Here are my tried-and-true tips for family traveling and surviving a long road trip with kids.
A few months ago, we took a road trip with our kids.
A very long road trip.
We drove from New York to Florida with our four kids ages 9 and under, spent 10 days at two different amusement parks (Legoland and Walt Disney World) and then drove back home (yes, we are gluttons for punishment). Our friends and family thought we were nuts.
But hey! – we survived. And believe it or not, we actually enjoyed it and would totally do it again.
Driving a distance like that with small children in the car is definitely not for the faint of heart. And it can’t be done without a lot of careful planning (well, it can, but I wouldn’t advise it).
I’d like to share with you the six essential things that made our super long road trip with kids not only manageable but memorable and enjoyable as well.
So buckle up (see what I did there?) and prepare yourself for some very thorough and detailed tips that will make you feel more than prepared for your family road trip.
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Here Are My 6 Best Tips for Surviving a Long Road Trip with Kids:
1. Plan Ahead & Plan Well
If our friends and family thought we were crazy for attempting a 2,368-mile round trip drive from Buffalo to Orlando with four kids, then they would have certainly thought we lost our marbles if we had just come up with the idea last minute with no prior planning.
When you plan on taking a road trip, you typically think about which day you’re leaving, how long it will take to get there, what you need to pack, etc. And these are all very important things to plan.
But there’s so much more to plan than that. And the more detailed you are in the planning, the smoother things will go.
⇒ Pick the day you want to leave, plus the TIME of day.
Do you want to pack the kids in the car in their pj’s and drive at night while they sleep? We’ve done that before, and it can work (just make sure to stop when you are tired and get enough rest).
Or, would you prefer to go to bed early the night before and get everyone up at the crack of dawn, to get a head start on your driving?
Consider different starting times and choose the one that would work best for your family and your travel plans.
⇒ Plan out your stopping points.
It would be foolish to try and attempt an extremely long road trip with kids without having a plan regarding when and where to stop.
For us, we made two overnight pit stops along the way (one at my sister’s house, and one at my parents’ house). Our two days’ worth of driving was broken up into more manageable chunks in between our planned stops.
You may have a family member’s house you can stay at along the way, or you may have to book an inexpensive hotel for a night or two.
Either way, decide when and where you will stop, and make sure your goal is realistic and attainable. Driving fatigue is a real thing, and you have precious cargo in your vehicle – don’t chance having an accident just to gain another hour or two of driving. Stop and rest when needed.
⇒ Check your car and make sure it is serviced and equipped to handle a long drive.
Make sure you check the oil (and change it, if necessary), check the air pressure in the tires (and fill them, if needed), and make sure your windshield wipers are functioning correctly and that your windshield wiper fluid is full.
You will also want to check and make sure your headlights, taillights, and brake lights are all operational.
Another thing to consider is to sign up for AAA, if you’re not a member already. We did that just days before our road trip, and I was so glad we did. We didn’t need to use it on this trip (thank you, Lord!) but it did give us some peace of mind.
⇒ Plan to have some extra money.
Bring enough cash to pay for all expected vacation expenses – and then bring a bit more, to cover any unexpected expenses that may pop up along the way. Having extra money set aside in case some sort of emergency arises or if you just end up going a bit over budget (which does tend to happen at times while on vacation) will make you feel a lot more prepared.
⇒ Be prepared for medical emergencies, big or small.
We have a small travel first aid kit for our car that contains items such as band-aids in various sizes, antibacterial spray, ointment, etc. You never know when someone will get a cut or scrape, so it’s a good idea to always keep a stocked first aid kit in the car (road trip or not).
Also, don’t forget to bring your health insurance cards along with you as well, in case of a big medical emergency where a hospital visit is required.
2. Pack a Lot of Food & Snacks
This tip is both a time-saver and a money-saver. My husband and I had discussed this weeks before we left and had decided to bring as much food with us as we could, to help cut down on the number of stops we needed to make as well as to reduce the amount of money we would spend on food while on the road.
⇒ Here is a list of all the food items we packed:
- Single-serve snacks (such as small bags of cheddar crackers or graham crackers, fruit bars, and little boxes of raisins)
- We made homemade popcorn and divided it into individual portions using snack bags. This saved some money and also allowed each kid to have their own little bag of popcorn, instead of fighting over one large bag. We usually get this kind for home, but making our own was cheaper and still tasted just as good (if not better!).
- Individually wrapped Babybel cheese
- Cashew butter & apple butter (to make sandwiches)
- Sliced bread (again, for sandwiches)
- Fruits and veggies (things like apples, bananas, grapes, baby carrots, celery, and cherry tomatoes)
- We also made two containers of food to bring with us for sandwiches (egg salad and chicken salad). Both were very quick and easy to make, and it was a huge time saver and money saver to just spread some sandwich filling on a couple of pieces of bread to make a quick lunch.
- Instead of bringing a pack of individual water bottles, we brought our refillable stainless steel water bottles for the kids (and mine and my husband’s glass water bottles, as well). We brought a few gallon-sized jugs of water with us and refilled the water bottles as needed. It was much cheaper to do it that way, plus we avoided having tons of empty plastic water bottles floating around the interior of the car.
Bonus tip #1 – Bring a couple of kitchen garbage bags with you. Set one up in the middle section of the car, and make sure all garbage goes into it. The last thing you’ll want to do when you reach your destination (or when you get home) is to have to clean up loads and loads of trash from all over the inside of your car.
3. Make Your Kids as Comfortable as Possible
We wanted to make sure the kids were as comfortable as possible during the long drive. A few ways to do this:
⇒ Dress them in soft, comfortable clothing.
You’ll want to make sure they are dressed in comfortable clothes that are soft and maybe even a bit stretchy. Another good idea is to dress them in layers so they can take off some clothes if they start getting hot.
⇒ Have them wear shoes that are easy to put on and take off.
When my kids started getting tired, they liked to kick off their shoes before falling asleep. We had them wear comfortable shoes that could easily slip on and off – like Crocs and sandals – so we didn’t have to waste precious time tying and untying shoes when we stopped for bathroom breaks (those minutes REALLY add up each time you stop – trust me!).
⇒ Bring their bed pillows. Or, better yet, get them travel neck pillows.
Hands down, the absolute BEST thing we purchased for this road trip were these travel neck pillows. We got one kid-sized neck pillow for each kid, and then one adult-sized neck pillow for me and my husband to share.
They were absolute life-savers! Not only were they incredibly comfortable, but they also prevented the kids’ heads from slumping down to their chests while they were asleep in their car seats.
They cost a bit more than I wanted to spend on neck pillows, and there are cheaper options out there, but I am SO glad I went with these. They are definitely worth the slightly higher price tag, and I would never attempt another long road trip with kids without having these with us!
4. Bring a Variety of Fun Activities
This tip is absolutely KEY to getting from point A to point B without everyone losing their minds!
When you’re on a long road trip with kids, sitting in the car for hours upon hours can get boring fast (for the kids AND for you!).
Make sure you bring a large assortment of activities with you so that the time passes a bit more quickly.
Here are a few things that we brought with us that helped immensely in keeping the kids occupied:
- Spot It game
- Card games
- Hangman game
- Coloring books & crayons
- Pads of paper
- Journal (for writing and coloring about the details of our trip)
- Black & white map of the United States, to color in each state we passed through (you might want to print out two copies per child so that they can do this again on the way back – I wish we would have done this!)
- Kids tablet (don’t forget the charging cables)
- Audiobooks (I highly recommend Adventures in Odyssey – my kids love listening to these)
- Portable DVD player & DVDs. We don’t have a built-in DVD player in our van, so we bought a portable one that could be mounted on a headrest in front of the kids. This was so great to have! You can pop in a movie, and before you know it, you’ve driven one and a half hours without any interruptions because the kids are so engrossed with their movie.
- Games: We played travel bingo, eye spy, and sang songs.
And don’t forget stuff to keep the adults occupied! My husband and I listened to podcasts and music, talked to each other, sang or played games with the kids, and listened to audiobooks. When the other one was driving, we would either read e-books on our Kindles or catch up on some sleep.
Bonus Tip #1 – Keeping all the kids’ items organized will save your sanity. We put this organizer on the seat between the boys, so they could easily grab things for themselves and their sisters.
Bonus Tip #2 – Don’t give them everything at once – pull out new items as needed or as they get tired of a previous activity. I purposely didn’t tell my kids what sort of games and activities I had packed, because I wanted to keep things fresh and interesting as the trip went on. This worked really well, and surprisingly, I never once heard from them that they were bored.
5. Be Strategic About Your Bathroom Breaks
When you’re on a long road trip with kids in tow, it’s inevitable to have to stop a LOT for the little ones to use the restroom.
I made a rule early on in the trip that I believe saved us a bit of time and prevented unnecessary stops.
I will forever use this rule from now on, for every road trip we will take in the future, big or small.
My rule is this:
When one person has to go to the bathroom and you must stop, then EVERYONE gets out to go to the bathroom.
I have been a mom long enough to know that not all of my kids will NEED to use the bathroom at the exact same time. But, it never fails – if we stop because someone needs to pee and I ask the other kids if they need to go as well, they always, ALWAYS say no. Then we hit the road again and about 20-30 minutes later, lo and behold, he or she now has to pee.
Their rebuttal? “I didn’t feel it then, but I have to go REALLY BAD NOW!”
In order to prevent this scenario, I came up with the rule that when we stop for one person to use the bathroom, then EVERYONE gets out and at least TRIES to use the bathroom.
I have been known to say, “Fine – you don’t have to pee? Then you are getting out and trying to get just one drop of pee out. Just one.” And of course, they end up going a lot more than they even thought they had to.
The bottom line is that this trick “resets” everyone’s bladders and prevents us from having to stop again 20-30 minutes later because someone “didn’t feel it” when we stopped earlier.
Bonus tip – Try to be as quick and efficient as you can with each stop (whether it’s using the restroom, filling water bottles, grabbing snacks, etc.) so that you can minimize the time lost while stopped. One of you can take the kids to use the restroom while the other one tops off the gas tank (go ahead and fill it, whether it’s near empty or not).
Then, when the kids are back in the car and gas pumping is done, the other parent can go use the restroom while water bottles are refilled and snacks are handed out. Use your time wisely when you stop and get back on the road as quickly as you can.
6. Roll With the Punches
A long road trip with kids is definitely daunting, but all of these planning tips I’ve shared with you will ensure that things will go as smoothly as possible.
But having said that, it’s important to realize beforehand that not everything is going to go as planned.
You may check Google maps and see that it takes 8 hours to get somewhere from point-to-point, but you know that with stops, it might take more like 12 hours. Be flexible and recognize that that time frame is not set in stone and will most likely change again – it might actually take you 13 hours or more. Allow yourself to be okay with that.
Realize that you may need to stop for the night sooner than you had planned. That’s okay. If you’re getting really tired, it’s much better to stop sooner, get a good night’s rest, and hit the road again once you’ve gotten some sleep. You’ll be starting fresh, you’ll be more alert, and you’ll be keeping everyone safe (which is the most important thing).
Allow yourself to be flexible and recognize the fact that no matter how well you plan, there WILL be changes to that plan.
Things will come up that you didn’t expect, you’ll inevitably get a bit behind schedule, and not everyone will get along perfectly the whole time. Just take a deep breath and realize that getting upset over these trivial things does no good. Look at the bigger picture – this epic adventure you and your family are embarking on and all the wonderful, life-long memories that are being made!
Our long road trip with kids was a success…and I hope yours will be, too!
It wasn’t easy, but our long-distance road trip went much more smoothly than I ever thought possible. I truly believe the key was to have a very well thought out plan.
There are certainly a few things I would do a little bit differently next time, but I definitely would follow these same tips again for another relatively smooth and memorable family road trip.