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By: Dennis Breier

Remember when you wanted to go on vacation and you just called up your boss, lowered your voice, thought about something really sad, lied about someone in your family being ill, and took off with nothing but a backpack and a hundred bucks?  That was fun.  Now, enter your gaggle of children.  Suddenly, taking a trip requires months of advanced planning and is more reminiscent of a journey through the seven circles of hell than to paradise.  When traveling with children there are many more decisions to make:

Should we fly or drive?
How many times should we stop?
How will we keep these kids entertained for eight hours in a car?
What happens when one of them has a mental breakdown on an airplane?
What happens when one of them has explosive diarrhea anywhere?

These are things, as a parent of young tots, you must think about and prepare for.  Luckily for you, I have vast amounts of experience in this department, mostly from taking four kids (now it will be five) on a 26-hour sojourn to Disney World every year.  I’d like to provide you a brief guide to making your next trip with children enjoyable, relaxing and fun for everyone.  Today, we’ll address the age old question: How to make a ridiculously long drive work with your kids. Stay tuned for part two, which will discuss how to fly on a plane with kids and not be committed to a mental institution afterward, and part three, which will discuss some ways you can save money and be happy when you arrive.

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If you are driving somewhere really, really far away, be familiar with the three phases of a trip for young children.

Phase One – The “we are really excited about this and are fully ready to behave” phase.

This phase lasts for about two hours.  The kids know they are going somewhere fun, they’re comfortable, they have some entertainment ready to go, DVD’s, iPads, whatever, and they are determined to be good little soldiers.  However, what they don’t know is that you are about 20 hours from your destination at this point.  This phase quickly wears off and you’ll probably start hearing your first “are we there yet” about an hour and half in.  Be ready to make a smooth transition to phase two in order to avoid mental breakdowns early in the trip.

Phase Two – The “we are already sick of this, but if we stop at some gas station for food, we’re good” phase.

As you pull off the highway about two and half hours into the trip you might see a dirty, dingy, highly questionable gas station with a McDonald’s attached to it.  Remember however, your kids see a land of endless adventure where bathrooms need to be opened with a magical key and chicken nuggets fall from the sky.  Be sure to make this stop.  It breaks up the trip, gets the kids focused on something else, mainly food and gas station tchotchkes, and typically leads directly into nap time.  If you play this phase right, you’ll have an hour of lunch, two hours of naps, and most importantly, three hours or more to drive in peace.  When nap time is up, make sure you stop again, get some beverages and gird your loins for phase three.

Phase Three – The “why did we decide to go on this trip?” phase.

Phase three is inevitable.  You just need to know that upfront.  At this point you’ve been driving for probably seven hours, and traveling with stops for eight maybe nine hours.  From here you need to power through one more hour.  I would not recommend driving with multiple young children for more than eight hours at a time unless you are glutton for punishment.  After seven hours the kids will be uncomfortable, bored, and similar to a caged up sheep dog, they just want to get out and run.  There is no really good advice here, just get through another hour, threaten to turn the car around a couple of times, and then find your hotel for the night.  

Given the steps I laid out above, you should be able to leave around 8 or 9 a.m. and arrive at your hotel at around 6 or 7 p.m. at the latest.  It will have been difficult, you will have a significant headache and probably swamp ass.  But, you made it and your kids will be excited to check out the coolest Quality Inn and Suites they’ve ever seen.  

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So I’ve told you what to expect, but what happens if the unexpected happens?  Let’s look at a few examples:

1.  What the hell is that smell?

So you just made a stop and there is clearly a devastating steamer in someone’s diaper. You don’t want to stop again and the gas station bathrooms are never a good place to change a kid, but the urge to vomit from the smell is intense.  So what do you do?  Simple, pull off on the side of the road, put your emergencies on, take the child out of the car in the car seat, place the car seat on the side of the road, and drive away.  I’m kidding, don’t do that.  Do pull off, put the emergencies on, take the child out of the car seat, lay them down in the front seat and do a quick change.  This saves you at least 20 minutes of trying to find a place, driving there, and getting in and out of the car.  

2.  Oh Christ, Traffic

Occasionally traffic will come to a dead stop.  This can throw off the whole trip, making the travel time longer and the tidy little plan I laid out above non-existent.  The best thing to do here is to start playing some games to pass the time while the car is moving at a crawl.  Maybe you brought some board games or something, or you can play some sort of game you make up, like finding license plates from different states.  One game our family really enjoys in traffic is to stare at people in the cars next to us and make up elaborate tales about who they are and where they’re going.  For instance, one time a 90-year-old woman in a Prius pulled up next to us.  We proceeded to concoct a 15-minute-long story about how she was a ruthless witch driving to the salt flats of Utah to cast a spell on all the children of the world, while at the same getting amazing gas mileage and protecting the ozone layer.  

3. Flat Tire/Car Break Down/Utter Disaster

This is just about the worst thing that can possibly happen on a trip, ever.  You, changing a tire by the side of the road, with your fleet of children standing next to the car – traffic whizzing by at 75 miles an hour.  This is the stuff nightmares are made of.  If you are taking a lengthy trip with children you HAVE to purchase roadside assistance.  You can get it from AAA, Allstate, or a variety of other companies and it ensures that in the worst case scenario you can sit in the car and sip your latte while some dude comes out to tow you, or help you, or whatever.  No kid wants to see mommy or daddy on the side of the road screaming for help okay? It’s traumatizing.

Lastly, what about you, the parents?  Just because you are an adult doesn’t mean you enjoy an eight hour drive, it sucks.  So what can you do to pass the time?  One good method is to change the speaker setting in your car so they only play in the front not the back. This way the kids can do their thing and you can listen to something other than The Little Mermaid’s greatest hits. Also, there is great app called TuneIn Radio that allows you to get pretty much any radio station anywhere in the country on your phone.  This is great if your favorite team is playing but you are obviously way out of range to pick it up on the radio.

I hope you enjoyed these tips and tricks for a long car ride with kids, stay tuned for part 2!