a view out the windshield of a car driving pasts forests and mountains
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Road tripping with 2 young kids — fun times, or madness?

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Last fall was a season of road trips for my family. A couple of years ago, we uprooted our lives in California and now live in New York. I miss living in San Francisco intensely, and New York City, with all its delights, doesn’t yet come close to replacing it for me.

But I have found tremendous joy in being on the East Coast, where everything is so much closer together and we can hop in our car and cross a couple of state lines before lunch. We have grandparents, aunts and old friends up and down the Eastern seaboard, and we’ve been taking full advantage of living in this dense region by getting out on the road every few weeks.

I’ve found my kids, ages 6 and 2, are fairly flexible little road warriors as long as we make accommodations for their youth and capricious temperaments.

Timing is everything

Every parent knows this and yet, when it comes to road trips, this has been the hardest one to master. With a toddler, the instinct is to plan everything around his naps, and yet on our most recent drive, the kid stayed fully awake during what should have been a soporific post-lunch two-hour highway cruise.

We now give a much higher priority to traffic patterns than sleep schedules when planning our drives, and we’ve found that nothing is sweeter than escaping the city around 7:30 in the morning with a bag of bagels in hand, a clear road ahead and the kids sometimes still in their pajamas.

Old toys become new again

Or, don’t overpack. When you’re on the road, you’ve got to bring something for your kids to do. But we’ve found that just a few things do the trick. On an early fall trip in a rental house with extended family, we didn’t bring much more than a few books, a small building set and some paper and crayons.

The boys spent hours happily folding and decorating paper airplanes. Somehow, outside of the context of their home, these basic materials became newly interesting and kept them busy far longer than they normally would when surrounded by all the rest of their toys. On our most recent trip, over the winter holidays, the kids were much less focused when they received a mountain of gifts from family members … and we had to find a way to stuff it all into our car for the trip home.

Let other people entertain your children

Though it’s fun to have adventures with just the four of us, on most of our road trips we have either been traveling with others or going to visit someone. There’s nothing sweeter than a morning when the grandparents get up with the kids and let my husband and I sleep in.

But even when we aren’t getting help with child care, having company can be thrilling for the kids. On a trip to our college homecoming with another family, they spent a solid two days happily running around with the other family’s son, and everyone had such a great time they didn’t mind that we spent most of our time wandering around old buildings and libraries.

Hotels are great, until they’re not

On the same trip, we spent two nights in a hotel. It wasn’t the first time my kids had been in a hotel, but it was a revelation for them. They loved the lobby, the halls, the elevator, the TV, jumping on the beds. They really seemed to like the fact that we were all sleeping in the same room.

And in the end, my husband and I didn’t mind the fact that we all went to bed at 8:30 p.m. because we woke up truly rested and refreshed — instant spa.

The experience was so great that I got overconfident and looked forward to another hotel stop on our way to visit my mom in Maine. This time, the close quarters did not suit everyone’s moods. My kids fought so badly that we split them up and went out to dinner separately. Then they refused to go to bed. Kids … they keep you on your toes.

Reentry is a bear

Driving home is usually the worst part. There is no time of day, it seems, in which there isn’t traffic heading into the city. On our last trip home, my oldest son, who normally has a stomach of steel, puked all over himself and half of our luggage in the backseat. We pulled over, changed his clothes, cleaned everything up, got back on the road, and then he did it again.

When you’re sitting in traffic, and know that once you get home you’ll have bags to schlep upstairs and an empty refrigerator and cranky children to deal with, you can just feel those good weekend vibes slipping away.

I try to plan something special for those last, slow hours in the car: shows on the iPad in the backseat for my kids, a new audiobook for me. We get home tired and spend the next weekend being sluggish around the house. But within a few weeks, we’re itching to get on the road again.

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a former J. reporter who writes about education, families and Jewish life. She lives with her husband and two sons.