My family obviously loves to travel by air. Even though air travel is much more stressful than it used to be, there is something exciting about travel on planes. Our 6 year old has been on more than 100 plane flights so we’ve learned to cope with the stressful and trying air travel moments and still enjoy the process.
If you only fly when you travel, however, you’ll miss a lot of great places to visit. Additionally, now that we have a family of 4, plane tickets are starting to add up. We have reached the tipping point on some kinds of trips that justifies driving. We drove late last year for the first time from San Francisco to Anaheim for a Disneyland trip. We also embarked on a pretty ambitious spring break road trip earlier this spring that took us from Las Vegas to the Grand Canyon and then on to Sedona and Phoenix.
As frequent flyers, we made a few road trip mistakes at moments and learned a lot in the process. For frequent flyers looking to do more road trips with young kids, here are my best tips so you can get started on more ambitious road tripping with your kids:
1. Rethink everything you know about packing.
Packing for a flight and packing for a road trip are two totally different beasts. When packing for flights, the major limitation you are working with is the size and shape of your suitcase. On road trips, you have another dimension to think about: your car’s trunk. Fitting inflexible and large suitcases in that space can be a frustrating and complex puzzle. Sometimes smaller duffel bags work much better for road trips because you can piece them together in a better space-saving arrangement. It is also good to have smaller bags when your family is making a short single night stop and only needs to unpack an overnight bag for your hotel.
When packing for road trips, think long and hard about the space under your kids’ feet in the back seat as well as in between them. Pack things like snacks and entertainment so that your (older) kids can reach them and help themselves.
When it comes to packing, if you are a glutton for punishment, do as we did. Fly to the first stop of your road trip, road trip for 9 days, and then fly home. Having to pack in such a way that worked for both flying and road tripping is not for the faint of heart!
2. On multi-stop road trips, stay at least two nights per stop with young kids.
Usually when you fly somewhere, you stay at a single destination for an extended period of time. While road tripping, the journey itself is part of the destination, so you might feel compelled to hotel hop every night and keep the road trip going. If you have very young kids, this is a mistake when done too often. Little kids require a lot of gear and packing up a hotel room and car on a daily basis can be exhausting. Sometimes single overnight stops are necessary, but don’t do them too often with little travelers.
If you have a child who naps, staying more than one night in a hotel is a good idea so you actually have access to a hotel room during nap time. Most hotels require checkout at 11 am and don’t allow check-in until 3 or 4 p.m., so hotel hopping will mean you don’t have a quiet room during prime time for naps (our son naps from about 1-4 pm most days). Staying two nights in a hotel means you have hotel access for naps at least every other day.
3. Non-stop is a big mistake on road trips.
If you fly often with young kids, you’re probably used to booking (and even occasionally paying more for) a non-stop flight. The key with air travel is to get to your destination as fast as possible. On road trips, the opposite is true. You need to plan for stops with young kids. These stops need to be more than a bathroom break if you are on the road for an extended period of time. Find a fast food place with a play area (I won’t judge, I promise!) or plan for a road side attraction that allows the kids to run around and burn off energy.
4. Time the longest drives for nap time.
Nap time is hit or miss on planes. My first child wouldn’t nap well on planes as a toddler so we often tried to fly early in the day so we didn’t have a cranky napless toddler on our hands in-flight. Our second child is much more flexible so we don’t avoid the nap time flights anymore. In fact, naps can make the flights go much more quickly.
On road trips, nap time is usually an even better opportunity when traveling with young kids. If you have a squirmy toddler who hates being confined to a car seat for extended periods, nap time can be an opportunity to make some serious headway on your journey. Most kids sleep well in their car seats (I know a few who don’t so my apologies if you got one of them!), so time a long stretch of driving to coincide with nap time. The older kids can watch a movie (headphones are important just like on planes!) if they have outgrown naps.
One nap time travel tip: make sure to take a bathroom stop for everyone in the car as you approach nap time. I don’t know about you, but my kids wake up from naps as soon as the car stops moving, so you don’t want to have to make a stop and cut short a good nap!
Want even more road trip hacks? Check out Travel with a Plan’s family road trip hacks.