My husband is always amazed (and a little exasperated) by the amount of “must-have” items I pack for a trip. Its true, my purse is always a little like Mary Poppins’ satchel…full of a never-ending supply of oddities. But when you have three kids of varying ages and genders, there is no one magical fix for potty emergencies, boo-boos, packing conundrums, boredom and hunger. Far better to be prepared! Gradually, over time we have been able to pare down the burdens we must carry, but these are the tips that have kept the true must-haves manageable and the long stretches of road bearable. Here are our top tips:
1) Free Your Hands: If traveling long distances you may want to rent, borrow, purchase online, or mail ahead any bulky essential items. With so many resources online it’s easier than ever to rent car seats, strollers, and portable cribs. You can also have bulky essentials like diapers ordered in advance and delivered to your hotel room. If visiting friends or relatives, have them ask around and see if you can borrow the big stuff from friends. MUCH easier than lugging all that stuff across the country!
2) Containing Snacks & Supplies: As soon as your kids can walk, they can carry a backpack filled with their own essentials. Do NOT feel guilty about asking a whining toddler to carry his own load of toys and snacks. I once saw a family backpacking across Europe and each of the 4 kids, right down to the preschooler was carrying his own rucksack. For short distances, they can manage a few pounds! I usually pack the essentials for them, a few special wrapped surprises, and then let them fill in the leftover space with whatever is most important to them. For containing their essentials, we’ve used Altoid tins, diaper wipe boxes, and plastic baby food containers. You can also purchase small plastic divided boxes from craft stores. All of these work well for holding snacks, crafts and small toys like action figures and Lego bricks. When packing snacks, however, try to keep the portions small and light on the sugar…the last thing you want on a road trip is a tummy ache!
3) Taming the Clothing Tangle: For each child, I pack matching outfits in individual gallon-sized ziplock bag, including underwear, socks, hairbands, belts, whatever. That way they can pick one matching outfit per day without scattering clothes all over a hotel room and mixing plaids and stripes. I learned the importance of this after reviewing my vacation photos one year and realizing my children looked like very adorable, mismatched hobos. I’m probably the ONLY person in the family who cares, but on their most-photographed-days of the year, it would be nice not to have my eyes cross. Another well-advised tip: if traveling by air, divide up everyone’s clothing between the suitcases so that if any one suitcase is lost, everyone still has a few outfits packed. Throw a set for each kid in your carry-on too…just in case there is an accident or unexpected travel delay.
4) Potty Emergencies: Potty training and travel don’t usually mix, but in an emergency we’ve found our On The Go Potty to be indispensable. It folds flat, but when the legs are folded out makes a nice sturdy seat with disposable liners that you can throw away like a diaper. We’ve used it everywhere from the aisle of our mini-van on the way to Maine, along a highway in France, and on the tarmac of an airshow in Virginia. In a pinch, a ziplock bag with an open absorbent diaper in it works too --- although far better for little boys! (Granted, this is only slightly less gross than the trucker trick of using a wide-mouthed Gatorade bottle…but in an emergency you’d be surprised at what you’re willing to try.)
5) Dressing to Impress: I love this tip I learned from Mrs. B…to make the journey more exciting, have little ones travel in one of their favorite costumes. Superman flies to New York…a dinosaur drives to the Grand Canyon…Ariel goes to the beach…you get the idea! I remember making a trip as a child in a tutu (not because my mom thought it was a good idea but because I insisted). I don’t remember where we were going but I do remember adoring the attention from surprised strangers along the way. Make sure it’s a comfortable costume though…not too hot, scratchy, or confining. Something that can easily slide on and off over a regular T-shirt and shorts would be perfect.
6) Being Bored Isn’t Fatal: By all means, load up your devices with exciting new apps, read-aloud books, and games for the kids. But when even those magical devices fail to amuse, let them be bored for a while. It’s only when the mind is totally free and blank that they can daydream. Everyone will arrive at your destination a little calmer if there has been some quiet, unplugged down time. To get younger kids started, you may want to ask them to imagine the perfect amusement park, best day off from school, or craziest pizza they can think of. Pretty much anything that you think might get their wheels turning. If they refuse to engage in quiet, zen-like thought, threaten them with singing. The threat of mom belting out old camp songs is usually enough to get my kids to appreciate some quiet time.
7) Road Signs and Maps: In addition to encouraging day dreaming, take a cue from your environment and try to get kids interested in what’s going on around them. Even if you’re on the New Jersey Turnpike, there are plenty of interesting things to look for. For a child just learning the alphabet, we try to “spy” every letter in the alphabet in order. This usually kills at least 20 minutes, with “Q” being the toughest and “X” and “Z” being surprisingly easy thanks to “Exits” and “E-Zpass”! For early readers, try some road bingo with these free printable Travel Bingo Games. Older kids can help navigate and find creative alternate routes by using maps and navigation systems. My eldest are particularly interested in following our progress on the iPad and using Google maps to explore the street views of the places we are going.
8) Souvenirs That Won’t Break the Budget: Kids are suckers for anything plastic that’s glitters, glows, or makes noise. To avoid pouting and disappointment, its best to set expectations ahead of time. Spur of the moment splurges are fine (its vacation after all), but let your child know in advance if they can expect to visit the gift shop or not. Instead of the usual kitsch, try to steer them towards meaningful keepsakes such as collecting shells from a beach, rocks from a hike, stamps, flags, or patches from foreign countries, guidebooks about local wildlife, or collectible charms to add to a bracelet.
9) Health and Safety: Unusual sleep routines, diets, and climates can seriously upset little bodies, so try to keep foods and routines as normal as possible while on the move. The airport lounge is not the best time to experiment with fizzy blue drinks. I always keep child strength pain reliever, antihistamines, tums, and doctor prescribed motion sickness medication on hand when travelling. For the great outdoors, you’ll also need bugspray, sunscreen, and some aloe gel. And don’t forget to bring your pediatrician’s phone number, a copy of your child’s immunization records, and insurance information. If traveling to a foreign country look into Traveler’s Insurance as well.
10) Light Up the Night: For night-time trips, we let the kids have those little book lights, as long as they keep them lowered on their laps. Brighter lights like light sticks are often too distracting for drivers, but are great for other kinds of travel like overnight trains, planes, boats, and dark hotel rooms. We also always bring a favorite night-light and some hand-held flashlights for hotel rooms. Both make the kids feel more secure about sleeping in a strange dark room.
11) And, Finally, Quit While Your Ahead: If you love Disney World, it’s probably not the last time you’ll visit and so there’s no need to cram everything into one visit. And there’s no rule that you have to see the famous view from the top of the Empire State Building when the line is two hours long. An ice cream break or a little siesta during the hottest time of day will go a long way to keeping everyone cheerful well into the evening. Yes, we missed going to the top of the Eiffel Tower when in Paris, but our kids still talk about the pedal carts and the delicious (and overpriced) ice cream we found in the park at the base of the Tower. Maybe someday we’ll take the kids to Paris again and climb La Tour Eiffel, or maybe the first time they see it will be with their own husband or wife. Either way, the memories will be sweet!
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