Redefining Road Travel, Family Style

I had no idea that traveling the world with my small children would be as challenging as it is.

My parents, who have been with us for the last few weeks of travel, are joking that they are going to make T-shirts that say “We survived a year of travel with Bird and Spider Monkey.” Quite frankly, I think I’ve already earned more than a t-shirt at this point.

If you have read my other posts, you will not be surprised to hear that this is way harder than I thought it would be. Maybe that’s because I was entirely naive about this whole venture. Or maybe it’s because it is just really, really hard.

All that said, I do think that at this point we have picked up a few tools to help us make the most of moving around the map with our mini travelers.

When we first set out to put the itinerary of this trip together, we knew we wanted to start with a cross-country trip.


To start, we were not yet ready to give up our car (now we know -nothing gets you ready to get rid of your car like living out of it for a month). Additionally, we wanted a chance to acclimate the kids to travel without having to worry about language barriers, exchange rates, shifting cultural norms, or cargo weight. We also thought we might learn a little something about how our kids would handle travel.

We suspected the road trip would school us on how to travel with kids. And school us it did.

That first 21-day leg of road travel was a classroom of sorts. We probably walked away with a grade of 50%. And sure, you could call that a big fat F for failure. Or, you could say we took half the trip to get right what we got wrong the other half of the trip. At the very least it proves we learned something. We gained a bit of experience and a bit of wisdom. And some of that is worth enough to pass on to others. So…

Here’s a little of what we know now that we did not back then.

Take play stops instead of rest stops

The first few days of our road trip, my husband and I grooved on the road like we always have. We pulled into drive-thru windows or ordered fast food while fueling up. We ate in the car. We drove 5- 6 hour stretches at a time and stopped only when we hit big-name attractions like Niagara Falls.

But with kids, that pace is a recipe for disaster.

Bird became anxious, whiny, and insanely bossy. I became frantic to keep him from melting down. Spider Monkey became so bored that he drew all over himself with a permanent marker because he “wanted to see his bones.” It was probably only day three when we realized a shift needed to happen. So, we turned our rest stops into play stops.

We no longer used Google Maps to find the nearest Subway or travel plaza. Instead, we searched for playgrounds. Every 2-3 hours we found a new playground.

We became discerning. My husband would get a satellite view, and if the playground looked particularly interesting, we might sacrifice 20 minutes off the main road to find it. Then we would land, unpack our cooler and picnic at a picnic table.

The kids rarely sat. Instead, they grazed while they played. They would meet other kids, get involved in small group games, and encounter physical challenges offered by monkey bars, climbing walls, and tire swings. Then they would get back in the car and fall into a beautiful, silent sleep.

Each one of those stops would cost us 1-2 hours. That would have been inconceivable to our previous road-tripping selves! But now, we call it magic.

Free can be just as much fun as costly

The second night of our road trip we spent on a lovely houseboat that belongs to our friends in Toronto. Boy, was that a tough act to follow. What could we do on our way to Ann Arbor that would pique the boys’ interests as much as that one night of total on-the-edge-adventure? (Mind you, the boat didn’t actually go anywhere, but both boys agreed that boat living is tremendously cool, except for the part where you have to wear a life jacket when above deck.)

We had heard about the Ontario Science Centre. It sounded perfect. Was it free? Nope. We dropped $70 Canadian to get in. But it was a museum, and we all love museums. Was it cool? Yes, it was totally cool. But after about twenty minutes, Bird decided he had seen everything there was to see. He pulled me straight out through the entrance doors.

Just in front of the museum was a dancing fountain and a few oversized interactive science displays. Bird played there for over an hour while I sipped a latte and fantasized about what else we might have done with that $70.

The point is this:

It’s not that there was anything wrong with the museum, it’s just that sometimes all you need to do is get to a tourist spot and let the kids explore the surrounds. Don’t underestimate how long a kid can play in the same space.

After being on the road now for three months, we have found the following to be great options for free excursions:

  • Fountains
  • Public art, especially sculpture gardens
  • Swimming holes
  • Botanic gardens (which often have children’s gardens or play areas)
  • Cafés with kids corners or play areas (okay, the café part isn’t free, but it’s kind of the best of both worlds)
  • Short hikes/nature walks
  • Street performances (just please put something in the hat)
  • Skate parks
  • Beaches

If you’ve ever been to Chicago, for example, and not checked out the Crown Fountain with its spitting faces, you need to do that. No entrance fee required.

Never leave for the day without swim essentials

This tip follows us everywhere we go. Take the week we were in Sydney with my parents and brother. Cities have proven to be difficult for our kids. To begin with, we are traveling with one stroller and neither boy has decided that it’s cooler to walk than to be pushed. So, they fight. It gets ugly fast. Or no one gets in the stroller because they decide they both want to run. In opposite directions. As fast as they can. It is in those moments that I curse the very existence of that stroller… among other things.

We began our first day in Sydney with a (paid) tour of the Opera House. Thumbs up for Bird who stuck with the guide and ogled all three of the theatre spaces we visited (we breed theatre nerds). Thumbs down for Spider Monkey who tried to fly through the glass wall/windows, because “I have to see if I can find Nemo.”

After the tour, the boys were in rare form. Spider Monkey thinks running away is a game, which makes the act of trying to catch him infuriating and dangerous. My parents and brother wanted to go to the Rocks area, climb the Harbour Bridge, and eat a nice lunch. That was not going to work for our littles. We didn’t even take the time to say goodbye. We hurled a gelato cone at each boy and hailed a cab. Darling Harbor, here we come.

We had read about a cool playground in the Darling Quarter. It offered us hope. When we got there, we nearly cried with joy. It was even better than we had dreamed!

Not only was there one of the coolest city playgrounds we have experienced (okay, nothing quite beats Maggie Daley in Chicago), there was also a network of fountains and wading pools as far as the eye could see. Nearby cafes and restaurants offered delicious takeaway. And best of all, there were other children everywhere. We’d made it. Parent paradise. It was going to be okay.

Of course, I had forgotten my own cardinal rule of thumb. It’s a rule I established for myself midway through our road trip in the US.

Never, ever go anywhere without swimsuits and camp towels. Because there is always a fountain. And kids should always get in that fountain. And fountains are always free.

Our kids played for hours at Darling Harbor. In their underwear. Since they were already wet, we decided to spend the second part of the day at Bondi Beach. A truly inspired idea. There, both boys got naked, which was honestly no big deal. But that was the last time I went anywhere without our swim essentials. I don’t even think twice about it anymore. Even in the rain. Ninety percent of the time, we’ve wanted them.

It’s the journey, not the destination that matters

Three cheers for transportation and navigation! At least, that’s what we say in our family.

Spider Monkey is a transit junkie. This kid is obsessed with planes, trains, and motorcycles. He has big dreams of becoming a pilot someday, and since he promises to fly me anywhere I want to go, I am encouraging him to chase that dream.

Bird could spend all his time navigating and never really get bored. He loves maps and directions and feels totally confident plopping himself in the back of a tuk-tuk for an adventure. In the evenings, he will sit with a map and draw the route of where we have just been. If we are navigating through a city, he will use a map to help us figure out where to turn. At every museum or park we visit, he insists we stop at a map and take in where we are, where we are going, and what route we’ll take to get there.

One of my favorite moments on our Tokyo trip was when we went out to explore the Hakone Open Air Museum.

This is the kind of place that my husband and I both love. An outdoor museum with large scale art that works with the landscape? Yes! Hakone is even better because some of the art is climbable and only for kids.

But the best part for Bird was the map. He spent the first 15 minutes of our time there studying the layout of the grounds and all the various artworks that were depicted. He was particularly taken with the icon that looked like two fried eggs. More than anything, he wanted to see to those eggs. About an hour later, when we turned the corner from the bridge over the coy pond and spied the egg sculpture, Bird went crazy. It was as if he’d found his holy grail.

There is no amount of leading I could have done through that museum that would have gratified him like finding his own destination, making his own path, and following the map he was holding in his own head.

This has had a pretty big impact on our trip because we no longer worry if our intended destination is going to be all we hoped it would be. We take bigger risks knowing that at the very least, we all will enjoy the getting there and getting back.

I am willing to get lost a bit more if it means letting my kids do the leading. The best journeys we take as a family are the ones in which we all play a role.

No matter what, if you are tired, get sleep

This is a tough one. I have found that I think I can just go forever on this trip like I do at home. I tell myself that this is “vacation” and I shouldn’t be half as tired as I was when I was working. But you don’t realize the toll that it can take on you, to continually be thinking for three rather than one. And tired parents are cranky parents. If you don’t sleep when you need to, everyone loses.

So now, when it’s 9:45pm and the kids are fast asleep, my wine glass is empty (twice), and I am wiped, I don’t feel the need to justify to anyone that it’s time for me to go to bed. I know there might be more to experience out there, but I can let the nightlife go as the sweet breeze of Bali lulls me to my dream time.

These are tips that have worked for us, but nothing is foolproof.

Just hours ago, I was wrangling my children in the back of the car we rented, which really meant using my body as a barrier between two kids committed to pounding on each other as an expression of freedom… the freedom that comes with traveling without car seats for the first time. I have a few bruises and one imprint of Spider Monkeys teeth on my arm to prove my dedication. So, to be clear:

We never strive for perfection when we travel. We strive for progress.

In redefining what it means to be on the road, we’ve proven we can be flexible, listen to the needs of our kids, and find a family solution to most problems that present themselves. And that feels like something to write home about.

Laurie Sales is a high school theatre teacher who is currently taking a sabbatical year to travel around the world with her husband and two young children. Laurie records her reflections on radical sabbatical parenting on her blog, Our Lives in Wanderland. Laurie is a passionate advocate for Global and Arts Education and the dismantling of xenophobia through cross-cultural experiences for learners of all ages. Every day of parenting on the road is a new adventure! Follow the journey on Facebook.

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