An old story in my family has it that a foremother drove a covered wagon from Ontario to North Dakota, circa 1850, stopping only briefly somewhere between Minneapolis and Billings to give birth to her ninth child.
Well, it could be true. Certainly her progeny has the same wanderlust in our veins. Before we had kids, my partner Victor and I defined vacation as "road trip": Nothing involving fewer than 5,000 clicks on the odometer qualified as a true getaway. Children, of course, have a way of resetting your benchmarks, so as our own (eventually) three arrived we filed the tattered CAA road maps and reckoned that an outing to the mall with a teenager, toddler and newborn was adventure enough.
Be enthusiastic about a family road trip
Still, when we embarked on our first real driving trip -- from Toronto to Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island -- with our two daughters (then aged eight months and almost three), my 15-year-old stepson and my parents, it was with nothing but enthusiasm. My stepson, Tom, had made the trip to Cape Breton Island -- Victor's birthplace -- every summer since he was a toddler and could, I figured, find his way there unaided, like the trio of animals in The Incredible Journey. My parents were veteran road warriors -- and besides, as my kids' favourite babysitters, they'd be a net gain. And my little babies were, I considered, as portable and accommodating as Eddie Bauer duffel bags.
I was surprised, therefore, when innocent bystanders suggested that we were taking not a holiday but leave of our senses. As my brother-in-law pointed out, "Chevy Chase makes movies about this kind of vacation." You may be expecting me to admit here that the whole project devolved into a sort of horror on wheels. (And, indeed, there was one night, as we searched fruitlessly for a hotel somewhere in rural Quebec during a thunderstorm, that did seem like the opening of a Wes Craven film.) But it wasn't. A horror, I mean. How else could I have acquired memories like the one of my three-year-old paddling in the Atlantic with her grandfather, or my husband and his son sitting under the eaves of an isolated motel in Maine, with the ancient North Woods a dozen feet away and a Stephen King rain sheeting from the roof?
Since then we've hit the road at least once a year and been rewarded with a reaffirmation of our philosophy of family travel: Vacations should be true getaways for every member of the family. And, with some give-and-take, some ingenuity and some -- OK, a lot -- of tongue-biting, everybody on board can have the holiday of his or her dreams.
Page 1 of 3 -- Discover great tips on how to keep your kids happy in the car during a road trip on page 2
Tips to having a great road trip:
1. No. 1 requirement: Flexibility. Let's face it, luggage goes missing, campgrounds fill up and people feel under the weather, and if we're talking six or eight individuals vacationing together, the chances of the unexpected multiply. Be prepared to make your plans accommodate circumstances, not the other way around.
2. If your would-be travellers aren't compromisers, consider stashing your suitcases back in the basement and having a nice barbecue instead. Yes, of course the group will split up once in awhile to accommodate diverse interests -- but often some people will just have to put up with what's planned. And often they'll be rewarded for forbearance: My husband had a great time at Disneyland in spite of his adult cynicism; my stepson (now 21) thought, quite unexpectedly, that the Saskatchewan patchwork of blooming flax and canola was spectacular.
3. Plan for everything to take about twice as long (or longer) as you expect. Newly out of university, my girlfriends and I could drive from Toronto to New York City in 10 hours. With kids it takes two days, minimum.
4. That said, the catch-22 of en masse touring is that you do have to be somewhat organized - especially if you're travelling at peak tourist times when motel rooms and campsites are at a premium. Use the miraculous Mapquest to download your route, and book accommodations in advance.
5. Pets: We've never travelled with animals aboard, but friends who do suggest you make absolutely certain that all your planned accommodations -- including campgrounds -- welcome pets (check out petfriendly.ca). If not, or if your pet is prone to motion sickness, find him a good home-away-from-home while you're away.
6. Stop driving for the day no later than the supper hour.
7. If your destination is more than two days away, consider stopping for an entire day somewhere along the way where the kids can run off some steam and the older members of the tour can get some rest.
8. No more than two adults to a hotel room or four to a vehicle, unless you happen to own a stretch limo or a school bus.
9. Camping can save you lots of money (especially if you own all your gear already). But don't attempt it if you've never camped before.
10. When budgeting for your trip, don't forget taxes. If you're going out of province, remember that sales taxes vary -- call your destination first and find out what they are. And don't budget so tightly that you can't meet any unexpected expenses: Movies on rainy days, replacements for lost hats or sunglasses, or meals and accommodations that cost a little more than you had planned.
11. Plan to get home with at least one whole day to spare before you have to be anywhere (e.g., work). You'll need it to unpack, do the laundry, sleep and wind down the kids.
12. Delegate. Women on vacation tend to do the same thing they do at home: Look after everybody else. Ask everyone to pitch in with packing, cleanups, babysitting and errand running -- it's your holiday, too!
Page 2 of 3 -- Check out great tips for packing for your road trip on page 3
How to pack for a family road trip
Collect everything you think you and your children will need. Pack half or less. There'll be lots of coin laundries along the way and you'll be stopping anyway.
3. Bring toys and amusements for on the road
For each child, pack as much as will fit into one small duffel bag. Essentials: Books, activity books, paper, markers and crayons, favourite CDs or tapes, a couple of favourite toys (plus a few new ones) and a scrapbook. Additional options: Disposable camera, etc. Apportion as much as you can from your travel budget to the purchase of additional amusements on the trip.
4. Other necessities for a road trip
• A cooler stocked with drinks and snacks to save you stops, time and money
• Pillows and a small blanket or two for the car; a sunshade for a back window
• For a small child, a familiar pillowcase, cuddly toy and night-light from home -- something she associates with bedtime in her own bed
• An aluminum, fold-up camp cot (we bought one for our daughter to give her a familiar place to sleep every night and it worked)
• For a child under two, a lightweight umbrella stroller (about $20)
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