Oh, and this was a road trip (no planes involved) and wasn't super long (4 1/2+ hours, tops). I'm sure people who have traveled 8-12 hours in a car (or, God bless you, on a plane!) with a little one can come up with even better ideas. If you've got 'em, share 'em in the comments!
So, going into vacation with this more laid-back attitude was SO helpful. The places we ended up hitting were awesome and we made tons of family memories, with minimal meltdowns. The places that we missed, well, maybe we'll go again when he's a bigger boy and I'll have a cache of ideas stored up to try.
Tip #2: Know thy child. Of course, you already know your kid. Who does better than you, really? It's true, you rock. So, use that intuition and everything you already know about your munchkin to help you plan accordingly.
What's your little one's favorite thing to do? Art projects? Free play? Reading books? Running around like he needs a tiny, adorable straight jacket? Select activities that align with those interests. Our visit to the Eric Carle Museum was perfect because there was a story time (a short movie based on a book, while we were there) that he LOVED, a library with toys (books + a few great toys + a space to make a little noise
This tip also applies to your tot's schedule. We all know that it's important to maintain some semblance of a schedule, with some allowance for flexibility built in, right? We tried to ensure that there was a nap time (he even took a morning nap on the long way to our destination, which was awesome and super rare) built in and that we didn't over-schedule the day. Pick a handful of activities, but do them only if your little one's in an adventurous mood; perhaps one active one and one chill one per day, depending on length.
And, if your kiddo does fine with eating in a restaurant, build plenty of opportunities to try some new places. Which leads me to my third tip...
Tip #3: Stay in. Never thought I'd hear myself say that. This totally doesn't mean "give in to your naughty child" or "don't have any fun on your trip." Not at all.
What it DOES mean is that just because you're on vacation, it doesn't mean you have to be "on the go" or that you HAVE to eat every meal in a super structured restaurant environment the entire time. Unexpectedly, after a very busy first day of driving, lunching, sight-seeing, and shopping, by the time we arrived at our hotel to regroup, we realized we were exhausted. Oh, and Hadley was in full-speed-ahead mode. A lack of playtime will do that to a kid. That's a recipe for disaster, as far as dinner was concerned. Actually, as far as a lot's concerned.
Hence, the above picture. We ordered dinner from a nearby Italian restaurant, didn't have to "dress for dinner", and Hadley was able to run around the hotel room and make as much noise as he wanted while all the other guests were out to dinner. It. Was. Perfect. We kept saying what a good idea it was to stay in. Then, we got to fit in a regular bath and bedtime (although he ended up sleeping with us; c'est la vie), so it really worked out great.
The next night, we encouraged our friends to order out (vs. eating out) since they also would have an infant in tow, so we didn't really go out to dinner at all (aside from a couple of casual lunches). And, guess what. No big. We drank a little bit with dinner and after the kids were down, we enjoyed some "adult sundaes" (ice cream + brownies + Kahlua), accompanied by wonderfully leisurely conversation. That wouldn't have been very doable if we'd gone out, would it? Not with two kids along for the ride.
See? Stay in. It's not a dirty word. Unless you're a foodie. In which case, disregard.
Tip #4: Build in stops for everyone. This wasn't a kid-centric trip, and no family trip needs to be. Sure, we built in specific stops to maintain serenity with the kiddo, but it was a pretty even vacation full of "stops for Mom, stops for Dad, stops for Child." And when we could tick off two or three of those individuals with one activity? Jackpot!
There was a stop at one of Dave's favorite comic stores and several friend visits for the hubby (although I like to consider his friends my friends; I'm not worthy, really) and some historical stuff and a stop at the outlets (purely professional; I needed school clothes) on the way home for wifey. Bookstores for all three. All happy.
Tip #5: Pack healthfully. Dude. Travel can be super unhealthy. And, that's okay...to an extent. (See above "adult sundaes" reference, ahem.) But, it's nice to have options while in the car, and never knowing where your next meal will be is a recipe for disaster. Ha. Recipe. Get it??
So, we stocked the heck up. I had one large reusable grocery bag full of our favorites: organic granola bars (for adults and tot), organic snack crackers, organic milk and juice boxes, organic fruit leather, a bunch of bananas, and a huge bag of those mini-oranges (thank you, orange hack video, for making the process a little less messy in the car -- wish I could find the link again!). Oh, and I had a separate cooler bag with a ton of water and another insulated lunch bag with Hadley's yogurt packets and stuff.
I also allowed myself some room in his lunch bag to throw in a granola bar or fruit leather so that, when we did eat at a restaurant, we could just bring the bag along to keep him satiated while waiting. Simple as that.
Tip #6: The simple things. Speaking of simple...an egg. A freaking cheap-o, neon bright plastic Easter egg. I kid you not, this thing was a game changer.
I packed a humongous bag of favorite toys for all possible situations (if you're not getting a good mental picture already, yes, the car was loaded to the gills), and they definitely did the trick at keeping him relatively entertained there and back.
But what were the best, most entertaining things in the backseat? A cheap, plastic toy truck our neighbor gave him just before we left and a plastic Easter egg. Mind you, at our first rest stop, he saw a game where you put coins in and the egg (containing a far-too-old-for-him toy; ie choking hazard) pops out, so after we did our potty business, I let him put the coins in. The egg seriously mesmerized him (enough so that I could pop out the little monster inside and dispose of it properly without him giving two craps about it).
Sometimes it's the little things for these little ones. Like running around the hotel room. Or popping up in your hotel crib every ten seconds to announce how HAPPY you are to be sleeping in a room with "MAMADADA!!!" Or meeting new friends only to discover you love redheads just as much as you love blondes. Or being able to finally say your distant-BFF's name and to bear hug the heck out of him and to even display a mild understanding of sharing. Or making friends with the docents at a museum. Or being rewarded with an electronic Pink Panther ride at the outlets.
And aren't those simple, little things the memories we sometimes inadvertently forget...the memories that really make the trip what it is? And what it is, is awesome.