My wife Kendra has similar memories of epic family road trips, but with more of a camping theme. Since we first began dating, road tripping has been a big part of our relationship, in part because we live in Massachusetts and Kendra’s family lives in South Carolina. At least once a year, we pack our car and head south, and before kids, often making the 18-hour drive in one swoop.
These days, with a four-year-old and one-year-old twins, our only feasible option is to make lots and lots of stops, often taking two or more days to travel the 961 miles to our destination. From our trips south, and one memorable epic cross-country road trip, (7,690 miles and 22 states) when our oldest was 11 months, we have built a toolkit of road trip tips and tricks to make traveling on the road easier for all of us.
7 Sanity-Saving Family Road Trip Tips
Tip #1 – Pack Snacks and Drinks
The first of our road trip tips may seem like a no-brainer, but the kinds of food you pack can impact everyone’s comfort level. We have a multi-section cooler that also has a storage area for dry foods. Inside, we pack squeeze yogurts, granola bars, fruit, trail mix, and sandwich fixings. We also fill everyone’s Camelbak bottles with water, and throw chocolate milk boxes in the cooler for a treat for the kids.
Tip #2 – Carry the 10 Road Trip Essentials
- Baby wipes – no matter the age of your kids, these are awesome for cleaning up spills!
- Hand sanitizer – for those times when you need to stop for lunch, but there is nowhere to wash hands.
- Napkins, straws, plastic utensils – these come in handy more often than you’d think.
- Paper maps – for when the GPS quits, or in the case of my friend Janet, the iPhone has no service and you suddenly find yourself stuck at a bridge that no longer exists, with no way to find an alternative route.
- First Aid Kit – make sure you have the basics (and include kids’ pain reliever, antihistamine, etc.)
- Bug Spray & Sunscreen – we keep ours in the passenger side door for easy access.
- Flashlight & Car Emergency Kit – better to be prepared and safe than stranded with a dead car battery at night.
- Coins – Because sometimes you need a candy bar from the vending machine.
- Plastic Grocery Bags – these make excellent trash bags, or a place to store puked or pooped-on clothing until you can wash it out.
Tip #3 – Timing is Everything
Long trips are not easy on little ones – they don’t have the same stamina as adults. One of our sanity-saving road trip tips is to try to drive during nap time, which obviously only works if the kids are still taking naps, but it sure cuts down on cranky time if you can log miles while the kids are sleeping. (If you feel comfortable, driving at night is also an option.)
Tip #4 – Find Alternates to Service Plazas
Since we pack food for the road, we only need to stop at large service plazas for gas and bathroom breaks. Otherwise, we try to avoid them all together. We have found a few alternatives that make life on the road much more palatable.
- Barnes and Noble – It may seem like an odd choice, but B & N stores are often close to a highway, and have great amenities, namely Starbucks, a kids’ section with toys, and clean bathrooms.
- Rest Areas – another great option, especially in the summer months. We always travel with a picnic blanket specifically for stops like these. Crack open the cooler, make some sandwiches, and refuel while the kids burn energy running and playing. Pro Tip – Pack sidewalk chalk and bubbles for these stops!
Tip #5 – Make it Fun!
Nothing is worse than a boring road trip, unless it’s kids on a boring road trip. We try to keep everyone entertained, or rather, give them the tools to entertain themselves. One of the most important road trip tips is to stock up on books, paper, crayons, and stickers for our oldest. She happily will draw and create for hours on end, then switch to “reading” when she needs a new activity. Singing is another great way to pass the time. Now that the twins are talking, we often hear all three kids belting out songs from the back of the mini-van. When they tire of singing, they start requesting songs; 22-month-old Kate’s favorite is Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass.”
You can also play games with the kids to pass the time, including those favorites from our own childhoods.
Try the License Plate Game – look for a plate from every state. Canadian and Mexican plates are a bonus! On our epic road trip, we saw every United States license plate, and seven of the Canadian provinces.
The Alphabet Game – Look for every letter of the alphabet in order – the goal is to get to “Z” first. You can only use road signs and buildings – license plates don’t count.
“I Spy” – This one is a classic. One person “spies” something visible from the car, and gives a hint to the others who try to guess the object.
When all else fails, sometimes we must give in to the most necessary of our road trip tips; bring out the electronics. Our oldest gets the iPad for games and videos, while the twins get to watch Sesame Street on video screens.
Tip #6 – Prepare for overnight stops
We always pack an overnight bag with clothing and toiletries for the entire family (we also pack a special toy for each kid, and a sound machine). Rather than having to dig things out from the back of the car, everything we need is in one place. This is especially helpful when we stop late into the night, and have to carry three sleeping kids into a hotel room. When picking a hotel room, ask about an inclusive breakfast and indoor pool. One of our favorite hotel road trip tips is to use Priceline to bid on a hotel room as we are getting ready to stop driving for the evening, and always have good experiences.
Tip #7 – Plan ahead, but be flexible
Planning our route before we go is important, looking at Google maps, and making sure there are plenty of places to stop for coffee along our chosen route…but we also carry an atlas in the car with us as a real-time back up. Wherever we go, we add notes like “Good German food here,” or, “Awesome park to take a pit stop.” Yes, it’s a good idea to know where you are going, but traveling with kids makes life a bit unpredictable, so don’t be afraid to ditch your itinerary if it’s not working.
Family road trips offer opportunities; impromptu stops, and memories your kids will always cherish.
Jen Bauer and her wife Kendra are raising their three young children just outside of Boston, Massachusetts. On her blog Adventurous Moms, Jen writes about their travels, outdoor adventures and life as gay moms. Jen’s writing has also been featured on theBump, National Park Foundation, Travel Mamas, BonBon Break, FamiliesGO!, VillageQ and Equallyfamily.