This has to be better than the road trips of our youth, because our van has air conditioning!
March 16, 2012 8:56 PM   Subscribe

Cross-country road trip with three children aged five and under in an aging minivan! Great idea, or GREATEST idea?

We are thinking of taking a cross-country road trip with our three kids (aged 5, 3, and 1.5) to visit relatives on the East Coast (Vermont, New Hampshire), stay for a few days, and then drive back to California. It seems like a reasonable idea to us, but we would love to hear from people who have done something similar before! Our pros/cons list is as follows:


cost - None of said East Coast relatives have a place large enough to house us or a car large enough to drive us, so we would have to pay for lodging and rent a minivan at the other end of the trip, if we flew. Rough back of the napkin calculations indicate that the cost of gas and lodging driving back and forth would be considerably cheaper than the cost of 5 airline tickets plus the cost of renting a minivan.

logistics - instead of hauling three car seats, a stroller, and assorted suitcases and crap through an airport while chasing three squirrelly children, we can just haul everything in the van.

mental health - my husband has a moderate amount of flying phobia, and tends towards "silent panic" mode when in airports or on a plane. I'm afraid that the kids will pick up on his tension, and we'll end up raising another generation of phobic flyers. Also, my oldest son is on the autism spectrum, and if something goes wrong during the airport security macarena, there is no way that he will co-operate with being wanded or searched by strangers.

fun - the kids have never been outside of California, and they are young enough that running around new landscapes and watching new scenery from the car would be endlessly entertaining, but old enough that they could remember this trip (fondly, hopefully?).


transportation - our minivan is mechanically sound, but it is a '98 Toyota Sienna with 140K miles. Of course we would have everything checked out before leaving and spring for the extended AAA coverage, but is this just asking for trouble?

time - we don't know what a reasonable time frame would be for a cross-country trip given that the kids would need to get out and run around every few hours. We would prefer to drive for five days or so, is that even reasonable?

the unknown - what other possible downsides are there? Please fill us in!

So, basically - have you done something similar before? How did it work out (is your family still on speaking terms)? Recommendations for pacing the trip, sights to see? What kinds of preventative maintenance would you recommend for your aging vehicle beforehand?
posted by Wavelet to Travel & Transportation (36 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
When I was little growing up in Indiana, we visited my moms family in California every few years-- most of the time we flew, but when I was probably 7 and my brother 5 we took amtrak cross country, which was pretty cool because it goes through some great country-- through the mountains, across the great plains, (and then through another set of mountains if you go to the east coast). Plus, there's a fair amount of run-around space on a train that there isn't in a car, and the adults don't have to drive the whole way. (Plus free sub-standard sleeping accommodations so no hotels to find!!) I remember the trip fondly, my parents brought binoculars, we saw buffalo (!), I made friends with some other kids, and I listened to books on tape and played cards the whole way. Obviously there are downsides to this plan, but you might think about it even just for the future (taking a 1.5 year old on amtrak might not be too merciful to your fellow passengers).

Now that I think about it, when I was even younger we made the trip by amtrak, but we had a sleeper car to ourselves, which I think made my parent's lives a lot easier.

We also drove out once when I was older. It is very far, and I was a teenager, and while I am still on speaking terms with everyone, it was a close thing.

In terms of number of days, I think 5 is probably pretty optimistic. I haven't driven coast to coast, but I've driven to both coasts from a central location at different times, and the two halves of the trip together took around 4.5 days driving for 10 hours a day and sightseeing a little bit, but not much. With tired kids, I'd guess it would take longer.
posted by geegollygosh at 9:16 PM on March 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

watching new scenery from the car would be endlessly entertaining

We made numerous car trips from Florida to California when I was between the ages of 8 and 11. Mostly I slept. Scenery is not that interesting to kids. I also remember my dad getting really irritated with me for not appreciating the scenery on a trip to France when I was 8. I can't imagine littler kids being more interested. That's not a reason not to do it--just, don't be disappointed if they're more into watching Dora or whatever.
posted by HotToddy at 9:22 PM on March 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

If you have iPhones or iPads or something like that, bring them. They're awesome for long car trips. Scenery is boring. Bring a spare travel potty.
posted by leahwrenn at 9:26 PM on March 16, 2012

I am not seeing indicators here that you have done a lot of long-haul driving with the kids before. With kids those ages, I would definitely want to have had some experience building up to that big a commitment. I have four kids and a minivan, and when they were that age I did not take them on drives longer than the 5 hours form Chicago to STL. Now that they are all teenagers, we are planning a spring break road from from Chicago to NYC with one overnight on the way.

My experiences (YMMV):

1. Kids that age are doing one of two things after four hours in a car: sleeping or screaming at you.

2. After four or five days of this they will become less and less interested about running around at a roadside park.

3. Despite what Disney wants you to think from their ads, my oldest is standing behind me telling me that he does not remember anything before the age of five and it would be torture. The "fond memory" thing is largely manufactured for the parents when the kids are that little.

Once my kids hit the age of 8, it was possible to start taking them on extended multi-state road trips that they would both enjoy and appreciate. I hate to say this, but the plan does not sound like it is written with kids the age of yours in mind. If visiting the relatives is the important part, I would not worry about carrying the kids and seats through the airport for two hours, but I would think about how all of you would get to the final destination refreshed, able to enjoy the visit, and not have to worry about a 5-day return drive.

Oh, and once the kids are old enough to not be whining for juice boxes all of the time, the inevitable mechanical breakdown becomes part of the adventure. I have half a dozen of those stories from my own family trips, and I remember them all because we did not start epic road journeys until after I was 10.
posted by cgk at 9:28 PM on March 16, 2012 [4 favorites]

We did San Francisco bay area to North Dakota and back with a six and three year old. It was a great time. I'd do it again in a second. Some suggestions:

Normal maintenance on the van should be sufficient. Unless you like to drive way, way off the beaten path, you'll find lots of places to get something fixed if it breaks down. Get AAA or equivalent tow service in case you are in a very remote spot (mostly in the western states.)

Instead of luggage, get each kid a storage container. Stackable, translucent, easy to haul in and out of the van. The kids take anything that fits in their container. Personalize the containers with paint, glitter, etc.

Stop frequently. When you stop, expect the kids to be absolutely wild for at least 15 minutes. Our daughters were great in the van, but we quickly learned to give them some runaround time before trying to corral them into a restaurant or gas station.

If you're staying in hotels, expect to find much cheaper prices when you get out of the urban areas. A swimming pool is a great end-of-day attraction.

Don't go too far in a day. We did SF -> Reno the first day, and that was about the right amount of time, especially for the first day. Circus Circus Hotel/Casino is a kid magnet. You don't have to stay there (there are other cheap hotels nearby) but wandering the kids areas there are great.

If you see any kind of festival or attraction, stop. We saw rodeos (Cody Wyoming has a great one), wagon rides (Salt Lake City Pioneer museum?) fireworks (Fourth of July and Pioneer day in Utah). Avoid museums. Cody has an amazing set of museums, but my wife had to find other things to do while I indulged that day.

If you're staying in a hotel, get a suite or mini-suite. The kids sleep in the living room area, and the parents get a bedroom to themselves. It's a nice way to reward yourselves with a long day.

I also second the travel potty recommendation, if only for extreme emergencies. Be sure and bring some airtight bags for messes. You don't want to be smelling the stink for hours until you can dispose of, or clean up some, mess.

Get the AAA tour books for the states along your way. They help for motels/hotels as well as attractions.

I would suggest no more than 500 miles per day, except possibly across Nevada.

Have fun!
posted by blob at 9:35 PM on March 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

Remember that those carseats are not very padded and you are asking three preschoolers to sit strapped in for what, 10-12 hours a day? Even with breaks that is very tiring. They won't care not one wit about the scenery except for the cows, and there are a lot of cows. I think this trip could reasonably take 4-5 days driving each way.

You might be better off timing flights for non-peak times to minimize the airport stress and rent a car and carseats once you got there. We drove North Texas to Idaho and back last summer with two teenagers and it was pure torture. I figure that's about half the distance you'll be going and it took three long days of driving each way.

On another note that's a long trip for that age of vehicle as well. If you break down in BFE, you could spend several days having repairs done, waiting on parts, etc. and you'd be stranded that whole time with the kids and no transportation.
posted by tamitang at 9:44 PM on March 16, 2012

Ohhhh man. Okay.

First thing: my dad drove from New York to Arizona in five days. He was alone, in a small car and in a hurry. I would say five days with three small children would be very optimistic.

Second thing: not to say it isn't possible, but I think you may be underestimating the sheer misery of small children confined to a small space for hours on end. I made many, many road trips as a child with my parents and younger brothers, and even the shorter half-day trips were inevitably torturous. People got bored after about 30 minutes - tiny children are NOT endlessly enthralled by scenery. Someone usually got sick, someone usually had to pee, someone's pre-made PB&J sandwich from the cooler in the back inevitably got squished... Everyone got on everyone's nerved, the baby cried, the toddler cried (usually while stuck in massive traffic on the George Washington Bridge - ah, fond memories!) and by the time we got to the motel at night, we were jumping on the beds and acting like banshees from pure insanity.

Look, I'm saying this to warn you. I'm sure it's cheaper. And I'm sure it's possible. But please, go in with an open mind. Do not be surprised if your trip feels less "leisurely cross country vacation, seeing America with the little darlings and making memories!" and more "bad sit-com that we HOPE nobody remembers because it will probably put them in therapy."

This is my experience, YMMV, but think about it.

P.S. If you go this route - electronics. Are. Your. Friend.

Just trust me on this.

posted by celtalitha at 9:49 PM on March 16, 2012 [5 favorites]

Oh yeah - if you do this, some tips:

Lots of music, or audio books that the five-year-old will be entertained by. Even if it makes YOU crazy, it is worth it.

No peanut butter anything. Not only does it always end up squished (see above) but it makes the van STINK to high heaven, and after two or three days it is already going to stink. After five you are going to want to disinfect the entire vehicle with bleach. It will happen.

Something SEALED for the diapers. Enough said.

Lots of drinks, non-messy snacks, etc. in a cooler close to mom, for her to pass out as necessary. Ditto on a bin of games, coloring books, comics, handheld electronics or whatever - dole them out sparingly so everything you brought is not boring by lunch the first day.

Lots of breaks, in safe places where all the kids can run and climb and get out their energy.

Portable potty or something similar. Depending on your kids' bladder control, you'll probably need it; I remember quite a few roadside stops with my mom holding up a towel or something to shelter me from view as I peed on the side of the freeway.

Swimming pools are great.
posted by celtalitha at 9:59 PM on March 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Are you planning to sleep in the van? If not, your lodging costs on the east coast are going to be the same as if you had flown. I'm sure that driving will be cheaper overall (barring a huge repair bill somewhere), but either I am misunderstanding your lodging plans, or you are planning to all sleep in the van... and as a survivor of ultra-budget "let's all sleep in the car!" trips as a child, I'm going to gently suggest that this will not be fun for everyone.

In terms of memories, I can just barely remember one or two long road trips before I was five. I certainly don't remember the scenery -- I remember fun little moments like talking to interesting strangers at gas stations, sitting on the side of the road while my father put on the spare tire, and eating smores by a campfire. The point being, even for your oldest child this is probably not going to be a particularly memorable event, and for the little ones it is just going to be a lot of sitting.

The age of the van doesn't worry me, as long as you have some reserves of both time and money to deal with problems that develop. Can you collectively treat breakdowns as an adventure, rather than a crisis? Then you'll be fine and the kids will love it. Otherwise, flying might be better.

In terms of time, five days assumes a lot of uninterrupted seat time every day. You've read those stories about the Romney road trips, right? With the dog on top of the car and no bathroom breaks? You could take the kids across the country in five days that way, but if you are planning to stop frequently for peeing, snacking, and running around (a far more humane way to travel, no?), I doubt you are going to manage it in five days. It's about 3000 miles, and you can usually figure on a moving average (counting pee breaks, gas, etc) of about 50mph, which means being on the road for twelve hours a day for five days. That's doable, but no one involved is going to be thinking it's fun.

Have you considered taking the train? Way less stressful than either driving or flying, great scenery, and you can walk around all the time. I'd suggest this as the best option, even if it turned out to be a bit more expensive, simply for your quality of life.
posted by Forktine at 10:02 PM on March 16, 2012

I think this is a great idea. I base that on two things. One, your writing style and sense of humor coupled with what sounds like a laid back attitude as to dealing with little people who shit in their pants. Two, I did it once with 3 children 1, 2, and 3 years old at the time.

Yes, they will scream, throw things, puke on each other, drop something that needs to be immediately picked up, will want to stop. So what. They do that anyway, right? It took us 5 days out and 4 back starting on east coast. We drove about 11 -12hrs per day. We were happy go lucky on the way west and willing to stop at places to check them out. I recommend that the motels you stop at have a pool if not for the kids, then for you to chill out in with a glass of wine at the end of a long day driving.

This will not be a full time fun filled vacation. That 4th and 5th day out will start to wear on your souls. Just at the point when you are recovering out East, it will be time to turn around. The return trip is the part when you will decide whether or not to stay married for the rest of your lives. It will try your souls. But, so worth it. My kids who now can drive themselves still ask for me to tell them the stories from that trip. I pull out the pictures of chocolate pudding everywhere on them and the car, of them in the pools, of them with family they have only seen that one time, of their mom refusing to go into McDonalds for a happy meal for the 4th straight day.

In hindsight, it was a great adventure and something I am proud I did and endured. It was the trip that made me realize I was truly an adult. I had been married about 4 years at that point, but we were still in our late 20s or early 30s without too many cares in the world. I got home thinking that somehow I had become my parents. I will even admit to screaming that if they threw one more thing, I was pulling over and they could walk home. (They had no clue what I was talking about, but...get offa my lawn.)

I must admit though that if given the options again, I would probably spend the money and fly. I can tell you flying stories too when you fly with 3 under 3. I have had to buy 4 entire rows drinks after one of mine screamed for the first 20 minutes of a flight, "Want to get down. Plane too big to fly. Plane not stay in air." at the top of his lungs repeatedly until after 20 minutes, the benedryl finally kicked in and he passed our for 3 hours. My point is it will not be a picnic either way. Go for the one that sounds the most adventurous!

Also, dvd's and gameboys if they are old enough.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 10:04 PM on March 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

I've been on a road trip with young children (two boys, one just turned 4 and one just turned 8), but not as a parent. I was the teenaged cousin/babysitter just tagging along, and I only participated in two long driving days out of their quite long trip.

I do remember that frequent stops were a must, which obviously slows the whole thing down a lot. (My aunt refers to that trip as "the playground tour of Europe.") And those tiny portable DVD players, oh my goodness, I don't know what we would have done without them. Well, I think we just had the one and the boys had to trade off because they didn't like the same movies, mostly. I spent quite a lot of time reading a Harry Potter book out loud to the older boy while the younger one had the DVD player.

At one point, the four-year-old got a hold of my camera and was taking pictures. I looked at them later and it was really startling: little guy could barely see out the window! All his "looking out the window" pictures were half car door, half what scenery he could see above that. That was what he could see from his car seat. My point is that I learned that scenery-out-the-window isn't enthralling for kids that young in part because they may not be able to even see it. Or they have to really struggle and crane their necks to see it and that gets old really fast.
posted by mandanza at 10:10 PM on March 16, 2012

Endlessly entertaining scenery? I've driven across the country several times and there are some beautiful spots, but there are a whole lot of endless rolling cornfields or desert scrublands or other incredibly boring parts of the country. Also kids don't appreciate scenery, speaking from my experience as a kid. It's rocks. It's dirt. Boooring. I get squirrelly driving through Arizona and New Mexico, I can't imagine doing it as a kid. Utah's pretty boring too. As is Kansas.

Second thing, how are they on bathroom issues (or are you okay with the occasional pair of crapped pants or the occasional roadside potty break)? Because I dunno how you're going, but every route I've been, there are stretches where bathrooms just...aren't. There's nothing. A whole lot of it. I remember a strip of Utah where there was a rest stop that everyone stopped at because it was the only thing we'd seen in 2 or 3 hours and god knows when we'd find a bathroom or place to stretch our legs again. That's not to say they're clean/desirable/well lit/not creepy/functional. There's one rest stop I swung into that was a poorly tended porta-potty on the side of the highway.

If you do go ahead with it, I'd suggest finding one of the hotel websites that lets you find hotels close to your route. I always find it less stressful to know exactly where I'm stopping the next day and hotels are usually around gas/food/other things of interest. Holiday Inn has one, I use it for all my trips.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 10:20 PM on March 16, 2012

I've driven across country. You are badly underestimating this. You can do it in 5 days driving 12 hours a day. I would not want to be locked in a minivan with 3 kids under 5, none of whom will remember any of this and all of whom will be miserable, at least at some points, because this drive is really long and really boring in huge swathes. That's true for adults, and kids are not massive fans of scenery.

Seriously, this seems like a bad idea. I'd reconsider flying and renting a car, or not doing this now, or doing a different trip, perhaps to Oregon or Arizona.
posted by DarlingBri at 10:35 PM on March 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

As a child, even a 3 hour car-trip was an awful thing. Days of it on end would be the most miserable thing I could imagine. Kids are pretty generous about sharing their misery. I don't think our parents had all that much fun either.

Coast to coast? That's hardcore even for a road trip among best-friend adults. I think it's a really bad idea.
posted by -harlequin- at 10:57 PM on March 16, 2012 [5 favorites]

I don't know that this trip will be as fun and memorable as you think it will. From my experience, once you get beyond about 5 hours in the car with kids under 3, you are asking for a lot of trouble, since they just can't keep their attention on things long enough to pass that much time. Even with a portable DVD player, your youngest is going to be screaming after a few hours to just get out of the car, and that is going to be day 1. I don't think there's any way you'll make it in 5 days or less, unless one of you is planning to drive all night while the kids are all asleep (which sounds better the more I think about it).

Also, of all of my young childhood trip memories, none of the good ones were about the car rides. They were about the destinations, and what we did there. Your kids aren't old enough to really appreciate the differences around the country. If they were a few years older than maybe, but a 1.5 and 3 year old don't care what state you are in or whether the trees are different than the trees back home. They care about whether or not you are going to give them their cheddar bunnies for the 47th time that day, and the fact that crayons are fun to chew on when your dad is telling you not do do it, but can't reach you from the front seat.

Also, after 5+ days of driving each way, are you really going to be able to enjoy yourself when you get there? All of you are going to be so exhausted and frazzled that the first day or two are going to be spent just trying to feel like normal people again.

What would be the most important to me though is the time issue. If you are taking 2 weeks to do this, you'll spend 10-12 days driving, and have 2-4 days to see your relatives. If you fly, you'll spend 2 days traveling with 12 days to see relatives. I don't know about your relationship with your relatives, but if my family had the choice of seeing my kids for 4 days or 12 days, there would be no question. How many chances do they have to see your kids? Is just a couple of days going to be enough?

In terms of cost, your 1.5 year old can sit in a lap as long as they don't turn 2 before your trip back (this is how we've always done it). Also, if you fly, you might be able to cut your trip shorter while still getting the same amount of time with the family, so you could deduct several days of hotel costs.

Finally, in terms of mental health, I would ask this question: What if you decide to drive, and by the end of day 2 everyone is completely miserable? The kids are all screaming at each other, everyone's butt is sore, the scenery doesn't impress them one bit, the sight seeing lost it's appeal after the second stop, and you still have 3+ days to go, plus another 5+ days on the way back. Would this make for a nice time for the few days you get to see your family? Would this make for a vacation you would cherish?

If your kids were 5 years older than I would probably think it was a great idea, and that you all could have a lot of fun, as long as each kid had an ipod, DVD player, ipad, laptop, and/or whatever else could keep them entertained while sitting in one spot for 10 days. With the age your kids are no, I wouldn't even consider it.

That being said, you know your family better than the internet ever could, so no matter what anyone here says, you'll know what the best choice is for you.
posted by markblasco at 11:12 PM on March 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

I love driving long distance. I’ve driven cross country many times. I don’t know about the kids (I think it’s going to be a lot rougher than you’re thinking, but flying doesn’t sound that easy), and I think it’s going to take longer than that, but there’s something important to remember about the car; if it breaks you have to fix it, wherever you are, whatever it costs. You’re not going to shop around or argue. I’ve had to do many repairs, sometimes sitting in a hotel for a day waiting.

Get every belt, hose, and anything else that might go bad changed before you go. It might cost a few bucks now, but when you’re sitting on the side of the road in the middle of freakin nowhere Texas and it’s hot as hell, you’ll wish you had. I had a tire go out like that and had to wait a couple of hours for the tow truck (he couldn’t even find us because we were so in the middle of nowhere), and then buy new tires from Wal Mart (not what I would have chosen), and it was a whole day gone.

I have often rented a car from Budget for trips. You can get good deals for longer periods (look for specials on their site), and they have unlimited mileage, as long as you’re returning it to where you got it (one way is a different story). You’ll be driving a new car, and if it does break you don’t care, you get a new one.
posted by bongo_x at 11:19 PM on March 16, 2012

This sounds like a horrible idea. Highlighting points made above:
1. Anyone 5 years old, maybe even older, won't appreciate the charm of the trip, nor remember it when they get older.
2. I've done that drive multiple times - 5 days is not impossible if all you're doing is driving and makes food stops and enough time for sleep.
3. The cost of hotels, road food, and gas may not outweight the cost of 5 roundtrip tickets, but time is money... it ain't worth it.


This is much preferable to the alternative: earning the wrath of an entire plane full of people who may be stuck on a plane for five hours with screaming children.

So I say: do the road trip!
posted by Unsomnambulist at 11:28 PM on March 16, 2012

Children's conception of time is much different from an adult's. An hour feels like a whole day, to a kid. I think your kids will be absolutely miserable. Even older children don't have any interest in scenery, and yours are very young. Honestly, this sounds like a trip straight into hell, from a child's point of view.
posted by MexicanYenta at 1:29 AM on March 17, 2012

Unless your kids are exceedingly docile or naturally lethargic, and you are preternaturally mellow--or deaf and comfortable with ignoring your children for long periods--this is a bad idea.

I've done many 5-7 hour roadtrips as the solo driver with my one, now two, kids (boys currently 6 and 3). I've also been a child passenger on many road trips growing up, frequently at 6 hours long, and many up and down the coast or 3/4 of the way cross country. I'm experienced. I've been on both sides of the front seat/back seat divide. It wouldn't matter what seat you put me in, there is no way in hell I would think this trip was going to be fun. It might be necessary, but not fun.

I've got to strongly second cgk, tamitang, celtalitha, DarlingBri, and -harlequin- 's specifics about why it's not a great idea, and blob's and bongo_x's suggestions if you're going do it anyway. If nothing else, I think you overestimate the amount of driving you're going to want to do. Even driving as a tag-team pair of adults, 10 hours in the car is a loooooong time. Multiple days of it won't be enjoyable. As a reference point, my typical 280 mile drive with the kids takes 6 hours and includes two very necessary 30-minute breaks for food and stretching. (It's also all major highways, easy-on-easy-off gas and food, and I'm comfortable driving at higher speeds.)

With two drivers you could hit 400, maaaybe 500, miles a day before everyone fell apart (but I doubt it with kids that age). You're still looking at 6-8 days. That's if everything goes well. I've also been on the side of the road as a kid while my dad fixed the car -- and he was knowledgeable, handy, and working with a tuned-up car. Sometimes things just crap out. Mountain passes fully loaded, long stretches that tax the radiator...these are probably outside the norms for your car, and come with a chance of something breaking. Talk over with your spouse how you might handle some worst-case scenarios. (Hint: lots of bottled water and some emergency thermal blankets would be my minimum depending on route.)

That doesn't even begin to take in account the behavior of the kids. I hate gender stereotyping--so I guess I won't--but my two boys will throw things at me, hit each other, scream, bicker, chant, throw food at one another, use books to hit each other, whine, taunt, and wail for a dropped object that only Mr. Fantastic could retrieve. Even comforting the bereaved over the normal hullabaloo of the car is a recipe for stress for the person trying to drive and navigate. This is all normal behavior, and it's unrealistic to expect anything otherwise in a car. We've done enough trips that they've got the hang of it now (they know better than to throw things), but the natural order of things at this age is toward an entropy of both impulse control and sibling or parental respect.

My advice, since you do sound like a fun, adventurous, good-natured family, would be to take some shorter trips by car and get the kids accustomed to it. At some point (when they're 5-9?) this will be the GREATEST idea.

To weigh in comparing this with train and flights, I've also done both of those, too, multiple times, some as the solo parent. I would be torn between which is easier, but only because my youngest is now 3, and willing to take direction and move under his own steam, plus he would be engaged in the train travel. If he were younger, I'd just rip off the band-aid and go by plane.

Train is by far the more relaxed. Two full adults' worth of attention on three kids those ages could actually be fun. There's lots to see/explore, and plenty of room to walk around or change the scenery, or just separate from siblings (or get a breather from kids altogether). Tables for games or coloring are great. Roomy seats so the wiggles don't turn into torture. Sleeper car all the way if you can afford it. Unless you have a kid who is an active tantrummer and easily set off, this would be my choice for the actual enjoyment level of the travel process. (Here's an earlier comment of mine about train travel with kids.) I've never done cross-country by train, but Amtrak's site says it's about 4 full days of travel.

Flights would be my second choice in terms of enjoyment, but note that I think most of the stress and crap you have to deal with occurs before you actually get on the plane: lines, long waits, the heightened consequences of someone saying the wrong thing, or running off in a controlled area, etc. Once on the plane I think things are easier. Toys, books, treats, calm demeanor all go a long way. Your specifics (about your husband's anxiety level on planes) would give me pause, however. You still need to marshal your parental patience and attention no matter which method of travel, and if he's out of commission it wouldn't help.
posted by cocoagirl at 3:08 AM on March 17, 2012

Endlessly entertaining scenery

As a data-point, when I was little my family used to drive from New England to the Midwest fairly regularly to visit some of our relatives. I'm now almost 30 and my brother is older than that, and just yesterday the topic of long-distance driving came up. We both started groaning at the same time: "Oh my god, do you remember how looooong Pennsylvannia was? It was awful: there was absolutely nothing there FOR FOUR HUNDRED MILES."

Or, in other words: once you get out of the West, there are so many trees that you often can't see anything else. Just trees for hours and hours on end. I like trees. I even wanted to be a botanist for a while, but I've driven across the country a couple of times as an adult, and even I get bored by the time I get to Pennsylvannia, no matter which direction I'm coming from.
posted by colfax at 3:13 AM on March 17, 2012

Nthing that the plan is neither realistic nor conducive to much fun.

Five 600+ mile days in a row, which is what you're looking at to get from SF to a random address in NH, would be a marathon drive even without kids. With kids that young... OMG, no.

The quickest route across is about 3100 miles, and probably one of the least scenically interesting ways to cross the U.S. Everything would be beautiful while you were still in California, but once you got a few miles out of Reno the spectacular loveliness would be mostly over. Northern Nevada and Utah, southern Wyoming (well away from the big national parks), then Nebraska, Iowa, northern Illinois, Indiana... this is not the ooh-ahh-wow-lookatthat route. There's beauty and interesting things there, but it's mostly too subtle to be appreciated by even the oldest of your kids, and even you won't have time to enjoy it on that schedule.

For my money, a nice pace for a road trip is about 300 miles a day, on 2-lane State routes (i.e. not freeways) as far as possible, with opportunities for scenic detours, roadside picnics, reading of historical markers. On your schedule, fly.
posted by jon1270 at 3:22 AM on March 17, 2012

Having driven cross country many years ago in an old van before the days of car seats for kids or even seat belts with one two and half year old, I would say a lot depends on what kind of travelers your children are. We also used to drive back and forth from Boston to NJ a lot with a 5 year old and two year old. We were very lucky that our kids were little saints in the car, they slept anywhere, did not complain, did not get sick, and generally got along. The worst person in the car was always me, I was the one who needed to stop to eat, to go to the bathroom, just to get away from feeling queasy if I were not the one driving. I agree with the person who said to start out by taking shorter trips with your kids in the car and see how they do. How your kids interact with each other and how they relate to long hours in a car can make all the difference in having a fun , interesting trip or a nightmare for all

I was awful, my parents could not take me anywhere. mostly because of motion sickness and being over-sensitive to everything. My kids were great travelers, still are as adults. I'm still terrible. Don't attempt this trip without a lot of test runs first, and if the kids are not good travelers wait until they are older to even think about it.
posted by mermayd at 3:34 AM on March 17, 2012

Another vote for flying.

If this trip is going to take place between, say, May and September, you may encounter both incredible heat out west and torporous humid conditions anywhere east of the Rockies, making those roadside stops agonizing unless you're inside somewhere air-conditioned.

I'm also not sure that flying would be that much more expensive. I just looked up a "vacation package" on Southwest as an example: sometime in July, from Oakland to Manchester, NH, 2 adults, 3 kids, a week in a hotel in Manchester, and a minivan all came out to about $3500. Add another $200-300 for fuel (VT and NH aren't THAT big but I'm not sure how much you're moving around if you're only there for a week) and that's about $3800.

If you drove your 1998 Sienna, AAA puts the cost of fuel alone at $1390 round-trip. Add in at least ten days of lodging and eating out/supermarket runs AND the cost of lodging when you get there, the cost of getting the car checked out in advance, and the value of your own're going to be at about the same cost as flying, but ten days poorer.
posted by mdonley at 3:51 AM on March 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

We were a Navy family; thinking back on it, we transferred cross-country six times, plus four more 'short' transfers, like between Connecticut/Mississippi or Florida/Connecticut or San Diego/Seattle. Oh yeah, we totally DID road trips.... and I'm afraid I'll have to disagree with the folks saying none of the kids will remember anything about this trip; personally, I've got fond memories of things like the Cape May NJ ferry (a boat! a boat you drive your car onto!) from when I was three. No mass-murder in the back seat, but there WAS a lot of spot-the cow/license plate/etc. and family sing-a-longs to the radio.

We usually did each of those cross-country transfers in 6-7 days. It'll be easer if you don't make hotel reservations: that'll take away the "we MUST make it to x town today!!" pressure. There will be days you're tired early, and other days you're still rarin' to go, so take each day as it comes. When are you thinking of doing this? If winter, you might not want to take a route high across the northern states, and ditto a far-south route in mid-summer --- while they're beautiful routes, West Texas/New Mexico deserts in summer can be brutal drives, and so can Wyoming/Montana/the Dakotas in winter! But definately plan different routes for the east-bound and west-bound trips: why go the same route twice?

Rather than frequent playground stops, make those stops at any and every landmark or tourist trap that takes your fancy --- there's a lot of stuff out there, and now's your chance to see a lot of it.

Finally, consider driving a rental car one way and fly/take the train the other.
posted by easily confused at 3:59 AM on March 17, 2012

We did a lot of long family trips in a motor home when I was a kid, so my memory is a bit fuzzy.

Is it possible to do this trip? Yes.

Will it be fun for the entire family? That's a bit of a maybe.
posted by freakazoid at 5:45 AM on March 17, 2012

This is much preferable to the alternative: earning the wrath of an entire plane full of people who may be stuck on a plane for five hours with screaming children.

Um? Whatever!

As a compromise, I like the suggestion of a rental car one way and flying back. I, personally, think the road trip would be a nightmare. But the idea of turning around and doing it again after a few days gives me the full body shudders.

Fly. Husband has time to work on his flight phobia and maybe get a scrip for Xanax. Or, pay to have family come to you! Split the cost. Or maybe they can split your flight cost. Enlist your oldest child with out and out bribery to help make the flight bearable. That's what I'd do.
posted by amanda at 8:04 AM on March 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

When I have had to do the long distance driving with children I have always waited till they were asleep, then carried them out to the car and drove. I might stop once for drive-through but otherwise I would get 6-10 hours straight driving. That way the majority of the daylight hours they are out of the vehicle and burning energy. I also have quite a bit of energy, but I doubt I could go 5 days on just a few hours sleep (your partner may be willing to trade off, making it easier). At that age, even staying in a hotel/motel is exciting, moreso during the day. I agree that car rides are pretty boring for kids. Be careful with night driving depending on where you are. Last year I hit a small fox, around 60km an hour, and the damage was pretty surprising.
posted by saucysault at 8:19 AM on March 17, 2012

140k on a Toyota is nothing. I do think some of their V-6s around that year had sludging problems though. When is the last time you changed the timing belt?

As for the kids, they'll survive. We've done many multi-hour trips with four kids. Just got back from a 400-mile drive on Thursday. Pack lots of snacks. We've never really had electronic entertainment with us, generally its books or entertaining each other. With kids your age, it helps immensely if your spouse can entertain the kids while you drive. With a drive that long, if you plan on switching off driving duties, well then it gets difficult scheduling sleeping and whatnot. I think one of the biggest things is making sure everybody has plenty of room, it does get fatiguing if you can't stretch out or put something down next to you. When we talk a smaller vehicle, I have a roof and hitch carrier to pack luggage and the only thing that goes in the car is snacks, cooler, books, and games. Doesn't affect the gas mileage with it all fitted out.
posted by narcoleptic at 9:24 AM on March 17, 2012

It'll be easer if you don't make hotel reservations: that'll take away the "we MUST make it to x town today!!" pressure.

Excellent advice. It may not seem like a big deal now, but my wife has been in tears in this situation. Long car trips affect everyone differently.

Here’s my standard advice about car trips; The difference between an enjoyable trip and torture is your schedule and expectations. I could drive around the country for weeks and have a great time (and have) if I don’t have to be anywhere. As soon as you start putting pressure to be at point A by time X it becomes less fun.

If you want to make this trip, make it a car trip, have fun.
posted by bongo_x at 9:26 AM on March 17, 2012

Due to the 'three kids in a car for 5 days' = torture issue, my parents also always drove through the night, switching drivers every few hours. During the rare daytime road trip, I was endlessly barfy and building walls of pillows to shelter myself from the piercing sun.

So yeah, I guess this just depends on the temperaments of your kids...
posted by jenmakes at 9:27 AM on March 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

We had fun with car trips with my two kids when they were little like that (still do, actually), but we were always well-prepared. For us, it was key to bring snacks, coloring books and crayons, storybooks, handheld toys (they were at least 8 or 10 before we allowed handheld electronics in the car), good singalong tunes, and plans for some kind of physical activities that could be done in the car (choreographed seat dancing like teaching them the Hand Jive, games like head, shoulders, knees, and toes, how high can you reach, etc.) to help relieve ants-in-your-pants-itis and prevent squabbling and boredom. We made up our own versions of songs ("I've Got The Whole World In My Nose" was a perennial favorite) and played lots of, "I'm going on a picnic and I'm going to take..." and just generally did a lot of fun interacting.

If the adults treat it like an opportunity for fun, odds are good the kids largely will, too.
posted by notashroom at 7:42 PM on March 17, 2012

Pitching in... I'd recommend taking the train. You'd still be able to enjoy scenery, less hassle of hotels/wiggly kids/gas. It may be a bit more expensive, but would be well worth it in the end for increased sanity.

As a sidenote, I LOVE driving. I'm 25. When I was 10, I hated 3-hour trips. Driving through rural areas were unexciting and the scenery didn't impress me. Now? I absolutely love it.

Kids, like pretty much everyone else here has said, haven't really learned how to appreciate nature just yet, with a few rare exceptions.

I also 2nd the suggestion to renting a van for the first half, then flying back (or vice versa). Do keep us posted with what you decide!
posted by dubious_dude at 5:41 AM on March 18, 2012

The only problem with renting one way and flying back is that renting one way is often many times as costly.
posted by bongo_x at 12:12 PM on March 18, 2012

Thank you so much for all your input, for and against. Based on the above, we are psyched to try some *much* longer road trips with the crew, but will not start with the cross country trek. It sounds do-able, but at a more leisurely pace than we have time and money for this year.

Perhaps subconsciously I wanted to duplicate the road trips from my childhood, which are entertaining to discuss now, but did usually involve misery, poor planning, and mechanical failure (think van brakes failing while going downhill in the Sierras while seven children scream in terror, boat trailer fragmenting on the freeway, etc.).

New plan: sedate spouse and children, wheel them through airport security and onto plane, hire sherpa to tote luggage.
posted by Wavelet at 11:50 AM on March 19, 2012

An excellent plan! As a nervous flyer who travels with a kid with autism, I advocate drugs for all.
posted by The corpse in the library at 2:46 PM on March 19, 2012

If you’re going to sedate them anyway, is there some sort of U-Pack shipping service you could use? Just use lots of peanuts.
posted by bongo_x at 4:47 PM on March 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

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