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What You’re Doing Wrong on Your Family Road Trip

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photo (6)My husband didn’t understand why we were going to a ski resort.

“But we don’t ski.”

I showed him pictures of the Resort at Squaw Creek and its proximity to Lake Tahoe. I talked about the skating rink and how fun it would be to go tubing down the mountain with our two-year-old son.

“Have you noticed California is in a drought?” he asked.

I promised him that Squaw Valley gets 450 inches of snowfall every winter, and assured him of brisk, cold weather that we Southern Californians missed this winter (apologies to the rest of the country). I sealed the deal by saying we could drive instead of fly because he’s a gearhead who hates dealing with air travel. (Especially after the breast milk situation.)

Located just west of Lake Tahoe in the Sierra Nevada mountains, Squaw Valley is a solid 480 miles on the not-so-scenic I-5 highway. Hovering at eight hours, the drive is at the edge of a sane distance in one day, especially with a tiny person in the back seat.

Most families (and most travel experts) would suggest breaking up the drive, perhaps overnighting in Sacramento. But for us, travel isn’t as much about the journey as it is getting from point A to point B as fast as humanly possible. Here’s what we learned from the experience.

Don’t Procrastinate on the Packing

Kids, like dogs, are exceptionally intuitive when something is afoot. When your son sees you up at the crack of dawn packing suitcases and loading up a car, it sets off a trigger that SOMETHING IS VERY, VERY WRONG AND HE MAY NEVER SEE YOU AGAIN.

While we were scrambling around trying to finish packing, our toddler was chasing after each of us, crying and begging to be picked up. Few things put us on edge more than a screaming, fussy child underfoot, which also sets a terrible tone for a family trip.

We raced out of the house as fast as possible, which resulted in leaving behind half the toys and all the cold drinks and snacks.

Lesson learned: Pack as much as possible the night before to avoid disrupting your kid’s routine, before plunking them in the car for the rest of the day.

Don’t Try to Relive Your Luddite Youth

We began the drive meaning to emulate our own childhood road trip experiences: we happily spotted the biggest trucks on the road and pointed out cloud formations. We sang “Wheels on the Bus” and handed him a notebook and crayons to pass the time.

Ten minutes later he asked when we’d get to the park.

“No park today,” I said. “We’re going to the snow.”

“Um. Grocery store?” he asked.

“We have to get this kid out more,” I mumbled. To our son, I said “We’re driving for a long, long time.”

An hour into the drive, he asked to get down from his car seat. Again. And again.

So we deployed the trusty iPad and didn’t hear from him for another three hours.

I get that most toddlers don’t have an iPad, but there are affordable, durable options out there, like the Nabi 2 or the LeapFrog LeapPad Ultra.

No matter what the tablet, make sure it’s fully loaded with familiar programs. Think about your own viewing habits and how suddenly all that looks good on a hotel TV are repeats of “Frasier.” The same goes for games—this isn’t the time for kids to get frustrated with an unfamiliar game that’s glitchy or too advanced.

Lastly, bring a charger, one for the wall and one for the car. Nothing initiates a meltdown faster than a gadget that dies before he’s done with it.

Lesson learned: I don’t care what families did before technology or how kids entertained themselves back in the day: there will be no road trip without an entertainment device.

Don’t Follow Your Route To The Letter

We set out on the 480-mile drive with the best of intentions. We pored over maps to pinpoint potential stops at hours two, five, and seven. I imagined frolicking in local parks and enjoying leisurely meals at mom ‘n’ pop restaurants way off the highway and deep into the heart of small towns.

In reality, we paused twice at highway rest stops for about 20 minutes apiece. Once the boredom of a long drive sets in, the focus shifts from making it a journey to getting the hell to your destination as soon as possible.

Our son enjoyed the McNuggets and wandered around the travel mart looking at souvenirs. We picked up a little keychain that he clutched for the rest of the trip. Stop two was six hours into the drive, at which point the kid was OVER IT. There was a memorable and public meltdown at the rest stop. If you’ve ever had to force a screaming, flailing child into a car seat, you have my deepest empathy.

Lesson learned: If the child is sleeping, DO NOT STOP THE CAR. They’ll wake up mid-nap and you’ll be stuck with a crabby, irritable little human.

Don’t Travel During High Season

At the fireplaceAt the fireplaceCrowds and long lines are aggravating for anyone and, when you’re dealing with a toddler who has the attention span of, well, a toddler, it can ruin the whole experience.

Arriving midweek at the Resort at Squaw Creek proved to be a perfect time, when our son could run freely in the wide-open outdoor bar, complete with fire pits (and yes, they offer s’mores kits), and in the sprawling lobby with ample seating and a huge fireplace.

As ski season winds down—and before summer festival season—shoulder season is the ideal time to visit an alpine resort. The mountain peaks are capped with snow while the days are sunny and warm, and it’s a slow period across the country—no crowds and reasonable prices.

Want to eat dinner in a nice restaurant? Go at 5 pm. Six Peaks Grille has white tablecloths and stemware, offering local, seasonal cuisine with a miles-long cocktail list. At first glance, it seems completely unsuitable for a small kid. As it turned out, the staff is extremely used to kids (our waitress even brought him a selection of juices when he couldn’t make up his mind). But it’s a lot less stressful for everyone when the dining room hasn’t been hit by the dinner rush and there’s time and space to enjoy the meal together.

Lesson learned: When a trip is about family time, there’s no need to follow the crowds.

Don’t Force Fun (Or It’ll Never Happen)

I had based a lot of this trip on one vision: tubing down the mountain with our son. I had prepped for it: he had a tiny snowsuit, gloves, and a jacket. We showed him YouTube videos of people zipping down the mountain.

Then, the day for tubing came and…it just didn’t happen. It started with him kicking up a toddler tantrum as we tried to squeeze him into a snowsuit that turned out to be a size too small. The oversized gloves made his handsBoy and wheel Boy and wheel (2)hot. I called the tubing company and was told to arrive 30 minutes before they opened “because it gets crowded.”

My husband and I looked at each other and both said, “Screw it.”

We left the snowsuit in the room and climbed on the free shuttle to Squaw Village. We drank fresh-squeezed apple juice and hopped back and forth over an old tram wheel erected in the middle of the green. We sat around drawing pictures and eating chocolate chip cookies from Wildflour Baking Company (the cookies are so legendary that Olympic skier Julia Mancuso had them delivered to Sochi this winter.)

We boarded the aerial tram and, as we climbed up the mountain to High Camp, 8,000 feet in elevation, my son looked at me with a huge grin and shouted, “Mommy, we’re flying!”

And that alone was enough.

Lesson learned: Memories of a lifetime happen when you’re not looking for them.

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By Sarika Chawla for PeterGreenberg.com

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