Monday, October 21, 2013

Traveling solo with your kids

I recently drove with my 4 boys (ages 8 and under) clear across the country--from North Carolina to Las Vegas, Nevada.  Crazy?  Maybe.  But here's the really crazy part: I did it without my husband (or any other adult for that matter).  I also did it without the aide of any electronic devices.  That's right--no dvds, no ipads, no video games.  Honestly, I had a bin of all that kind of stuff but my boys were doing so well without it that I never pulled it out.  And I just knew it would cause all sorts of fighting over which device they got that I just avoided it altogether.  

So on the off chance that I ever attempt this again I thought I would record what worked--and share it with you too!  (You should know that I was in no rush--we didn't have a set number of hours we had to drive so we woke up when we woke up and we drove until dinner time.)

First off, I had everything that I might need while driving easily accessible.  For me that meant snacks (for myself and the boys), a few different activity bins and mystery bags (I'll explain more in a minute), water, and my phone.  I didn't want to have sugary filled snacks so we brought: fruit strips, cliff kidz bars, grapes, string cheese, pretzels, popcorn, and beef jerky. 

In the back I had a book bin for the boys.  It was filled with some of our favorites, a few new ones (Where's Waldo turned out to be a huge hit!), several workbooks, sticker books and notebooks for drawing.  There was also a small cooler for milk (my boys are big milk drinkers) and string cheese.   Each boy was also equipped with his own backpack full of goodies (stickers, crayons, colored pencils, colored pens, water bottle, small containers of legos, a cookie sheet for a desk, a map with our route highlighted, etc).  They also each had their own pillow and blanket.  (I don't know if I'd bring both again, but we were moving so we needed them to sleep in our empty house the night before we left.)

Every day we stopped at a park or a rest stop for lunch.  No fast food.  (We saved that for dinner.)  I had a little bin that was easy to get to full of sandwich stuff, fruit, nuts, paper towel, and a knife.  I'm really glad that I decided to do this.  Even with eating fast food for dinner we were sick of it by the end of our trip.  It was nice to eat something filling and fresh before sitting for another few hours.

We would all eat, go to the bathroom, and then the boys would run around and burn some energy.  Our lunch breaks usually lasted about an hour.  Like I said, we were in no real hurry. I also made sure that the baby's diaper was changed at this time... so diapers and wipes were always easy to get to.

One of the things that worked magically was listening to an audio book.  I found one that I thought my boys would enjoy and we listened to it for an hour or more every day.  The boys loved it.  One of the bins up by my seat was full of cds that we listened to as well.  I made sure I had some fun music in addition to some calming tunes for when the boys needed to settle down a little bit.

A wonderful tip I received before leaving was to have an overnight bag to take into the hotel.  This was a lifesaver!  Instead of sifting through all of our stuff (or lugging it all in) every night I had just a few small bags that I brought in.  They had diapers, pajamas, swim stuff and a change of clothes.  I also brought in a bag with my laptop and a few other things that I could do after the boys had fallen asleep.  Everything else stayed in the car.

Because I was on my own and my boys are still young I had a few requirements for hotels every night.  Number one: I had to feel safe.  Number two: Free breakfast.  I wasn't about to go searching for breakfast every morning or try to take the boys somewhere.  Number three: a pool.  This way we could get all our energy out at night before we headed to bed.  We were lucky enough to find places with pools every night.  And the boys were usually nice and exhausted by the time we got to bed.

I was exhausted every night as well.  However, I found that to keep my sanity I had to do something for myself every night.  I didn't want to stay up too long because I had a big day of driving awaiting me but I took about an hour to relax.  Some nights it was taking a bath with some essential oils.  Other nights it was doing some Sudoku or hopping on to Facebook.  Whatever it was I just needed to collect myself before starting again the next day.

A few other things that kept us sane.

Activity bins:  I had three shoe box size bins near me.  One was full of music and audio books.  Another was full of travel games.  We had Guess Who, Travel Bingo, War, Go Fish, Old Maid, etc.  When kids got bored I could pull out a game (and hope that someone wanted to play with them!).  My last bin was full of craft things.  We had pipe cleaners, glue stick, pads of construction paper, crayons, washi tape, stickers, etc in this bin.  I put it together at the last minute and wasn't sure how it was going to go over.  But on one of our last days in the car we pulled it out.  It was a huge hit!  I was amazed at the things they came up with to craft.  They didn't need direction they just used their imagination!  This is definitely a must-have for future road trips.

Mystery Bags:

I gathered several brown paper sacks and put different surprises in them.  Whenever I felt that the boys were getting antsy or needed a distraction we would pull one out.  Sometimes it was something to look forward to.  I would tell them, "In one hour we will pull out a mystery bag!"  It kept them happy and it was a much shorter milestone to look forward to than lunch or dinner.   

Our mystery bags included:

mustaches (these provided way more entertainment than I imagined they would!)
magnifying glasses (one for each boy from the dollar store)
small puzzles (from the dollar spot at Target... and each boy had a small cookie sheet as a desk so they were able to do the puzzle on their lap)
post-its (again, a much bigger hit than I imagined!) 
wikki stix (we have never had them so it was a really exciting thing!)
mini footballs
lacing cards

Another fun find was a book about the 50 states.  Because our road trip covered several states it was fun to read about each one as we passed through.

My two oldest were a great help--they would help the younger ones with things that were dropped, grab milk from the cooler and pass things back and forth.

I don't want to do another 2000 mile road trip any time soon but it was actually a great experience.  Now that I've shared what worked for me I'd love to hear what has worked for your road trips!


  1. I've never done it with kids, but I drove from Oklahoma City to Las Vegas last year with an OCD and anxiety-ridden dog, who would NOT go in a crate, no matter how hard I tried. I attempted to get him in there and he literally peed himself. Then I had the cat, who had to be in a crate, and let me know the wholeeeeee drive how much she hated me for putting her in there. Longest drive ever, I will never do a long road trip like that by myself again.

  2. We do the same thing as your mystery bags when we travel with the kids too! Great minds think a like! ;) I wrap up little items and they get to open them every few hours if they've been good. This last trip I discovered that window clings were a HUGE hit! I bought clings of fish, seaweed and bubbles and they decorated their windows and then pretended to be in a submarine! WIN!

  3. The overnight bag was a life saver for us too on our long trip this summer.

  4. I've traveled across the country many times, with dogs, with kids, once with a cat. Ive also mapped out trips for friends coming to visit. One of my lifesavers has been They make it easy to find a good hotel where you're headed and to know you're getting the best deal too. I can make a reservation knowing if they have a pool, breakfast, allow pets etc and know that I have a good place to finish up my day at.

  5. Jennifer, I love the idea of the window clings! I will remember that for next time!
    Mary, I will have to remember that site for my future trips. Sounds like a lifesaver!

  6. Hats off to you! I cringe at the thought of driving long car trips even with my husband there to help! Will pin this post for future reference!

  7. I have four kiddos, all special needs, ages 6,5,4 & almost 2. It is rare that we travel, because not only do we have developmental and emotional needs, one of our kiddos has too many food allergies to count. However, this summer I took the kiddos on two vacations. The first was with my husband, only a five hour drive, but then five days in a new place. The second vacation was a bit longer of a drive, about ten hours, give or take depending on stops. We then stayed at our destination for 6 days. I did that one all by myself. And honestly, if I could financially pull off driving them further destination, I probably would. They did fabulous. Like you, I made sure everything was accessible that I needed. I packed their lunch boxes with special snacks each day they could eat along the way. I created several busy bags/bins for the kids to rotate, along with their cookie sheet trays. Magnets worked wonders for holding things in place for them, especially games like perfection etc. They received special travel bags as we left, with a bottle of water, a battery operated fan (all but the little one), and a few other fun things related to travel. I had little surprise gifts for them along the way when needed, just like you mentioned. Then at night, I pulled out the glow sticks, necklaces, bracelets, wands etc. (My kiddos are afraid of the dark.) I can't forget the music of course! We didn't use any movies, game systems etc. It was fabulous. Honestly, I can't wait until we can figure out how to pull off another trip, with my husband, or without. :) I loved your post. It brought back a lot of memories from the summer. My five year old has been asking to go on a 3rd vacation this year. Oh, and I love the idea of finding hotels with pools and taking an hour for yourself at night. That was the only downside to traveling with the special needs kiddos. I was lucky if I received 4 hours of sleep a night.

  8. This is SO great! You are amazing Jeanine. I'll be using these tips for my next road trip.

  9. Very helpful post! I've found many of these things to be helpful not just on roadtrips, but on flights. I wrap up little gifts for my girls to open every few hours if they are behaving well, and they were a big help. I'll give some of these ideas a go as we're driving from the UK to central France this summer. I grew up with a tradition of road trips, but my husband didn't, so it should be an adventure. I'll show him this to set his mind at ease. I love the idea of cookie sheets as desks with magnets and window clings. I'll have to look around for something like that here in the UK.