Road trips with older kids are a completely different experience than taking a baby, toddler or even preschooler on the road. My three teen and tween girls and I recently took a mother-daughter road trip from Michigan to Florida and back. We drove through ten states and survived five total days on the road together in a 2016 Ford Expedition. Here’s how we survived, and even kept our sanity.
Last month, I took my three daughters on a 10-state mother-daughter road trip. We were headed to Orlando, Florida for my annual TravelingMom writer retreat, so we took the opportunity to create an adventure for just the four of us. Driving from Michigan to Orlando is an 18 to 20 hour, 1,200-mile trip that we’ve done a couple of times before. However, this trip was different, being that the girls are older now (teens and tween) and it was just us girls on the road – we left their dad at home.
Taking a long road trip like this one is a challenge in many ways. There are a lot of car-bound hours to fill, plus it can be difficult to find the balance between wanting to make plenty of stops for bathroom breaks, to stretch legs and sightsee with needing to make a certain distance before stopping for the night.
Planning the Mother-Daughter Road Trip
We chose on this trip to make the drive down over three days, and to take the route south that my husband prefers, through the mountains of the Virginias and Carolinas instead of Kentucky and Tennessee, hoping to avoid construction on I-75. This is a beautiful route, although it is slightly longer. We planned to drive from Dearborn, Michigan to Charleston, West Virginia on the first day and then to Jacksonville, Florida on the second day – leaving a short hop to Orlando for the third day, to avoid getting in exhausted at a late hour.
For the return trip, we only had two days for the drive, so decided to take I-75 back north – both for the variety and because it’s a slightly shorter route. On the first day, we chose to extend the driving as much as possible. We made it from Orlando all the way to Chattanooga, Tennessee before stopping for the night. The second driving day was long as well, but we did reach home that night.
Our Road Trip Vehicle
Our first stop was in Dearborn, at the Ford World Headquarters, where we picked up the vehicle loaned to us for the trip – a 2016 Ford Expedition. The girls were thrilled to have plenty of room to spread out, and I was ecstatic to have the newest features to try out on the road. I would recommend this vehicle for any road trip – it made the actual driving portion a breeze.
Once we got on the road in the Expedition, we needed to make some serious mileage in order to hit our goal of Charleston, West Virginia for the night. The girls settled in, we punched our hotel destination into the Expedition’s navigation system, found a Sirius satellite radio station everyone could agree on, and drove.
Keeping Older Kids Busy on the Road
Electronics are a must-have for us on road trips. The older girls have phones and my youngest has an iPod Touch and the use of my iPad on the road. If there’s one time to throw time restrictions out the window, it’s when there are hours to fill while everyone is stuck inside a moving vehicle. What I’ve discovered from bestowing unlimited electronics time, is that the lure of the screen tends to be more short-lived than when there’s a time limit involved. When restricted, there’s a need to use every allotted moment – but when rules are relaxed, the girls get tired of the screens and put them down on their own.
On this trip, each of the girls brought a sketchbook and markers, plus books (ebook, audiobook and ‘real’ books). My oldest hunted for as many state license plates as she could find – keeping both a written list as well as finding an iPhone app that would track them for her. We also spent many hours listening to the audiobook of the fourth Harry Potter book, since that’s the one my 10-year-old is currently reading. Although the older girls and I have already read the entire series (multiple times), the audiobook was a new and fun experience for us that we really enjoyed.
One of my favorite things about a road trip is the sense of adventure – exploring new places and seeing the sights. Our trip down involved two nights on the road, so we’d built in a little bit of extra time that we knew wouldn’t be available on the way home. We took advantage of the opportunity to make some longer stops, including spending some time at Tamarack in West Virginia. This is a great place for a road trip break since it’s right off of I-77 at exit 45. The distinctive peaked roof beckons travelers in and provides a look at Appalachian life with offerings from local artisans, a food court, and stunning artwork. The building is circular, so after one trek around to stretch legs and check everything out, it’s easy to get back on the road.
Another stop we made was to drive through St. Augustine in Florida and stop for a few minutes to see the ocean and check out this historical town. We wanted to get out and spend some time walking around, but on a Sunday afternoon parking was at a premium, so we settled for seeing the sights we could view while driving slowly through town and along the waterfront. Although we didn’t get to stretch our legs, it was a nice break from the freeway driving and the chance to explore a new location in a different way.
Road Trip Tips
Overall, we had a wonderful time on the road, which is not something I really ever expected to say after taking an extended road trip with kids. Things went well for many reasons – in part because the girls are older now and able to sit still for longer periods of time. And yes, the electronics also make a big difference. Here are a few other tips that we learned to help make a road trip with teens and tweens go as smoothly as possible.
1) Taking breaks helps a lot – even just a quick restroom stop gives a few minutes to stretch legs and get a short change of scenery. We stopped every couple of hours on average, and still got plenty of driving time in each day. This is made easier with older kids who can use the bathroom on their own and understand the idea of a ‘quick’ break much better than younger ones.
2) The vehicle you drive makes a huge difference. Most of the time you don’t have a choice – you have to take the vehicle that you have available to you. And this trip would have been fine in our minivan, since that also has a good deal of space. Being able to spread out so much in the Ford Expedition really helped make this trip an easy one, since the older girls are big enough to sit up front. They took turns in the passenger seat, giving their other sisters each an entire row to herself.
3) Don’t be in such a hurry that you miss out on the small sights to see. There are scenic overlooks through the mountains as well as lots of local places to see and visit. Mealtime and bathroom breaks are a good opportunity to get off the interstate and explore for even just a few minutes.
4) Trust your navigation or GPS – most of the time. I was curious why the navigation system took us off of I-75 briefly through Tennessee, but followed the directions. It turned out that the system was routing us around a large area of construction (thank you!), which also gave us the opportunity to see some of the local area that we wouldn’t have otherwise, including being able to make a stop at the Museum of Appalachia, which we didn’t even realize was nearby until we drove past it.
5) Having said that… Turn off the navigation or GPS – sometimes. Don’t just follow it implicitly – you never know what you might be passing by or missing if you take the ‘fastest’ or ‘shortest’ route.
6) Let the kids help out on the road as much as they’re able. Mine might not be of driving age (yet), but they are plenty old enough now to help navigate. My oldest desperately wanted to eat at Waffle House (since we don’t have them in Michigan), so she was in charge of using her phone to find the best places to stop and eat. She also located the closest Speedway gas stations along the way when we needed to fill up and let me know the latest weather updates for the areas we were driving through. Yes, sometimes teens with their own phones can be a huge help!