I am currently on a 10-day vacation in Chicago, visiting friends and family (I’m originally from Sycamore, Ill.) and seeing some sights. Unlike the last three years when we enjoyed a roadtrip, this year we FLEW (thanks, Delta, for the $150 roundtrip fares!). I’ll detail this journey later, when I’m NOT on vacation, but wanted to inspire you to travel, alone, with your children whenever you get a chance. I wrote this a couple years ago… enjoy!
I recently returned from a 10-day trip. Why was everyone I know warning me not to make the trek from New York City to rural Illinois with my two children? Maybe it’s because the kids are ages 3 and 5. Or perhaps they worried my sanity would be tested by the fact that this journey happened by car. Or was it that I did it alone, with no other adult along for the good times?
Despite friends’ and acquaintances’ dire predictions of highway meltdowns and sleepless nights in hotels, I was thrilled to find how fun and relaxing the trip was. Lucas and Helena were remarkably well behaved, and I enjoyed the whole experience far more than I predicted—and despite the naysayers’ shrill warnings, I predicted it would be fun!
I had never done a trip like this with Helena and Lucas, and I learned a few things about traveling with little kids. If you plan on taking a similar trip, here’s what you need to know:
Create traditions. One mom I know gives her sons little boxes of Froot Loops when they hit the road, and the kids gnaw on the florescent cereal “like it’s crack, since road trips are the only time they are allowed that treat.” My kids and I decided that white chocolate–covered pretzels (my favorite) and gummy bears (theirs) will be our special road trip snack. Besides food, pick an album or two to sing along with—over and over. Make it music that the family will always associate with the trip.
Team up with other adults You don’t need to tell me you love your kids. I know you do. But kids can be really, really boring (not to mention annoying). Build in time with other adults. I have traveled with another single mom friend (read here), and I always build in visits with friends or family wherever I go. Don’t be shy about asking if you can be a houseguest, make a point of calling old friends or even acquaintences in the area you’re visiting, or, before leaving for your destination, put out a call on social media for contacts and connections who live in your destination. And when you land, never be shy about chatting with other families at the beach, museum or campground. You never know what magic might happen.
Pack snacks—but not too many. Of course kids (and adults!) need calories to stave off the grumpies while on the road. But don’t rely on sugary or greasy treats to occupy bored minds. Try to keep the munchies few and relatively healthy. Instead, stop for a sit-down meal, which will likely be healthier than fast food and provide a great way to take a break. Sitting face-to-face as a family will allow you to track maps with your kids, look at guidebooks and brainstorm your next stop.
Don’t rely on gadgets. Many parents suggested their favorite Pixar films as ways to sedate restless little road warriors, and I loaded up my iPad with a few. But only on the very last leg home did I bust outBabe and Kung Fu Panda. Research finds that extensive video game playing and small-screen viewing will actually rev kids up, not calm them down. Instead, try to keep them occupied with audio books. We listen every year to E.B. White’s Stuart Little, read by Julie Harris. Also, get into the sing-along songs. Our family loves old country-western, and we belted out June Carter and Johnny Cash’sJackson more times than I can count. Insider tip: If you do go for the iPad, stretch a bungee cord between the headrests of the front two seats and drape the tablet’s cover over for backseat viewing.
Find ways to exercise. Parents and kids alike need to stretch their legs and burn off steam, so scope out rest stops with playgrounds. We kicked around the soccer ball and tossed the Frisbee at these spots. Book roadside hotels that have pools (99 cent app iExit is handy for finding accommodations as well as gas stations, restaurants and campsites). I swam a few laps at the Clarion in Hudson, Ohio, while keeping an eye on the kids splashing around in the shallow end. Download yoga videos to follow en suite after the kids go to sleep.
Remember: Everything is a big deal when you’re little. The fact that my children are so small made it easy to impress them. Staying in a hotel was totally glamorous. (My daughter and I had a bit of a verbal tussle when she insisted that our ’80s conference center digs were “the most beautiful in the world” and I politely disagreed. Hey, it’s my duty as her mother to teach her taste!). They giddily opted for “special beds,” which were made of folded quilts on relatives’ floors, over an actual bed and marveled at the salad bar at a truck stop. Who needs spendy amusement parks?
Take the slow road. The main reason I opted to drive rather than fly on this vacation was my desire to get off our strict schedule and just chill. Even though we mostly stuck to the highways (as opposed to the more interesting local routes), I made a point of taking it easy. When someone wanted to stop to pee, we pulled over and took a break—even if we’d just lunched an hour earlier (save for the moment when, stuck in standstill Chicago traffic, my 3-year-old son awoke from a nap, screaming for a toilet. Suffice it to say, I was grateful to have an empty water bottle on hand). At the last minute, I decided to drive straight from Illinois to New York and skip our plans to stay over at a hotel. The payoffs were plentiful: A giant rainbow met us as we rounded the bend in the Pennsylvania Pocono Mountains just before dusk. And when the sun set, my city kids marveled at the galaxies of fireflies swarming roadside. “I like driving in the car,” my daughter said.
Just do it I know how overwhelming traveling alone with kids can be. It can also be lonely. Hell, I remember feeling so triumphant very early in my single motherhood when I successfully walked 8 blocks to a neighborhood playground with my newborn and toddler. But remember: You are living in a time of unbelievable abundance — as a person, as a woman, and as a mother. Yes, your Instagram #familyvacation pics will not look like you may have dreamed. But that does not mean you cannot do this. It is a vacation, for crying out loud. Not brain surgery on your second grader. Go. Have fun. Embrace the challenge. Even more importantly: Relish the good times, the memories you are making on your own terms, with your own, wonderful and complete family.
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