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Tips for Road Trips

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Cathy, Ethan and Lila Johnson

Cathy, Ethan and Lila Johnson (from left) went on a road trip, which included stopping at Yellowstone National Park. 

Editor’s Note: Catherine Johnson, a local writer, planned a three-week family road trip adventure. See below for tips that she learned from experience and read more about road trips in Travel Buzz.

Whether you’re planning a road trip that takes three weeks or three days, it’s always nice to have a few tricks up your sleeve.  Here are the 12 most helpful things I learned from my road-trip experience last summer:

  1. Consider making some (or all) of your lodging reservations in advance: Although it’s not essential, a little advance planning with regard to where you are going to sleep can go a long way toward making your trip a pleasant one.  In particular, if you are planning to spend one or more nights in a lodge or hotel at one of the national parks (e.g. Yellowstone), you may need to make reservations several months in advance of your trip, as many of the most popular accommodations book up quickly.
  2. Stay in hotels/motels with a pool: If you’re traveling with kids, there’s no better way to get the wiggles out after a long day of sitting in the car than a quick dip in a pool.  It’s not hard to find places with pools – nearly everywhere we stayed had one – but it’s something to consider if you’re making lodging plans in advance.
  3. Pack healthy snacks: This is a more obvious tip, but important nonetheless.  It’s a good idea to pack some healthy snacks to balance out the more unhealthy stuff you’ll find yourself eating on the road (we were hamburger’d out by the end of our trip!).  Every few days, we stopped at a grocery store to stock up on things like fresh fruit, easy-to-eat veggies (e.g. baby carrots), lunchmeat, cheese, and yogurt – all of which we stored in a shallow cooler that fit between the kids’ seats.  We also kept non-perishable snacks on hand – like nuts, raisins and crackers – which my mother portioned out into snack-size baggies that were easy to grab from our snack box and hand to a ravenous (and/or cranky) child.  We often snacked our way through lunch, which saved time and increased the chances that the kids consumed actual vegetables on any given day!
  4. Activities for the car: Bringing things to do in the car is another no-brainer, but I thought I’d share my thoughts on the subject. My mom and I adopted a “spaghetti on the wall” approach to road-trip entertainment, bringing a wide variety of activities and seeing what “stuck” on any given day. Hits included crayons, markers and a ream of plain paper; road trip-themed car games (Mad Libs and Would You Rather were particular favorites); inexpensive point-and-shoot cameras for the kids (“Mom, I took a picture of a red car.  A red car!!”); postcards to send to friends (buy these as you travel, but you can always stock up on stamps beforehand); fill-in-the-blank travel journals; license plate-spotting games (we were huge fans of the Melissa & Doug U.S.A. License Plate Game); and books on tape.  And I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that we also relied on iPads and my in-car DVD player to pass some time on the road each day (a word of advice: If you are bringing handheld devices for one or more kids, consider investing in decent, kid-sized headphones to avoid the sound of dueling devices – your head will thank you!). It’s also helpful to hold certain activities and/or toys in reserve, so that you have something new and exciting to present to your child or children at different stages during your trip. 
  5. Heavy-duty storage containers: Stackable storage containers with lids are a great way to keep your trunk organized. We had one for extra non-perishable snacks and a few basic kitchen items (a cutting board and a sharp knife), one for cleaning supplies, and one for odds and ends.
  6. A box of small garbage bags: We pulled out a new garbage bag out each morning of our trip and generally filled it up by the end of the day. It was nice to have a set place to stash the garbage that invariably accumulates over the course of a day spent in the car.
  7. A separate overnight bag: If you don’t want to haul every piece of luggage you bring on your trip into your hotel/motel each night, consider taking along a separate bag that you can pack with just what you need for the night and the next morning.
  8. Quarters: We did laundry twice on our trip, and quarters (a lot of quarters) were essential to that task. They also came in handy when making souvenir pressed pennies (we made quite a few on our trip – you’ll need two quarters and a penny for each one); and in the event your car breaks down in the middle of a national park at the same time that one of your kids gets sick in said car and there’s no cell phone service.  You never know when you might need to use a pay phone!
  9. Basic cleaning supplies: When you are planning to spend an extended period of time in your car, it’s nice to have a few things on hand to tidy up every day or so (and for those unexpected vomiting incidents). I recommend a hand vacuum, dish soap and a sponge (in case your cooler gets a little funky), 409 or another all-purpose spray cleaner, a roll of paper towels and some Febreze.
  10. A travel potty: Because you never know when a little one might need to go (in the middle a Yellowstone “bear jam” and while visiting a somewhat remote prairie dog town in the Badlands of South Dakota are two examples that come to mind). We purchased a travel potty made by Cool Gear that worked really well. It has two storage compartments, folds up to the size of a small briefcase, and uses gallon-size bags to store your little one’s “business.”
  11. If you visit any national parks, participate in the Junior Ranger program: My son had a lot of fun becoming a “Junior Ranger” at Yellowstone Park and the Grand Canyon. The National Parks Service has developed a series of activities for kids to complete during a park visit in order to earn a Junior Ranger patch or certificate (examples of activities include attending a Ranger talk, going on a short hike, and filling out a certain number of pages in an activity book). 
  12. Last, but not least: Approach your road trip with an open mind, a willingness to be flexible, and the knowledge that a Target, Walmart or some other regional big-box store that stocks most of life’s essentials can’t possibly be too far away. Take detours, pull over at least once a day to enjoy the view, don’t worry too much if you leave all of your underwear at home by mistake (yes, I did that, too), and have faith that, in the end, it will all work out exactly the way it’s supposed to – just maybe not exactly the way you planned! 
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