After two weeks away, it was finally time to head out on the remaining 900 miles home to Florida. We loaded up, said our goodbyes, and piled into the van.
I don't have photos for everything in this blog post, but I did want to share several things that make a 2,500 mile road trip with four kids more bearable. Despite all of the hassles, I only had one big meltdown on the way back. Maybe a few mini ones, too. Just keeping it real here.
So here are my tips for the trip...
#1. Electronic devices
All of the kids have a tablet, an old used phone (without phone service but can use wi-fi) or both. This made a huge difference in their ability to sit peacefully for hours on end in a minivan with siblings. We tried to minimize 3G or hotspot use on the devices, but we still bumped up our data amount for the trip.
I left my lap top computer at home for my adult son to use. I didn't want it to get banged around in the van anyway, which has happened before. It would have been nice for watching DVD's though.
I used my phone's Google Maps app for mapping, which was not foolproof. I still got turned around a few times when a kid borrowed my phone and accidentally exited the map app, or the sound was down and I couldn't hear the map voice tell me where to turn, or I assumed I knew where I was going so I turned it off or didn't map it in the first place. And then sometimes it just plain screwed me up and sent me a crazy way. Sometimes I switched map apps. I am notorious for getting lost.
I also used my phone for looking up information on places we wanted to go. And taking hundreds of pictures. And checking e-mail and Facebook. And listening to my road trip playlist of happy music.
Sanity, dear hearts. Sanity is the name of the game.
I was worried about losing my debit card on the trip. I didn't want to get stuck without a way of paying for things. I researched my options and decided on a prepaid cash card, the Bluebird by American Express. The initial card fee is several dollars, but there is no monthly fee or reloading fee. You pay for the amount of money you want loaded on the card. I got $250, enough to tide us over until we could get more cash. I hid the card in a safe place in my van. I never lost my original debit card, but we used the Bluebird all the way home for gas and meals. I am going to reload it to use when my teens need to go shopping without me.
I had planned to track my expenses each day using the Good Budget app like I do at home. I didn't. I stashed my growing pile of receipts in a safe place, but it took me hours to record and categorize them when I got home. Yikes. I know we overspent in some areas, but we cut back on others. I didn't want to be overly stressed about pinching pennies when we had opportunities to make fun memories. I decided to go with the flow without being stupid. We did OK, especially with a bit of generous hospitality and financial help from my dad, brother, and sister.
#3. Kindness and respect
These four kids, ages 11-17, travel really well together. Bickering was at a minimum. I think they've all learned from past trips how horrible it is to fight much when contained in a small space.
I did my best to stay cheerful and chill. That helped tremendously, but it didn't always work. My one main meltdown came a few hours into the first day on our return trip. I was tired, I had a lot on my mind, I couldn't find my sunglasses and the glare was giving me a headache. The kids were getting a bit too silly and sassy, talking about topics I most decidedly did not want to hear. I told them to stop chattering and they didn't. I yelled. That didn't help. I decided to pull off at the nearest exit. I found a Target store, went in by myself, and bought a new pair of sunglasses and some sugar-free chocolate, always a mood lifter for me. (Yes, I shared.) One son followed me into the store and did his best to calm me down. I got back in the van and gave the kids a no nonsense lecture about respecting their mother so she wouldn't go berserk. They settled down. Good for them. Good for me.
Later we needed to stop again for bathrooms and snacks, but we couldn't find the Krispy Kreme donut store after driving for miles off the highway. We finally found a display of Krispy Kreme donuts inside a gas station. Then I had to go into a dollar store to stock up on more snacks and water bottles. As I was pulling out of the parking space, the man in the car next to us signaled for me to stop. He had noticed our rear tires were low on air. I thanked him. I really appreciate his kindness in taking the time to tell us. He could have just ignored it and let us fend for ourselves. I can only imagine what would have happened if we got a flat tire while going 60 MPH on the highway.
Shortly after that, I stopped at a gas station that advertised as full service, figuring an attendant could check my tires. There were no attendants. Eek. So I found the self-serve air pump, but couldn't figure out how to use the gauge on it. Vehicle maintenance is not my usual skill set. Then I remembered I had my own air pump in the car that was powered through the cigarette lighter. I attached it to the tires and started pumping, keeping an eye on its gauge. Unfortunately, I read the wrong set of numbers on the dial and overfilled one tire. The pressure was so high that the nozzle snapped off the hose. In the process of removing the broken nozzle, so much air escaped from the tire that it was even lower than before! I went back in the gas station and bought a new gas gauge, then tried using the self-serve air machine. I still couldn't get that one tire to the right pressure. My own internal mama-soul pressure was about to blow again. Fortunately, I looked across the street and noticed a Firestone tire center. I asked the guy there if he could check my tires. He immediately and cheerfully pumped all four tires to the correct pressure - for free! I am immensely grateful for his kindness.
Friends, always look for ways to be kind. You just don't know when you will save someone's sanity. These two kind young men in the deep south certainly saved mine.
#4. The right vehicle
When we traveled with all ten kids before they started moving out, we had a huge 15 passenger van. It had plenty of space, but it was difficult to drive and slurped gas. Three years ago we bought a Dodge Grand Caravan with 90,000 miles on it. We've taken it on five major road trips since then -- and I love love love it! I was really picky when we were looking for vans. I wanted one that would be comfortable for up to seven people to travel long distances. This one has great storage behind the back seats, and as a huge bonus, there is space underneath the floors! So either the seats can fold down into the floor to make space for transporting cargo (I've been able to fit a recliner chair and a china cabinet in my van at the same time) OR you can store a whole bunch of stuff down there. This gave the kids more elbow room since we didn't have everything crammed into the passenger area. One of my sons even got the whole back seat to himself.
#5: Van organization and supplies
I keep a plastic bin in between the two front seats. It has wet wipes, medicines, sun glasses, hair brushes, pens, blunt scissors, tape, a pouch of music CD's, a first aid kit, extra phone and tablet charge cables, and so much more. And a stapler. Why a stapler? Well, it goes like this. The headliner (the fabric on the ceiling of the van) has been drooping a lot to the point that it was touching our heads and obstructing my rear vision. I tried using double sided duck tape. I tried using spray adhesive. Neither worked. I didn't want to pay $150 for a professional repair. So I stapled it back up. And that worked. I knew some might come loose, so I brought along the stapler. Cheap fix. Now you know.
In addition to the main supply bin, we also had some back-of-the-seat nylon organizers, a bin for auto maintenance supplies, a bin for drinks, and a bin for snacks. Since we ate a lot on the road, I also hung up two heavy duty plastic grocery sacks (the sturdy reusable kind from Aldi) - one for trash and one for recyclables. We emptied them frequently. Whenever we had a longer stop, I took the time to clean out the van and put everything back in order.
#6. Hotel planning
I booked the hotels before we left on the trip. We only needed one night on the way to Maryland and one night on the way back since we were staying with family the rest of the time. I went on Hotels.com to find ones that met my criteria: the general area I wanted right along I-95, reasonable price and ratings, a room with two queen size beds and a rollaway bed, and a free buffet breakfast. Why the queen size beds when doubles are cheaper? We were sharing beds and I wanted everyone to sleep better. When the kids were really little, we could sleep three kids sideways in a queen bed. Those days are over! The younger ones are mostly teens now!
On the way up to Maryland, I decided to sleep on the sofa bed so I wouldn't have to share. It was so lumpy with the frame that I put the mattress on the floor and slept the best I could. Unfortunately, when I opened my CPAP breathing machine case, I realized that the face mask was missing. Oops! I did not sleep well that night at all. I had to have it shipped to me in Maryland overnight at the whopping cost of $35. Ouch.
On the way back, I insisted on sleeping on a queen bed. My youngest would get the rollaway, and my teen daughter offered to sleep on the floor because she didn't want to sleep with a bed hogging mom. As it turned out, when I requested a rollaway, I didn't realize that I had already reserved one when I booked the room. So we had two rollaways and they each got to sleep on one. The hotel only charged us for one. I told the desk clerk the next day and he laughed and said, "Woohoo!"
The other thing I do to make hotel stays easier is to have each of us bring in only a small bag for that night, rather than a whole suitcase.
#7. Itinerary planning
I planned out the trip day by day before we left Florida. We had plenty of room for flexibility, but at least we had an idea of the kinds of things we wanted to do and what it would cost. We never did go to Baltimore for a day at Fort McHenry and art museums. (Ha ha! Just no enthusiasm from the kids there.) But they did get to do laser tag with their cousins, as well as go see Finding Dory, and play lots of cards. We also took our bigger side trips to Cunningham Falls and the Jersey shore.
The one thing I wished I had planned better was to pick our return trip overnight stop a little closer to Maryland. We had gotten a late start and had the aforementioned tough first day of travel, so it was nearly midnight before we pulled into our hotel. I had tried earlier that day to cancel the reservation so we could stop earlier, but I unknowingly missed the deadline. Erg. I was downing the caffeine (usually Diet Mountain Dew) and pleading with the kids to do anything they could to keep me awake. By the end, we resorted to singing everything we saw on the road signs in the silliest voices possible. And it turns out it's a good thing we sang the road signs, because we realized the next morning that I accidentally got on I-95 going north instead of south - confirmed by the fact that we passed the signs for the same little towns we had sung about the night before. Oh, mama, what are we going to do with you?
Our most important road trip tradition is splurging on a decent sit down restaurant on the very last day. I'm not talking fancy. Cracker Barrel is what we've chosen the last two times. We all love the country style food and raspberry lemonade, and it's so fun to browse around in the gift shop while we wait.
As it turned out, since we'd gotten in to the hotel so late the night before, the boys slept in and completely missed the buffet breakfast. We didn't leave the hotel until checkout time at 11. And then it was almost time for lunch, so we stopped after only an hour of driving.
We kept seeing road signs for Georgia Peach World. It sounded intriguing, and we were ready for a stop. I'm so glad we pulled off here!
The peach ice cream that I bought for the kids (and had a taste of) was heavenly, and I shared my delicious peach fritter with them. I also bought jars of peach butter and low sugar peach jam. The employees were super friendly, and we all agreed that stopping here will be a new road trip tradition.
#10. Looking out the windows
To be honest, the old ABC game gave us many hours of boredom busting, looking for the letters of the alphabet on road signs, commercial trucks, and license plates. Another little tradition that we love is looking out for state borders so we can hold our breaths as we cross.
So that's that for this trip. We've been home for two weeks.
Want more travel tips? Read Tips and Apps for Your Road Trip.