When traveling, in the words of Lone Starr: “Take only what you need to survive.”

Spaceballs is a fantastic movie, a true classic.  There’s a part where Lone Star tells Princess Vespa to pack lightly for their walk through the desert.  They discover she has brought …

LONE STARR: What’s this?  I said take only what you need to survive.

PRINCESS VESPA: It’s my industrial strength hair dryer.  And I CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT IT!

LONE STARR: Okay, princess.  That’s it.  The fairy-tale is over.  Welcome to real-life.  You want this hot-air machine?  You carry it.

The definition of a vacation, according to dictionary.com, is a “period of suspension of work, study, or other activity, usually for rest, recreation, or travel; recess or holiday.”

Why is it, then, that I usually come home from a vacation feeling like I need a vacation from my vacation?  Let’s face it: when you’re a parent, getting away with the kids is not going to magically suspend parental duties; and getting away without the kids leaves you with the stress of worrying about them while you’re away and a keen awareness of what’s piling up at home.

What makes it even worse is when the packing and unpacking become chores.  I spent four straight weekends from late March through late April traveling.  It seems the more into motherhood I get, the longer my suitcases, shopping bags and laundry piles remain sitting out somewhere they shouldn’t be once we’re home.  Sometimes it makes me wonder if traveling is even worth it.  Thus, here are some tips I’ve come up with to ease travel burdens (and I’m going to try to follow them ALL the next time I go somewhere):

1. Keep an electronic checklist of what you need to pack for each family member.  I especially found this helpful when I had to travel with pacifiers, bottles, pump parts, and the like.  I just keep adding and subtracting to this list every time we go somewhere.

2. If you travel often to the same place (as we do to Florida and Colorado to visit family), leave what you can there and keep an electronic, updated list of those items.  Then refer to it every time you are packing so you can know for sure what you don’t have to bring.

3. Keep a dopp kit for each family member that never gets unpacked.  It should have all the essential toiletries.  Remember – the key word is essential.

4. Buy sample sizes of hygenic items or make your own with small plastic bottles and tubes so you don’t have to pack or unpack the big bottles.  If you come back from a trip and the little shampoo bottle is running low, refill it right then.  All of your liquids SHOULD fit in a quart-sized zip top plastic bag.  Keep this bag packed and ready to go so all you have to do is grab it.

5. Leave the industrial strength hair dryer and other items you really can survive without at home.  Now that I’m a mom, I rarely take jewelry or non-essential makeup on trips.

6. Be creative with what you take so you can mix and match four items to make six outfits – a skirt, a pair of shorts or pants, and two shirts should allow for six combinations of outfits.

7. If you can’t plan to do laundry and the weather is pretty predictable, pack one extra outfit in your carry-on and otherwise, pack exactly the number of outfits you need for each day you’re gone – and no more.

8. For short trips, choose items from your closet that will all go with the same purse and shoes.

9. Stuff socks (or bras or panties, if you dare) in your shoes to save space.

10.  Inevitably, things don’t fit back into your suitcase to come home as well as they did when you left.  I always pack folded clothes on the way out and then roll each item to re-pack the suitcase.  Rolling your clothes makes them take up less space, making room for the items you (inevitably) bought.

11. Take extra plastic bags for dirty clothes or wet ones; when re-packing to return, I always make a “dirty clothes” suitcase filled with everyone’s dirty things (that are literally just thrown in) and a “clean” suitcase.  The dirty one goes straight to the laundry room and the clean one goes straight to a bedroom (where it often sits for days on end).

If I follow all the above tips the next time I travel, I know I will be more at ease and have less stress upon return, when life goes back to “ludicrous speed.”  You just gotta love that movie!

How to survive a lengthy road trip with young ones

From December 6th through January 6th, our family slept in 8 different places.  We packed up our new minivan with the kids and the dog and headed south to see family, friends, and go on a cruise.  It was … amazing, fun and exhausting.  It made me realize the extended road trip can be a part of the type-A mom’s travel repertoire with the right tools.  Here’s what I learned that I will remember for the next one:

1) Drive as much as you can when your kids would normally be asleep.  If you have young children like we do, this is a must.   We had a 15-hour drive, and we set out right when afternoon naps should have begun.  They slept well, then hung in there a couple of hours until we stopped for dinner.  After dinner, we drove another four hours before stopping for the night – and they slept then, too.  So we made it halfway without the kids really making any noise at all.

2) Break up the drive. Don’t expect little kids to be able to sit in their car seats for more than about three-to-four hours at a time (whether they’re sleeping or not).  You can plan fun, half-day stops at destinations along the way if you’re not on a timetable (think South of the Border).  Or if you just need to “get there,” seek out the Cracker Barrels (because between the rocking chairs and store inside you can keep a two-year-old entertained) and the Chick-Fil-As with indoor playgrounds (so your kids can spend some energy regardless of what the weather is like – and sanitized hand wipes are provided).

3) Have a portable DVD player. When we recently bought our minivan, Evita the Silver Bullet (aptly-named because she has liberated us and has 248 horsepower), we decided against the installed entertainment system.  Instead, for a third of the cost, we purchased an iPad and bought the case that attaches to the back of a headrest.  This was the most important item we had for achieving peace in the car.  We loaded it full of episodes of “Dora the Explorer” and a few movies, as well as educational apps that entertained Eliza for 15-20 minutes at a time.

4) Pack a lot of snacks. It’s amazing how tiny pieces of food can not only stave off boredom and hunger, but also buy you quiet time.  Raisins, Cheerios and Goldfish are some of the best options for keeping kids happier longer.

5) Sit with your kids. For parts of the drive when we knew both kids would be awake, one of us sat in-between the two car seats to help entertain them.  This especially made a difference with Zach, our one-year-old.

6)  Pack long-term and short-term bags. Put items you won’t need for the drive in heavier, larger suitcases that get packed underneath everything else.  Pack smaller, weekender-type bags with all the essentials.  That way, loading and unloading all of your stuff along the way into random hotels won’t be as much of a hassle.

7) Play games and sing songs. Take turns choosing who gets to be in charge of the radio and make sure your kids hear some music that they like.  When my kids get older, I know I will play the same game my parents played with us.  If you grow up near farmland, you will inevitably see cows.  My parents always promised us a dime for every cow we caught peeing and a quarter for every one we caught pooping.  You’d be amazed at how long you can entertain children who are straining to see whether a cow is peeing or pooping while they fly by your car window at 70-miles-per-hour.  I have also pre-emptively bought a “ROAD TRIP BINGO” game.  (www.knockknockstuff.com).  I’m excited to play that when the kids get older.

Our maiden voyage in Evita turned out great, and we look forward to the next trip, whether it’s just a weekend or another whirlwind.

What traveling with two has taught me

Last week I took the kids to the beach for a few days while Greg traveled for work.  (Notice I did not say I took a vacation.)  Here are a few things I learned about embarking on such an adventure.

Toddlers and mobile infants do not like being strapped down for long periods of time.  By long, I mean more than half an hour. This might seem obvious, but if you know you’re going to have to immobilize them, you’re going to have to accept and prepare for the fact that you will have to stop.  A lot.  On the way to the beach, our first stop was prompted by Eliza about 20 minutes in, who was screaming.  She had started to nod off but woke in her usual way these days when she has night terrors.  I decided to fill up the tank and check on her.  At the gas station I chose to hold my already full bladder to avoid taking both kids into the bathroom because Zach was asleep and Eliza said she didn’t have to pee (and had calmed down).  About three seconds before entering the on-ramp again, she said, “Pee, pee, PEE PEE!!”  So, our first stop became two stops.  I lugged both kids into a Burger King bathroom to find Eliza had wet herself.  I checked her car seat.  Wet.  I guess whatever dream she had about dogs barking scared her enough to pee.  I changed her clothes and strapped her back into the damp seat.  The next stop was prompted by Zach crying, who needed to eat.  The final stop was prompted by Google maps, which clearly screwed up its satellite imagery of how to get from 295 North onto the Atlantic City Expressway via routes 168 and 42.  (Of course it was now rush hour as well, so every wrong turn meant more time sitting doing nothing on a course to nowhere.)  I’m not sure what town is in the middle of all that, but I had to get out at a convenience store in what I think was a poor suburb of Philadelphia with both kids and get help.  Zach also screamed for the last half hour of the trip before arriving at the rental house, but I was NOT going to stop again.  (I knew I would just be prolonging the torture.)  The point is that what should have been a 3 1/2 hour trip lasted 5 hours, 15 minutes.  You have to assume the journey will require lots of stops for young children and take about 25-40% longer than it should.

Have a plan to keep them busy when they must be in car seats.  I had planned to take the drive over afternoon nap time so the kids would sleep, and that at least bought me some quiet time.  (Of course, Eliza did not sleep at all on the way back after we stopped for lunch, but Zach did – until the last half hour, when he decided to scream.)  I was going to borrow my friend’s portable DVD player, but she couldn’t find the cord for it at the last minute.  Having Dora along for the ride would have helped a LOT.  Instead, Eliza wanted to sing songs she knows over and over and over again until we were hoarse.  If I would stop singing, she would say, “bitsy spideh gain, BITSY SPIDEH GAIN!”  I’ve also heard you should take a trip to the dollar store and get some new toys so you can keep your kids occupied.  Snacks that take a long time to eat (such as raisins or goldfish) are also helpful.  I put them in the snack trap cup for Eliza so she would only minimally spill them everywhere.  Of course, it is not easy to pass food and toys back from the driver’s seat, which leads me to my next point.

If at all possible, have a one-to-one adult-to-child ratio. This, I have already learned, is the key to a successful trip anywhere with little ones – the aquarium, the zoo, the mall – and especially a multi-day outing.  Of course, there are times you have to, or even want to, travel with them alone.  I definitely prayed several times that God would keep me from crashing while driving as I wrangled my right arm around behind me to hand Eliza food or fish around for her blankie that she dropped.  If someone had been in the passenger seat, the drive itself would have been much safer.  At the beach, there was never the same group of moms and kids there, but my friend who organized the trip brought a babysitter as well as her sister-in-law, and I am being honest when I say I couldn’t have done it without their help.  Looking back, I think most of my conversations began with, “Would you mind holding Zach while … ” or “would you watch Eliza while … “.  Everyone pitched in, which was great.  I honestly think they felt bad for me.  It’s kind of weird to hear someone say, “It’s very different to hear you talk about how hard it is with the two of them versus living it.  This is great birth control!”

No matter how hard it is, you have to do it. It takes guts and a lot of work and planning, but what’s the alternative?  I’m pretty good at keeping my kids on a schedule because I really value how important sleep and routine are to growth in their early years.  But sometimes, you have to get out and do things.  And there’s something to be said for teaching your children to be flexible and how to adapt to different situations.  Of course they didn’t eat or sleep as well as they normally do, but they had a great time and experienced something new.  One of the most important things I’m taking away from this trip is that I have to plan the next one.

But I hope in-between I get a real vacation, which would entail leaving the kids at home.