An Exhaustive (and Exhausting) Pre-Travel Checklist

The girls on a recent road trip

In preparing for a recent trip, I decided to think about all the labor I put into a moderate to long road trip for our family (I’d say moderate = 3+ hours of driving, 2+ nights away, but we’ve sometimes traveled for as long as five weeks).

I start by opening my packing list on Google Docs, which I edit or copy each time. In addition, here are some steps I like to take to prepare for the trip:

For the Road Trip:

  • I like to thrift (for $.10 or $.25 a pop) used coloring books, puzzle books, sticker books, and really big books with detailed illustrations. Where’s Waldo? books are good and we got 18-month-old Pippin through a five-hour road trip with a battered copy of Richard Scarry’s Cars and Trucks and Things That Go. The name of the game is engrossing pictures that don’t require parental reading. I generally don’t take library books with us, because often car trip books get stomped on over the course of the trip.
  • I buy those crank crayons. They’re a bit like colored pencils that don’t need sharpening, and they don’t melt in the hot Florida sun.
  • For babies and toddlers, I like to get a little cup of some kind of sugary cereal we don’t usually buy — it becomes both a snack and an activity, especially if you pass it back with one of those plastic diaper wipe boxes or a claw snack cup.
  • Games and toys that have gone over well:
    • lacing cards
    • painters tape
    • NOT those Water Wow! books. One of my kids is a chewer and destroys the pens immediately.
  • Download:
    • grownup podcasts, audiobooks and/or Spotify playlists
    • family audiobooks
    • last-resort TV shows onto tablets (we have old ones from J’s dad, but I usually make a stern rule that they don’t come out until nightfall or some other semi-arbitrary finish line of desperation)

For Visiting and the Overnights:

  • Host(ess) gifts — we usually get biggish bottles of local beer at Costco before we leave if the friends we are visiting are beer drinkers.
  • Oddments I’ve learned from experience to pack: baby Tylenol, earplugs, night light, a clothes pin to help darken room windows that pop open, Aquaphor because someone’s going to need it.

For the Return:

  • Make and freeze an extra dinner of something easy like chili. This will almost certainly save you $20 on down the line.
  • If I’m on my game, I change the bed sheets everywhere the night before we leave. Then they’re almost fresh when we come home.
  • Sometimes I’ll buy some shelf-stable little milk cartons (the ones like juice boxes) and I try to make sure we have eggs that will last past our return date. This makes reentry much less painful.

Right Before Leaving:

  • Take out, at minimum, all diaper and kitchen trash.
  • Load and run dishwasher.
  • Lower thermostat.
  • Close all windows (to cut down on energy costs).
  • Water all plants.
  • Unleash the Roomba.

I basically can’t make the house clean before we leave. Maybe when the kids are all big enough I can boot them into the backyard as J loads the car?

We have less success with “nap tents” — dimming the lights on the baby so she’ll sleep now that we have big kids to wake her up, but it helped a lot on babies 1 & 2

Usually, at least until the morning of departure, these duties are mostly a pleasure. I try to view each of them as valuable but nonessential. Each one has the power to make our trip a little easier, a little more fun, but not if performing them makes me an enraged bear. It’s a tough balance to strike, but I try to think about the maybe 1-3 nonnegotiable things each family member needs packed and then loop back to that short list every time I feel overwhelmed, telling myself, if we just have these things, we’ll be fine. 

And sometimes, I believe me.

What are your favorite tips for packing for a family of little ones? What helps you enjoy the process?

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