Lower Your Expectations: Tips For Successful Family Road Trips Near or Far

People often put so much pressure on themselves to have a good time on vacation that they stress out too much to actually enjoy it. This has been all too true for me when taking road trips with my husband and kids. As the Chief Executive Trip Planner and Worrier for my family, I have learned the hard way that no matter how much I prepare, something always goes wrong when we travel together. It’s better to relax – have a plan, but relax and let the vacation happen. Otherwise I’ll miss it – even though I’m right there.

Here are a few hard-won tips to avoid stressing out on road trips:

Play to your family’s taste. My husband hates big crowds, and my older son hates most thrill rides, so amusement parks don’t work for our family. We found this out after dropping hundreds of dollars on one visit. Awesome! When you’re choosing where to go on your next road trip, consider a destination that has something for everyone. Our favorite is a beachside vacation rental: a long stretch of coastline, restaurants and shops nearby, a full kitchen where we can save money and prepare our own food, and comfy beds and showers to clean up and rest.

Prepare, but don’t be so hard on yourself. Make a packing list, but admit that you can’t fit everyone’s bikes, the camping gear, four changes of clothes, AND food into your 4-passenger hatchback. And if you forget something, get creative. At a quick stop in Pismo Beach, our 2-year-old had a blast playing in the sand and getting his clothes (and diaper) all wet..until the clouds blocked the sun and the temperature dropped about 10 degrees. A nearby souvenir shop sold us a cute hoodie that was a few sizes too big so that it fit him like a dress. Sure, people thought he was a girl for a few hours until we got back to our campsite, but he got to wear that souvenir hoodie for years. Two birds, one Pismo Beach sweatshirt.

Overestimate your drive time. Depending on your kids’ ages and how far you’re going, you might have to make more pit stops than you ever expected. This one has to pee, this one has to be separated from his siblings, this one is hungry, and oh what a surprise, Mom has to pee again. On really long drives you should let the children get out and run around. Like puppies. This is especially important on your return trip, when everyone is tired, probably dirty, and possibly sick of each other. A special treat for the ride home — like a meal at a normally forbidden fast food restaurant — will give the kids (and admit it, you too) something indulgent to anticipate.

Embrace the unexpected. On your way to your destination, pay attention to what’s around you. Use your electronic devices, but not to escape the journey. Use them to find the best roadside diner near the next exit. Or turn off the main highway and take the local roads so you can experience the towns you’re passing through. Being flexible with our plans has led to some delightful discoveries – a protected nature reserve along the Pacific coast in Guadalupe, a greasy spoon off Route 101 where the kids had the “best breakfast ever,” the poem in an iron fence at a public art park in Laguna Beach, a wonderland of watermelons in Bakersfield.

Lower the bar. This helps the most, especially when I’m about to lose my temper because everyone is bickering and I’m hungry and I just realized we forgot the bread for the PB&J sandwiches. Don’t plan the perfect vacation. Plan YOUR vacation. Put down your camera after you capture the perfect moment and experience it. Give the kids a break and don’t expect them to nap on schedule. Give yourself a break and have your glass of wine before you wash the dishes. Grit your teeth and allow everybody to be caked in dirt if they want to. Face it – on a road trip everything gets dirty. You can wash it all when you get home.

This post is part of BlogHer’s Family Fun on Four Wheels editorial series, made possible by Mazda CX-9.