I miraculously survived a road trip recently, where I, alone, took my four children to visit family and friends. We traveled through eight different states, stretching roughly 2,810 miles (not including the miles in between to pull off and use the travel potty, take an off-route break for gas and food, and visit extra family and friends outside of the main destinations) and we took 18 days to do it all.
Did you notice the words “miraculously survived”?
Yeah, I know, it was crazy to even attempt this. But, military life.
If you find yourself in a similar predicament, read on and let me share a few hacks that helped make a road trip alone with kids bearable. You can tailor each tip to your needs, and to the nature of your trip. I have adapted for airline travel in the past as well.
Jesus and Coffee: First and foremost, seriously, Jesus and coffee! We said a prayer at the beginning of every leg of the trip, we listened to our favorite radio station, K-Love, and I filled myself with way more caffeine than my body is used to! I needed these things every single day!
This time, however, I took my children to the dollar store with me. They had a blast choosing their own toys and activities (a small toy, a notepad, a hand-held travel game, a storybook, a new pair of sunglasses, snacks, a pack of tissues and handwipes) and I still added a surprise toy for each of them that I bought off Amazon. The travel backpacks are a highlight for the kids! And great for parents, too, because as toys get broken during travel, you just thrown them away and you don’t have to bring back a bunch of junk!
Family Snack Bag: Each child had a snack or two in their travel backpacks right near them, but I kept a large snack bag in the front seat with me. An overflow. That if desperate, I could quickly reach over, grab something, and throw it back to the crying child. The snacks included individually packaged crackers, fig bars, dried fruit, squeezie fruit and veggie pouches, protein muffins, and a couple of treats.
I would take this bag into the hotels so if the kids also needed a bedtime snack, or something in the morning before we could get to breakfast, we had it on hand.
Water Bottles: I never go anywhere, even on the day-to-day, without a refillable water bottle for each child. I would keep these on the front seat with me too, as I didn’t want my children drinking all they wanted, and we’d be forced to stop for potty breaks more frequently.
So, if they asked for water, I’d throw back their water bottle to them. I’d wash the bottles in the hotels, or at my families’ homes, and refill them again for the next trip. Sometimes, I’ve brought with me a travel-sized bottle of dish soap for this reason; other times, I’ve just used hotel soap and a washcloth.
Medicine Bag and Small First Aid Kit: I filled a small bag with all of our vitamins, and also included adult, children and infant Tylenol, a thermometer, an oximeter (just because I happen to have one), Benadryl and bug bite creams, allergy medicine, medicine dispensers, band-aids, antibacterial wipes and/or Neosporin, and a few essential oils.
We were very intentional on taking our daily vitamins to keep up our strength and immunity as we hopped from place to place. I like to carry some of the extra medications, because I never know where I’ll be, and what time of day it will be, if a little one comes down with a fever, swells from a bug bite, or may struggle with seasonal allergies. I’ve especially carried these types of items when traveling around overseas.
We never know if a pharmacy will be nearby, or open, or if the signs and labels will be in a language we understand.
Jackets: My children and I tend to get cold easily in stores and restaurants when they pipe the air conditioning through too strong. Even on the day-to-day, we’ll bring a zip-up sweatshirt or light jacket with us when going places. For the road trip, I kept a small bag with our jackets in an easy-to-get-to place. When going into a restaurant, I’d quick pull them out and hand each child their own to carry in.
Small Suitcase: I usually pack one large suitcase and put each child’s clothes in separate zip-up packing cubes, along with mine, for easy organization and access. I used to bring the entire suitcase into hotels during PCSes or road trips. It’s always more clothes than we need for the actual traveling part, and the suitcase is hard to load and unload. So, I tried a new method this time.
After packing clothes for the entire 18 days, I pulled out enough outfits to last us for the three days of actual, one-way road tripping, and put them in the small suitcase, along with our toiletries. Every night, I only took out our small suitcase, our snack bag (which included the medicine bag and water bottles), and the diaper bag (which also serves as my purse) into the hotel. Three items, and my kids helped me carry them!
Small Cooler: I haven’t done this in the past, since I always keep a few snacks and water bottles on hand. However, for this long trip, I added several store-bought water bottles as an emergency stash. If we were to have a break-down on the side of the road, and couldn’t get help for a couple of hours in the summer heat, I wanted to be prepared.
I also took some lunchmeat, and cheese sticks that I had in the fridge before I left and added it with the water and ice. And wouldn’t you know, we were ready for a lunch stop on the first day of our road trip, and there was no food establishment for miles and miles. So, gas station parking lot it was. We gassed up, used their restrooms, bought some crackers, and we ate those, along with our lunchmeat and cheese, in the parking lot.
Media: We limit our video watching, so every “nap time” we turned on the portable DVD player. This gave me peace and quiet, the kids sort-of rested, fell asleep if they were tired, and watched until that leg of the trip was over.
If they needed something else to distract them, we played children’s audiobooks, children’s audio adventures and songs (Patch the Pirate is our current favorite) and we even listened to memory work for school, all on our portable CD player that was gifted to us for last year’s PCS.
Travel Potty: I never did bother with these for potty training, but after Covid hit and port-a-johns weren’t allowed at our kids’ sports events, we bought one to use for breaks between games. And we’ve used it quite a bit since! I’ve learned this by experience: put the travel potty in an easy-to-reach place in your vehicle.
The first road trip or two, ours stayed in its normal place in a bottom corner of the van trunk. Suitcases and other junk were thrown on top, and when a child needed to go, we had to either dig long and hard to wedge it out, or unload suitcases to find it. I’m glad I remembered to load it at the top for this road trip, as it was definitely used.
Car Seat Protector: How did I not know about these until the third child?! If you are in the midst of potty training a toddler, or have a little one that you just don’t trust to hold it long enough, buy a car seat protector. This small pad fits comfortably on a car seat and if your child has an accident, all you have to do is pull it off and wash it. No need to tear apart a whole car seat and wash the entire thing! Genius!
Travel Baby Bed: Depending on the age of your children, you may want to bring a travel baby bed. I didn’t own one for years and would just bring along our bulky pack ‘n play. But when moving back from overseas a few years ago, I decided to buy a special travel one (second-hand, because they are pricy).
And I’m so glad I did! It’s easier to break-down, very lightweight, and folds up smaller where I can fit it in between car seats in the van if I have to. This is the first trip my kids have been old enough that I didn’t need to bring it.
But here’s another hack: If you find yourself needing an extra bed space for a small child in a hotel room, use the cushy armchair many hotels have in the room. I have put two armchairs together, facing each other, asked housekeeping for an extra bedding set, and laid the sheets and comforter on top. I’ve also used an armchair and the footrest together. Sometimes we’ve had a sleeping bag and thrown that on top instead of the bedding set.
It’s the perfect space for small child or toddler and they usually love it!
Folding Wagon: If you don’t have room for your double stroller, like me, bring a foldable wagon. (Ours was a PX special!) It not only helps transport kids, but it can also help you bring suitcases into your hotel room, or shopping bags and souvenirs to your vehicle.
Carside Calisthenics: Last, but not least, I implemented this new routine for my solo-parent road trip. After we finished with food and restroom breaks, we ran back to the van, and before loading up, I had the kids line up alongside of it and complete a quick exercise routine. Touch-your-toes, reach to the sky, stretch arms and legs, neck-rolls, jumping jacks, arm circles, run-in-place, and wiggle, wiggle, wiggle – they got all their wiggles out before being strapped in the van again.
Okay, are you ready for your big road trip?
Take a deep breath, pull from this list what works for you, and you got this! Please share in the comments section how these tips helped you or share some other methods that we can all learn from you. There’s always going to be another road trip in the life of a military family, so let’s learn more together!
Written By: LaVaughn Ricci at missionmilspouse.org