By Melanie Binversie
Wait – Hard stop. Organized Chaos and Road Trips can coincide harmoniously in the same vehicle? Even with MY family? How is this even possible? Whether you’re PCSing or driving 1,700 glorious miles to see your inlaws, road trip season is upon us and I am here to help you make it your best road trip yet.
Why am I qualified to even talk about this? Because 1) my life IS organized chaos every single day 2) I am a military spouse who has moved 9 times in 10 years and 3) I have 3 children who have survived (and even enjoyed!!!) many road trips (PCSing and vacations) where each was more than 3,000 miles round trip.
• The first thing you need to know is that you have now reached survival mode. This means if you don’t usually bribe your kids, now is the time. If you usually have screen time limits, consider removing them. If you usually limit snacks, might want to increase that limit.
• Dollar store cookie sheets are life savers. I even leveled up and had a friend cut some vinyl to add to them this last year so that I knew which one belonged to each kid – no more fighting saying that the wrong pan belonged to someone else! These pans are great for snacks, meals and coloring. Are you the type of family that grabs fast food and eats in the car? These pans will be so valuable to you – no more putting the container of fries between your legs while trying to eat your chicken nuggets! You can also use dry erase markers on them as well as magnets. This makes it a nice easy and clean source of fun. Crayons don’t roll off the edges so it contains messes nicely. This can be yours for the low price of ONE DOLLAR. Who is running out and grabbing a dozen right this moment?
• Bribery is not only okay, it is highly suggested in this situation. Bribery really is telling children that you will reward them for good behavior, right? Depending on the day, we have different methods. I have bought a new cheap dvd for each day in the past. This means that on our last stop of the day, if the kids have all been good, we put in this new and exciting movie for the last leg of the trip. A fresh new movie usually keeps their attention for hours. I have also bought dollar store prizes to reward for excellent behavior. We also use swimming as a reward. I bought chip clips and put their names on them and put them on the visor. They know what color theirs is. If their clip is up at the end of the day, they have earned pool time! We have also clipped dollar bills to the visor. Sometimes money talks – especially if they want to buy souvenirs. If I am in desperate need of quiet time, the dollar bills go on the visor and we play the quiet game until the next stop. I am not sure if this is a parenting win or fail, but sometimes I just need some quiet on a long road trip!
• There are so many printable color sheets online that are free. I made each kid a binder that was catered to their abilities. I printed a state worksheet for each state we would pass through. I also printed 2 United States Maps – one for the license plate game, one for the states we were crossing through so they could color them in as soon as we hit the state line. The license plate game always has a dollar store prize associated with it at the end of the trip too!
• Remember that the drive is part of the journey – What do I know about PCSing? It usually happens in the summer when summer vacations happen. As we prepare for the move, we don’t have time to travel. When we get to the new duty stations, our spouses are usually jumping in head first to learning their new job and rarely is there time to do both a PCS and a good family vacation. Why not do both? All I am saying is that you should take time to see things along the way so that your kids look back fondly on the move as an adventure, rather than “My mom is crazier than a loon and more stressed out than I have ever seen her before!” Our last move was over 1,700 miles. The government paid for 5 days of hotels on the way. We stopped at neat places like the Kentucky Derby Museum, the Arch in St Louis and my son and husband even grabbed a baseball game at the Royals Stadium. If the government allows you to drive around 300 miles a day, that leaves a lot of time for some planned fun.
• Find one hotel chain that works for your family and stick with them. We signed up for the Hilton Hotel rewards card to gain points and free nights. They also have the most amenities that fit our family. We typically stay at Hampton Inn or Homes2Suites. Both serve free breakfast in the mornings. This is big when you are feeding a family of 5 for 5 days in a row. That is a savings of about $200 – plus the points and free nights – we come out smelling like roses. Plus both of these hotels usually have an indoor pool. We prefer Homes2Suites because each room has a mini kitchen, 2 beds and a pull out couch. With 3 kids, we need more than the standard 2 bed hotel room. We do sometimes opt to go with the smaller room but for this, we have 2 twin air mattresses with built in pumps. They cost us $20 at the exchange – which is a good price considering a roll away bed is typically $20-$30 PER night.
• There should be trash bags at every seat possible in the car. We recycle grocery bags for this. I hang them on the head rest. These trash bags save arguments. No one has to ask someone else to put their trash away. It also keeps the car tidy – we clean out trash each time we stop for gas. I also buy the blue emesis bags from Amazon. I know this one seems silly but I have some kids that are prone to car sickness. These bags have saved us time and time again. There are several in each seat back pocket.
• I use the jump bag method. (I totally made that term up but hear me out). When I am packing for a multi-day road trip, I pack our bags a little differently. I would be willing to guess that the average person probably packs a bag per person or something similar to that. I pack one bag that goes into every single hotel and one bag per day of clothing for the hotel – then wait for it…. I label them. The everyday bag has the air mattresses, our toiletries and bathing suits. This bag might also have an extra change of clothing for each kid in case they have an accident, throw up, or spill something down the front of them. The other bag, I look in advance and see the weather and write it on a tag shaped piece of paper with “Friday Night” (Or whatever night I should take it into the hotel). It will have one set of pajamas and one change of clothing that is weather and adventure appropriate for the next day. When we get to the hotel at night, we open the trunk, grab the everyday bag and the clothing bag meaning we don’t have to pack and unpack, pack and unpack several bags every single time we go into a hotel. The bag that we take in with clean clothes also becomes the bag for the dirty clothes the next morning. I can’t believe I am admitting the next part, but sometimes I will put a mini bottle of wine or a couple cans of beer in each of the daily bags too. Sometimes we need that at the end of the day. You can also put a couple bags of chamomile tea if that is your thing!! But this step is critical.
• Pool time is both a reward for the kids and also organization time for me. When I put the clothing into the bag, I put all of the kid’s pajamas and their clean underwear into a pile and I roll them up together. When we get to the hotel, my husband takes his computer and the kids to the pool and he watches them play while he catches up on work or online teaching. I stay back in the room and get the toiletries set up and lay out clothing for the next day. On the counter is a row of the clothing for tomorrow and below it, the pajamas and underwear for tonight. I put the socks in the shoes by the door. Set up beds. Usually by the time I am done with this, I have a little time to go down and watch what new and amazing tricks the kids have learned in the pool that night. I also have little wet bags from cloth diapering my kids. After the bathing suits have hung up all night, they aren’t always dry. I throw them in the wet bag and throw them back into the everyday suit case. This keeps the other contents of the bag dry and keeps the swim suits together.
• Morning time is a breeze too. We wake up, head down for breakfast (sometimes I am a little earlier than them so I can eat quickly and help make their plates). Once they get down and start eating, I head to the room and pack everything back into the bags that we brought in. Zip them up and we are off to the next destination!
• Bring more snacks than you think you need! We have a soft sided cooler with straps that we use for snacks. We go to Costco and just grab a few different variety boxes of single serve snacks. One morning you might be in Eastern Standard time and by that afternoon you could be a time zone or two away. Your stomach says it is dinner time, but the time says its barely past lunch! Great time for snacks. This also alleviates the whining when they are bored and hungry. No extra stops or paying gas station prices for snacks. We also try to limit drinks to meals only while in the car. Nothing worse than your child slamming a drink and saying they have to use the bathroom just an hour after you got in the car. Or even worse, they realize that saying they have to use the bathroom means they get to stop and get out of the car again!
Does this seem like a lot? Maybe the organization is too over the top for you? I understand. Maybe pick a couple things and implement those on the next trip and see how it goes. Even with all of these ideas in place, we still have bad travel days. Sometimes, even with the best of intentions, we have to roll with the punches. Simplifying your transitional time and talking about what is coming next with your kids is enough to mainstream some of the chaos. And of course, remember to make memories along the way. If something doesn’t go right, it’s okay – make a memory of it!
What is your best travel hack for families?
Melanie Binversie is a military spouse and mother of 3 who has volunteered with countless organizations including the United Way, served on the executive board of her children’s school’s PTO, was a member of the Fairfax County Crisis Emergency Response Team, and has served as a Family Readiness Assistant. She has earned a Bachelor of Arts in Emergency and Disaster Management with a minor in Intelligence Studies from American Military University. She has co-owned a doula agency employing and supporting military families. Prior to this work, she was a Jail Medic, Cytology Lab Tech, EMT and Fire Fighter. She was also a surrogate delivering two precious girls for two different families. She has earned the title of Heroes at Home Marine Spouse of the Year (2017) and Armed Forces Insurance Fort Belvoir Military Spouse of the Year (2018).