The old-fashioned family road trip is back in style and I am here for it.
What’s not to love? You can pack as much as you can fit in your car (including prepped meals and snacks to keep restaurant stops infrequent), you have ultimate control of your itinerary, and you can pull over to stretch everyones’ legs whenever you feel like it. As a bonus, if something catches your eye out the window, you can make the split-second decision to check it out. World’s Largest Elk Horn Arch anyone? It’s in Wyoming if that is something you’d find interesting!
Here’s how to make long drives with kids as painless as possible:
- Prep your vehicle. A few days prior to departure check all fluid levels under the hood, check tire pressures (including the spare), and give the inside of the car a good clean (I know it seems counter intuitive to clean before a road trip, but you’ll be genuinely happy that you did when you’re stuck sitting there for a long period of time). Ensure that you have extra washer fluid and jumper cables in the trunk.
- Have some preparatory conversations with the kids. Tell them where you’re going, how long you’ll be in the car, why you’re going to drive rather than fly (if that’s something you would have previously done). Then let them know how much fun it’s going to be in the car and get them to help you plan out what they’d like to do during the drive. If they have a hand in selecting the activities and know the plan ahead of time, chances are better that they’ll rock the road trip.
- Have a hearty meal before sitting into the car. I know that you just want to get on the road as quickly as possible, and sitting down to eat feels like a waste of time, but we’ve learned that if we don’t do this everyone is hungry almost as soon as we take off! So while one parent is checking the last few items off the packing list and wrangling the kids, the other one whips up some scrambled egg and toast or something equally simple. We all eat, and then one parent oversees the last bathroom break prior to departure and straps the kids into the car, and the other throws the dishes in the dishwasher and starts it up.
- Don’t overestimate your kid’s tolerance for sitting still in the car. If they’re young and have never been on a road trip before, they probably won’t tolerate 8 hours of driving in a day and if you try to do it those last few hours could be torture for everyone.
- Consider driving while the kids sleep. Take off right after lunch or right at bedtime. In the past, we’ve had great success with driving during afternoon nap, but mixed success with nighttime driving. Sometimes the kids haven’t fallen asleep in the car at bedtime like we expected them to, and then sometimes they get all riled up when we get to our destination in the middle of the night and have a hard time falling back to sleep, but I suggest this because it might work for your family. Another idea (and we haven’t tried this but we’ve had friends who have): parents can take turns driving through the night and then when the kids wake up, you’re at your destination. This would work best if there are friends or family who can mind the kids for a few hours while the drivers get a little nap upon arrival.
- Consider purchasing a car backseat organizer. They help hold onto road trip toys, snacks, art supplies and tablets/headphones. This will work best for older kiddos who’ve moved out of the 5 point harness and can lean foward to reach items.
- Bring water bottles for everyone to stay hydrated. Try to set yourself up so that the kids can access their own water when they want it. Use the same principle for arranging the books, markers, etc to try to prevent one parent from having to do car acrobatics to hand needed items to the kids.
- Think ahead about any big cities or other high traffic areas that you’ll be passing through. Time it out so you’re not driving into center of Chicago at 4:30pm on a Friday for example.
- Keep your cool. Be ready for challenges on the open road because they will happen and how mom deals with them will set the tone for how everyone will deal with them. Like the time we were over two hours away from home, near our destination, and my daughter piped up, “Mom, I don’t have any shoes.” How does that even happen? Who walks out of the house without shoes? I could feel myself getting mad, but was the point of that? It was an accident and it was actually kind of funny. We were able to stop at a department store and grab a cheap pair of shoes that did the trick.
- Have a good stash of car friendly snacks ready to go. Things like peanut butter crackers or cheese and crackers, granola bars, cheez-its, trail mix, string cheese, graham crackers, popcorn, & cut up apples all work to keep everyone feeling satiated on the road.
These are our go-to car activities for our five year-olds:
+Coloring books and plain paper with markers
+Books for reading
+Audio stories: I have the free app TuneIn Radio on my phone and within the app, I search for “children’s stories” and play them over bluetooth. You can also check out audio CDs from a public library, or purchase audiobooks from other audiobook apps. There are tons of kid-themed podcasts you can enjoy, too.
Tablet time is also a part of our road trip routine. The kids each have their own tablet that has shows downloaded from Netflix – this does require either the standard or premium subscription – and Disney+ -(no extra subscription is required for this one). Be sure to download the shows/movies while you’re on wifi at home and give yourself plenty of time for the downloads as it always takes longer than you think it will.
I definitely recommend keeping it simple with travel activities and going with the “less is more” mindset on a road trip. We find that even when we pack all the toys we own, the above are the only activities that they end up doing regardless of whether the drive is 2 or 6 hours.
Get out there, make some lifelong family memories, see some lovely views, and enjoy!