Road tripping with kids can be a daunting task. So much so that many people prefer to avoid it all together. Not only is road tripping with kids possible, but when properly planned for can even be an enjoyable experience. It can also save some money, and we love that it elongates a trip! It also means you don’t have to pack as carefully, which my husband in particular really appreciates haha. We have so many fond memories of road tripping with our family as kids and now equally amazing memories with our own. Here are our best tips and tricks to take your worst fear and turn it into a dream!
Tip #1: Leave Early
I recommend leaving as early as possible. Often the kids will fall asleep at some point in the car. Leaving early usually ensures that you get to your destination at a reasonable time so that you can have time in the pool, or at a park getting their energy out. Typically we could get a good three hour stretch done right in the morning. It really helps mentally to get a good chunk under your belt. You can even research rest stops with parks along your route and plan a picnic lunch. The kids really like the break to stretch their legs and get their wiggles out.
If possible, with small children it’s nice to split up your days into 6-8 hr of driving max. Adding stops can sometimes add 2-3 hrs (total) to your day. Vacation time doesn’t always allow for that so we have done 10-12 hr driving days with kids and they usually do great! Leaving early really helps and on longer drive days we try and keep stops as short as possible. If you are worried about losing time at stops set a timer “okay kids you have 20 mins to play!”. We don’t mind letting the kids eat in the car to save time but the driver needs that time to eat, stretch and go to the bathroom.
Tip #2: Have a plan
You will likely be driving in 2-3 hour chunks. Of course, this can’t always be controlled. If you have a lot of liquid at lunch, you’ll probably be stopping closer to the one hour mark. We tried to offer drinks about an hour before we stopped. Construction and accidents can really be a huge factor here. You can’t control accidents, obviously (and we always tell our kids that we can be grateful that we aren’t IN the accident, that waiting it out is the better of the two scenarios). But construction can be planned for. One of the things I do on my own road trips and for my clients is map things out and make sure there are alternative routes as needed.
Plan, plan, plan, and plan some more. You can certainly wing it.. but there are times where planning is going to make all the difference. If this isn’t your strong suit, never fear! I am trained and skilled at planning road trips from start to finish for you. I can plan every rest stop, where to stop for gas, what you may run into, and kids stops! Shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like more details. For an example of what kind of trips I do, check out my post Road trips with Kids: 9 states in 12 days.
Tip #3: Snacks
Snacks are life, no matter the age, adults included. Feeling bored? Have a snack. Tired? Have a snack. Grumpy? HAVE A SNACK! (That’s my roadtrip motto with my 3 year old). I like to have one of the older kids right behind me so that I can pass snacks back and they can reach the kids in the back.
Before leaving go to the dollar store and pick up a little caddy for each child and a reusable plastic cup. It’s a great way to keep everything tidy and organized. Plus if you do stop for lunch at a fast food place its easier to serve to the kids. We love to use the reusable cups to refill snacks throughout the day. Fish crackers, popcorn, dry cereal (the real sugary kind that you don’t normally buy), fruit puffs, cheese puffs…. you get the idea. We also love to make our own trail mix which we call Mickey Mix. Have baby wipes (even without babies!) and paper towel or napkins readily available too! For more protein, pack some cheese sticks and pepperoni sticks (great together!), beef jerky, or sandwiches.
Tip #4: Are we there yet?
Are we there yet? The dreaded question that we want to avoid at all costs. There are a couple of creative ways to avoid this question. In the morning we would always put our route into the GPS in our car. Having a visible map with the ETA visible really helped keep my older kids from asking. They would check it throughout the day and the answer was right there in front of them.
Another method that we tried when they were smaller was a money incentive. We took my niece and nephew with us to Disneyland once (4 kids aged 2-8) and this was the method we chose. The 2 year old didn’t know to ask, they just get a little cranky and tired by the end of the day. But it definitely worked for the 4, 6 and 8 year old. On the way there they each were told they had $10. Every time they asked if we are there yet they would lose $1. It was so much fun catching them almost say it, they would remember their money and laugh it off!
Having a visual reminder for little kids is great. I saw one idea where you print out a map with your route so that you can show them where you are and how much further there is to go. There are many creative varieties of this. Make a timeline that you can stick to the roof of your car, as you travel have a velcro car or van you can get them to move along as you go.
Tip #5: Comfort
This one might seem obvious but making sure your kids are comfortable can really make a huge difference. If they are in car seats or boosters make sure the straps are adjusted to their proper height. For my older kids we got neck supports and padded straps for the seatbelts. We allow 1 small blanket as well as a travel sized pillow and 1 stuffed animal. These comfort items help them to settle in and I think helps them prepare mentally for a long day in the car.
We have occasionally had a kid or two get sick in the car on road trips. This is unfortunate and can really delay your day. We always have a plastic bag within arms reach which doubles as an easy garbage disposal to help keep the space clean. If we are in a mountain range with lots of curves and bends we usually ask our queasy child to put electronics down and keep their head straight. Having an electronic mounted straight in front of them makes a huge difference as well.
Children’s gravol can really help if you know your child is prone to getting motion sick. Leaving early in the day will help them sleep without disrupting bedtime. Sometimes getting sick is just unavoidable and all you can do is pass them the wet wipes. Our worst experience was driving through the California wild fires in 2018. One child threw up which set off a chain reaction that led to the other child throwing up. We unfortunately couldn’t pull over for several miles or unroll the windows because of falling ash. At least it makes a great story now!
Tip #6 Activities
Keeping kids occupied is a challenge but not impossible. Portable devices have certainly made it easier to keep kids entertained in the car, but we are here to give you other options!
Easy crafts are a great way to spend hours in the car. You want to make sure to pick crafts that don’t have too many pieces and are age appropriate. Ava loved to do embroidering and cross stitching in the car. You can buy fantastic kits like this that come with plastic needles.
One of the things I did was theme things for the day with activity binders. So they had a movie that was themed (Yogi bear for on the way to Yellowstone Park, for instance). They had coloring sheets printed and themed for the day also (Disney trips are easy… hello Disney colouring book! Pro Tip: I liked the twistable crayons best because they don’t break easily and don’t need to be sharpened plus there’s not lids to lose).
Tip #7: Car gifts
This was a tradition our mother started when we were little. Every day she would give us a small car gift. It was usually something that would help keep us entertained. Some ideas would be a small toy, Archie comics for older kids or other books that your kids are interested in. Activity pads, a new colouring book and markers or pencil crayons, a boogie board (resuable writing and drawing tablets). Sometimes it was something active to do at rest stops like skipping ropes, a velcro ball game to toss back and forth, a frisbee, even some chalk or bubbles.
When we drove with my 2.5 year old and 4 month old to Disneyland, I was way more stressed out about this than I needed to be. I spent money on car toys, and different options, when it was much more simple than that. The best options were ones that didn’t require a lot of maneuvering. Think a car for them to drive on the windows and car seat. A couple of their favourite books to flip through. We also really love the Imagine Ink booklets that only require one pen. Each kid has their own small travel backpack in front of them.
I pre-downloaded their favourite shows on to a tablet. I would usually try and reserve the show for the last hour of driving. Again, we’d usually do about two hour stretches. So for the first hour I’d offer toys, snacks, music. I’d try and wait as long as possible before offering a screen. But also, remember that this is outside of the norm. Sometimes you have to do what you gotta do.
Tip #8: Food
Food is always one of our number one ways to lower overall costs on a trip and save money for the more important things. Another life skill that we picked up from our mama. Before you go bake some muffins and cookies and some Mickey Munch. It comes in clutch for a healthy snack and a great way to save on fast food and junk.
- Chocolate s’more cereal
- lightly sweetened cereal
- Mickey goldfish (picked out the Minnie heads for the other mix)
- chocolate covered M&Ms (brown, yellow, red)
- Lightly sweetened cereal
- Minnie heads and fish crackers
- dried coconut
- freeze dried strawberries and bananas
- granola chunks
Tailgate lunches are another great way to save time and money. If you don’t have time to make food before the trip stop at Target or Walmart for a bathroom break and pick up pre made salads, wraps or sandwiches. Just remember if crossing an international border, fruits and vegetables are not allowed! We like to keep a cooler handy in the trunk for iced coffee, fresh fruit and veggies and anything else that is easy to grab. As the kids get older we like to stop at a mall or outlets to shop along the way. Gotta keep that schedule so tailgate before you shop! Our mom often had Pasta Salad pre-made as well for road trips (this is such a vivid memory for me and I don’t know why).
Another family go to is pita salad wraps. This recipe is easy to throw together the night before a road trip. Just add the dressing when you are ready to eat! Buy pita pockets and pre cut them in half so that you can put the salad into each pita pocket.
- 2 cups chopped broccoli
- 1 cup chopped carrots
- 1/2 red onion finely chopped
- 1 cup diced bell pepper
- 1/2 cup celery, diced
- Approx 1/4 cup sliced olives
- 1 cup crumbled feta
- 1 small Italian style salad dressing
- Deli roast beef
Tip #9: Tunes
I like to download and curate my playlists before we leave. Consider getting a premium account for the month that you travel so that you can download music rather than rely on data. Something I’ve recently discovered are the audiobooks on Spotify! There are several Disney audiobooks that can be downloaded. Some of them are up to 45 minutes long. Most of them include the music from the movies. I’ve found that it’s a good compromise between screen time and independent play in the car. They will sometimes draw, or they’ll just listen and look out the window.
Podcasts are also great, we like Disney ones. I personally like to allow each person in the car control over the play list for a set amount of time. There’s fun in listening to each others favourites and the kids love the control. We love Detour to Neverland.
Tip #10: Saving Money
Our mom was the Queen of money saving hacks. One of our absolute faves was keeping an ice cream scoop in the van at all times. As a family of 6, going for ice cream could easily set you back $30. Buy a box of sugar cones and have your scoop in the van, ready to go. We would take turns picking an ice cream flavour. We thought it was so much fun because you have to eat all the ice cream! Buying Hagaan-das bars is another great idea.
Let’s talk coffee. If you have been following us for awhile you know that we can’t go without our coffee. At $5 a coffee it can really add up. We love to travel with our French press for a hot coffee in the morning and an iced coffee in the afternoon. Don’t forget the kettle! (I like a collapsible one). Or just ask for hot water at McDonalds or gas stations, we’ve never been turned down.
One of the perks of driving over flying is having more space for this type of stuff. For iced coffee we just buy a big one from the grocery store with a creamer and keep it in the cooler. Not only is this a money saver, it’s a time saver as well! I bring milk and freeze it before. That way it’s your ice for several days. I always tend to buy the Starbucks canned drinks to bring for that quick pick-me-up that we kept in the cooler. Or Via’s are another easier option than bringing a whole french press if you don’t already have a travel one!
Do you like to road trip? We’d love to hear from you!
Erica, Heidi, Elisia and Danielle