5000 Miles with a 5-Year-OId or Family Road Trip

What does this have to do with being a working mom? The odds of any working mom getting 3 weeks for a road trip are slim to none; I was lucky. But whether you are going for a long weekend or a couple of weeks, these tips will save you time. What is really valuable about this experience is that I bought everything online, in the evenings while we watched TV, and I packed for a few weeks beforehand. So this was not a nightmare to prepare for or to clean up after.

Ever wonder what to take on a road trip with your kids?

This time last year I was hitting the road with a 5-year-old; three weeks to travel across country and back for a family wedding. Every time I told anyone what I was planning they would smile knowingly and wish me luck. I won’t pretend that I was sure we could do it, but you do what you gotta do, right?

A Little Background

It had been years since I attended a family function, and I missed my family terribly and wanted to see them again. John only had one week vacation to spare, and my dad hates to fly (strange for a retired pilot, but there you are). The logistics would not be simple. My dad’s sister had been very recently widowed and lived about halfway between us and the wedding. Also, we had not had a holiday in about 7 years, so we decided that we needed some element of that in the mix as well.

A plan was born.

My dad, my daughter, Z, and I would drive 3 days to my aunt’s and pick her up, then 2 more to pick up John at the airport. The next day the 5 of us would drive to the wedding for 4 days. After the wedding we would drive 2 days to a cottage by the lake that I had rented for the week. Then John would fly home and we would drive back, 5 days, dropping my aunt on the way.

The Planning

The trip took 21 days and covered 5000 miles. It was broken into 3 parts: 1) the drive, 2) the wedding, 3) the beach. This was probably too many parts for a road trip, as you will see from the packing, but hindsight is 20/20.

Normally my husband and I would get in the car and wing it. Driving as much or little in a day as our mood dictated. We were never really plan-ahead people when it came to traveling. But this time we decided to book things in advance. This made the trip easier for a few reasons:

  • We didn’t want to drive more than 8 hours a day with my daughter in the car.
  • I wanted to make sure that there was a pool or park or something near each hotel, so that Z could get some exercise after riding in the car so long.
  • Every motel needed a restaurant within walking distance. The one thing we all agreed was we wanted to park the car at night and be done until morning. Not get in and out of it in the evening.
  • We had to make sure that our rooms were close together. My dad and my aunt wanted their own rooms, but because I helped with their bags and stuff I tried to book the rooms together so that I wasn’t running all over the hotel.

The Packing

We were using my dad’s minivan, so I packed for the trip for each part separately. I packed the cottage stuff right behind the back seats, so that it was out-of-the-way. The wedding clothes went down the side of the back seats and the road trip stuff went right near the doors so that they were easily accessible.

For the road trip here is how we packed:

  1. I loaded the dashboard and glove compartments with the essential stuff that you need at arms reach:  vehicle manuals, maps (just in case), pens, granola bars and car chargers.
    In order to make better use of the dash, we bought [amazon_textlink asin=’B019W5DHWG’ text=’sticky mats’ template=’ProductLink’ store=’thesweetmanli-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’57d70411-6436-11e7-83ef-cffd4fcc7041′] to hold my dad’s handicap pass, a few pens and my cell phone without them sliding around.
  2. I kept my e-reader, my itinerary, my travel mug (I never go anywhere without it) in my door.
    I had a large purse at my feet that held a change purse for vending machines and laundry and a number of travel size essentials that went everywhere with me.
  3. My dad’s van came with a console between the seats, so I put a dollar store shoulder bag in front of it to hold all the bits and bobs, as well as anything dad might need access to.The inside of the console held an umbrella, napkins, wipes, garbage bags and freezer bags for car sickness. I also had a [amazon_textlink asin=’B00UFERZKO’ text=’power inverter’ template=’ProductLink’ store=’thesweetmanli-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’c0c0bd6d-6444-11e7-a371-a308a15ea4f6′]; we never go anywhere without ours; we’ve had it for years, so that I can keep my laptop alive in the car when we travel. Now that we have a kid, with all the stuff they need to keep going, it has become essential.
    Their was some space between the console and the seats, so I had a thin bag for a clipboard (for writing in the car) and all of my notes and printouts of all of my confirmations (just in case).
  4. Behind the console and in front of the back seats I had room for a small garbage can and my daughters entertainment stuff. Her feet didn’t hit the floor, so she often kept some of it under her feet, so they wouldn’t dangle. I bought a bunch of [amazon_textlink asin=’B00BCFVHDG’ text=’zippered tote bags ‘ template=’ProductLink’ store=’thesweetmanli-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’0f70622b-643f-11e7-88b2-073e115edc18′] in different colors for activities for her and stacked them in the space for her to get access to.
  5. Under my daughter’s car seat, I found a[amazon_textlink asin=’B01JM4F60S’ text=’ bed organizer’ template=’ProductLink’ store=’thesweetmanli-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’e743e793-6439-11e7-adbb-09ee920cfe26′] at the dollar store. I hung it on the door side of the seat to make better use of the space without things falling out every time we stopped. It held her clipboard, two coloring books, a notepad and her sleeping set.
    My daughter’s sleeping set is something we created years ago. She’s always hated to sleep in the car, so the sleep set helps. It is a blanket, fleece socks, an eye mask and a small stuffed animal. We take it anytime we go more than an hour from the house. For this trip, we made one up for my aunt as well.
  6. Between the back seats, we kept a small plastic cooler. I was able to keep my snacks fresh for 3 days until most of them were gone. After that I used it to store our picnic stuff for gas station stops, and extra water, but didn’t bother much with ice.
    blog, image, family travel, road trip, van, car organizerIt also served as a hard surface on which to store a small organizer with crayons, notepads, and a few other kid essentials. This is [amazon_textlink asin=’B00HF5M7OK’ text=’the one I have’ template=’ProductLink’ store=’thesweetmanli-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’b72ee31a-643f-11e7-8cde-2dbe680ab830′] and it worked well. The little rubber feet kept it on the cooler.
  7. For the passenger seat back, I used an old seat back organizer I had on hand. But for my daughter I bought [amazon_textlink asin=’B00PB625C4′ text=’one that would hold her DVD player’ template=’ProductLink’ store=’thesweetmanli-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’92ea745f-6441-11e7-a093-b9ac7ca5ba63′]. I always worry about her holding it on her lap for long periods. I had to add a large clothespin to keep it closed though. She couldn’t reach the closure properly and it kept opening onto her lap.
    When we got home, we had quite a “doh” moment realizing we forgot about the wonderful space under the floor of the seats that went wasted through the whole trip.
  8. blog, image, family travel, road trip, van, packing binsWe had to keep one of the rear most seats free; once we picked up her dad, Z had to move there to give him her seat. Next to that seat were plastic storage bins stacked 2 high. The top one was for the wedding – dress clothes, presents for the kiddos, as well as John’s stuff, so that he didn’t have to bring it on the plane. The bottom one was for the cottage and held all the gear we would need for the beach.
    Closer to the rear hatch was a bin of clothes. This had all the clothes Z and I would need for the trip. More on how that worked in a moment.
  9. Nearest the rear door were our duffel bags. We each had one for staying overnight.
  10. Lastly were a couple of lawn chairs bungee corded to the seat back and my dads walker, where he could easy get at it if need be.


Family-Binder-Travel-Car-TripI have created some printable checklists, one for packing the car and one for packing the duffel bags and bin for the hotel overnights. Stay tuned for a later post with the activities we packed for my daughter and then another with the cottage packing list.

The Process

blog, image, family travel, road trip, van, packing freezer bags

While I was packing our clothes for the trip, I packed each days clothes, including PJs, clothes and underwear, into an extra-large freezer bag. Then I labeled the bags with the town and packed them vertically in the bin so that they were all lined up.

Every night we would pull up to the hotel and I would grab our duffel bags, the electronics bag for recharging and my purse. Some nights I took the cooler and dirty dishes as well. Fortunately some of the motel rooms were close to the car, which gave me a chance to tidy up the car and freshen up our supplies.

blog, image, family travel, road trip, van, hotel bagsEvery morning we would pack up and I would put the bags in the car. I would put the dirty clothes in a plastic bag in side of the bin, and I would reload the duffel with the next freezer bags. Then I would spread the wet bathing suits out over the rubber bins to dry throughout the day.

During the day. while we were driving, my daughter or I could reach everything we needed. Snacks, drinks and entertainment were all within arms reach. Most of the time, my daughter could get to all of her activities and entertainment. I kept the snacks a little out of her reach to make sure she didn’t ‘bored eat’.

Because of the way I loaded the car, most of our supplies did not get in the way. We didn’t touch the wedding and cottage supplies until it was time to use them. I over-packed a little; I usually do. It was manageable, we had everything we needed, and only a couple of things went unused.

When we got to the cottage, I did laundry, lots of it. I would highly recommend this for any trip. You don’t have to pack as much and it cuts down on the work when you get home. Every time we were in the cottage, I switched loads, even if all I had time for was to put the clean stuff in a heap in the corner. If we had been in a motel, I would have hit the laundromat for one evening. Who cares if it is a little wrinkled on a road trip, as long as it isn’t funky. When we left for the return drive everything was repacked and clean, back into the overnight freezer bag system.

We came home on a Saturday night so I unpacked the car Sunday morning. Because of the bin system it took no time at all to do a load of laundry and organize all of Zs things for camp the next day and my electronics for work. The remaining bins stayed stacked in the corner until the following weekend when we put them all away. I did my road trip laundry the following week.

The Result

My daughter kept herself busy and entertained the whole trip. Tune in next week to see what activities I organized for her. Other than a few to many are-we-almost-theres, it was surprisingly relaxing.

We were able to adapt quickly (less than 15 minutes) to each new passenger. We had 3, then 4 , and finally 5 passengers. Knowing that upfront, each switch took a very limited time to do. And everyone was comfortable. Really.

I was able to carry everything in and out of the van on my own. Because almost everything stayed in the van most of the time, me and my partially disabled self was able to do most of the packing and unpacking pretty much on my own.

We handled every emergency pretty well. Even when we couldn’t get to a rest stop quick enough and there was a big accident; we had it and them cleaned up in 15 minutes and were back on the road as though nothing had happened. Believe[amazon_textlink asin=’0345391802′ text=’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ template=’ProductLink’ store=’thesweetmanli-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’464a8ee5-64bc-11e7-9361-e7f809376a3e’], there is nothing more critical than a good towel when you are traveling.

The packing and unpacking was pretty easy. I didn’t get overwhelmed by that “so much to do before we leave” feeling, because we packed the bins over time; the wedding stuff was packed weeks in advance. And I was able to prioritize it and only do what I needed to, so I could spread it out.

And YES, I would do it all again.