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When we first told people that we were moving from Virginia to Seattle, one of the first questions was why we were driving across the country with children. Some days a simple trip across town to the grocery store is full of arguments and boredom. How were we planning to keep peace in our car from one coast to another. Less than three years later and we were doing it again. This time from Seattle to Raleigh. To complicate matters, we ran into trouble shipping my husband’s truck, so we both drove across the entire country. Amazingly both drives went pretty smooth, and though I am in NO hurry, I would definitely make the drive again.
There are a few things that really helped make our drive as enjoyable as possible.
Driving Across the Country with Children
The United States is pretty big, so there is a big possibility that you will need to change your plans at some point. I am a natural planner, so this is not easy for me, but knowing that at least something is going to not go according to plan, some how makes it a little easier.
We changed our driving route multiple times due to weather forecasts. Originally we were going to drive through Salt Lake City and Colorado Springs, but a few days before our departure we saw snowstorms forecasted for the Colorado Rockies. I’m not a great snow driver, so we changed plans and decided to take a very southernly route and drive through Vegas, Amarillo, and Oklahoma City.
That changed when we were eating breakfast in the hotel lobby the first morning of our cross country adventure. The news was reporting large fires between Amarillo and Oklahoma City. If the highway closed, we would have to back track…making our drive even longer.
Our choice was quite literally drive through fire or snow. We thought about it for the day, checking weather and news every time we stopped for meals and gas. Ultimately, the forecast changed and we were able make our original drive.
Take advantage of field trips
I’ll admit it. Once I’m driving and the kids are happy in the back seat, I don’t want to stop. I just want to keep the van rolling, checking off the miles and getting closer to our destination. My husband is the one that is adamant that we stop for field trips, even if they are fairly short. In the end, I’m always glad he pushed me to stop driving and enjoy the sights.
On this trip from Seattle to Raleigh we toured the Mormon Temple visitor area in Salt Lake City, Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs, and the Indian Mounds in Illinois. We even took a few minutes out of our day to see the Superman statue in Illinois.
These were great learning experiences that can not be recreated through books or even the internet. There is nothing like experiencing something in person.
Pick one hotel chain . . . ideally one with pools
One of our biggest struggles was choosing hotels. We waited until the night before to make hotel reservations because our route kept changing. Every evening, after we had stopped driving and gotten the kids some dinner, we would sit down and start pouring over our maps. How far did we want to drive the next day? We usually aimed for 7 hours of driving time, but sometimes that put us in the middle of absolutely nowhere. Towns are far apart in remote parts of the country, particularly out west. We would then need to research and compare the towns on either side of or our 7 hour goal.
Picking one hotel chain made it a little easier to narrow down the choices for each town. We brought our sweet dog with us, so we needed a pet friendly hotel, which isn’t always easy. Thankfully, all La Quinta hotels are pet friendly. They don’t even charge a pet fee!
We deviated from La Quintas one night and my entire family was disappointed. That might have been because we were in a tiny little town that only had our hotel and a gas station Burger King, but it wasn’t a great experience. From then on we stuck with La Quinta.
A bonus is that now we have almost enough points for a free night.
Hotel pools helped my kids burn off some energy after being stuck in the van all day . . . which helped all of us keep our cool.
Figure out the best driving time for your family
When my kids were little, I constantly heard the advice to drive overnight so the kids would sleep and I could knock out a lot of miles without them even knowing. It seemed to work for a lot of families, so I gave it a try once. Once and only once. I loaded my sleeping toddler and preschooler into the minivan at 3 am and headed for my sister in laws house. Within a few miles both of my kiddos woke up. They stayed awake all night, only to fall asleep for a quick nap once we were almost there.
It took a little while to figure out our best driving time, but now I know that for my family driving in the early morning is best. We tried to get in the van and start driving by 7 every day. In the morning, my children are quiet and have more patience. They are happier to just look around at the scenery, listen to an audiobook, or quietly contemplate life.
Happy quiet kids makes for an easier driving experience.
Bringing snacks is just a fact of life when you have children. Children have smaller stomachs and need to eat more frequently than adults. I think we all know that about toddlers, but it is true of older kids as well. My oldest child is on the cusp of being a teenager and we are starting to see that teenage appetite appear.
I brought a Scout tote bag full of healthy snacks. The outside pockets let me keep track of a few smaller items (coffee cubes and hand wipes) without them getting lost in the snacks. I just placed one big Amazon order with all of our snacks and tossed it all in the tote. Quick and easy.
- Individual packs of trail mix (very handy if we needed to delay a meal!)
- Chia squeeze pouches
- Freeze dried fruit
- Protein bars
- Sun chips
Plan for some entertainment
The United States is a big country and it takes at least 40 hours of driving time to get from coast to coast. While I didn’t personally entertain my kids (I was driving the entire way), I set them up for success. On our last cross country drive I gave my kids new little toys every day to keep them entertained. My husband and I decided that they were old enough to not do that this time though. Instead we just made sure we had entertainment items on hand and helped them think through what they would like to have in the car.
The entertainment options were:
- Audiobooks – Download rentals from the library and stream them through the car speakers if you can. This is also a great way to sneak in a little school.
- Movies – I bought a few new movies for a few dollars on Amazon, but mostly just brought a few favorites.
- Kindles – Their Kindles allowed them to read books, watch movies without needing agreement from a sibling, and play games.
- Travel bingo
- Sketchbook and colored pencils
- Small backpack with favorite toys and familiar stuffed animals – Sometimes kids just need to be surrounded with familiarity during a time of big change.
Keep your own mood cheerful
It can be difficult to stay positive and cheerful when you are tired and sick of sitting still too, but parents really do set the mood for the car. If the kids sense that you are agitated and frustrated, they will reflect that . . . which will only make you more agitated and frustrated.
This was only really difficult for me on one part of our drive. We were coming through the mountains in Vail and the roads were awful. A gray salty slushy mess kept splashing onto my windshield, blocking my vision. I had to use my window washer fluid every minute or so. That is not my preferred way to go down a mountain. I was getting tense and worried. To distract my kids, I told them that I needed to turn off our audiobook for a little while, but they could watch a movie on their kindles. They popped in their earbuds and their eyes were glued to their screens. They were off in their own little world for a while, giving me the space needed to navigate this difficult part of the road.
One thing that helped me stay relaxed was my portable essential oil diffuser. It plugged right into the USB port in my van dashboard and provide me with a gentle mist of whatever oil I chose. My favorites were lemon and peppermint.
Have you ever taken a trip driving across the country with children? Share your tips in the comments!
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