Your summer calendar is filling up, and your upcoming family vacation may inspire equal parts terror and excitement. So much planning and packing! Not to mention the expense of getting your entire family from point A to point B.
A road trip is inexpensive, easy, and ultra-flexible, and can be fun for the whole family.
Pre-kids, road trips were all about junk food, awesome music, surprise stops, and meandering conversations that lasted for miles. Once you add little ones and car seats, the journey feels more about getting to the destination — with as few meltdowns as possible.
With a few tweaks to your road trip routine, you can retain your sense of adventure on the road and make a road trip with kids one to remember. Here, the tips parents swear by for a successful family road trip.
Play a podcast
Podcasts aren’t only for adults. Find one you can all enjoy. Even preschool aged kids can listen and pick up on some of the conversations. Some titles to look up:
- Tumble is a science podcast focused on how things work, appropriate for ages six and up
- But Why is a podcast by Vermont Public Radio on those “why is the sky blue” questions that you may not be able to answer — but scientists can!
- Classics for Kids plays classical music, explains it, and even plays related games.
Find a playground
A new playground can be as fun for kids as a new restaurant is for adults. And of course, there’s an app for that. Playground Buddy has over 200,000 playgrounds mapped out worldwide, so you’re never far away from a slide or jungle gym.
Wrap up a few surprises
Betsy, a mom of 2 in San Diego, CA, takes the time before a road trip to wrap up a few presents for her kids to unwrap along the way.
“These aren’t necessarily new toys, they may be toys they haven’t played with in awhile, but unwrapping can be really exciting to kids,” says Betsy.
Bring along treats
Part of the fun of road trips is eating random food, at random times. The same is true for kids.
Give your children plenty of snack options (you can keep it healthy!) in Bento-style storage containers, so they have autonomy over what and how much they eat, suggests Sarah, the mom of a three-year-old.
Play road games
Old standbys, like license plate Bingo (spell BINGO by spotting the letters in order on the license plates you see) or I Spy, are classics for a reason. They are easy and fun in a moving vehicle, and anyone can play.
Add a new, delicious twist by adding a treat. Give kids small containers with different candy inside. When someone “wins” a round, he or she gets a snack. Not only do you retain their interest, but you also get to monitor how much sugar your kid eats, suggests Cari, a mom of a 7-year-old and 4-year-old.
Another tech-free idea, from Leslie, mom of a six-year-old and three-year-old: “On our last car trip, we played Two Truths and a Fib. We took turns saying 3 statements… everyone else in the car had to figure out which one was the fib. It was cool to watch the 6-year-old come up with her truths and her fake-outs. I even wound up learning a few new things about my husband of 13 years! Our 3-year-old couldn’t really do it, but she still seemed entertained.”
Other games you can play with your hands on the wheel: Name That Tune (take turns humming while others guess the song) and Guess Who (take turns asking one person yes-or-no questions to figure out the identity of a mystery person on the player’s mind).
Plan a picnic
Instead of trying to get to the destination as soon as possible, enjoy the journey. Plan a picnic and run-around break midway through the drive, suggests Jeannie, mom of a 2-year-old.
National and state parks are obvious stops, but any beach, lake, or pond is also a great option. You might even get a day pass at a local pool, and the chance to cool off and swim. (Bonus – swimming makes most kids really tired!) Do a bit of research and planning for your midday breaks before you set off. You and the kids will have more to look forward to than the final destination.
Take your time
What’s the rush? The more time you have on the road — even if it means leaving your hotel earlier than you naturally would — the more daylight hours you’ll have to enjoy whatever activities and attractions you find along the way.
Some parents wake up their kids at four or five in the morning to get a few hours of driving in before boredom and fatigue set in. “I call my daughters ignition babies because as soon as the car starts, they conk out,” says Kristin, mom to a 7-year-old and 3-year-old.
“For us, it makes sense to get a few hours down, and then stop for breakfast and stretch our legs somewhere, and we already feel accomplished that we’ve ‘gotten’ somewhere.”
For Jennifer, a mom to a 3-year-old, a portable potty is a must for making pit stops as quick and easy as possible (don’t unbuckle them to use the potty while driving).
Other things you might find handy on the road: Wet wipes, easily accessible extra outfits, a portable crib or inflatable mattress in case the place you’re staying doesn’t have them, bathing suits, towels, and sand toys.
In short: When it comes to a road trip with the family, some moms believe there is no such thing as overpacking.
Let your kids own the itinerary
If your kids can read, let them take charge of a portion of the planning. They can pick up brochures or leaf through a guidebook. Invite them to choose the restaurant for lunch or a cool hike. They’ll love the experience and get travel skills like map reading, planning, and research, says Jen, mom of a 13-year-old and 11-year-old. “We don’t always do what they suggest, but we try to consider it, especially when they give ideas within the budget and distance parameters we’ve set out for them.”
With a little planning, a little patience and a sense of adventure, a road trip of a few hours or a whole week can be one the whole family can enjoy.
Anna Davies is an editor at Haven Life. She has written for The New York Times, New York, Refinery29, Glamour, Elle, and others, and has published 13 young adult novels. She lives in Jersey City, NJ, with her family and loves traveling, running, and trying to find the best cold brew coffee in town.