We took them to San Francisco, where they have an amazing science museum called the Exploratorium, and to the Mystery Spot near Santa Cruz, and we spent some time with Grandpa. To be honest, even just staying in a hotel was exciting for the kids, and our last night there, spent watching How To Train Your Dragon on the hotel TV and eating popcorn, was a highlight of their trip.
The drive itself was about 450 miles each way. We logged over 1,000 miles total, including the day trips in the Bay Area. We started out with G (15 months) behind the passenger, rear-facing, N (6 years, in a booster) in the middle, and S (4 years, in a 5-point-harness, front-facing) behind the driver.* The purpose of N's being in the middle was that he could help care for G and that he could reach stuff on the floor of the car. Unfortunately, it was also very difficult for him to buckle his seat belt, and it became very frustrating for us every time we got in and out of the car. Partway through the trip, I switched N and S, so S was in the middle instead. This was less comfortable, but getting in and out of the car was easier. It's a reasonably pleasant drive, through some mountains, lots of farmland, and, on the way back we took the 101, which took us right along the California coast for several hundred miles with a stunning view.
So, my tips for traveling with three kids six and under in a sedan!
1. Pack extra clothes. Everyone, including Mom and Dad, need at least one extra everything - up to and including socks. Before we even got to the end of the first day, G had vomited all over himself and me, meaning both of us needed to use our extra clothes almost right away! NJ's pants split one day, and we discovered that he had not packed four pairs of pants as instructed. We had to run to Target on Christmas Eve to buy him another pair. Everyone needs an extra set of clothes!
2. Get new things to do in the car. Even just a simple coloring and activity book, when new, will be more interesting than any well-loved toy. Especially since there's a limited number of things you can do while sitting in a car, it's vital to find stuff for the kids to play with. Now that N can read, his world has opened up, but S and G were harder to entertain. Some plain paper, a few coloring books, a new package of washable (and I emphasize WASHABLE) markers, and a pair of clipboards were very successful purchases for the two older boys. For G, I got some inexpensive electronic toys - a pretend laptop and cell phone. As it happened, he didn't play with much. He mostly watched his brothers, slept a bit, and looked around.
3. Encourage the kids to look out the window. Our kids are used to being actively entertained. In fact, N got annoyed with my husband and me for mooing at the cows! We told him that we were required to moo at cows, baa at sheep, and neigh at horses, but that oinking at pigs was optional. (We didn't see any pigs, anyway, though we did pass a pig farm.) He didn't believe us, but after a while, he got into it. Part of the purpose of the trip was for them to see some new sights, and looking out the window of the car can actually be interesting.
4. Stop frequently. Just because Google Maps tells you the trip will take 6.5 hours doesn't mean it will take only that long. Plan for it to take at least two hours longer. Account for bathroom breaks, stretching legs, nursing the baby, finding dropped toys, getting gas, buying treats, eating, getting air for a carsick 6-year-old, etc.
5. Schedule your departure time so that the kids will sleep at one end or the other. We left at 4:00 in the morning - we woke the kids up long enough to get in the car, still in pajamas, and allowed them to drift back off to sleep. That killed about two to three hours of the 8+-hour trip for them. Sure, we were tired, but we could handle it (with a little help from our friend, Coffee). Sleeping kids are quiet kids.
6. Bring music your kids like. G right now LOVES "Gangnam Style" (as do a billion other people in the world, apparently). I don't know why, but it can calm him or cheer him up sometimes. We brought a CD of music the kids like so that we could, in a pinch, put it on to make them happy.
7. Bring movies. For $89 at Walmart, we bought a dual-screen car DVD system. There was a bit of a dilemma, because while they are advertised as being secured to the headrest of the front seats so that the back seat passengers can see them, these screens are not crash-tested, and I doubt the Velcro straps would really stay secured at crash forces. However, I also don't think they would go flying. We decided to take the risk, as a movie provides a good 90 minutes to two hours of quiet, and the kids enjoyed the novelty of watching movies in the car.
8. Have as many kids in car seats as you can. Kids in car seats are more comfortable, because they have their own head rest. We put the back on N's booster seat so he would have a head rest as well, even though he usually uses the seat without the back. It was advantageous for N to be buckled with the seat belt, because he was a bit more mobile and was able to lean over to pick things up from the floor. However, while the car was in motion, he wasn't supposed to be leaning over.
9. Bring snacks and drinks, and don't be as strict about eating rules. It's vacation. Bring stuff your kids like to eat, that they can handle on their own, and let them eat when they express hunger. This keeps them quiet and happy. Obviously, they shouldn't be eating all the time, but kids get bored and hungry in the car. Also, I got each of them a straw cup so they could drink whenever they were thirsty.
10. Be flexible with sleeping arrangements. We ended up in a hotel "suite" with two queen beds and a pull-out sofa bed. This actually worked amazingly well. N and S shared the pull-out sofa bed. I slept on one of the queen beds with G, and my husband had the other bed to himself. At some point during the night, either S or N (or both?) joined my husband in his bed.
What tips do you have to smooth a long car ride and vacation with kids?
*Unrelated, but I think I'll start just using the kids' first initials instead of two initials. It's less unwieldy and flows better.