There is nothing more exciting than setting out on an adventurous road trip with kids! Family vacations are the ultimate memory makers for both kids and parents…but let’s face it, long car trips with kids can be difficult.
Our family road trip tips will do the trick and have everyone enjoying the journey, not just anticipating the destination. I grew up with 3 sisters and some of my favorite childhood memories are from our cross-country road trips, all cuddled up in the shell of my dad’s old pickup.
It never occurred to me how much stress and planning a long road trip with the kids could possibly be until I had a family of my own. What will they eat? How will you entertain them? Honestly, are we there yet? This is the ultimate guide for surviving a long car ride with kids and we’re going to answer all those family car journey questions.
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Prepare and plan to prevent panic
The secret to success for any large task is a bunch of smaller tasks, done well. Consider the time length of the journey and what the route looks like so you can plan breaks at interesting rest stops. Anticipate issues like boredom, sickness, or family fights and have a plan of action so you aren’t caught off guard in the moment.
Planning ahead is the key to enjoyable and stress-free car travel with kids. Something to consider to keep the kids busy is to listen to a family-orientated story using this Free Trial of Audible Plus
Do whatever you can the day or night before
My husband and I like to get things ready the night before a trip after our daughter has gone to sleep so that in the morning, we can stay calm and focused on her. He heads out to fill the car with gas, check tire pressure, and top up the fluids. I prepare our cooler with snacks and line the luggage up by the door.
We’ve got a free Family Road Trip Packing List if you would like to follow it the night before. If you’d like some tips and advice on some tasty snacks for the road, check out our Road Trip Food post for more ideas!
Be prepared for accidents/spills
Make sure to bring plenty of wipes and paper towels to clean up any messes. Keep a couple of plastic bags handy to store any trash and easily dispose of it at the next rest stop. Use drinks with sealed lids and car-friendly snacks where possible.
Have a first aid kit and prepare for car sickness
There are plenty of travel first aid kits on the market, like this simple kit from Johnson and Johnson. Car sickness can be a huge problem for some kids, so make sure to bring children’s chewable tums and some large zip-lock bags for any food that might make a reappearance.
My family had a designated “barf bowl”, a large green bowl that came out whenever food came back up and it always came with me on a long road trip.
Plan a way to address family fights
In a family of 3 girls, family bickering was a given. The key is to keep calm and help the kids stay calm, you’re not solving any fights hurling down the freeway at 65 mph with the next rest stop still an hour away. Declare quiet time, turn up the music, and pass out some special snacks. Plan a solution that allows everyone to take a break from the situation even if they can’t leave the car.
Plan travel time into your normal daily schedule
My daughter has TV time somewhere between 3:00p and 4:30p, this makes it a great time for us to set out on trips. We give her a snack, set up her normal TV time in the car, and we’re off. It also makes managing technology in the car easy as she is then expecting her TV time to end at the normal time. Think of what time of day you would like to leave and find a way to translate that into car-friendly activities.
Parents know that Sod’s Law (or Murphy’s Law) is always in effect: whatever can go wrong, will. Relax and know that everything that happens on a road trip with kids is part of the journey. It’s ok to take an extra stop, arrive a little late, or add an extra day to your travel time. My husband and I are extreme organizers and we get so wound up before a road trip of any distance. The morning of travel, one of us will eventually stop and say sarcastically to the other “We’re on a very tight schedule”. It’s a reminder that the best part of a road trip is the freedom! There’s nowhere you have to be at any particular time, so just relax and enjoy it.
Have plenty of nutritious, filling, and easy-to-grab snacks
My mom (the ultimate co-pilot and planner as we knew her) spent every road trip with our giant green cooler either at her feet or within arms reach and it was packed to the brim. Filling snacks like pretzels, beef jerky, graham crackers, and peanut butter, or bananas stay with you for longer. Healthy snacks like veggie sticks, grapes, or string cheese are tasty without the risk of causing stomach aches.
Don’t be afraid to make the journey special
My parents always used this time to spoil us a little bit. If it was getting late and we needed a morale boost to make those last miles, my dad would roll through the drive-thru at Mcdonald’s. It was an unspoken rule we were never allowed to ask to stop at Mcdonald’s, we’d just have to sit in anticipation and see if my dad would subtly click on the turn signal. Cheers would erupt once we heard the little “click-click-click”. Lunchables and squeeze-its came out for lunch (am I dating myself?) and special toys or books were presented at the start of the journey. Spending a long time in the car is tough on everyone, morale boosters are important to keeping spirits up and making the journey just as exciting as the destination.
Create a family playlist and include some audiobooks/stories
Discover what kind of music your family likes and include a little something for everyone. Upbeat music is a great way to start the journey; some calmer tunes are perfect for bringing the energy down and creating a calm atmosphere. My family enjoyed stand-up comedy (think the Blue Collar Comedy Tour and Jerry Seinfeld) and it was a great way to get us all laughing without a lot of effort. Audio entertainment can be anything from music and comedy to short stories and audiobooks. My 4 y/o has just discovered audio stories and loves listening to the BBC Classic Fairy Tales; my husband and I love that we can listen to something other than endless Disney soundtracks.
We’ve got great articles for Top Road Trip Audiobooks, Road Trip Playlists, and Top Road Trip Podcasts to help get you thinking.
Limit technology with some fun family games
Technology can be a great asset on a long car journey, but despite what they think, kids will get bored of their screens. Limiting tech time and having some family games and activities organized can help keep the kids engaged on a long car ride. One of my favorite memories as a child was playing Taboo on family road trips. One person held a card with a list of words on it and you had to get everyone else to guess the words without using any of the forbidden (or “taboo”) words. My sisters and I would be leaning closer and closer to the front seats desperate to be heard first. When you’re on a long road trip with the family, you have a captive audience! Don’t be afraid to try new things.
Make the journey just as exciting as the destination
Running from point A to point B is for planes; a road trip with kids is all about the interesting stops and experiences you can have on the way to your destination. Take the time to research your route before you set off and look out for those crazy roadside attractions. Is it even a road trip to Las Vegas if you haven’t stopped at Peggy Sue’s 50’s Diner and taken pictures with the giant dinosaurs? Can you even say you’ve driven through Texas if you haven’t stopped at Buckys’ for candied pecans?
National parks or nature reserves make the drive refreshing and provide perfect opportunities for family picnics and Instagramable moments. There is an infamous family video of me slurping up milk from my cereal bowl, face completely covered, lower lip gulping away, in the middle of some beautiful national park. I don’t even remember where we were headed!
A great way to find spontaneous stop-off points is to do a search of the area on Google Maps and see what local attractions pop up!
Create a Road Trip Scavenger hunt to make the long drive interesting
Knowing your route doesn’t just have to be about planning stops, it can make for some fun I Spy games right in the car. Make a bingo sheet or scavenger hunt and include things you’re likely to see (like cows or big rigs), add some things bespoke to your road trip, and maybe even some outrageous things (like a spaceship!) just to make them laugh.
My daughter loves it when she knows we’re going to be passing wind turbines on our car journey and always wants to be the first to say she sees them. Drawing your kids’ attention to what is going on outside the car can spark their imagination and get them excited about what’s coming up next.
Use the time to have some genuine family conversations
While we’re on the subject of a captive audience, long car rides are a great chance to engage in some genuine conversation with your kids. Opening up to your kids about your own childhood experiences can be a great way to engage and connect with them. My sisters and I loved hearing stories about my Dad’s adventures with his childhood friends, the Nelsons. We always knew a good story was coming when Dad would start “This one time, me and the Nelson boys…” Do a little detective work and find out about their favorite games, shows, books, sports, or anything! People, kids included, love to talk about things they are passionate about.
Last…encourage rest time!
Younger kids may need naps and older kids can get overstimulated or frustrated with so much togetherness. Not every moment of a long car ride with kids needs to be packed with activities and entertainment. Movie time can be a great opportunity to get younger kids to drift off, allow older kids to zone out, and give parents a chance to rest.
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