Like many people, my childhood memories are filled with the beautiful sights and fun experiences I enjoyed with my parents on our frequent road trips. Now that I have a family of my own, I want to make the same kind of memories with them. But, I quickly learned that without a bit of planning, a family road trip can be more anxiety-filled than enjoyable. Thankfully, following just a few simple tips keeps everyone happy and stress-free.
11 Tips to Survive Your Next Family Road Trip
Family road trips should be fun for everyone. So, get the whole family involved in planning the trip! Talk about each destination and what options you have for attractions to visit and activities to experience. Decide together what your must-do experiences are. (Make certain your must-do attractions are open during your visit and find out before you leave home if they require reservations or advance ticketing).
Encourage your kids to learn about each destination. You can borrow a book from the library about each destination to read with your kids. Or, you can pick up a children’s geography book, such as the National Geographic Kids Ultimate U.S. Road Trip Atlas, which has road maps of each state, plus facts, games, and activities to keep them busy on a long car ride.
Kids are usually more excited and engaged on a trip when they’ve helped with the planning and know more about what they are seeing and doing.
Map out breaks.
Spend a little time before you leave home mapping out your route. Estimate where you might be at each meal time to get an idea of kid-friendly restaurants in the area. Or, make note of rest areas, parks or roadside attractions that have picnic areas where you can enjoy food brought from home. Trying to stay on your regular eating schedule will help keep meltdowns to a minimum.
Also, build in some break time for the kids to run around. Many rest areas have big open areas that are perfect for playing tag or foot races. You can also bring an inflatable beach ball to kick around. You can also look for public parks with playgrounds if your kids need a longer break.
Parents need breaks, too! Be sure to walk around and do some stretches to prevent sore muscles or circulation issues.
Don’t forget the gadgets.
We always bring our smart phones, as well as a tablet loaded with games and e-books for our Little Dude.
Make sure you have the latest version of all the apps you’ll need for the trip. In addition to Google Maps, some of our favorite apps are Waze, which helps you navigate around accidents and traffic back-ups, GasBuddy, which helps you find the cheapest gas, and TripAdvisor, for restaurant and attraction reviews and information.
Remember to charge everything up the night before. And, be sure to bring all the chargers and accessories you’ll need as well.We like to keep all our chargers, adapters, cords, memory cards, and other miscellaneous electronic items together, so we use a BUBM Electronics Accessories Organizer when we travel.
Go old school, too.
Despite technological advances, there are still places in the world where your cell phone will get no signal or your GPS won’t work. Always bring a paper map with you as a backup.
And, even if you don’t have any trouble with your GPS, paper maps are a great way to get kids involved in the trip. Teach them how to read a map and encourage them to trace your route. Have them find your destination and estimate how much further you have left to drive. As an added bonus, when they know where they are and how many miles or kilometers are left to go, it minimizes the dreaded question, “Are we there yet?”
Pack a backpack full of fun.
Let each kid bring a small backpack full of small toys, games, books, and fluffy friends to keep them entertained during the car ride. Be sure to help them pack it, or check it before you leave home, to make sure all the choices are age-appropriate, don’t contain lots of small pieces, and are not breakable or dangerous to use during the car ride (think: laser pointer or really bouncy ball). Also, make sure the backpack isn’t too heavy, as each child should be responsible for carrying his or her backpack.
Some really great options for in-vehicle entertainment are:
- Coloring books or a small sketchpad with colored pencils or washable markers
- Paperback books, comic books, or magazines
- Mad Libs
- Travel card games, such as Go Fish, Crazy Eights and Old Maid
- Portable versions of popular games, such as Mini UNO, Travel Scavenger Hunt or Loaded Questions Junior
- Write and wipe activity books (great for pre-schoolers!)
- Word search, crossword puzzle, or dot-to-dot books
- Brain Quest Cards, with questions and answers to challenge the mind
Don’t forget some paper, pencils and a manual sharpener. And, if your child likes to do lots of writing, coloring or drawing in the car, you may want to pick up a travel lap desk. Or, you can just bring a 9 x 13 baking tray (you can usually find one at a dollar store) to use as a lap board.
Even with a backpack full of entertainment, your kids will probably still complain of being bored. Keep a couple of small items hidden away for these times, like a new fluffy friend, a book they’ve been wanting to read, or a new travel game. You could also surprise them with an unexpected visit to a roadside attraction, or maybe a stop for ice cream or a cookie.
Don’t forget lots of healthy snacks and drinks.
Everyone gets the munchies during long road trips. Cut down on unnecessary stops and expenses, and minimize meltdowns, by bringing a bag or cooler filled with healthy snacks and drinks. If your kids tend to squabble over sharing, be sure to pack individual servings ahead of time.
Our favorite road trip snacks include pretzels, cheese sticks, granola bars, nuts, crackers, and lots of fresh fruit, such as grapes and apple slices. For drinks, we bring water in reusable containers, but we always tuck away a couple of apple juice boxes as a treat. We pack everything in a soft-sided eBags Crew Cooler. It’s just big enough for us. For larger families, I recommend checking out Coleman Coolers. They have a variety of sizes and types, both hard- and soft-sided, and we’ve loved all the ones we’ve owned!
Plan to unplug.
If you brought your gadgets with you, it’s pretty much a certainty that the kids are going to want to play video games or watch movies or cartoons for hours on end. And, sometimes we parents can get wrapped up in our gadgets as well (I’m guilty of this). Plan to unplug once in awhile so the kids can dig into their backpack activities. Or, better yet, spend some quality family time together.
Talk to each other. Learn more about your children’s friends, interests, or imaginary world. Share your childhood memories. Tell jokes to each other.
Turn up the music and sing together. Make a road trip playlist on your favorite music streaming service before you leave home. Or, bring along each person’s favorite CD to listen to.
Play classic road trip games. We try to play one each hour we’re on the road, at the very minimum. These are some of our favorite games:
- ABC Game – there are different ways to play this game, but our favorite is to look at signs and billboards to find all the letters of the alphabet, in order. You can also find items that begin with each letter, in order, but we always have trouble when we get to Q and X!
- License Plate Game – the goal is to spot the license plates for all 50 U.S. states first. You can also add in Canadian provinces as well. This game just requires paper and pencil to keep track of your progress. To make it easier for little ones, print out a list of all the U.S. states and the Canadian provinces before you leave home. They can just cross them off as they see them rather than writing them out.
- Car Bingo – this game is a cross between bingo and a scavenger hunt. Each player searches for items on their bingo card and the first person to get five items in a row wins! We love these durable Travel Bingo Cards and take them with us on any longer drive.
- Punch Buggy – a “punch buggy” is a Volkswagen Beetle. When you see one, be the first to call out its color and then “punch” (we actually gently tap) the person you’re playing the game with. We love this one and even play it when we’re just driving around town.
- 20 Questions – this game is great for all ages. One person thinks of a person, place, or thing. Everyone else takes turns asking questions that can be only answered with a “yes” or “no”. After each question, the person asking gets to guess what the person, place, or thing is. Whomever guesses correctly wins the round and gets to come up with the next “mystery item” for the next round. If no one guesses after 20 questions are asked, the person who thought up the “mystery item” wins the round.
- I Spy – one person starts the game by saying, “I spy with my little eye something ______” and they give a clue about the item. It must be something in view. The other players then try to guess what the item is. This game is also great at keeping kids occupied when you’re waiting in line!
It’s so tempting on long drives to loosen up seat belts for comfort. But, it’s really important for everyone in the car to stay seated and buckled in properly in case of an accident or unexpected stop. Babies should be secured in a rear-facing infant car seat and younger children should be in a forward-facing car seat or booster seat. Specific laws vary from state to state and country to country. AAA has child passenger safety information for the United States and Canada on its web site, so you can plan ahead for your road trip.
You should also check your vehicle before hitting the road to make sure everything is in working order and your tires have a decent amount of tread on them. It’s also a good idea to get an oil change before you leave, if you haven’t done one in awhile.
Prepare for the worst.
The unexpected happens when you least expect it! Most of the time, it’s a good surprise. But, you should still prepare for the worst.
Just in case anyone gets carsick or makes some other gross mess, be sure to pack extra diapers or underwear, a change of clothes, some plastic bags, and some paper towels and wipes. We just pop these items into a reusable tote bag and keep it where it can be accessed easily, if necessary. We also bring a small first aid kit. It includes things like ibuprofen, bandages, antiseptic wipes, a nail file, and an antacid.
We always have an emergency toolkit and jumper cables in our car as well, and we bring along our trusty AAA membership card in case we need a tire change or to be towed. Unfortunately, we have had to use them all at one time or another, so we don’t go anywhere without them.
Document it all.
We take lots of pictures and I write in a journal when we travel. It’s fun to capture snapshots and memories of various moments on the trip, from the exciting to the mundane. We often look back at our notes and pictures, remembering the fun we had. But, when parents are the only ones snapping and writing, it only tells part of the story.
As soon as our son was ready, we got him a twenty-dollar used digital camera from eBay. It’s so fun to see the photos he takes during each trip. If your child isn’t into taking photos, give him or her a travel journal to document each day. Little ones who can’t yet write can draw a picture of their favorite part of the day. You can gather these items together and create a scrapbook or digital album that everyone can enjoy looking through later.
Hopefully, these tips will help you not just survive your next family road trip, but enjoy the journey as well!
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