk—especially compared to what our bulky double stroller would've done. Of course, that meant that someone was always wearing one of the kids on our outings, but baby carriers are considerably smaller in size when folded and stored than a stroller, so it was a very workable compromise.
Still able to sightsee with two little kids AND minimal trunk space required!
I think that's the gist! I don't know which of these tricks was the most effective, but we ended up having a great time. I'm glad we didn't shy away from such a big trip with such little kids, because it ended up being very do-able and we made some really wonderful family memories!