How to Survive a Long Road Trip With Young Kids

Family going on a road trip. (photo via monkeybusinessimages / iStock / Getty Images Plus)
by Emily Krause
Last updated: 2:00 PM ET, Thu July 18, 2019

Family Road Trip Time

Every summer, my 3 kids, my husband and I make the trek from Florida to Wisconsin to visit family. We love the freedom of having our own vehicle, and we know that driving will save us a ton of money. The only downside? Being trapped in a car for 20 hours with babies, toddlers, and preschoolers can try even a saint's patience. Here are my top tips for surviving your next road trip with little ones.

Plan to Stop

Of course, every road tripper will have to stop every now and again to fill up the tank with gas or use the restroom. With kids, the number of stops you'll make will certainly increase due to baby's feeding schedules, restroom stops and the need for kids to get out and stretch their legs. Plan to stop at parks, playgrounds, gardens or children's attractions where they can get their wiggles out before another long stretch in the car.

Share the Responsibility

Preparing for a road trip can be stressful, and the onus of making packing lists, planning stops, booking hotels and getting all the children's gear packed and organized often falls on one parent, which can lead to stress and fighting. Use a list sharing app you can sync with your partner's phone or put a list of things to be done in a page protector on the refrigerator. Check off items as you complete them, then simply wipe it away to reuse for your next road trip.

Make Use of Technology

As much as I love a good old-fashioned paper map or atlas, sometimes technology is the quicker and easier option. Make use of travel apps to help you plan your trip. Road Trippers helps you find points of interest along the way, GasBuddy shows you the cheapest spots for filling your tank, iExit helps you find a restaurant, coffee shop, rest stop or whatever you're looking for on-the-fly. HotelTonight offers last-minute hotel deals if you find yourself needing an unexpected break from driving. You should still always keep an atlas in the car in case technology fails you, though!

Pack Smart

Play around with your setup in the car. Try clear bins to hold each child's books and toys, a 3-drawer organizer for snacks, diapers and wipes, a pop-up laundry basket to house blankets and stuffed animals when they're not in use or a plastic shower caddy for extra cup holders.

Keep it Clean

Kids spill. They make crumbs, they smear food on their faces, they color on windows and they drop their trash wherever they feel like it. Keep plastic bags in the car to collect garbage, then dispose of it when you stop at gas stations. Bring wet wipes to clean faces and hands and paper towel or cleaning cloths to mop up messes. Keeping your space neat will preserve your sanity and help reinforce the concepts you teach at home.

No-Mess Entertainment

Choose activities for your kids that will cut down on the mess. Our family consistently uses Melissa and Doug Water Wow books to keep toddlers entertained. We graduate to Crayola Color Wonder markers and coloring books as the kids get older. The markers only color on the special paper so the kids won't be able to mess up your upholstery or windows. Pipe cleaners, Wiki Stix, magnets and LCD writing tablets also make for good clean fun.

Try Family Reading Time

Bring your children's favorite picture books that they can page through on their own so you can institute quiet reading time for the whole car. Try search-and-find books for a partner or group activity. Read a chapter book aloud to your older kids or play an audiobook the whole family will love. Joke books might be torture for the adults, but they sure keep preschoolers and young elementary school-age kids entertained!

Allow Screen Time

It's very noble to attempt a long road trip without screens (and props to you if you can do it!), but sometimes Mom and Dad just need a little break from the neediness and noise. Many vehicles these days come equipped with DVD players, so put on a movie or let kids use tablets for a limited amount of time. You can lock the screen on most tablets so that kids can only access the app or movie you've set up for them.

Music Therapy

Sometimes the only thing that calms our cranky toddler on hour 18 of a road trip is a rocking round of Baby Shark. Blasting music can put the whole family in a better mood, and you can really mix up the type of tunes you choose. Play kid-friendly classics, then introduce them to your favorite road trip anthems. Listening to the car seat karaoke just might send everyone into a fit of giggles.

Get Cozy

Equip your children with neck pillows or pillow pets that can wrap around their seatbelt for a comfier way to snooze in the car. If they have a favorite blanket or stuffed animal to help them sleep, allow them to bring it along. Try to stick with your normal nap or sleep schedule in the car to provide some structure to the day.

Keep it Cool

Road trips with kids mean hauling along items that need to be refrigerated such as milk, yogurt, string cheese or fruit. Try freezing a gallon of water to use as an ice pack. You'll have the added bonus of cold water to use at your destination! If that's not an option, bring a gallon Ziplock bag and fill it up with ice at gas stations along the way.

Fuel Up

Speaking of snacks, pack healthy filling foods to ensure the kids aren't always whining that they're "still hungry." Granola bars, apple slices, bell pepper and carrot sticks, string cheese, sandwiches, yogurt and fruit pouches make great road trip snacks. We still make room for special treats, just as long as they're getting nutritious food the majority of the day. I can't stress this enough: you can never be over-prepared when it comes to stocking up on road trip snacks.

Pack an Overnight Bag

If your trip will take 2 or more days and you're planning to spend the night at a hotel en route, make sure to pack an overnight bag with everyone's pajamas, toiletries and clothes for the next day. This way you'll avoid having to lug everyone's suitcase into the hotel for a brief stay. Use packing cubes to keep everyone's clothes separate and organized.

Make it Educational

Print out U.S. maps for the kids and have them color in each state as you drive through it or trace the route for them. Play the license plate game and help the kids find a vehicle from every state. Read a book with information about the states and talk about fun facts like what the state capital is or what each state is known for. There are a lot of sneaky ways to make travel educational in a fun way!

Relax and Have Fun!

It's easy to find myself growing tense as the road trip progresses thanks to whining kids or a growing mess in the back seat. I try to remind myself that family road trips are where the memories happen, even if those memories feel stressful in the moment. Singing together, playing games, or telling stories to your kids will make the time together feel richer rather than a bore or a bother. And, hey, there are always movies on your tablets and devices when you need a break from each other.

Sometimes the best family memories come from spending long hours together in a car.

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Helping leisure selling travel agents successfully manage their at-home business.

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Laurence Pinckney

CEO of Zenbiz Travel, LLC

About Me