It’s BlackLove.com Travel Week! Contributor Avione Lee shares what she learned road tripping 50 cities in three months with her husband and small kids.
Do you remember Clark Griswald, the hardworking, fun-loving father from National Lampoon’s Vacation who wanted to spend more time with his wife and kids? My husband and I wanted the same for our small family — though a bit more long-term. So in 2017, we quit our jobs, sold our belongings, bought a super-sized truck & pop-up camper, and then traveled North America with our kids (ages 2 and 4 at the time). It wasn’t quite the hilarity filled expedition that the Griswold’s had, though it was darn close and the absolute best “crazy” decision of our lives.
Not only did we get to spend 24/7 with our little ones when they were still teeny tiny tots, we also experienced places none of us have ever seen before with wonder and delight. We had so much fun traveling without the constraints of vacation hours and we also learned what to do — and what not to do. After traveling to over 50 cities in three months we have tons of advice we can share. Below we condensed them to seven tried and true traveling tips that any family can use for driving across the country.
7 Tried and True Tips on Road Tripping With the Kids
Tip #1: FOOD, FOOD, AND MORE FOOD
Do your kids get “hangry”? It’s that fierce hunger-induced anger that causes epic emotional outbursts and tantrums. Well, ours do. Our absolute number one tip for traveling with kids is to have plenty of food for them (and yourselves) to eat to avoid food-related meltdowns. We knew we would be traveling for a long time, so when looking for our camper, one of the big requirements for us was for it to have a fridge. It didn’t have to be a big fridge, and it wasn’t, we just needed to have something for perishable items.
Do your kids get “hangry”? Ours do.
On top of that, we had a medium-sized cooler that we kept in the cabin of our truck for snack food along the way, as well as for lunch. In order to make that work, we would prepare what we would eat ahead of time. So, we always had sandwiches ready as well as nonperishable fruit like mandarin oranges, apples, mangoes, and bananas that we could give to the kids in a pinch while driving. I don’t recommend any in the berry family (raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, etc.) because they turn fast and will have your car smelling like a winery in no time. But they were fun to eat on occasion!
If you don’t have a fridge, and most people don’t, then you should probably have two coolers. This method works great and is our go-to on excursions without our camper. One cooler would be filled with frozen water bottles or ice, in order to act as a fridge, and the other one would be opened frequently for whenever anyone wanted something to eat or drink. We definitely recommend preparing your own food and carrying a cooler with you because it is hard to find good nourishing, wholesome food on the road, and you don’t want your little bits to be eating fast food and chips all day (or ever!).
One hack is to stay at a hotel with a continental (complimentary) breakfast. You can have a hearty breakfast and stock up on a few items for later. We would usually grab fruit as a snack for later and might even use their toast and preserves to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch.
TIP #2: WHERE TO PEE
Anyone traveling with kids knows that when they say they have to go right now, they really mean they had to pee ten minutes ago and are about to explode. Which means that you, parent/guardian/aunt/uncle/grandparent, need to get on your horse and find a spot for them asap! We had to deal with this so many times and have a few tricks up our sleeves to find those on-the-go potty spots.
First off, every parent needs to have the restroom app. Just like its name implies, it is an app that tells you where the nearest restroom is. This app was a lifesaver for us and worked in cities as well as the most remote of locations (Canadian wilderness, y’all). I do not know how it works, but it works. Two more great apps to have are the rest stop appthat works similar to the restroom app and any nationwide gas station app.
Anyone traveling with kids knows that when they say they have to go right now, they really mean they had to pee ten minutes ago and are about to explode.
But what about when all apps fail you!? I feel no shame in saying, if you are traveling with kids 4 or younger, go on ahead and pack nighttime pull-ups, even if they are potty trained. You may not need them, but you will thank yourselves for having them. We definitely had both our kids in pull-ups during those early morning outings where we wanted to leave and drive for as long as possible without waking them up, and for the late evenings where we had to get where we needed to get and didn’t want to have any sleepy car seat “accidents” along the way.
Thankfully, in most instances, we had the bathroom in our camper for such emergencies. And let me tell you, that sucker came in handy for all those unforeseen moments of “I have to go right now!”
TIP #3: PLACES TO STAY
We were on the road for weeks to months and stayed in a variety of places such as camping parks, trailer parks, KOA’s, farms, wineries, Airbnb, and hotels. Out of all those places, our biggest recommendations for kid-friendly spots are the KOAs and the farms/wineries which we booked through Harvest Host.
KOA stands for Kampgrounds of America and consists of an array of privately-owned and well-curated campgrounds in the U.S. and Canada. You can stay in cabins or on campsites, or dock your camper. We love KOAs and will probably try and stay at them whenever we get a chance. Not only are they very affordable, they also each have playgrounds (sometimes super fabulous ones), super clean bathrooms, and nature walking paths. Because each one is privately owned, they are all slightly different, i.e. some are more amazing than others. But they all have the same level of excellence when it comes to accommodating their guests. In addition, many also prepare homemade breakfast for a very reasonable price!
Harvest Hostis our next love. It is actually our first love, but you must have a camper to stay there which is why it is second on our list. Harvest Host is a system of roughly 600+ privately owned farms, wineries, and ranches throughout America and some parts of Canada. You stay for free, the only thing they ask is that you purchase something from the Host. We used our Harvest Host farms as a dinner and grocery shopping location and would buy whatever they had on the menu. In doing this, we tried so many different types of food from goat milk ice-cream to raspberry cheese! The best part was, it was all locally sourced (from their farm) and prepared from scratch.
We absolutely cannot speak more highly of the farms and wineries we stayed at with Harvest Host. The people we met were so wonderful, and the locations were oftentimes so remote and picturesque that I would feel like we lived in a painting. If you plan on traveling by camper, then we cannot recommend Harvest Host enough. We can truly write an entire post about it. In fact, we are planning a trip where we only stay at Harvest Host locations throughout the country, they were that amazing.
TIP #4: KEEPING IT CLEAN
Do you know those little hand wipes that restaurants give you at places like Hooters? Well, stock up on them. If you plan on taking a long trip with kids, they definitely come in handy. In fact, wet wipes, disinfectant wipes, or alcohol wipes are our new must-haves for any trip.
Every parent is familiar with wet wipes. Well, wet wipes are useful for more than just wiping bottoms.
Every parent is familiar with wet wipes. Well, wet wipes are useful for more than just wiping bottoms. They can clean hands, faces, counters, handles, bathrooms, silverware, and basically any place anyone touches or sits. We used them a lot, especially whenever we slept somewhere outside of our own camper (usually for the purpose of giving our kids a good soak in a tub).
While traveling, our kids grew accustomed to showers. Whenever we shelled out a bit more for an accommodation, it was always for the purpose to give our kids a bath. But because we were on a travel budget, we always tried to get the lowest priced place which meant maybe an Airbnb with a tub or a 2.5-3 star hotel instead of as close to 5 as we can get in normal traveling situations.
Though none of the places we stayed in were CSI grimy, they definitely weren’t spotless. So, break out the wet wipes! On top of wet wipes, we also had disinfectant wipes that we didn’t use as often, but definitely used. The problem with disinfectant wipes is that you always need to wipe over them with wet wipes again due to the chemicals. So disinfectant wipes were typically reserved for bathrooms and countertops in hotels. Alcohol wipes worked similar to disinfectant wipes, but we used them mostly for our hands.
TIP #5: KEEPING YOU SANE
We have practical tips! One is, get thee an Amazon Kindle for kids! Oh, my goodness I just want to kiss the person who invented that machine. We bought one to try out on our trip for those times the kids were about to explode with antsy-ness. Ideally, we wanted them to look out the window at the countryside, read some of their books we packed, or draw in their sketchbooks, and usually that worked, but sometimes we needed them to be quiet (like when we were lost or at hotels/Airbnb’s) and would pop out the Amazon Kindle for that regard.
This is going to sound like an advertisement, but I have to say that the kids’ Kindle was wonderful because, for $99, it gave you one-year of complete access to Amazon’s kid list which includes books, games, apps, movies, TV shows, and exclusive content that were all kid friendly. No commercials on the videos either or worrying about what would pop up next on a playlist. We loved it so much that we bought a second one a year later.
In addition to the Kindle, we also created a video playlist of favorite movies and TV shows that we would pop out on occasion to keep us sane, which was usually whenever the kids were about to have a car riding meltdown and our destination was still an hour(s) away. Letting them watch something was usually enough to put them to sleep (because, honestly, they usually just wanted a nap and couldn’t get there on their own).
TIP #6: FUN WITH GIFT SHOPS AND BACKPACKS
Wherever we stopped, we purchased something fun for the kids and something fun for family and friends. Our price was usually less than $10 total and usually less than $5 apiece. For family and friends, we bought postcards that we mailed in whatever city we were in at the time. It was a lot of fun keeping them updated that way and was a way for us to reflect on our trip. The kids had fun buying patches, stickers, decals, or something out of the ordinary that could keep them busy whenever we stopped for the evening. Honestly, just holding whatever we bought was enough to keep them happy.
They were so proud to have their own personal bag and carried them around with pride.]
In addition to that, having each child carry their own backpack around, and filling it with whatever they wanted, was enough to keep them happy and fostered responsibility. They were so proud to have their own personal bag and carried them around with pride. They would put each new thing we purchased — as well as their crayons, a book, or a rock or leaf they found somewhere — inside the bag and cherish it. The key with this is to make sure these backpacks are toddler-sized tiny, because more often than not you will be the one carrying it, and them, around.
TIP #7: QUARTERS, CLOTHES, UMBRELLAS, AND MAPS, OH MY!
We did not realize how many toll highways we would drive on (or how much we would love them). So, we did not have any pocket money. Big mistake. So, be sure to have loads of change for that reason. In addition, to use a lot of the showers at the campgrounds or trailer parks, we needed to add quarters! Imagine me standing in the shower looking at some contraption thinking, “Umm…honey?” By the end of our trip, we were rolling in change.
Always pack more clothes for the kids than you need for yourself. I think I lived in two pairs of pants and three shirts, whereas we had at least seven outfits, two weeks’ worth of underwear, and loads of socks for each kid. And guess what, they used them all!
Also, bring raincoats instead of umbrellas. You will not have the patience to lug that thing around. The only umbrella you will need, or wish you had, is an umbrella stroller! Those little flimsy things are so useful. They are perfect for naps on the go, and even if the kids aren’t in the strollers, all the bags you have will be.
Lastly, update your maps on your car. We thought we lived in the 21st Century, but some locations in the West were so old world that it felt like we time traveled. I’m talking saloons on the corner, absolutely no cell phone signal, dial-up internet to pay for a coffee, no credit cards accepted remote, y’all. We couldn’t even call anyone for hours, because our cell phone literally did not work! They may as well have been pretty rocks. Because of that, our Google Maps didn’t work at all and there were no signs of civilization for hundreds of miles. We were saved by our car navigation system on more than one occasion and filled up at every single gas station we saw. So, be sure to update your maps, or go the old-fashioned way and buy a few paper ones.
And a Bonus:
And that about wraps up our tips! But we do have one more. Throughout our travels, we realized that the most important thing to keep in mind when traveling with little ones, and something we had to be reminded of many times ourselves, is that we were traveling to have fun as a family.
Whether we hung out in the car on rainy days or on the top of a mountain at Yellowstone, the goal was family time. Remembering that helped us have fun
Going to places to see wasn’t the goal, the goal was to hang out with each other and soak in all these cute moments. Whether we hung out in the car on rainy days or on the top of a mountain at Yellowstone, the goal was family time. Remembering that helped us have fun and kept us from fretting on not seeing the sights we were supposed to see or not getting to a location we were supposed to get to. Honestly, just stopping for a picnic at a rest stop gave us some of our happiest memories. So, always keep that in mind. Happy traveling!