Let’s face it. The classic American family vacation — the one you drool over on your friends’ Instagram stories takes months to plan and can cost a small fortune. If you didn’t already book that RV out of Las Vegas or beach house on the Cape, you’re out of luck. And air travel? That’s a nightmare for families in the best of circumstances. A friend’s family got stranded after a weather-driven flight cancellation for three days over spring break. Three days?! How exactly do you beg forgiveness from your boss for three days of unplanned leave?
Summer is here, your kids are already screaming “I’m bored” and frankly, you need a little getaway. As temperatures rise, so do tempers. That’s why I want to make the case for the good old-fashioned long weekend road trip. It’s short enough that it won’t tick off any bosses, with enough control to make sure you that you relax, eat well and actually unplug while you’re creating awesome family memories.
Where to go?
I advocate for two to four hours from home base. Short enough for only one potty break, but long enough that you’re not just spending the night at a Holiday Inn in a spot you’d otherwise pick as a day trip. Live in the exurbs? Head to the city, park your car and experience life on foot for a few days, taking in fantastic restaurants, public parks and museums. Live the city life already? Head to the country to breathe the fresh air. Pick a spot that has at least one activity for every family member plus a healthy dose of R&R, whatever that means to you.
Where to Stay?
Owing to what is perhaps the best Onion story, “Mom spends beach vacation assuming all household duties,” many moms I know will only stay in hotels or resorts on vacations. And I get that. But I’ve always loved the convenience, space and control of renting a cottage, apartment or cabin on Airbnb or VRBO.
We’re a family of five, and the world just isn’t set up for us to easily travel. Every hotel stay results in a celebrity death match for who has to turn the easy chair pillows into a nest bed on the floor.
That’s why it’s important to make where you stay part of the fun. Narrow your choices down to two or three, and let the family vote. And stay in interesting and fun places. We once Airbnb’d in a teepee in Pequea, PA. For real. The hosts had a roaring bonfire going on our arrival and delivered hot coffee and fresh fruit to us for a breakfast-in-air-bed. (not sure how to word this, we ate breakfast on our airbeds)Whatever you choose, make sure there is at least one relaxation zone. That could mean a pool or hot tub for lounging. A patio for morning coffee. A balcony for an after-kids-bedtime glass of wine. You know how you relax, make sure that’s built in.
Eating healthy on the road
I’m a fairly healthy eater most of the time, but even I can fall victim to the extra crunchy Cheetos in the Wawa checkout. To thwart the inevitable junk food rush, snack proactively. Get yourself a cutting board and knife with sheath for the car. Slicing apples will distract even the grumpiest teenager from his not-so-secret stash of junk. And skip the drive-thru, making your first meal a to-go salad with protein. You’ll be able to re-use your container for healthy snacks while away and feel a heck of a lot better about the ribs you’ll eat for dinner.
Unplug. For Real.
Look, I know I’m an iPhone addict and work email is my drug of choice. When only going a few hours away it is oh-so-tempting to just sneak a peek at your work email. But the moment you do that all of your relaxation goes down the tubes. If, like me, you direct your work email to your iPhone, simply go to Settings, then Accounts, then deselect that email. You can turn it back on when you’re back to civilization. If there’s a real emergency, believe me, you will get a call.
And if you must check your e-mail or messages, designate a certain time during the day to do so. And do not deviate.
You can post your vacation photos on Instagram and Facebook when you get back. For the time being, enjoy the moment.
Set rules on screen time
Set some limits on your screen time while in the car. iPads and headphones have done wonders to restoring peace and harmony on family road trips, but you’re trying to create some memories here. Depending on moods, traffic and general fussiness, we set different rules. Sometimes it’s one hour on, one hour off. Other times it’s “no screens for 90 minutes if you behave well you can get screens for the last hour.” Download a “Wow in the World” or “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me” podcast from NPR.org, or a podcast about your destination, and enjoy some family listening.
Build some collective memories
Make sure each family member has a camera device. Younger kids without phones can use a low-cost digital camera or even the iPhone 5 gathering dust in your top drawer purely for photo-taking purposes. Set up one account for all photos and use Chatbooks to print everyone’s perspective on the trip. We make a Spotify playlist for each road trip, with each family member supplying a few songs that we hear on our trip, are specific to that destination or remind of something funny that happened. When we’re stuck in carpool traffic, nothing like turning on the “California Road Trip” playlist to turn the mood around.
Jennifer Folsom is the chief of corporate development at Washington, D.C.-based data analytics consulting firm Summit LLC. She lives in Alexandria, Virginia, with her husband Ben and three sons, 17-year-old twins Josh and Will, and 12-year-old Anderson. Her practical guide to modern working motherhood,"The Ringmaster," will be out this fall.