The method of in-transit trip planning I’m going to show you in this post requires a time investment before the trip. Why put in the time? It is particularly worth it if:
you have young children,
you know that you will repeatedly be making the same trip,
you hate rest stop bathrooms and eating facilities with a passion.
I’m willing to put in the time to do in-transit activity planning because I’ve noticed a big difference in trip quality for everyone this way. We all have stops that we look forward to now on the long trip to Grandma’s house.
Budget time to get the ya-yas out
We find it’s helpful when traveling with a young child to budget a 1-hour break for every 2 hours of travel time. It stretches travel out—but, it makes the actual trip more enjoyable. We get out, visit the bathroom, and try to be as active as possible. If the weather is good, we’ll hit a park or a playground, if not, an under-cover space—anything from a museum to a McDonald’s PlayPlace.
You can use Google Maps to plot out your trip and use the Directions feature to break down your trip into rough two-hour intervals. Where will you be?
If you’ll be near a city, try googling “[CITY] with kids.” This usually brings up a list of indoor and outdoor recommendations. I start by checking out the parks on these lists. Are they within 5 minutes of our route? Do they have bathrooms and picnic areas?
Many times googling a park will bring up a map of the park. PRINT THIS OUT. On your trip, you want to be able to navigate to and park close to the playground (or whatever other cool feature you’re going to visit) and bathrooms. Doing this on site in the moment with a GPS is stressful—with everything mapped out in advance you will be able to tell your carmates “Five minutes more,” with accuracy. I have also used Google satellite views to figure out where the playground is in a park and then made notes on how to navigate to the closest cross streets. Googling a park will also bring up other information that you need to know—if a park has seen a lot of criminal activity then it’s probably not a good stop.
Sometimes, you can find a great list of activities already laid out for you—check out the Washington Post’s terrific list of Kid-Friendly Attractions Along Interstate 95 and the N.J. Turnpike. Kathleen Seiler Neary, the writer, actually visited all the stops, which makes this list GOLD. Similarly, the Out and About Mom bloggers in Connecticut visit and evaluate beaches, playgrounds, and even PlayPlaces in Connecticut with their kids. There are apps that promise to show you great stops when you’re en route, but I prefer to have a list and maps ready to go on paper when we get in the car. That way we can vote on options in the car as a group and if we need precise directions, we’ve got them already mapped out.
Accessible playgrounds are a terrific trend in playground design—playgrounds with play structures that are accessible to all—including children with special needs. Since the trend is relatively new, making a point to visit accessible playgrounds on a trip can mean discovering play structures that you and your child have never seen before. Check out this list of 30 Most Impressive Accessible and Inclusive Playgrounds from Special Education Degrees and you’ll see what I mean!
In summer, we pack a swim bag and plan to stop off at pools or parks with water play areas. Junior was thrilled when we found Nay Aug Park in Scranton on one of our regular routes. Two pools! Water slides! $5/family member was a small price to pay for a truly refreshing activity break. And, when it was time to get back on the road, we made time for hot dogs at the nearby snack bar. Whenever we talk about summer travel now, he asks to visit Nay Aug.
Oh no, it’s raining
I make a point to include both indoor and outdoor places to stretch our legs. Back to the “[CITY] with kids” list of recommendations. What indoor locations are within 5 minutes of your route? Remember those museum ID cards for your hometown museum? Often your family will be able to get in FREE to these pit stop museums while you’re traveling.
We visited the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, one of TripAdvisor’s top picks for families in New Haven with children, on our last trip through New Haven—and yup, we got in for free! The Peabody Museum has a giant room full of dinosaurs and the Discovery Room, which is set up for 5-12 year-olds: lots of hands-on activities and animals to see—including a bearded dragon from Australia and walking sticks from Vietnam. Junior said afterwards that the Peabody Museum was his favorite stop.
New Haven also boasts an IKEA. IKEA encourages children to get hands-on with the toys in their kids’ furniture areas. This means that kids can get their wiggles out and then everyone can get a hot meal. If you have small but potty-trained kids, you can check them into the IKEA ballroom and get yourself some kid-free time to relax. Pro tip: If you belong to IKEA Family, your kid gets more time in the ball room and you, the grownup, can get free hot coffee!
It’s worthwhile googling to see if any restaurants along the route you’re planning have kid-friendly facilities. Don’t write off McDonald’s—some McDonald’s have truly spectacular PlayPlaces. Junior doesn’t get to go to McDonald’s very often and he eagerly anticipates visiting a certain McDonald’s with an awesome PlayPlace on one of our regular trip routes. Chicken nuggets! An obstacle course! Slides! You can download the McDonald’s app and get coupons, too. I have tried the online McDonald’s PlayPlace search function, but it doesn’t work very well—and it doesn’t identify the terrific PlayPlaces vs. the ones that contain a few ride-on animals and a video game. You’ll have better luck googling “McDonald’s [CITY] Playplace” and looking at the pictures to see if the equipment is actually worth making a stop.
Our hour is up—good thing we packed all those discount cards and coupons so we didn’t end up overspending for a hour break! Back in the car!
Now it’s time to crack out the activity kit! Stay tuned for Part 3!