I remember someone once telling me that after you have kids you never go on vacation again. You go on trips, on which you do all the stuff you normally do for the children, only it's harder because you don't have the conveniences and routines you have at home. Happy thought, isn't it?
But I do think travel is worth it. It builds memories and bonds you together as a family. Even the worst vacations you will one day look back on with fondness. Well, maybe not the one where more than half of the people at the 60-plus person family reunion got the same stomach bug. No fond memories there. But even the hours of squabbling in the car yield happy memories down the road. And the night we tried car-camping after a full day on the road with a four-year-old and a crawling baby. The four-year-old was delighted with the tent and would not stop singing. The baby spent the night crawling all over us because she had been cooped up in the car all day. Daddy, who had driven many hours that day, was not happy. Not a whole lot of sleeping took place, and we never tried that again. And yet we look back on it with a certain nostalgia.
So, in my twelve years of packing and road tripping with children in tow, here's what I've learned:
1) Pack light. Figure out what you think you need and then put half of it back. Especially if you have access to a washing machine--it's nice to come home with most of your laundry done anyway, so there's no need to pack outfits for your entire time if you can do laundry while you're there. When I was a kid we took trips to England every other summer or so, and the rule was that each kid had to be able to carry all their own stuff. It wasn't easy for my mom to pack, I'm sure, since we were gone for six weeks at a time, but somehow she managed, and it made it much easier that each child could carry their own suitcase into their hotel room. And this was in the days before wheeled suitcases, so we actually carried our own bags.
We always travel by car, so that rule isn't quite as important. I used to give each kid their own suitcase with the idea that they would pack it, carry it out of the car to their room, and then repack when it was time to head home. That never really happened, so I've recently developed a new tactic: pack all the kids' clothes in one big plastic tub.
It is a lot more compact than individual suitcases, and they unpack their stuff once we get there anyway, so the suitcases just sit empty and in the way for the week. Plus it's only one thing for my strapping husband to carry in and out, rather than five.
2) Pack toys that your kids can play together. Think legos, cars, sports equipment, craft supplies, dolls of the same type. Have the kids agree on one or two categories of toys and then put them all in a box or two and then that's it for the toys. And look, it all goes in one big box with a lid! Make that two boxes: one for indoor toys/games and one for beach stuff and outside toys.
3) Pack light for the car. If you have video games or a DVD player in the car, indulge them with unlimited screen time. I used to pack a box or bag for each kid. Now I have one tall soft-sided cooler-type box with a zipper lid and their stuff all has to fit in it. DS's, music, books, stuffed animals, stuff to draw with, etc.
If it doesn't fit in the one box, it's not going. (Well, other than that tiny little backpack for the littlest tyke.) I've found that if I pack a lot of stuff for them to do they just make a mess getting it all out and they really only do one or two things the entire trip anyway. Having a lot of things to do in the car seems to not make the kids any more content than they are with only a few things to do--so make the car neater and your life easier by packing light.
4) Don't waste stops on eating. Find nice rest stops where the kids can run around, and then set up a game of tag or get out a soccer ball and kick it around. When it's time to eat, eat in the car because that's a great form of entertainment. McDonald's playlands are great too, of course, especially if the kids are old enough to play independently while you eat in peace.
5) Books on CD are great. I've found that it is a little hard to find things that are interesting to a variety of ages and appropriate for all listeners. Bill Cosby and even Garrison Keillor are not as appropriate as you might think (we discovered the hard way)! Here are a few we've enjoyed: The Princess and Curdie series by George MacDonald, the Narnia series by C. S. Lewis, the Redwall books, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh, and the Fudge books by Judy Blume (although parts of those books had me cringing).
6) Come equipped with a few things to do on a rainy day. I save craft ideas throughout the year, and then when we go on vacation I bring supplies for one craft we've never tried before. I always feel more relaxed if I have a few surprises up my sleeve for those times when the kids are bored and then grown-ups don't want to go out.
7) Don't forget those medical supplies. It's no fun to have to run out at 10:00 at night in a strange town for some baby Tylenol or Benedryl cream for that strange rash.
So there you have it. I've just saved you a dozen years of trial and error!