Forget rest stops. Plan your road trip around playgrounds.

by Сашка

When toddler meltdowns strike, Google Maps is your friend

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I don’t know where my 3-year-old picked up the phrase. Maybe it’s innate to all kids who’ve been stuck in the car for more than 10 minutes: “Are we there yet?”

Unfortunately for all of us, the answer is almost always “No.” We won’t be there for many, many hours. That’s when a playground pit stop can save the day.

Over the past few years, my husband and I have driven round-trip between Washington, D.C., and Florida nine times to visit family, see friends, take vacation, work remotely and thaw out in the winter. Since we break the trips into manageable chunks for young kids and elderly dogs, that equals more than a month on the road.

We started building playground stops into the schedule once our daughter was almost a year and a half old and needed more mental and physical stimulation than exploring the front seat during rest stops. It’s become an essential part of long drives now, giving us — and most importantly, our energetic passenger — a light in the middle of the road trip tunnel. We can answer her “Are we there yet?” question by saying we’re 30 minutes from a playground, even if the final stop is a day and a half away.

In the early days, we just wanted convenient spots for diaper changes and toddling around, with maybe a baby swing as a bonus. Now that we have a new baby and a preschooler, we’re thrilled to find tall slides, big-kid swings, bridges and bathrooms — or at least space to set up a tiny portable toilet.

There have been deserted, tucked-away neighborhood parks where we ran into fellow travelers. And some have been bustling with locals, giving us a unique view into a city’s culture. The unicorn of stops would be near the highway with good takeout food nearby, a playground, a restroom and a dog park.

We’ve come to appreciate the train-themed Jefferson Park, perched on a hill in Richmond with a majestic view of the city and proximity to a great local coffee shop. James F. Holland Memorial Park in Palm Coast, Fla., clicked every box we had and then some. Our daughter’s playground adventures have included testing the little-kid swings in Savannah’s Forsyth Park, playing an oversized xylophone in Palm Coast, braving a mini rock-climbing wall in Richmond, rocking in a giant ladybug near Brunswick, Ga., and taking her scooter for a spin in Port St. John, Fla.

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On a shorter trip — or in a playground-less wasteland — we’ve found that a rest stop lawn might substitute. If there are dandelions to be picked and scattered, it might even be preferred. On a recent gas-food-bathroom break between New York City and D.C., an empty Starbucks patio served a greater purpose. My husband and 3-year-old used it as an obstacle course so she could run around while I fed the baby in the car.

There are plenty of resources to help pick a playground: Tripadvisor recommendations, Reddit threads, parenting blogs and an app called Playground Buddy. When we set off in the mornings, I try to figure out how far we’ll get in three hours and scout a good spot there. But because children require more of a go-with-the-flow approach, I mostly operate in the moment.

So I fumble around Google Maps to find the nearest playground as the baby wakes up from a nap crying, and then the 3-year-old needs a bathroom break pronto. If I have time, I check reviews for reports of broken swings or dirty restrooms. Sometimes I manage to search for a Starbucks and gas station nearby so we can maximize the stop.

I’m sure there will be a day when we can power through the long drive as models of efficiency, stopping only for fuel and relief. But I’ll miss the playground detours and those little snapshots of my kids’ joy. We may not be “there” yet, but at least it’s somewhere fun.

More travel tips

Vacation planning: Start with a strategy to maximize days off by taking PTO around holidays. Experts recommend taking multiple short trips for peak happiness. Want to take an ambitious trip? Here are 12 destinations to try this year — without crowds.

Cheap flights: Follow our best advice for scoring low airfare, including setting flight price alerts and subscribing to deal newsletters. If you’re set on an expensive getaway, here’s a plan to save up without straining your credit limit.

Airport chaos: We’ve got advice for every scenario, from canceled flights to lost luggage. Stuck at the rental car counter? These tips can speed up the process. And following these 52 rules of flying should make the experience better for everyone.

Expert advice: Our By The Way Concierge solves readers’ dilemmas, including whether it’s okay to ditch a partner at security, or what happens if you get caught flying with weed. Submit your question here. Or you could look to the gurus: Lonely Planet and Rick Steves.

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