Family road trips can be a bonding experience or a living hell, depending largely on your level of patience and denial. Being trapped in a moving vehicle for several hours with multiple kids, limited snack options, one radio and no bathroom is not exactly a recipe for happy memories.
I asked parents on the Mommy Shorts Facebook page for their best family road trip tips and they had answers. They might not be as effective as ear plugs and duct tape, but they will definitely help you survive the trip with your sanity (somewhat) intact.
1) Timing is everything
Whether you are driving two hours or twelve, many recommended leaving at your kids’ bedtime so they fall asleep soon after the drive begins. If you start your 12 hour road trip at night, the kids might sleep straight through the entire thing. Provided the parents don’t fall asleep at the wheel as well. (I recommend a caffeine IV and tons of energy drinks!) If you fear you might pull a Clark Griswald, others suggested you leave super early in the morning, because your kids would most likely fall back to sleep.
2) Load up those smart Devices
It’s no secret that iPads and other smart devices have changed family travel. Anybody sick of their Frozen family singalong can just pop in some earbuds and start listening to their own tunes. Little kids can busy themselves for hours on an iPad— that’s if someone remembered to download a bunch of new games and shows to pique their interest. If you don’t have iPad data plans that include access to YouTube and Netflix on the road, definitely deliver the news ahead of time to prevent meltdowns when they’re favorite toy egg-opening video is unavailable. Also, it’s fine if you want to encourage learning with some educational apps, but make sure to include some apps with their favorite TV characters too. I know Team Umizoomi keeps my kids interested way longer than Reading Raven, as much as I wish it were the other way around.
3) STAY CHARGED AND PLUGGED IN
With smart devices playing such an important role, it’s important to start your trip with everything fully charged and a way to recharge if possible. Portable USB chargers and universal car adaptors are key. You might also want to make sure you have enough smart devices to spread out equally among the kids, so there is no fighting in the backseat. And don’t forget kid-friendly headphones! Nobody wants to hear the Bubble Guppies theme song when they are trying to catch some Zzzzzs.
4) Don’t forget about non-electronic Activities
Many people recommended creating activity packs for each kid, which can include items like washable window markers, a map for them to follow along, book lights for them to read after dark, crayons and a notebook. One mom suggested filling a bag with surprise gifts from the dollar store. You can even wrap them to add to the fun. Then, every hour, let them pull one gift from a bag. The cheap toys entertain them and you get to continually introduce new activities throughout the trip.
An even cheaper option is to sort through your kids’ toys a few months prior to find “travel friendly” toys. Then put them away somewhere the kids won’t find them so they’ll be excited to see them again on the road.
Another brilliant suggestion is buying your kid a metal baking sheet with raised sides to use as a portable desk/food tray. This way your kids can draw with crayons (triangle crayons to prevent rolling) without losing anything. It’s also great to play with magnets, which is perfect for a game of travel bingo.
5) play some family Games
There are tons of old school car games you can play that involve the whole family, like I Spy, the license plate game and the alphabet game where you name items alphabetically you found in your grandfather’s trunk, repeating the whole list until you get to Z. (Yay for something educational that promotes early spelling and memorization!) You can also create a checklist of different vehicles (18-wheeler, dump truck, cement mixer, just the cab of a semi) and have your kids pass the time by crossing off each one.
My favorite, because it’s great for little kids, is a modified version of Concentration, which just involves picking a topic (cartoon characters, vegetables, animals) and having everyone take turns naming them until you run out.
One mom suggested making up a game of Disney Princess Trivia and reported that her girls could answer questions like, “Which princess kisses a frog?” and “Which princess hits a guy with frying pan?” for hours on end. (If you don’t know your princess trivia, feel free to search for questions on your iPhone as you go.)
Another great option for the whole family is Mad Libs. Big kids and little kids can both contribute and if all goes well, you’ll be laughing at poop and fart stories for a good chunk of the trip.
6) Have plenty of Food Options
You can either have one big family snack bag you sort through continually or you can make packs for each kid with their own choices of snacks and juice boxes. One mom suggested reusing old wipes containers as individual snack containers.
I like to keep a few snacks up my sleeve so the kids don’t know everything available in the first five seconds. There’s nothing worse than all food options being rejected before you’ve even pulled onto the highway. I suggest having healthy options (like pre-cut fruit and veggies) but also some special treats for rewards, meltdown emergencies or just general good will.
If the time in the car is long, plan meals that can be eaten in the car. It’s something to pass the time and this way, “rest stops” can be used for walking around and getting the wiggles out.
7) use your Rest time wisely
Speaking of rest stops, make sure everybody pees before you leave, EVEN IF THEY SAY THEY DON’T HAVE TO GO. That’s Parenting 101. And don’t just think of rest stops as places to eat and use the bathroom. You can research ahead of time, find playgrounds on your route and give your kids a real opportunity to run around.
You should also keep a lookout for a fast food restaurants with a playground. The food might not be healthy, but a playground is the surest way to get a few minutes of much needed peace for adults who just want a quiet moment to inhale a burger.
8) prepare for emergencies
The longer you are on the road, the more chance of an unwanted parenting emergency. And by emergency, I mean bathroom accidents, spills and bouts of carsickness. Always make sure extra clothes are accessible for every person in the car— even yourself. You’re gonna need it after your pull a vomiting baby out of her car seat and hug her close to stop the tears. Trust me, I’ve been there. Some suggest preemptively covering seats with towels or old sheets which can easily be tossed in worst case scenarios.
For babies and smaller kids, I suggest not mixing dairy and fruit before a road trip. I learned that lesson the hard way and no, I will never look at cantaloupe quite the same way again. Many suggest no dairy before or during the trip at all, as it only makes carsickness worse.
In case of carsickness, take a small trash can (or tote bag) and line with a trash bag. If a kid feels sick, they can hold it and contain the mess. Much better than puking over the entire car seat and having to clean out all the nooks and crannies on the side of the highway. Then tie the bag for disposal at the next stop.
Take several extra replacement bags, which you be used to bag wet clothes from accidents, so the stench of pee will be contained. If you have a recently potty trained kid, and you’re adamant about keeping him/her out of a diaper, I suggest bringing their potty along for the ride.
9) Give everyone a turn to control the radio
For shared entertainment like music and video, make sure the kids have choices and take turns. You might try giving kids set shifts for controlling the music. One mom also suggests adding much-needed structure to a road trip by having a set music time, snack time, game time and movie time. This way, kids know what to expect and have something to look forward to.
Audio books are a lifesaver and can be something the whole family can enjoy. More than one mom recommended getting the Harry Potter series (unabridged!) which translates to 115 hours of driving. At 55 miles per hour, that’s roughly 6325 miles. That’s not an estimate— I did the math. In that amount of time, you could drive from New York to Japan! You know, if there was one direct bridge or something.
10) keep your arrival time loose
The most important tip someone recommended was trying not to be too strict with your arrival goal time. If you keep an open mind about stops along the way, allow time for super fun side trips and and don’t rush everyone back in the car after each detour, you can make your family road trip a lot more laid back and enjoyable for everyone. (I hope my husband is reading this.)
11) Reward yourself for road trip purchases
If you use your Amex EveryDay Credit Card for all road trip purchases, including gas, fast food and roadside tourist attraction tickets, those small purchase points add up fast. With the no annual fee EveryDay Card, you earn 2x the points at grocery stores and 1x for every dollar you spend. Plus it bonuses you 20% extra Membership Rewards points after making 20 or more purchases in a billing period. And since you already know you’re getting all seven Harry Potter audio books, you’ve only got 13 more purchases left!
I hope this tips help everyone travel safe and have something resembling a good time. After all, getting there is half the fun. Well with small kids in tow, maybe 1/16 the fun.
I’m really getting good at this math thing!
This post was sponsored by American Express, but all thoughts and opinions are my own.