Assistant Travel Editor Ashok’s arrival last August means some travel-related changes for the household. God bless Brad, Carly, Kevin, and Kyle for jetting around their munchkins successfully. However, we’ve decided that air travel isn’t for us, at least for now. But we want to pass on the travel bug early, so what does that leave? Road trips and cruises, of course. A cruise is possibly in the works later this year. In the meantime, we decided to take Ashok on his first real road trip one November weekend.
As first-time parents, we really had no idea what to expect. If anything, as veterans of multiple cross-country road trips, we were afraid it might not be as enjoyable. We discovered that taking a road trip with an infant is remarkably rewarding. But it does take some work. In this post, I’ll cover seven major lessons we learned along the way – which hopefully will help make your road trip with the little one a success.
Disclaimers: for those of you who are veteran parents, much of this will seem ridiculously obvious. As a new parent, though, I can tell you what should be obvious goes right out the window. Especially if your baby happens to go into a crying fit at the same time. Also, these tips worked for us, based on Ashok’s personality and temperament. Your mileage my vary; it takes some trial and error to figure out what works. Finally, Ashok was 4 1/2 months old when we took this trip. Undoubtedly, things will change as he gets older.
Tip #1 – Plan a Break-in Period
Even for those of you brave enough to fly with your infants, I don’t suggest starting off with a 16-hour flight to Dubai. Likewise, I don’t recommend making your first road trip with the munchkin a 2,000-mile, cross-country jaunt. Let’s just say, you don’t want to find out at mile 100 that junior doesn’t like long car rides. My wife and I worked up to our trip over a matter of a couple of months. We started off with little 20-minute rides around the neighborhood. Then 45-minute trips to grandma’s house. Then 90-minute joyrides on a Sunday afternoon. We also planned rides at different times of day and night, in different weather conditions, etc. Ultimately, this confirmed what we suspected. That is, Ashok is a fine car traveler, one who takes a ride mostly as an excuse to nap. Confirming that helped us better plan a realistic schedule later on.
Also, we decided to start off with a shorter trip in general. In this case, Friday evening through Sunday evening, with two overnights. This consisted of 100 miles the first day, then about 350 each of the other two. That gave us two nights in hotels to see how he’d do away from home. At the same time, the total distance was short enough, so that we could just turn around and come back if things went completely off the rails.
Tip #2 – Half the Distance Takes You Twice as Long
(Bonus points if you can guess the song I stole that line from.) I admit, I’m the type that’s always trying to beat personal time/distance records on road trips. “Hey Prita! We made it to Memphis in 6 hours and 51 minutes! That’s a new record!!” (Cue the eye roll.) Well, if this describes you…forget about it when driving with a baby. Between stops for a bottle, diaper changes, and general crankiness, your average speed will take a hit. I found that travel time increases by roughly a third. For example, a 6 hour drive becomes closer to 9. Which provides a nice segue to my next tip…
Tip #3 – Your Baby Doesn’t Share Your Endurance
Babies have short attention spans. Which means even if you can comfortably handle 750 miles of driving at a stretch, your baby probably can’t. Normally, I plan 12-13 hours of drive time a day. But based on his behavior at home, I suspected he could handle, at most, about 9 hours in the car, including stops along the way. And sure enough, that turned out to be about right. I planned for about 9 hours of driving on our two full days. For the most part, he did great, though he started getting really cranky with about half an hour to go both days. If I’d tried to cram in 12 hours, the last 3 would have been pure misery.
Also, stop frequently, whether for meals, sightseeing, or something in between. Even a short break out of the car seat in the fresh air makes a big difference. You’ll see more happy face like this…
And less sourpuss face like this…
Tip #4 – Little Babies Need Lots of Stuff
So we did a pretty good job figuring out the first three items on our own. On this one, though? Not so much. It’s really amazing how much…junk…gets stuffed in your car on account of a 4-month old. This was my trunk with the stroller, travel crib, and computer bag stuffed inside.
That relegated our suitcase to the front seat.
And that doesn’t even cover the diaper bag, toys, bottles, formula, bottle warmer, enough diapers and wipes for three days, and the car seat.
Fortunately, it was just my wife and I along with the baby, so it was fine. My wife had plenty of space in the back to sit next to Ashok. But if we’d had another passenger, we’d have been SOL in my sedan. I’ve never been a fan of SUVs, but I’m starting to appreciate their utility just a little better. In hindsight, we probably should have taken my wife’s Honda CR-V.
Speaking of car seat and stroller, we have the Graco SnugRide Click Connect 30. We like it, because it doubles as both a stroller, and a regular car seat. In stroller mode, the seat simply clicks in to the canopy.
To use as a car seat, simply pull up on a red handle in the back, click it in to the car seat base, and go. It saves you from having to carry both a car seat, and a seat for the stroller. Ashok wasn’t big enough to sit in a stroller without a seat, so this came in handy.
I also mentioned a travel crib (pack-and-play) occupying trunk space. I do suggest taking one. For one, you can save the extra charge for a crib, which can add up over a longer trip. Two, you don’t have to worry about baby “accepting” a strange crib. We use another Graco product, the Graco Travel Crib. It worked for Ashok on this trip, though he’ll likely outgrow it soon. Supposedly, it’s expandable, though I haven’t tried to do that yet.
As far as toys go – pack them liberally. An interactive singing zoo, a stuffed Mickey Mouse, and a few items to keep his hands and mouth occupied kept him mostly calm when he wasn’t sleeping.
Tip #5 – Swallow Your Pride and Accept Offers of Help
We’re extremely fortunate, in that my mom both lives nearby, and is willing and able to help us out. Though after our misadventure in not knowing how to pack, she’s probably questioning whether poor Ashok can survive until age 1. The day before we prepared to leave, mom and I had a conversation that went something like this:
Mom: Did you plan to take some blankets? It’s going to be cold where you’re going.
Me: Sorry, didn’t think about that.
Mom: How about diaper rash cream and a bottle of Tylenol?
Mom: And some extra towels in case he makes a mess on your back seat?
Yeah, let’s just say, we didn’t think about probably half the things on her list. Mom offered to make us a checklist, an offer we gladly accepted. And that’s my advice here – you have friends, parents, and relatives who know the drill. Ask them for advice the first time. Unless you just like scrambling to find a Wal-Mart when you realize you forgot to pack extra batteries for junior’s favorite toy.
Tip #6 – Especially If Your Baby Formula Feeds, Prepare for Adventures in Bottle Feeding
On the one hand, we’re very fortunate that Ashok is generally a well-behaved baby. On the other hand, the one issue we have is that he’s a diva when it comes to eating. First, he’s exclusively formula fed. Second, at the time, his feeding intervals were every 3-4 hours. Third, he demands that his formula be at just the right temperature. That can create some anxious moments if hunger strikes at an inconvenient location. We once had to pull into an empty parking lot to feed him, when feeding time came 50 miles from the nearest town.
Two things that did help us: mom told us to bring both a thermos and an insulated carrier to put ice in. We could fill the thermos with boiling water in the morning at the hotel, and use it to mix with the formula powder the rest of the day. Meanwhile, since Ashok doesn’t eat 8 ounces at one sitting yet, the carrier and ice kept us from having to waste expensive liquid formula. This all made it easier to get him to eat, even if the location wasn’t the most convenient.
Finally, I advise planning the day around the baby’s meals much as possible. What do I mean? First, we left for the day about 45 minutes after he finished breakfast. Ashok has a bit of reflux, and it helps to keep him out of a car seat for at least half an hour to avoid spitting. Plus, he gets sleepy after eating, making for an easier getaway. Second, we ate lunch when Ashok was ready for his next bottle. That might be 11, or it might be 1. But it also avoided having to make two lunch stops. A 9-hour day also ensured we’d be at our hotel before his evening bottle. This meant only one potentially problematic feeding.
Tip #7 – Remember, The Goal is Making Memories for Three
No, Ashok won’t remember anything about this trip, and there are a few pains to deal with. But the memories you create from a road trip are just the same as always. So take the challenges in stride, and have fun. After all, we introduced Ashok to his first tourist trap, the Eiffel Tower of Paris, Texas. Yes, it’s a replica of the real deal, with a 10-gallon hat up top.
Then, Ashok got to enjoy a view of fantastic fall foliage with mommy.
Next, Ashok got a taste of one of daddy’s favorite road trip activities – checking out old, historic roads. In this case, Route 66, and the picturesque Rainbow Bridge in Kansas. (Incidentally, Kansas made it four states before he hit five months old. That’s some serious pre-school bragging rights right there.)
And at last, a gorgeous Texas sunset on the last leg home.
We enjoyed ourselves so much, we’ve already planned a longer (9-day) road trip in April! Stay tuned for a full report, and how much difference a 9-month old baby makes.