This week, co-founders Jonathan and Jessica share the astonishing thing that happened on their epic road trip and what it taught them about parenting.
There's nothing quite as alluring as a road trip in the summer—nothing ahead but the open road, no deadlines or restrictions, everything you need for several days all packed up and ready to go. You have more freedom to stop along the way, to rediscover your family rhythm, and make lifelong memories together.
And then reality hits within the first ten minutes: one of the kids has to go to the bathroom. The other one is mad for no reason. Everyone wants to know how long it’s going to be.
We were worried when we planned our trip that it might be a two-week-long disaster. After all, it was the longest trip we'd ever attempted with our three kids. Wet started in Austin and ended in Philadelphia and stopped at several cities in between. When we told people what we were doing (driving for two weeks) and how long we’d be in the car (59 hours total) and how old our kids are (11, 9, and 7), people looked at us like we were bananas.
Honestly, we wondered ourselves if this really was the wisest plan.
But we put in place some strategies that we think any parent can use. The results surprised us.
Here are some things we learned from our time on the road:
- Have realistic expectations based on your kids’ ages. We didn’t take two-week road trips when our kids were little. 5-7 hours of driving (with SEVERAL stops along the way) was our limit. But we did start early, taking trips several times a year to see friends or family members, sometimes going off for day trips to little towns nearby. We enjoy getting out and doing things together and we tried to condition our kids to being in the car and entertaining themselves, even if it was just looking at picture books.
- Drive the longest distance on the first day. The novelty wears off quickly, so while they’re still excited about snacks and eating out and hours of screen time, go as long as you can. We like to plan the overall distance we need to go (18 hours for the first leg), and then have a couple of spots we could stop—if they’re doing OK, we keep going. Our first night is almost always in a hotel, one we can call ahead when we’re an hour out of town, so we can play it by ear and gage the mood of the car.
- Let your kids help you plan what you’re going to do in several cities. Our girls each got to pick some things they wanted to do: The Spy Museum in DC! The graphite and mineral room at the Smithsonian! (We have nerdy kids.) Eating ice cream! Getting them involved and excited makes the trip a family endeavor; it also helps them feel like you’re not inflicting special experiences on them (“We’re going to do this and you will LIKE IT!”) but that we’re choosing together.
- Make the most of the small things. Let’s be honest, it’s not the amazing experiences you pay the most for, but the small things your kids will love and remember. Our girls top things from our trip were seeing tame squirrels near the Capitol in Washington DC (not getting a private tour of the House floor), swimming in a hotel pool (not seeing the presidential portraits), and hotel breakfasts (not the authentic Philly cheesesteaks we waited in line to scarf down). We made a big deal about things like extra screen time and getting to pick out candy from the gas station. We’re less disappointed—and honestly, it’s cheaper and easier—when we realize that the small things are what they care about anyway.
- Do not plan on it being a restful getaway. If you want a truly relaxing vacation, go to the beach while someone babysits the kids for several days. A road trip with children is delightful, interesting, fun, exciting, and adventurous, but it is not really restful. If your expectations are set on having fun with them rather than trying to get some downtown yourself, it really helps. It’s not like you don’t have down time—thus the extra screen time—but it’s just a different rhythm from any other kind of vacation.
- Get a great audio book for the whole family. We listened to the entire Chronicles of Narnia series (in the correct, original order) from start to finish. We ended three hours before we got home. It made the trip so much faster. Because we both loved those books as kids, it was such a delight to introduce them to our children and made the time in the car not a chore but something really special.
- Make the trip all about connecting. We went on this trip because we wanted to spend special time with our kids away from all of the distractions at our home. They’re in those amazing middle years, when no one is in a stroller but they’re not too cool to want to be with mom and dad. We wanted to make the most of this time, to connect with them in this particular moment we’ll never have again. We also wanted to connect our girls with their past. We visited dear friends and beloved family members all along the way. The girls got to see their great-grandfather, who isn’t able to come visit anymore, and spend several days in the hills of Virginia he roamed when he was a small boy. They heard a private concert when their dad played their great-grandmother’s banjo to their great-grandfather, who loved her and misses her every day. They got to spend July 4th with distant relatives who became lifelong friends in one evening and flat-footed to Appalachian music played late into the night.
Here's the amazing surprise that happened to us: We loved every minute of our trip. That might not seem like a surprise, but it felt like one to us. If you've traveled with kids, you know how hard it can be. But this trip was a peaceful break from summer squabbling. No one said they were bored. Because we spent so much time doing fun activities, we didn't mind saying yes to extra screen time, and the kids didn't ask as much. They were engaged with us in where we were going and what we were doing.
It was a magic trip and they left more aware of who they are and where they come from, of how our family was built and what holds us together. In the years to come, these memories away from our day-to-day and filled with small moments of connection will bind us together no matter what adventures life brings.
What tips do you have for good road trips? Share them below!