Tuesday, July 10, 2007


Ottawa to Bar Harbor Part 9: Tips for road trips with kids

The end is near. The end of this series, that is. JK Rowling needed seven books to complete her magnum opus; mine will likely run to ten installments by the time I get it all out of my system. And like Rowling, I'm hedging on that. I might need an extra post or two to finish frosting my bloggy cupcakes, ya know?

Anyway, today I thought I'd share and solicit tips for a successful road trip with kids. I have to tell you, the boys were amazing on this trip. I never would have imagined spending in excess of 30 hours in a week locked in a car with two energetic little boys could be such an enjoyable experience. They're veteran road-trippers now, and Beloved and I were full of speculation on the drive back into Ottawa on where we could travel next summer. The whole eastern seaboard seemed within our grasp, from Florida to Newfoundland -- until it occured to us that if all goes according to plan, we'll have a newborn next summer. Ugh. So much for travel freedom!

I've always loved a good road trip (hat tip to Fryman, with whom I shared many, many road trips over the years) and when my folks lived in London I used to make the six-hour trip at least one weekend a month. For one busy year when Beloved and I first started dating, I'd drive down to London to see him almost every two weeks. I don't clock quite so many miles in on the 401 anymore, but we usually drive five or six hours to see family a couple of times a year, either down near Toronto or up through Algonquin Park. All that to say, the boys are already good travelers - but they far exceeded my wildest hopes for them on this marathon trip.

We ended up driving about seven hours each day, which was just about enough if not about an hour too much. We'd leave after breakfast and arrive in time for dinner, and stopped on average around every two hours. Half way through the second day, Tristan figured out that if he said he had to pee, we'd stop somewhere (yet another reason to love the two-lane highways instead of the Interstate: we were always within 10 minutes of an Exxon station or a general store or something with a bathroom.) After the third shrug and "oh well, I guess I didn't have to go after all" in half an hour, we had a little chat about how much longer the trip would be if we stopped every 11 minutes to pretend to pee, and the situation improved considerably.

A while back, Chantal and Andrea debated the merits of DVD players on road trips, and I've always been firmly in favour of them. What surprised me on this trip is how seldom we actually used ours, and that it was the boys who occassionally declined the opportunity to watch something. I think we used it as much in the hotel rooms to get them to settle down at night as in the car.

I didn't spend as much time as I would have liked preparing my little bag of tricks to distract the kids, but it turned out I had more than enough. In addition to having the maps and my notebook and the camera in my lap, I spent the entire road trip with a bag of kiddie treats at my feet. Every hour or two, pretty much whenever it became obvious that the boys were getting particularly twitchy, I'd pull something else out of the bag for them.

Divided over four days' worth of relatively equivalent bags, I had snacks, drinks and other distractions. For snacks, I had individual baggies of small amounts of stuff like pretzels, trail mix, fruit snacks, and cookies. (Tip: don't bring things that liquefy in 36C heat, like yogurt-covered raisins or mini-Aero bars. Ick.) I had a couple of juice boxes, a couple of bottles of water, and some rubbermaid drink boxes. I had colouring books, sticker books, and a book of mazes - Tristan loves mazes right now - and a box of crayons for each of them. Each boy had a dollar-store cookie sheet with a rim on it to use as a lap desk, perfect for containing runaway crayons and also fun to stick magnetized letters on. I had a couple of different sheets of stickers. Most of the stuff I actually already had lying around the house, but one great investment was a 5x7 blank sketch pad for each of them. Simon stuck a few stickers on his and lost interest, but Tristan drew pictures, wrote letters and filled more than half the pages in his sketch book. There were also a very few small toys, all pilfered from forgotten drawers, and a deck of phonetic flash cards from the dollar store that had Disney and Pixar characters on it.

Before we left, I stood for quite a while in the toy section of WalMart, considering the hand-held electronic games. The few that the boys have seen, mostly cheapo stuff from Happy Meals, have engaged them, and I thought long and hard about getting one for each of them. In the end, I didn't and I'm glad. I'm sure we have a lot of Game Boy days ahead of us, and I'm happy to put hold off as long as I can.

We played a few car games, but given the fact that we were driving with all the windows open to combat the heat, conversation was not always easy. The boys' favourite game is "I'm thinking of a (blank)." The blank started out being an animal, but has since moved on to be just about anything. The boys' favourite topics are movies, foods and people they know. It's basically 20 questions for preschoolers. Simon has improved from choosing the same thing every time it's his turn to think of something, but now has the unfortunate habit of changing his item half way through the game when he gets distracted and forgets what he's supposed to be answering questions about. He's more like his mother every day.

While Tristan mastered the famous "how many more minutes" question on this trip, and I'm sure I would have gone postal if I had had to share just one more bathroom stall with multiple occupants, I still have to say that I'm incredibly proud of how well the boys traveled. I've got a couple more weeks of vacation coming up, and with this trip still fresh in recent memory, we're already considering a six or seven hour drive to Lake Huron for my birthday. That's the mark of a good road trip, when you come home already wondering when your next trip will be.

Do you have anything to add? What do you do to make long car trips with little kids bearable?

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