12 Things you need to know for easier road trips with kids
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Whether you’re hitting the road for a vacation, family reunion or something else, taking road trips with kids are always an adventure! Patience isn’t exactly easy for little ones, and vehicles are small spaces for your family to be so close in.
But, road trips with kids can be fun, too. Our oldest child is 11-1/2. In her lifetime, we’ve only traveled by plane once. Every other trip we’ve taken has involved a road trip that’s taken anywhere for two to 12 hours. We’ve not only survived them, but even had fun with them.
In a summer that may have more families thinking road trips to avoid flying, I figured this is a great time to share 12 tips for making road trips with kids a bit easier. If you have any to add, please leave them in the comments. I’d love to hear from you!
1. Utilize some snack hacks.
It has to be a given that road trips with kids are going to involve snacks. I mean, road trips are made for snacks. I literally have some foods I eat only on road trips! I’ve found a few ways to make the snack business easier for our family.
Bring along your own snacks. One of the easiest things to do is bring along your own snacks. You can pack a cooler with drinks, string cheese, yogurt pouches — whatever your family likes. Pack a bag with non-perishable snacks as well. Go for things that aren’t so messy and are easy to share.
Use zip-top bags. I’m a big fan of zip-top bags for a variety of reasons. Before leaving home, you can transfer snacks into large zip-top bags for easy sealing and storage. And you can bring along snack-sized zip-top bags to divide up snacks on the go. For example, if I open a box of cheesy crackers, I can fill a snack-sized bag for each of my two children and pass the bags back to them. Everybody gets an equal portion and the bags keep messes to a minimum.
Another plus of serving up food in snack-sized zip-top bags is kids can more easily open and close them than individual portion bags. It also saves you money because the individual bags of snacks cost more. And you can mix snacks. For example, I might include a few M&Ms in with the cheesy crackers as a road trip treat.
Serve beverages with lids. My kids love their insulated Thermoses. The steel Thermos keeps cold beverages cold forever. I love the 12-ounce Funtainer for traveling because their lids close and it’s nearly impossible to spill them. They’re prefect for the car! (We also use them for lunchboxes, on picnics and pretty much everywhere. They last forever!)
Let older kids help pick snacks. One of my kids’ all-time favorite things to do on a road trip is pick out their own snacks. While we bring along snacks and food to eat on our trip, we usually let them go into a gas station once on the trip to pick out something savory and something sweet. They love picking out gas station snacks, and I tend to agree to snacks (within reason) that I wouldn’t otherwise.
2. Find some easy family activities.
One of our all-time favorite things to do in the car is Mad Libs. I’ve tried printing some out and downloading apps, but hands down buying the Mad Libs books are best. The books don’t usually cost more than $5 and are totally worth it. If you aren’t familiar with Mad Libs, they are stories with blanks in them. On a separate page, you fill in all the words for the blanks without knowing what the story says. It makes for some very silly stories! Our family takes turns going around and saying words. (And since it’s only saying a word, the driver also gets to participate, which is awesome!)
Mad Libs offer all sorts of fun options, including one about road trips! You can find a Mad Libs book to fit with your family’s interests including ninjas, Peanuts (as in Charlie Brown and the gang), Dungeons & Dragons, Disney’s Frozen, Star Wars, Pokémon, Marvel’s Avengers and so many more.
3. Read a book together.
If your kids are older and want to read on their own, go for it. Even with kids who are readers, we still love reading books together as a family. (In fact, reading out loud is part of our bedtime routine.) You can use library books, books you own, ebooks or even audio books.
Here are some great books to read out loud:
- Harry Potter (The entire series is part of Kindle Unlimited and free for subscribers.)
- The Mapmaker Chronicles series
- Humphrey the Hamster series
- Judy Blume’s Fudge series (I remember my mom reading this series to us on family trips!)
- The Chronicles of Narnia series
4. Create a family playlist.
If your family likes music, you’ve got to create a playlist for your family for road trips. We have had a wide variety of musical choices throughout the last decade for our family road trips. We love Spotify, but whatever you usually use for listening to music works.
If your road trip happens to take you through some remote locations, consider downloading the songs from the playlist in case you lose your signal or go through an area with a spotty signal.
5. Give the kiddos paper-based activities.
Paper-based activities are great for the car because they don’t weigh much and usually don’t take up too much room. If your kids are going to be writing or drawing, a clipboard comes in handy. We have tried lap desks, but they are bulky. The last thing we need is something taking up more space! Clipboards work best.
You can get any clipboard, including cheap ones from the dollar store, which I’ve done. But, our favorite are these Crayola Color Wonder clip boards with storage in them. First of all, the Color Wonder markers and paper are awesome because you don’t end up with marker on anything except the paper. And having the built-in storage keeps it all together, in one place. We have used these for a few years now and even switched out what’s inside of them a time or two.
One caveat for paper-based activities is to take along writing utensils that won’t melt if you’re traveling during summertime. Mostly that means avoid crayons! Opt for colored pencils, washable markers or pencils instead.
Aside from coloring and drawing, other lap and paper-based activities are great for car rides as well.
- Paint-by-sticker books
- Reusable create-a-scene books (like Disney princesses, a construction site or Noah’s ark)
- Sudoku for kids
- Word searches (for kids 6 to 8 or for kids 9 to 12)
- Mazes (for kids 4 to 8 or for kids 8 to 12)
- A variety puzzle book
6. Make sure they have toys.
Whenever we are going on a road trip with kids, we have them pick out a few car toys, a.k.a. toys to play with in the car. My daughter is getting away from this now and instead picks out her own books to read and such. I usually pack what I call a “car bag” that holds our car activities like the Mad Libs, clipboards and car toys. The bag stayed up front with me when the kids were younger, but now I put it in the backseat with them. Car toys usually have to be approved by us. We have found toys that are smaller (but not too small) and don’t make their own noises are usually best.
Another toy option for road trips is getting a few new toys for the kiddos. My kids have kept themselves occupied for an hour with a small toy from a vending machine at a restaurant. (Seriously!) It doesn’t have to be anything big or expensive. Think about hitting up your local dollar store to find some things. I would suggest not letting them play with (or really even see the toy) ahead of time. New toys hold kids’ attention longer, which is great for road trips!
7. Use electronics for kids wisely.
For shorter trips, we don’t use electronics for the kids at all. But if the road trip is going to last for 8 hours or more, then we talk about electronics to help pass the time. When my son was a toddler and my daughter a preschooler, we took a long trip to the beach. In order to help keep them entertained for 13 hours in the car, we made a DIY tablet holder with a gallon-sized zip-top bag and string that hung between our two headrests. The kids watched some episodes of the old Batman television show. If you have a minivan with screens, then watching a movie or show is even easier for longer trips.
Keep in mind that since you’re in a small space, you’re probably going to hear whatever electronic your kids are watching or playing (unless they’re wearing headphones). So consider that as you’re deciding what to allow and what to say no to.
One other thought is that we have found having time together that we are chatting, playing games or even just resting is far more fun than being on electronics. Kiddos don’t have to be constantly entertained.
8. Plan extra time for stops.
While you can make good travel time with kids along, you also have to be prepared for extra stops and give them a chance to go to the bathroom and move around. We were a bit prepared for this because I have a bladder issue that means I need to make plenty of stops myself!
Plan some breaks from being in the car. You’ll want to stop for the bathroom, but also just allow kiddos a chance to move around and get out some energy. Being in car seats, especially, keeps them from being able to move around too much, so they need a chance to be out and stretch. In the baby and toddler years, we would even just let the kids have time in the car at stops to move around.
You can stop at rest parks and let them move around outside if the weather is nice. If the weather is cold or rainy, look for a big store or large gas station where they can stretch their legs. On one regular trip we take, we usually make a stop by Bass Pro Shops because it’s a fun store for the kids to explore with the live fish and various interactive displays.
When it comes to bathrooms, one of my favorite things when my kids were toddlers and preschoolers was a folding toilet seat. I kept it in a large zip-top bag in our diaper bag. It made using public bathrooms so much easier! For kids a bit older and bigger, these disposable toilet seat covers are ideal. It helps alleviate stress of finding great bathrooms, which can be challenging sometimes on road trips.
9. Play games that don’t need anything.
Don’t forget about games you can easily play in the car with just your words. My family likes playing “I Spy,” but it doesn’t last too long in the car because we have the rule it can only be an object inside the car while we are driving. Otherwise, there’s no chance we’d be able to spot it!
“Twenty Questions” is another good car game. One person has something in mind and everyone else asks questions to figure it out. If the guessers can’t come up with the item within 20 questions, then they lose. With kids, especially, you might want to have some parameters of items that are allowed and not allowed. As the mom of a little boy, I know some of the things he comes up with sometimes to be funny. And, of course, you also want to make sure the item is real and not imaginary.
If your kids are preschool aged and up, a version of “The Alphabet Game” works well in the car. You can play it where you are all looking to spot words that start with the letters of the alphabet in order. Or you can play it where you build off of each other and come up with words that start with the next letter.
We have often done grocery shopping with “The Alphabet Game.” So I might say I’m going to the store to buy apples. Then my son would say he’s going to buy bananas. My daughter would go to by cheese. And so on and so forth. You can pick nearly any broad topic and come up with words related to it that go through the alphabet.
Another creative option is to tell a story together. At home we use the game “Story Cubes” to do this. Because it uses dice, it’s not so conducive to playing in the car. So, we have told stories together where each person says one or two sentences and then the next person add their sentence or two and on it goes. We usually end up with lots of giggles!
10. Keep the vehicle and yourselves clean as you travel.
If you’re on a road trip with kids, you don’t want your vehicle to get too out-of-control messy. While messes and children go together, there are a few ways we’ve found to at least help keep our vehicle and ourselves relatively clean while on the road.
Have a bag for trash. There is always trash to be dealt with on road trips. We use plastic bags from stores as a bag for trash and then toss them at our next stop. They hold enough but aren’t too big. Bring some along or just acquire them on your trip.
Be prepared for germs. Even pre-pandemic, I was ready for germs and made my family clean their hands when we got back in the car from being in public places. Now, I’m even more vigilant. I have kept canisters of Wet Ones in the car to pass around. The original ones work well but don’t have alcohol to kill COVID germs. You can now get Wet Ones with alcohol in them to help kill COVID germs as well.
Since my kids are older, they use hand sanitizer gel effectively and without getting it everywhere. Find what works best for your family and go with it. You don’t want any germs tagging along on your vacation!
Bring wipes for faces. Neither of my kids have been in diapers for a long time, but having unscented baby wipes along on trips comes in handy for messy faces.
Keep a stash of napkins. Not all messes need a wipe. A stash of napkins in your snack bag or glove compartment can come in handy. You can get them from a drive-thru or pack your own to bring along. (I usually do both!)
11. Use technology to your advantage.
Aside from your smart phone being a potential source of entertainment for music or games, it’s also a great help on road trips. Of course you can use it for directions to your destination, but don’t forget other things you can do to help yourself as well.
Use maps to find bathrooms. With smart phones, it’s easier than ever to plot out stops for bathroom breaks. You can find rest stops or other places you want to stop for bathroom breaks. You don’t have to rely solely on road signs any more to help you find the next best stop.
Find restaurants you know. You can use the map to find restaurants you know. This comes in handy while traveling on the interstate, for example. If you’re looking for a particular restaurant where you know your whole family will eat well, pull up your phone and find one nearby.
Check out reviews. If you are feeling advantageous and want to try a new restaurant with your family, you can also pull up reviews for local restaurants in the area. Oftentimes menus are available online as well so you can even go over with your kids (and yourself!) what you have in mind to order before you even stop.
Do trip research. I’m a planner through and through and do research before we take trips. If you aren’t, being in the car is a great time to do some research on your smart phone. Even if you are like me and have everything planned, you can read through some ideas you have saved for your trip or look up interesting places to stop along the way when everyone is getting cranky and needs a road break.
12. Prepare your kids before the trip.
I learned long ago that my kids do best when they know what to expect and what is expected from them. So, before we take a road trip with our kids, we talk with them about it. (We even do that when traveling just an hour away.) We go through a checklist of sorts to make sure everyone goes to the bathroom before we leave, the kids have whatever car toys they’ve chosen and cover our food bases.
When we start out on a trip, we also remind everyone that they need to let us know when they need bathroom breaks as soon as possible since finding a bathroom while traveling takes time.
Basically, if you can explain to your kids approximately how long you’ll be in the car and ideas you have to keep busy in the car, they handle it better. Remind them that where you’re going and the fun you’ll have once you’re there is worth being on the road for a while. And do your best to maintain a positive attitude about being on the road, so they will, too.