The Most Important Skill for Family Road Trips

Changing station, road-trip style.

Changing station, road-trip style.

Family road trips require Mom and Dad to multi-task like nothing else. We must entertain the kids! While driving! And listening to Demi Lovato! While keeping ourselves awake!

Many of us parents must master another skill, too: The art of changing diapers in the car.

For me, this last skill is the ultimate challenge—the Everest of road trip rigors. I don’t do well changing nappies on slanted surfaces (read: front seats), and I’m too much of a perfectionist for the quick change (let’s just say I’ve got an OCD about lining up those diaper tabs so there’s no overlap whatsoever).

To say I’ve grappled with this issue would be an understatement. On any given road trip, I probably spend at least 300 miles of every 500-mile day strategizing about how to change the next diaper. (Seriously.)

That means I’ve experimented with literally dozens of tactics in the last four years. And so, in no particular order, I present to you my top three most successful strategies for mastering this skill.

Use the hood.
Most trucks, including mine (a 2001 Nissan XTerra) have relatively flat hoods, providing a changing table-like surface on which to operate. When employing this method, I treat the hood like the floor of an airplane galley, and lay a blanket beneath the changing pad to make sure no part of the baby touches the dirty steel.

NOTE: I also only utilize the hood after the car has been parked for a while, as that front panel can get pretty hot after drives of long distances.

Fold the seats.
Many minivans (and some economy cars) now come equipped with seats that fold flat—another great spot on which to change that dirty nappy. Provided at least one of the seats can fold down easily, this is by far the most efficient strategy of the bunch. In the event that a car seat prevents quick and easy folding, you might want to take a different approach.

Get in the back.
On daytrips and shorter road trips, my favorite place to change a diaper is the trunk. It’s flat! It’s spacious! And with all of the assorted junk Powerwoman and I keep back there in our respective vehicles, there are plenty of distractions. (Yes, I did just say we have junk in our trunks.)

Perhaps the only downside to trunk changes is the fact that they aren’t a viable option if the trunk is full of luggage.

That said, I admit I’ve unpacked an entire section of trunk just to change a diaper.

The lesson, dear readers, is this: On the road, a parent without a changing table must do whatever it takes to vanquish those dirty diapers.

What strategies have you tried for changing diapers in the car on a road trip? Plesae leave your input in the comment field above.

Managing Temper Tantrums on the Road

Calm down, honey; look at the trains!

Calm down, honey; look at the trains!

Unless you’re raising V.I.C.I. from “Small Wonder“, temper tantrums likely are a fact of your current life as a parent. And since kids generally aren’t discriminating about where and when they have these meltdowns, I’m guessing you probably have had to deal with a spaz-out or two on a family vacation.

We’ve got a soon-to-be 4-year-old in our midst, which means we certainly have grappled with our fair share. No matter what the circumstances, they’re never fun. For any of us.

I spent the better part of our last trip paying close attention to what triggered L’s tantrums, and how our reactions exacerbated or alleviated the situation overall. Then, when we got home, I phoned a few child psychologists (and our pediatrician) for some insight.

Based upon this research, here are four tips for dealing with tantrums the next time you’re away.

  • Be (as) flexible (as possible). The last thing you want to do in a foreign place is schlep around a child who’s going to kick and scream every step of the way. With this in mind, it’s a good idea to keep the schedule relatively fluid—that way you have the ability to wait out a temper tantrum should one occur.
  • Fend off exhaustion. Many temper tantrums are triggered by tiredness; this means they are more likely to happen toward the end of the day. Pre-empt major meltdowns with family walks and other activities when exhaustion seems imminent. Post-dinner/pre-bed dance parties almost always work. Sunset-watching sessions are good, too.
  • Deflect, deflect, deflect. One of the most classic ways to end a tantrum is to distract your child from the things that have set him or her off. Travel makes this easy, since new sights and sounds and smells abound. Seize upon stuff that’s free and public: Musicians! Flowers! A fountain! This way you’re not going over budget to keep your kids happy.
  • Avoid punishment. While “time-outs” might help your kids calm down at home, on vacation, with unfamiliar surroundings and shared hotel rooms, this form of discipline may not be as effective (and, in public places, can impact other people’s trips, too). Instead, try “time-ins” during which you calmly talk your child back to normalcy.

There probably are six or seven other items I could add to this list, but these should give you enough of a foundation upon which to build.

The most important thing to remember: Be patient. Temper tantrums are inevitable. Just because you’re on a family vacation doesn’t mean your children are going to stop being children. The quicker you move past them, the more willing you are to take these episodes in stride, the more pleasant your overall family travel will be.

Managing Restaurant Meals on the Road

Creamers and sugar packets are our friends.

Creamers and sugar packets are our friends.

Because our brood travels so frequently, we’re often eating away from home. We tackle a good portion of these meals picnic style—either on a blanket in a park or standing/squatting by a (food truck, or a) tree alongside a trail. For the rest, we dine at restaurants.

No, these eateries usually aren’t fancy. On any given trip, the bunch usually includes Greasy Spoons, upscale diners, pubs, pizza parlors and Cheesecake Factory-type spots. Because we do a ton of traveling in our home state of California, we’re also huge fans of hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurants. (I am grooming the girls to become habanero fiends, like I am.)

In any event, over the years, we’ve devised a number of strategies to foster and reward good behavior when we eat out. Here are our top few.

  1. Give them something immediately. Kids love immediate gratification; when they don’t experience it, they get antsy. For this reason, Powerwoman and I always travel with small snacks (Cheerios, nuts, etc.) to whip out as soon as we sit down. Once L and R have a few bites, they’re generally chill until their actual meals arrive.
  2. Ply them with crayons. Our dining-out bag of tricks (yes, we really have one) also is stocked with a wad of blank computer printer paper and two sets of crayons. We usually distribute these materials before the girls even ask for them. We carry two sets of implements so the girls don’t fight trying to share. We learned that one the hard way.
  3. Allow free play. Most of the restaurants we frequent have flowers, salt and pepper shakers, creamers and sugar packets on the table for all meals. We usually let the girls satisfy their curiosities and play with them. Yes, stuff usually ends up on the ground. When it does, we clean it up before we go (and leave a larger-than-usual tip).
  4. Be flexible. On a good day, we can get 45 to 60 minutes of sit-down time in a restaurant. On a bad day, that range can shrink by half. Powerwoman and I generally try to get a sense of how the girls are doing throughout the meal and adjust accordingly. If they’re chill, we linger. If not, we settle the bill right away, so we can leave whenever we choose.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t share another tip for managing restaurant meals on the road: Don’t force the kids to eat.

Granted, it’s super frustrating to order (and pay for) food that the kids might not eat. Still, trust me: Insisting that they shovel that food down their gullets is only going to make them miserable (which, in turn, is guaranteed to ruin your experience, as well).

During those rare instances where the little ones go on hunger strike, follow their lead(s), get a to-go box and offer them the food back at your hotel or during a quiet moment later in the day. Chances are they’ll eat the grub then. If not, your trip may be threatened by bigger problems (and, after a day or so, you probably should notify your child’s physician).

Finally, remember that for most children, dining out is like any other acquired behavior—doing it correctly takes practice.

The more you expose your kids to restaurant meals close to home, the more comfortable they will be in a restaurant setting, and the better they’ll behave when you explore eateries on the road.

IMHO, everybody wins from this “restaurant training.” Except maybe your skinny jeans.

What are your secrets for managing little ones during restaurant meals on the road? Please share your thoughts in the comment field above.

Sightseeing with the Family, Prefontaine-style

The Daditarod, on a recent trip.

The Daditarod, on a recent trip.

Many families like to explore new cities on guided tours. Others prefer to rent cars and see the sights on their own. Still others—usually those with kids old enough not to complain—like to walk.

In this family, however, we take a different approach. When I’m itching to experience a new place with my kids, I buckle them in a jogging stroller, lace up my sneaks and start running.

The result is a fast-paced, ground-level view of the very best a destination has to offer. We run through urban parks, alongside rivers and over bridges. We run along quiet roads, past farmlands and (at least in our hometown) vineyards. When we’re feeling really adventuresome (and when traffic doesn’t create a major safety issue), we even dash by major tourist attractions.

Because I’m the one mushing, because these runs usually are epic (read: 1 hour or more), I call this method of sightseeing the “Daditarod.”

The approach keeps everyone happy:

  • I like it because I get in a killer workout (trust me: pushing a 40-pound human and a 6-pound jogging stroller up a giant hill is tougher than anything I’ve done with the personal trainer).
  • My wife likes it because taking the kids out for a jog frees her up to take a tub, hit the spa or swing by a museum on her own.
  • Of course the kids like it because they can sit back and tune in or check out when they want to, without having to worry about following along.

L also appreciates having the privilege of using my Smartphone to play deejay, and regularly blasts old-school Taylor Swift songs as we plod along.

Depending on where you travel, you can either rent a jogging stroller or bring one from home. We’ve done both; while renting the devices can get expensive, I recommend that approach because these strollers take up a TON of room in the back of a truck or car. (Of course you also could ask Facebook friends at your destination if they have a stroller you could borrow.)

In case you’re wondering, most manufacturers sell special shields for you to throw over the stroller to keep the kiddos dry when it rains. Some manufacturers also sell full-body warmers to keep babies toasty in the cold.

So…if you run and you can get hands on a jogging stroller during your next trip, give this a try. It’s easy! It’s fun! And the word “Daditarod” becomes “Momitarod” in a flash.

A Primer to ‘Get Your Kids Hiking’

Alt's new book.

Alt’s new book.

My favorite kinds of family trips are those for which we spend a ton of time in nature. Day hikes, camping—you name the outdoorsy activity and it’s on my list. In this case, you could call me a Louvite, which is to say that I ascribe to the beliefs and research of Richard Louv.

This also explains why I loved Jeff Alt’s forthcoming book, “Get Your Kids Hiking: How to Start Them Young and Keep it Fun!” In the book, the Cincinnati-based author offers tips and tricks on age-appropriate ways to include your child in all aspects of a hike, checklists of what to pack for any type of hike and advice for hiking with a special needs child. In short, he presents the Appalachian Trail of books about family travel outdoors.

I recently caught up with Alt to ask him about his work. Here are some highlights of our chat.

Q. Why is it so hard for parents to get their kids to embrace the outdoors?
A. There’s a fear factor that’s been instilled; within my own family ranks, we have families that literally are afraid of the outdoors. Also, as parents we’re all so busy now, and handing your kid a Smart phone or a gadget is easier and instantly quiets them down. So there are bad habits that have formed.

Q. What are the biggest challenges around building family vacation around being outside?
A. The biggest challenge is finding something age-appropriate. Some people might feel limited if their children are just starting to walk on their own or the kids are too heavy in a child carrier. My philosophy is that from birth to age 3, you can do whatever you want, so long as you can carry your child. Whatever you decide to do with your kids in terms of hiking, I wouldn’t recommend extreme weather hiking. And nothing too strenuous.

Q. Gear is so expensive these days. How can a family take up hiking without breaking the bank?
A. Gear can be expensive, but in general, hiking is probably the cheapest form of family time and entertainment available. If you think about it, you can acquire everything you need from second-hand clothing store. Child carriers, clothes, things like that. Finding long john underwear for your kids is harder; sometimes brand like Patagonia is the only choice in that department. Also, when they start to hike more, then you want to look at a good pair of running shoes with a decent sole on the bottom. If you have more than one child, buy things in neutral-colored clothing so that your young son can wear what your daughter wore.

Q. What’s the most important lesson to teach kids about life on the trail?
A. My first goal when I take my kids out is to make sure they know we’re not required to get anywhere or do anything. I follow their lead. If they want to walk for an hour, we do that. If they want to skip rocks across a creek a quarter-mile from the trailhead, we do that. I call this ‘child-directed hiking.’ My goal as a father is to make the whole experience so much fun that they want to go again and again. If they seem engaged on a hike, I know the hike has been a success. Another key lesson is to make sure they know that they should take nothing from the woods but memories and pictures.

Q. How old is old enough to overnight in the backcountry?
A. Personally, I don’t recommend hiking overnight until a child is old enough to carry some or most of their gear. Another potential problem with getting kids to do overnights too soon: You run the risk of putting your child into this forced road march, which could turn them off to the point where they won’t go again. I recommend base-camping and day hiking from there. Before you leave on your adventure, I recommend taking walks with the equipment you’re going to wear so that you—and your kids—can get used to it. Make sure the only surprises are what they’ll find on the trail. This will make everyone happier in the end.

To Bring or Not to Bring: Car Seats on a Plane


For us, these work in the car; not so much on the plane.

A friend and fellow parent asked me this week advice about taking her 3-year-old son’s car seat on the plane. Her main question: Is it worth the hassle? My response: It depends on whom you ask. And on your kid.

The “whom you ask” part is pretty straightforward.

In a kick-ass Q&A with, Dr. Alicia Baer, a pediatrician in the NICU at Columbia University Children’s Hospital in New York and certified instructor for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s car seat course, said that when a child is riding in a moving vehicle, it’s always safest to have him or her strapped into a special seat.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) echoes these sentiments, stating pretty clearly on its website that car seats (or at least devices with child-restraint systems) are a good idea, and that parents should use them whenever possible.

Still, despite their obvious safety benefits, in certain cases, car seats on a flight actually might make your life more challenging.

Which brings me to my second point: It depends on your kid.

If your son or daughter is great at a) listening, b) sitting still and c) generally being calm upon request, having him or her strapped into a car seat for the duration of an airplane flight might be a very realistic goal.

But if your child is like my girls, if he or she needs to be free to do whatever it is these kids like to do over long periods of time, outside of take-off and landing (when the kids are required to be strapped in anyway) the car seat is the modern-day equivalent of a torture device—for them, for you and for all of the passengers around you.

(As we all know, other passengers don’t need more reasons to hate family travelers.)

On plane trips with the Villano family, it’s actually easier for us to bring car seats and check them than it is to bring them, schlep them on the plane, strap them in and fight the girls to stay put.

No, our strategy probably wouldn’t be Dr. Baer’s first choice. But we keep the girls safe. And it works. Whether the same approach will work for you depends on your children—and, of course, on whom else you ask.

What’s your take on this issue? When you fly with your young kids, do you bring their car seats on board or check them through to your destination? Why? Leave a comment and let me know.

Managing Passports for Family Travel

Our family of passports.

Our family of passports.

One of the casualties of this week’s budget sequestration was National Passport Day, an annual event sponsored by the U.S. Department of State to get would-be travelers to apply for or renew passports. I still managed to chat with Brenda Sprague, deputy assistant secretary for passport services, about the importance of planning ahead when you travel abroad with kids.

Sprague is the real deal—essentially she oversees all passport offices and agencies in the U.S. Put differently, whoever stamped your last passport from the government almost certainly calls Sprague his or her boss.

The two of us spent nearly an hour on the phone. In that time, she covered a variety of subjects related to family travel. I’ve boiled them down into four basic tips.

Tip 1: Be proactive about getting your kids documented and/or renewed
In almost all cases, U.S. citizens—including newborns—need passports to travel internationally. Sprague noted that it takes about 4-6 weeks to get a regular passport and 2-3 weeks to get an expedited one (which costs an extra $60). She noted that at least 10 percent of all passport applications get kicked back because they’re got something missing—a signature here, a certified birth certificate there, etc. This means that for parents traveling abroad with children who don’t have a passport, it pays to get the ball rolling as early as possible. For those families with kids who already have passports, it’s important to note renewal rules; though adult passports are valid for 10 years, child passports are only valid for five. “Some foreign countries won’t let you enter unless you’ve got six months of validity left on your passport,” notes Sprague. “Simply checking the expiration date on a child’s passport can save families stress, time and money.”

Tip 2: Make sure you even need a passport in the first place
Our neighboring countries do not require U.S. travelers visiting by land to show passports at border crossings. This means families driving (or busing or walking) across our borders with Mexico and Canada don’t need to worry about bringing passports for the kids. Sprague notes that families traveling by air to these countries DO need passports. She adds that the U.S. Passport Card is a viable alternative for traditional passports at land crossings, and that it enables travelers visiting Bermuda and the Caribbean to leave their passports at home, as well. (It’s cheaper than a Passport Book, too; for minors, new cards are only $40.)

Tip 3: Don’t forget about visas
Depending on where you and the family are traveling, you might need a visa to enter your destination country. Latin American countries, for instance, are notorious sticklers for travel visas; Western European nations, by contrast, are not. Because foreign embassies need (you to send in) your passport to award visas, the process of obtaining these likely will add time to your pre-trip preparations. “It’s not like you can handle a lot of this stuff in a day or two,” says Sprague. “You’d be amazed at how many people think they can.”

Tip 4: Get that baby to sit still!
There’s one rule about passports for infants: We parents can’t be in the picture. Sprague says this means parents need to figure out a way to photograph babies a) against a white background and b) while the infants are sitting up straight. Not an easy task, to say the least. “There’s a lot of hit or miss on this,” she says, adding that her agency has rejected photos that do not meet the specifications. “It’s a challenge every parent needs to figure out on his or her own, but don’t be afraid to ask passport service employees for suggestions or help.” (As an aside here, we managed to get through two infant passport photos with a white sheet and a white floating pool noodle.)

Lastly, Sprague mentioned a relatively new program from the State Department that keeps travelers informed of State Department-related news while they’re abroad. The opt-in service, dubbed the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, notifies subscribers in the event of a predicted weather disaster, or if a nation’s political situation is about to destabilize. The service is available as an app or via SMS. If you’re traveling as a family, check it out—when you go abroad you’re your kids, there’s no such thing as being too cautious.