Travel season is finally upon us—and more importantly, finally feels normal again! I don’t know about you, but the travel bug has hit me hard. I’ve been dreaming up all sorts of destinations for my family and I. And the one that screams “summer” to me the most? A good old-fashioned, all-American family road trip.
In my opinion, road trips are much easier with kids than air travel. And that’s coming from a pro-traveling mama with a lot of sky miles under her kids’ belts. With less scheduling and the freedom to come and go on your own time, road trips offer the flexibility and ease that air travel doesn’t. Not to mention (current rising gas prices aside), they’re a much more cost-effective method of travel.
Plus, they allow families to bring anything they want in their luggage—as long as it fits inside. There’s no need to stick to a 50-pound weight limit—a logistic air travel can make stressful. With young kids and toddlers, I like to be able to bring all the things I want and need along.
But with all this positive flexibility, they also offer more room for bickering in small spaces, and longer travel times since cars obviously move much slower than airplanes. On the flipside, however, this can allow for more family bonding.
So, how do families keep the good times in the car and skip the angst? I’ve found through my many travel experiences with my kiddos that knowledge is power and preparation is key—just like with any other parenting activity.
We’ve taken a lot of road trips with our girls, and I’m happy to share the tips for a successful road trip that I use to keep our sanity and maximize the family fun!
Start With a Clean Car
This might seem counter intuitive, considering your kids are probably about to make it filthy on your trip (no, just mine?). Though it’s not just you raising your eyebrows at me. The first time my husband saw me cleaning our car before a road trip, he looked at me puzzled. He wanted to know why I was wasting my time.
Hear me out. There’s a method to the madness.
You’re going to be spending a lot of time in your car. Just like in our homes, where we function better in a clean environment, a clean car not only does wonders for mental health—less clutter equals a more clear mind—but allows you to find things easier when your kids need them. There’s less digging, dusting, and shuffling when your kid asks for a juice box or tissue. You also won’t wonder if the tissue you just gave them is clean or dirty (just speaking from experience here).
This is always my most important travel rule, no matter the transportation method. When you can find things and they’re easily accessible, you’re much more likely to have a successful vacation.
Some items I use during road trips to keep me organized are (all can be found at stores or on Amazon):
- Trunk organizer: holds all the big stuff in our car such as extra snacks, mini cooler, extra clothes, paper towels, first-aid kit, etc.–all the “extra” stuff I don’t need within reach, but want to have just in case.
- Back seat organizer: My kids use captain’s chairs in our car. Between their seats I use a middle seat organizer to keep the items I want within their reach close to them. This includes hand wipes, tissues, water bottles, and most importantly, a small garbage can. When something needs to be thrown away, they toss it in the garbage can between them. Once it’s full, I toss the bag at a rest stop, and replace it with a clean bag. This is probably the crème de la crème of road trip travel items (use a car garbage can). If your car doesn’t have captain’s chairs, you can find a back seat organizer that hangs onto the back of the front seats that does the same thing.
Bring Along the Kid Essentials
There are a few items that are essentials for a successful road trip with kids:
- Car tray: These are indispensable during road trips. I have one for each kid, and use them for a multitude of purposes. They eat, play, and color on them, and have a holder for their electronic devices, toys, and coloring equipment so nothing rolls over and gets lost. They’re also wipeable, washable, and foldable so when not in use I put them under the seat or in our trunk organizer.
- Backpack: Just like on an airplane when everyone gets their own carry-on, the same holds true for car travel. Each kid gets their own backpack filled with their own entertainment items, coloring books and pencil case, electronic equipment, snacks, etc. This way they can access their own items and rotate through them without you having to keep turning around.
- Screen time: Download your kids’ favorite movies, books, and games onto their electronic device beforehand. Wi-fi isn’t always available on the road. My favorite kids app that allows me to do this is Amazon Freetime Unlimited because it has tons of options and is parental controlled. It’s saved us in the air and driving through the mountains when wi-fi can’t be accessed.
- Snacks: Lots and lots of snacks. For everyone. Enough said here.
- Cozy items: Neck pillows (like for air travel) are essential for both comfort and eventual napping. I also allow each child to bring a blanket, extra socks, and a favorite stuffed animal.
Stick to Your Normal Routines
This especially holds true for younger kids and babies. If your baby naps at 1:00 p.m., and you happen to be on the road, don’t skip it! Give your older kids a quiet activity or let this be their quiet electronic time, and allow your baby to nap. For older kids, this might be their reading time in the evening (audio books work great in the car) or journal time, etc.
Plan Some Fun Road Activities
My kids love road trip bingo (boards can be found online, at Amazon, or at the Dollar Store). There are tons of road trip games that can be found online, or even out loud (“License Plate Bingo” and “I Spy” are classics)!
Take Frequent Breaks
I try not to go more than two hours maximum before stopping at a rest stop. This is for stretching as well as to make sure that my kids get to have bathroom breaks often. The worst thing would be a bathroom emergency in the middle of the highway without an exit.
Have All of Your Important Items Within Reach
Make sure all medicine is safely within your reach, especially any allergy equipment. Some medicinal items I like to keep within reach are band-aids, nail clippers, vaseline, headache and fever medicine, a thermometer, allergy medicine, and stomach medicine. Road trips are known for people getting carsick and you just never know what will happen in a moving car while trying new foods and traveling.
Plan Ahead for the Unexpected
There are a few ways you can prepare for unexpected issues that may arise:
- Prepare for unexpected weather and impromptu exploration. In my trunk organizer I like to keep extra umbrellas for each person, sunscreen, and rain ponchos. If I have extra space I also like to bring along one pair of rain (or hiking, if that’s your thing) boots. This is in case we experience bad weather at a rest stop along the way, or if we find some pretty outdoor locations we want to explore. Road trips offer lots of impromptu exploration!
- I also bring along one full change of clothes in a Ziploc bag for each adult and kid—right down to the socks. I don’t rely on clothes in the luggage because I don’t want to be rummaging at a rest stop. These go in my trunk organizer to be used just in case.
- For younger kids and toddlers I bring a portable potty (can be found at any baby store). I also bring training diaper pants—again, just for those potty emergencies. My toddlers/preschoolers never got confused when I’d ask them to wear pull ups, as they knew this was a travel necessity. Let’s just say they saved us many times during busy traffic and/or construction sites along highways.
- I always bring extra electronic cords and chargers. Eventually everything needs to be recharged, and headphone cords can break easily if kids pull on them too hard. So I like to have extra of everything on hand.
I hope you found these tips helpful and feel more confident to take on the open road with preparation and a renewed sense of adventure!