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Plan ahead to maximize your fun on roadtrips

Jul. 16, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

"Plans are nothing; planning is everything." -- Dwight D. Eisenhower

July is the most popular month for family road travel. Therefore, now that we are firmly implanted in travel season, I'd like to offer a few tried-and-true ways to make your family vacation as seamless and as enjoyable as possible.

We began traveling with our daughter, Madelyn, before she was even a year old. Our first trip was to Staunton, Va. -- a four or so hour drive. We stayed in a bed and breakfast we had frequented on several occasions before Maddie was born. Therefore, we were already familiar with the set-up of their house as well as felt comfortably acquainted with the owners. Additionally, this trip was short-only two nights. Basically, we thought of this as our "test-drive" for traveling with a baby.

I highly recommend, if you are a new parent and/or parent of a baby, short weekend-type trips that only require three to four, maybe five hours of driving. Traveling a shorter distance means you can plan to leave during scheduled naptimes, which we did. Driving during naptime also means you may only have to stop once before arriving at your destination -- another plus when you are toting baby and diaper bag into rest areas. Furthermore, planning to travel short distances at naptime also means less time to "entertain" baby during drive.

Once Madelyn has passed her first birthday, we traveled to the Outer Banks with my sister, Traci and her son, Johnny, who is four months older than Maddie. Traveling with two kids brought unique challenges, but much joy as the toddler cousins ran and in and out of the waves. That said, it was not unusual for one adult to be sitting in the back between the two kids reading, feeding or playing with the toddlers to keep them at peace.

Staying in a house allowed us much flexibility. The house was considered "third row back" from the ocean, but still had a great view. We brought along a super-cheap, blow-up wading pool to put on the deck that faced the ocean. This allowed us to take the kids to the ocean during early morning and evening times for short intervals, depending upon their attention span. Then, when they tired of chasing ocean birds and/or waves we could take them back to the house for either a nap or to splash in the kiddy pool, while still giving the adults a sense of "being at the beach."

Plenty of sunscreen and swim diapers were packed for this trip as well as board books, children's musical CDs and DVDs as well as a few of their favorite toys. Staying in a house also allowed us to pack and cook foods that the kids liked and feed them with ease, rather than wait in line at crowded beach restaurants. A condo with a kitchen would offer the same flexibility. Additionally, the house provided high chairs, safety gates, beach chairs and sand toys, so, we did not have to pack those items.

As Maddie has grown, so have the lengths of our car trips. However, I believe because we had several years in a row where we traveled 10 or so hours to the Outer Banks when Maddie was a preschooler, that established the foundation for lengthy car travel.

Even now, at age 14, Maddie says she loves preparing to leave for a long ride spread out over several days. "I just love to cozy up in the back seat and create my own little world."

I attribute her positive attitude to our planning when she was younger. First of all, I never allowed a DVD player in the car. We took DVDs to watch at the vacation home, if needed on rainy days. This kept them "special." Furthermore, we held off on hand-held electronic games until she was 10, and these could only be used for trips. Again, this keeps the toy fresh and special.

Instead of focusing on electronics, though, we prefer to focus on books, kid-friendly musical CDs, audio books, drawing pads and car travel games that do not require electronics. Here are some games we have used over the years: travel Bingo; puzzle books, such as word searches, crossword puzzles, hang man, Sudoku and so forth; printed blank maps of the U.S. from the Internet so that she can attempt to color each state she sees represented on the license plates of passing cars; the alphabet game, which requires us to look at license plates and road signs for each letter of alphabet, beginning with A and working in order to Z, the first person to "find" the alphabet is the winner. These are enjoyable, educational and inexpensive ways to "entertain."

Finally, a word on food. We travel on a budget. Therefore, we do not eat out much when we travel. John and I travel with two to three coolers, depending upon the distance we are traveling. One large cooler is for any special food we are taking with us to our ultimate destination, especially if we are traveling to a remote area with little to no grocery stores. We fill an empty and clean gallon milk jug, two-thirds of the way full with water and freeze. Then, we freeze as many foods that can be frozen we plan to take with us. All of these items go into the large cooler, along with any other foods that could not be frozen, but still need to be kept cold. We pack the top of the cooler with a layer of newspaper. Then, wrap duct tape around the seal after closing, and do not open this cooler until we have arrived at our destination. However, it is important if you are traveling more than one day, to bring this cooler into the hotel with you at night. We have used this method when traveling to Rocky Mountains in Colorado, Adirondack Mountains in New York and Prince Edward Island in Canada. Never once have any of our food items, packed in this manner, arrived spoiled.

Secondly, we pack a medium-sized cooler with fresh fruit, yogurt, cut up veggies, single-serving milk containers, bottled water and juice pouches as well as homemade sandwiches that John and I make the night before we leave. This cooler prevents us from having to stop at fast food places and convenience stores to eat -- a real time and budget saver. Both the large cooler and medium sized cooler are kept in the back of the vehicle.

Finally, I keep a small cooler full of drinks within easy reach in the front part of the vehicle, and John and I always travel with a thermos full of coffee and our refillable coffee mugs. You could do the same with hot or iced tea.

I've learned to keep grocery bags in car to collect trash; a roll of paper towels that can clean up or double as napkins; a small package of sanitizing wipes; and a few "travel treat snacks," we don't normally eat on a regular basis, such as Pringles (they travel well), candies (not chocolate, though), prepackaged or homemade trail mix, granola or Cliff bars, to name a few.

One other tip worth mentioning is the fact that when we are traveling over several days, and will be stopping at hotels before arriving at our destination, I have learned to pack a "hotel bag." This bag contains our toiletries and an extra change of clothes if needed. All other clothes and shoes needed for trip are packed in larger suitcases. Packing a small "hotel bag" allows you to only have to carry a small bag into the hotel. This is especially important if you are also lugging a large cooler into the hotel room.

I hope one or two of these travel tips will prove useful. Our family loves to travel; and, with each trip, we learn a bit more on how to be more efficient with our time, budget and energies. Plus, we are blessed with precious, undistracted time together while seeing this wonderful world God has created.

From my home to yours, I wish you safe and happy travels.

Stephanie Hill is a freelance writer and an eighth-grade reading and writing teacher at South Point Middle School. She is also a lifelong resident of Lawrence County. She can be reached at hill992@zoominternet.net.