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Family Vacations: 7 Tips For a Happy Road Trip - by Mary Ellen Barrett

Family Vacations: 7 Tips For a Happy Road Trip

4 minutes

When I was a child, no matter how tight finances were, my brother and I were packed into the back seat of whatever wreck was the family automobile that year and off we would go on some east coast road trip that always involved a stop at a battle field and a lot of arguing over maps.

My brother and I have often made fun of my parent’s attempts at the perfect family vacation but the fact is that the memories of those trips are some of the best we have of our childhood. From the leaky, skunk-infested cabin in Maine to the Disney trip that had my brother holding his breath throughout the entire Snow White ride.

The four (yes four) trips to Gettysburg to watch re-enactments of Pickett’s charge and to see the same museums over and over again. The long ride down south to visit family and the subsequent foisting of a new puppy on us by my aunt resulting in my mom having a nippy puppy weeing on her feet for a thousand miles until we finally arrived home.

Good times.

So, of course when I had my own family, I wanted to inflict on share with them some of the same happy times and memories that I experienced as a child. So to the same leaky cabin in Maine and visiting family down south, no Gettysburg yet but Gatlinburg made the list and many other fun and interesting places. Because of all this travel I’ve been able to figure out ways to make these trips a little easier on mom.

1. It’s not a vacation.

The kids will think it’s a vacation and dad will “take vacation time” from work but for mom it’s a dip in the purgatory pool. Try not to think you are going on vacation because if you begin in that head space you are destined for disappointment. It’s a trip, a journey, a voyage but, for mom, a vacation it’s not.

A vacation is when you sit poolside in a cute swim suit while attractive people bring you fancy drinks with umbrellas in them.

A vacation is not where everywhere you eat has a napkin dispenser on the table and you often have to shout your order into a clown’s mouth.

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On vacations your adventures include visiting new and exciting places and taking in the local cuisine and customs.

On road trips the adventures include stopping at every rest stop bathroom because someone always has to go and trying to dig your screaming eight-year old out of the hole in the sand his brother buried him in while not letting the baby wander off to the ocean unattended. Adventures and new experiences all of it.

On a vacation an afternoon nap is mandatory. On a trip mom is exhausted enough for bed at 5:00 p.m. but the children, who were too busy having fun to eat lunch, are starving and need to eat. NOW.

You get the idea. It’s a trip, not a vacation, make your peace with it.

2. Prepare ahead with a Master List

Every family should have a master list of what is needed for vacations. If you pack these items slowly over the course of a few days you are less likely to forget something. Divide your list by family member and then have a section devoted to the miscellaneous flotsam and jetsam that gets your family through the day. A toiletries and medication section is also helpful. The list should be personal and reflect your vacation style.

If you are a camping family your list will look very different from the list of a resort family. Figure in if you will be able to do a load of laundry where you are going and make those accommodations. Always pack a little more than you think you will need so as to be prepared for the inevitable ice cream disasters, diaper explosions, car sick events and mustard/ketchup dribbles.

Also never leave home without a stain stick, Don’t forget a nice outfit or two for Mass or if a nice dinner out is on the agenda.

3. The Sticky Post Method

Does the idea of a list or spreadsheet give you hives? Try the sticky post method of packing. Not everyone is a list person and sometimes a more visual method is helpful for those of us who need to “see it”. Buy a package of multi colored sticky posts. Then assign a color to each family member and start writing items on squares. One square devoted to darling daughter might say “five short sleeved shirts”.

A toiletry square might say “Tylenol”. Post the squares on a wall near where you pack. As items are packed you throw out the squares. It’s a quick visual reminder. You might also consider sticking bunch of squares on the door you leave through, all of those last minute items that are so easy to forget in the rush to get out of the house in the morning.

The baby’s favorite blanket or doll; someone’s morning medication; hairbrushes (we always forget hairbrushes) and the essential, for this mama, travel mug of coffee.

4. Mark the Miles

To make a long car trip seem a less tedious plan on a few activities to mark the miles. You can easily print road maps for older children to follow along. To help with the litany of “are we there yet?” I make binders for each of the children.

I purchased flexible binders at the dollar store and printed Google maps directions and a satellite picture of our destination. Then, in page protectors, I added coloring pages of the flora and fauna of each state we passed through; word search and crossword puzzles with a travel theme; car bingo games; and a list of fun facts about traveling and famous people who lived near our destination.

The binders have become a cherished memory book for the kids as they added drawings, menus, pictures and postcards during the trip.

Other fun things for mom to have in her arsenal when the crabbies hit:

5. Audiobooks.

We use Audible and also CDs from our local library. My car is old enough to have CD player and this is an inexpensive way to keep everyone happy during the trip.

6. Dollar store fun.

I buy a plethora of silly things to break out when I feel like a diversion is needed. Glow sticks are fun if you are traveling in the evening, sticker books, window markers, small clipboards loaded with paper (attach a pencil with a string), battery operated personal fans, and small craft kits.

7. DVDs.

Sigh. It’s a hard thing to admit but I have resorted to the electronic babysitter in the car. When it’s been hours and hours in the car with nothing much to look at on the road and no end in sight I have made use of the DVD player in our van. When we had to buy our twelve-passenger van, which did not include a DVD player, I made the investment in a portable DVD player.

This along with a laptop and a charger was adequate to keep both the younger and older children happy. Some favorite DVDs on the road; Rick Steves travel series, Liberty Kids, National Geographic, The Lord of the Rings, The Magic School Bus, The Two Fat Ladies Cooking Series, and Dr. Who.

I try to make the DVDs the kids watch in the car worthwhile but since it is a vacation there is nothing wrong with relaxing with a silly cartoon as well.

Wherever you go, the most important thing is to relax and have fun. Make the trip memorable for your kids, get wet and dirty with them, let good times roll and in doing so you will build wonderful family memories and create traditions that your children will hand down to their families and that makes the journey worth everything.

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About Mary Ellen Barrett

Mary Ellen Barrett
Mother of seven children and two in heaven, Mary is wife to David and a lifelong New Yorker. She has homeschooled her children for eleven years using Seton and an enormous amount of books. She is a columnist for The Long Island Catholic and blogs here . Meet Mary Ellen.
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