photo credit: Tim . Simpson

photo credit: Tim . Simpson

We just got back from a hastily-planned long weekend with our three kids. We drove just over 1000 miles, stayed in two hotels, paid highway and bridge tolls in four states, and are still doing catch-up laundry (as if that’s a temporary situation). Our oldest child is almost seven and our youngest is on the verge of three, and we feel that we’ve finally reached a plateau of General Road-Tripping-with-Children Competence. It’s a beautiful, open-skied plateau, filled with sunshine and possibility.

Here are a few lessons we’ve learned:

Pay for a suite. As a family of five, we don’t legally fit in most standard hotel rooms anyway, but even if you have only one or two kids, I stand by this recommendation. We always stay in hotel suites for these two reasons:

Separate sleeping spaces mean you can put your littles to bed and stay awake comfortably. No more watching movies on your iPad with headphones from the cold tile of the bathroom floor. No more whispers. They get to go to sleep like children. You get to stay up like adults who just spent all day with your children.

A full kitchen means you can bring your own food and cook your own meals. You can bring home restaurant leftovers and enjoy them for second dinner. You can chill a full bottle of wine and find clean glasses made of actual glass waiting for you in the cabinet for just after you put your kids to bed in that other room.

The money you can save on not eating at restaurants more than makes up for the additional cost of a suite.

Bonus: an all-suites hotel will accept your loyalty points as payment on a suite, even though most mixed-room hotels will not accepts points for suites. We favor both the Doubletree Suites in the middle of Times Square and the Hilton Suites right on the beach in Ocean City as all-suites hotels that provide space for our family, payment completely in points, and great locale. Always look for an all-suites hotel!

Mix it up with old and the new media. This is a two-pronged rule. First, alternate between what your kids have used at home before and what they’ve never seen. Second, switch between screen and paper, digital and out-the-window.

We’re most lax about the kids’ screen time when we’re on a long car trip, but I bring both some sure-to-please videos we own and a few new ones I’ve been secretly stashing since the last time we got in a car with our suitcases. This is important: give up on democracy. We do not all have to agree on a movie, or we might spend the whole length of the New Jersey Turnpike in deliberations. Set up a rotation for who gets to choose when and just go with it. If any given kid doesn’t like the current choice, s/he will get another turn to choose soon enough, and in the meanwhile, have some crayons.

But don’t lead with the crayons! After the first movie, I give each kid a new notebook. Ooh, shiny blank pages! They get a pencil. The oldest spent this trip writing her next book (the table of contents lists 21 chapters: The Adventures of Lily is going to be EPIC). Our five-year-old made lists of all the words she knows how to spell (sometimes as we spelled them from the front seat for her). And our boy “drew” all the animals from Old MacDonald’s farm.  Later (much later), after the second movie, I upgrade their pencil to a rainbow crayon. By the time we’re on the way home, they have markers.

Bonus: give each kid a zip-closure pencil case with a grommet for keeping in a three ring binder, but stick a carabiner through the grommet  instead. They’ll find a place to attach it to their seats. They’re in charge of their writing implement collections. You are not.

Rest areas are rest stops for noobs. Grocery stores are rest stops for pros. Hear me out:

You have all that GPS and smartphone and tablet fancy stuff in front of you. It’s not hard to locate the good grocery store nearby. Go there instead of where everyone else on the highway is going.

It might take you five more minutes of driving but the bathrooms will be automatically 50% less disgusting. Your kids get more walking and stimulation. And you eat lunch in the cafe: I got sushi, my husband got lo mein, the kids got pizza and berries from the salad bar and edamame and cornbread and everyone was happy, eating from a variety of cuisines at one table, without waiting twenty minutes to place an order and be served. And you’re right there to resupply your kids’ insatiable need for Cheerios. And how do they get so sticky? Better grab an extra package of wipes, too.

The off-highway gas station next to the grocery store is cheaper, of course, so you refuel and then it’s time to hit the road again.

Bonus: snag a few extra napkins and straws from the cafe. You’ll need them in the car. And don’t forget to let your kids stretch their legs after eating – say hello to the always-captivating lobster tank.

Spring break is coming soon. Do you have any road trip plans?



When Robin isn’t at the wheel she’s at the keyboard, and you can find her at her own blog, The Not-Ever-Still Life, or on FacebookGoogle+, and Twitter.