Road Trip Tips For Families

Catherine K


If you are planning to travel with kids, check out these road trip tips for families for some ideas to keep your kids happy and entertained. 

Memories of travel with my parents

Some of my fondest memories of my childhood include places we traveled. My dad worked as a contractor in Texas, Arizona, California, and Boston from when I was in third grade through middle school. Each summer we joined him and got to explore a new part of the country.

From the San Antonio Riverwalk to eating prickly pear ice cream in the Arizona desert to hiking the Palm Canyon Trail to an oasis in the Anza Borrego Desert, we did some fun road trips!

I hope to pass on this same love of travel to my children, especially as they get older. If you read my post on the Best Day Trips From Charlottesville, you’d know we have lots of places to see in our state. But extend the radius to overnights, and the options are endless for a family vacation. Some day we would love to drive through the national parks! 

Family road trips with kids can easily get overwhelming.

When they were babies, neither Mazen nor Birch liked to sleep on car rides. I’d be a ball of anxiety hoping they would finally close their eyes for a nap, and they’d always wake up early disoriented and crying.

Whether it’s a long car drive stopping in gas station bathrooms or wandering through a germy airport, the travel part is never easy. But the destination is always worth it! A little planning ahead can make for a smoother travel day. 

Here are some of our tips for long car trips and how we try to make it from point A to point B with happy kids in tow. 

Road Trip Tips For Families

1. Leave Early

We like to leave as early in the day as we can. That doesn’t mean setting an alarm for 4 a.m., but it does mean getting ourselves up, showered, caffeinated and ready to go before the kids get up so we can all get out the door as swiftly as possible. The night before a trip I make sure all the packing is complete, and the kids’ outfits are laid out so our morning goes as smoothly as possible. I’ll plan a low-key breakfast (1 blender = 4 smoothies) that we can take with us. Leaving early in the day maximizes our energy and the kids’ contentment. 

2. Drive through the night 

For a super long trip, my friend Sarah swears by driving through the night as one of her best traveling tips. She and her family have driven to Florida a few times and left at bedtime – around 8 p.m. They trade off driving so the other person can snooze and the kids have slept almost the whole time. There is almost no traffic to contend with, and usually no one needs to stop for breaks. I can’t say this would be my choice, but I wanted to include it for anyone looking to simplify the travel day, er night, with minimal interruption. 

3. Pack a lunch

We tend to pack our lunch on the way down and stop for fast food on the return, when we’re less likely to have all the sandwich fixings available. I like packing our lunches because it takes the “where and when will we stop” question off the table. We just eat when we’re hungry.

This is also my recommendation if you are on a schedule and want to keep stops at a minimum. If you do have a little extra time, rest stops, parks, and elementary schools usually have picnic tables. Bring some wet wipes to use first!

4. Or stop for a nice lunch break!

Whatever is easiest for your family! I’m not too proud to eat at McDonald’s. Based on the age of your kids, sometimes the promise of a fast food stop makes the whole trip more fun.

When we were young, I remember every McDonald’s had a playground, and we would beg my dad to stop at certain ones on our usual trips to the north for Christmas. I think these are less common now, but if you know where there’s a good, clean restaurant to stop, look it up first to time lunch accordingly. I always check Google Maps for locally owned sandwich shops if my route allows for that kind of pit stop. 

5. Pack 1,000 snacks

It’s amazing how hungry kids get, even with a lunch stop, on car trips. Amiright?! I try to pack snacks that are dry (bars, Goldfish, veggie straws) and individually packaged so they can hold the snack themselves. Although baby pouches are convenient, we’ve had way too many drip down the car seat to know that they are not the best on-the-road snack! Same goes for juice boxes, chocolate milk, or orange juice. Adult supervision required! 

6. Pack a trash bag

As they go through snacks or their lunch, stay on top of the trash. I try to dispose of trash at each gas stop to keep the car clutter at a minimum. Have you accidentally grabbed the PB and J baggie from the inside out? Wet wipes have come in handy as I’ve gathered the trash, too. 

7. Bathroom Break Tips

Bathroom breaks are a good opportunity for kids to reset. We avoid gas station bathrooms at all costs! You’ve seen the meme – the “please don’t touch the floor” modern dancer? That is my worst nightmare! When my kids were in diapers, road trips were always a little easier. I’d change their diaper in the passenger seat or find a nice (clean) grassy space to put my changing pad down on. 

After potty training, it gets a little trickier, especially in the early stages when kids are a little shy about public bathrooms. We’ve found bringing a little potty with us is the easiest thing to do. Birch is not likely to be comfortable sitting on a public potty seat anyways, so we just put his little potty in some grass and let him go. Remember to bring a little water and/or Clorox wipes to use afterward. 

And please don’t get too up in arms about this, but when traveling with 3 boys we often just have them tinkle outside behind a bush! Then there are no door handles to touch or gross toilets to smell. 

8. Find a playground or park for a halfway point stretch break

A few hours in a car seat sounds pretty claustrophobic to me! No wonder the kids get grouchy. When we have a long road trip without time constraints, we try to plan stop to a playground! Kids enjoy fresh air and get their energy out and grownups get a break from the monotony of the road. You don’t need a grand park – there are elementary schools in every town and most of them are open to the public. Find one along your route (assuming school is not in session). 

9. Tips for nap time

If you have a baby with you, or if anyone in your party needs a nap, white noise is key for such a small space. There have been so many times when Birch has finally dozed off and at that exact moment Mazen decides to make a loud noise. The best white noise is to have all the windows down! This works most seasons, but not so much in winter (although I do remember all of us freezing with the windows cracked one Christmas on the way home from Hillsborough trying to get B to sleep!).  

If it’s cold, putting kids’ songs on at a fairly high volume has worked for us too. And when quiet time begins, remember to turn off the GSP audio so Siri doesn’t remind you you have 100 miles to go right when the baby falls asleep! 

Lastly, we have these car shades that easily slide on to help keep the sun out of the back seat. They don’t look pretty when on, but they do the job!

10. Play group games

I remember playing both the alphabet game and license plate game growing up. They are timeless! Another game we play with Birch is “I spy” different colors or signs. (“The first person to see a stop sign” or “Point out the color red.”) Here is a list of 45 game ideas!

11. Water Wow Or Activity Books

“Busy bags” or activity books are also great for entertaining. We love the mess-free Water Wow line by Melissa and Doug, and you can refill the pen with your water bottle. There are also mini Etch a Sketches and Magnadoodles and these cool writing tablets. I like activities that are reusable. 

12. Audio Books

We live in the wonderful world of tech now, and there are so many listening options these days too. I have my local library hooked up to the Libby app and can download lots of audio books for free. There are even podcasts just for kids like But Why and The Alien Adventures of Finn Caspian: Science Fiction for Kids.

13. You knew I’d include it: Screen Time

My best road trip tip: screen time. I’m not kidding LOL. While we do try to limit screens at home, on a road trip I give unlimited time. Mazen + his iPad for 5 hours = total silence. I know every family might not choose screens or have iPads, but I do think screen time keeps everyone in our car happy as can be. We do have a rule that once we arrive at our destination (say, the beach) the iPad goes away for the week. So he gets a lot on the drive but not any while we’re enjoying our vacation. 

14. Charge Cords + Headphones

If you’re doing screens, don’t forget the chargers! We have a super-long cord that lives in the car that can reach from the USB plug up front to the back seat. This has been necessary too many times to count. I also keep an extra pair of headphones in the car should someone get a little tired of the toddler songs we’re playing on the main speakers or want to watch something that the rest of us don’t want to hear.

15. Save a treat for the last hour

My mom used to bring a bag of treats, some edible, some not, and bring out something new every hour or so. My favorite were the candy necklaces! I also remember these ice cream cones filled with some kind of cotton candy fluff. I’m almost 40 and still remember those! We often will tell the kids they can stop at a gas station when we’re about 75% of the way there. That keeps the carrot in front of them and makes them happy for the “worst” part of the ride. If you aren’t in favor of sugar, have this be an activity treat instead!

16. Expect the Unexpected

I hate it when people say this, but it’s so true. Everything about parenting can be summed up in that one phrase. Car sickness? A flat tire? A traffic jam? It all happens. You’ll never regret being over-prepared. 

 





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