After over ten years of traveling with our kids I’ve collected my best road trip tips so you and your family can discover the joy and adventure of hitting the road and spending countless hours together.
Summer is here and that means it’s time to head out with the family on a few adventures. Whether you are driving thirty minutes to the beach or six hours for a family reunion you will probably be spending some time in the car. All that time cramped together in a tight space, breathing the same air, and no escape other than rest stops can put strains on even the greatest of family relationships.
Both my husband and I moved away from our families to attend college and we never moved back. This means that the closest family we have is over three hours away. We have been taking road trips since before kids and have kept them up with each addition. The frequency has lessened a bit now that the older kids are in school, but we still make 3 to 6 hour one way drives at least three times each year.
Why do families avoid road trips?
Road trips can be huge headaches! They often take longer than flying, require your active participation, and the close quarters for extended periods of time means small annoyances are exaggerated. You also need to use part of your limited vacation time to travel which can mean less time at your actual destination.
Why you need to take a road trip with your family
I still remember road trips I took with my family as a kid. I remember the road trips far more than any airplane ride. Sure, the destinations from a flying trip might have stuck with me, but not the actual journey.
Road trips? I can remember driving through the Black Hills in South Dakota and seeing Mount Rushmore when I was eleven. I remember playing the license plate game with my sister time after time when we would drive the three hours to my aunt’s house. I remember turning on music and getting the whole family singing together.
The memories might be the best part of road trips, but it’s not the only highlight:
Road trips, especially when you add more people, become significantly cheaper than airfare. For our family of seven to fly anywhere would cost us at least $1000. We are able to drive six hours and spend about $100-$150 on gas there and back.
Set your own schedule
Trying to get anywhere on time with five kids is kind of a joke. Someone is always missing a shoe, needing to pee, or who knows what. By driving we can leave when we are all ready and aren’t rushing Home Alone style to get to the airport before the gates close. If we need to take an extra ten minutes at a rest area we don’t risk missing our connecting flight.
You only bother your family
Kids are loud. Kids are messy. Yes, they are also hilarious and fun, but not everyone thinks so. If I take my kids on a flight, I’m going to be worried about how everyone else is responding to normal kid behavior. If we are in the car together, the mess is contained to our own space, the weird noises they make are no different than what they make at home, and we can be silly without bothering a stranger. Other than the looks we might get from other passing cars 😉
My best road trip tips for the easiest vacation
After countless road trips with our kids I’ve compiled my best tips so that you can enjoy traveling with your kiddos and make your next road trip the best one yet.
Take care of the technical stuff
Make sure you have updated insurance info in the vehicle, current medical information available, and take your car in for a tune-up if needed. On one of our last road trips, we had to replace the brakes on our van while visiting my parents because we didn’t realize we were due. Oops! Lesson learned!
Plan the timing
When our kids were tiny we would try and leave so the bulk of the trip landed during naps. This assured us we would get at least a couple hours of quiet.
Don’t leave directly after a meal or first thing after waking up.
The kids will have bucket-loads of energy which will translate into a difficult journey.
If you need to leave early in the morning, consider leaving an hour or two before their normal wake-up time. Put them in the car drowsy so they are willing to fall back asleep.
Plan stops around mealtimes or pack meals that are easy to eat in the car (more on this below).
Prep everyone in advance
While surprises are awesome, some kids really need details. They need to know how long it’s going to take and what to expect. It’s not because they don’t like fun, it’s because it’s how their brain functions best.
Let them know what they need to pack, both in the regular suitcase and in a seat bag. We often need to remind our kids that they can bring a pillow and a small blanket, but because of space in the seats only the blanket stays with them – pillows go in the back of the van.
Set up an approximate schedule so they know what to expect in terms of leaving, breaks, and arrival.
Have a variety of entertainment
All of our kids have some type of personal entertainment they are allowed to bring on road trips.
Our older boys have Amazon Fire Kids Tablets with FreeTime Unlimited. They usually read or play games but they also have access to movies we own if they download them at home before we leave
The three younger kids have LeapPads. They have games installed and several cartridges with additional games.
All the kids have kid-friendly headphones that we require they use when on their devices so they don’t bother the other passengers.
We choose several family-friendly audiobooks to listen to while driving. We use the Overdrive app or check the discs out from our library. I can’t even count how many books we have listened to over the years but these have been big hits over the years:
- Activity books that have little to no pieces are great. We tried the LEGO in a tin but the bricks would spill and then we’d have an upset kid. Try a just add water coloring book or Crayola Color Wonder book.
- Older kids might enjoy keeping track of the journey in my new Kid’s Travel Journal & Activity Book. This workbook has pages for writing about each day of their vacation as well as pages filled with activities to do on the road such as license plate trackers, I Spy games, and more.
- We often take the same routes since most of our road trips are to visit our families, so we know where the best rest stops are located.
- Take a look using Google Maps to find rest stops that have space to run or even a playground. Taking an extra 5-10 minutes to let the kids burn off energy is a real sanity saver.
Pack snacks & meals
What’s a road trip without snacks? I seriously cannot imagine driving for more than an hour without some type of food. But not all road trip food is created equal! The days of me living on chips and candy in the car are gone. Okay, I might still have a little candy, but really we do so much better when we choose better.
- We dole out snacks every hour or two. I’ve seen people make snack trays using divided containers but I know our kids would eat everything in the first twenty minutes and whine the rest of the trip about being hungry.
- Items like popcorn, granola bars, and cut up veggies make easy snacks that will keep tummies satisfied longer than candy and chips.
- If you will be driving over meal times, take a few minutes to pack sandwiches or homemade lunchables to avoid the drive-thru.
- Use one cooler for snacks and one for meals or items that need more refrigeration, like cheese sticks or yogurt tubes.
- Have everyone bring a reusable water bottle (these are our favorite for the kids) and pack a gallon or two of spring water to avoid running out between rest stops.
One last thing to remember about family road trips
Family road trips will never be perfect. Someone will annoy someone else. Someone will need to go to the bathroom five minutes after passing a rest area. Take a breath and deal. You aren’t going to remember the little squabbles, I promise. You are going to remember singing along to the Trolls soundtrack, counting cows and horses, and spending irreplaceable time as a family.