Last summer we took the boys on a multi-state road trip. And we survived. Surprisingly, we made good time too. So, as we geared up to plan another road trip this summer, I thought I would share some tips with you, a road trip survival guide of sorts, for taking young kids on road trips.
This list is by no means all inclusive, but it should helpfully get you off to a good start. And, I’ll mention, that this list is aimed more towards younger kids, but you could really adapt most of these items to older kids too.
1. Pack Lots of Snacks
We had a grocery bag full of various snacks, plus a soft-sided cooler. And don’t forget drinks too. We intended to have most of our meals at restaurants along the way, but packed a variety of things “just in case” the kids were hungry and we needed to stop right away.
Some popular items? For protein, we brought hard boiled eggs, mixed nuts, cheese sticks, and beef jerky. Crunchy treats included nori chips, kale chips, popcorn, and rice cakes. We also brought along a variety of fruit – apples, bananas, raisins, and the like. For emergency meals, we had a jar of peanut butter, canned tuna (with the pull top), avocados, and bread. Snack bars were also a favorite.
2. Drive During Naptime
It’s like that rule for new moms, “when baby sleeps, you sleep” — but more productive. When the kids are sleeping in their carseats, keep driving. We drove through lunch one time, and on the way home, we pushed through and got within four hours of home so that our last day’s drive could be more leisurely. It’s a lot easier to drive when they’re sleeping, even if you’re tired and need to get a caffeine fix in order to do so.
3. Pack a Little Potty (for emergencies)
If you have a kid who is potty training, you’ll probably already have this item on the list, but honestly, it’s a good idea to bring a little potty along for older kids too. Depending on where you’re going, there may be long stretches between rest stops, or you might get stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic, or the rest stop bathroom might be particularly gross. Whatever the reason, a little potty may just be a lifesaver.
Plus, it’s better than what many of us grew up with — peeing roadside, or for boys, into an empty cup or water bottle.
4. Bring Wipes + Paper Towels
If a mess happens, you need to be able to clean it up. Wipes can be used for potty stops, cleaning off sticky hands after a snack,… you name it. Paper towels? Well, if a drink gets spilled, you’ll be glad you brought a whole roll (or two) with you. Plus, they’re more durable than napkins.
5. Let them Pack a Bag of Toys
Kids love to help pack (well, when they’re young enough, right?). So why not put that excitement to good use and let them fill a (small) bag with some toys, books, or other items for the road trip? It gives them a sense of ownership and a feeling of control. They know they’ll have some familiar items with them even if the journey will be long and unknown.
6. Have a Bin of Surprise Activities
Whether you call them busy bags or not, having some “mystery” activities packed in the car will be helpful. I packed a bin with some random toys, busy bags, coloring books, and the like for the kids the night before we left. This was in addition to the toys they’d packed on their own. When those toys got “boring” — I was able to selectively pull out an item or two from the surprise bin, which resulted in another (hopefully) 15-20 minutes of being entertained.
Check out my post –> 50+ Road Trip Games + Activities to Keep Your Kids Entertained
7. Give Your Kid a Map
At the time of our cross-country trip, Toby was only three, and not old enough to really read a map, but he still LOVED this idea. We gave him the map, which had our trip highlighted, and he spent countless minutes, even hours, “reading the map” and telling us where to go. Older kids could become involved with navigating and providing directions, which also can be exciting.
8. Have them Help Pack Clothes
I have always found that kids like choices. And getting to choose which clothes come on the trip is no exception. I told my toddler what kind of clothes I needed from his drawers, and had him bring them to me. We may have had a little more than we needed, but ultimately it was okay, because part of taking a trip is learning how to pack. Did it take a little longer? Sure. But we had no fights about clothes while on the trip — any issues were curtailed with “well, you chose what to bring.”
9. Show Them (Often) Where You’re Going
As we counted down the days to our trip, Toby and I spend time talking about where we were headed, how long it would take to get there, and the kind of things we would see on the way (mountains). We talked about this for days. And on the trip, too. Interestingly, he never asked “are we there yet?” — but “are we to the mountains yet?”
10. Pick a Travel Buddy
Sometimes it is tough for kids to sleep in a strange place. Having a travel buddy (i.e. stuffed animal) from home can help. Before leaving, Toby got to pick one or two stuffed animals that would get to travel with us. And he had fun “taking care of them” on our trip, telling them where we were going, during the drive. When we stopped for the night, those stuffed animals gave a sense of familiarity to a strange hotel room.
11. Bring a Familiar Pillow and Blanket
As with the travel buddy, these two items proved invaluable for overnight hotel room comfort. Toby snuggled up in his Superman fleece blanket, with the homemade toddler-sized pillow he uses regularly, and felt somewhat at ease with the new environment. Beyond that, the pillow and blanket got used during naptime in the car, or when the air conditioning got a little too cool for comfort.
12. Pack Slippers
Whether they help keep cold feet warm, or clean feet from getting dirty, your kids may prefer to have a go-to set of slippers rather than having to keep something on their feet (like shoes or socks). Also, having slippers can help kids make the mental transition – “we’re here for the night.”
13. Find a Hotel with a Pool
After being cooped up in a car all day, being able to splash and swim in the hotel pool will do wonders for tiring out antsy kids and use up that extra energy. Even if there’s only time for a short swim before bed, it is worth it. One night we changed our hotel accommodations to a neighboring hotel because the original place only had an outdoor pool (that was closed down). Being able to swim that night made my boys so excited.
14. No Pool? Have Bath Time
No pool? Don’t feel like venturing out to the pool? Just let the kids play in the bathtub. While we enjoyed swimming in the pool I just mentioned, another night we were not so fortunate. My toddler was placated by having time to splash in the bathtub after dinner. It wasn’t quite the same, and we didn’t have any bath toys with us, but that didn’t matter too much.
15. Plan a Picnic in the Hotel
Sometimes, when you’ve been traveling all day, it’s good to just get some food and eat in the hotel room. You can call it a “picnic” to get the kids more excited. We did this on one occasion when I was concerned about the wait time in the hotel restaurant (and impending toddler breaking point). No need to be quiet or sit still in the hotel room…. grab and go is ok!
16. Keep Your Normal Bedtime Routine
Keeping some semblance of normalcy will be so helpful for your kids. For us, it was bringing along a selection of books so that Toby could pick three books to have read to him before bed. You might not be able to do your whole bedtime routine, but I’m sure you can probably incorporate portions of it.
17. Bring a Stepstool and Toilet Seat Insert
There’s nothing worse than losing your sense of independence, especially amidst the stress of travel. We brought a folding stepstool for the bathroom so that my toddler could reach the sink and use the toilet without help. He learned how to put unfold and use the folding toilet seat too — which made things much more toddler-friendly in the hotel bathroom. Since the seat folded down compactly, we were also able to use it during any rest stops while enroute.
18. Give Kids Their Own Water Bottle
Whether you give your kids their own child-sized or adult-sized water bottle is your choice, but be aware that the smaller it is, the less it will hold before you have to stop and refill it. We gave my toddler an adult water bottle so that he wouldn’t run of of water as quickly. It usually lasted most of the day.
19. Leave a Light on at Night
Sure, you can bring your own night light when you travel, but then you have to remember to take it with you when you leave. And if you’re staying just one night at each hotel, that means lots of opportunities to forget it! What we did is leave the hotel bathroom light on and crack the door open — it usually works pretty well. Or, if you’re one to sleep with the TV on, you can use that glow as your night light, I suppose.
20. Eat a Good Breakfast
Especially when you’re traveling, it’s important to get a good breakfast. Whether that means eating on the road, from your assorted snacks, or stopping at the breakfast buffet, make sure to take time to get some protein in the morning. We brought hard boiled eggs and instant oatmeal along for “just in case” …because sometimes the hotel continental breakfast is limited to bagels, bread, and other items that a gluten-free person can’t enjoy.
21. Leave What You Can in the Car
Don’t bring everything into your hotel room. Just the essentials. If you’re going to be on the road early the next morning, there’s no sense in bringing EVERYTHING in. We packed some bags with items that wouldn’t be needed until our end destination, and those never came in from the car during our road trip stops.
21. Have Them Help Load/Unload the Car
In the very least, give your kids a sense of ownership and let them help by loading and unloading some of their own things. This wasn’t a requirement — some days, the boys were so exhausted that they wanted nothing to do with the loading or unloading. But other days, Toby was full of energy and excited to help push the luggage out to the car. Play it by ear, and ask if they want to help… if not, no big deal.
22. Let them “Explore” The Hotel
When you first arrive to your hotel, it can be fun to let your kids help you scout out the important things: hotel pool, ice + vending machines, where breakfast will be served, etc. This doesn’t have to be a really involved activity, but it will give you all a chance to stretch your legs after sitting in the car all day.
23. Play “I Spy” Out the Hotel Room Window
No, I’m not talking about being a peeping Tom. Look for any city sights, mountains, or other natural monuments that you know will be nearby. Even if it’s dark, you can still enjoy looking at the night skyline. Depending on how close to the city you are, you’ll also be able to scan the night sky for airplanes or even constellations.
24. Limit Screen Time
I know there are exceptions to this rule, and sometimes you just need to prevent a meltdown. But, I grew up with the mindset that you go on vacation to enjoy the trip. So, we do our best to minimize screen time, since the road trip is part of the vacation. There are many driving games you can play that require little prep work. If all else fails? There’s no shame in offering screen time if you know it will prevent an imminent meltdown.
25. Expect Delays + Detours
With kids, there are no guarantees. You have to be prepared for delays, for unexpected changes to your schedule. Part of being a parent is about learning to live with that chaos. So don’t expect your trip to run on a military schedule… it might not go according to plan.
26 . Create a Special Music CD
We made a music CD for the car ride, with tracks that the kids enjoyed, so that we wouldn’t have to be scanning for new radio stations as we went in and out of range. It really helped having songs that were familiar! You may want to figure out how to fade your car’s stereo to the rear in case the songs get a little repetitive for the adults in the front seat. I know I got tired of the songs before my boys did.
27. Be Prepared for Temperature Differences
It’s always important to bring along a variety of clothes for different weather conditions. But, beyond that, you’ll want to be prepared for temperature differences in your sleeping areas too. The hotel rooms we stay in tend to be much warmer than our home. It was really helpful to have a light blanket for the kids to sleep under instead of the huge down comforter or bed spread.
28. Avoid Restroom Power Struggles
We avoided (most) potty power struggles by informing my toddler, whenever exiting the car for a break, “you will be using the bathroom before getting back in the car.” It gives them a greater sense of control, and lets them know what to expect. It also prevented a number of “I have to go” incidents that would have occurred right after getting on the road again.
29. Be Patient
Kids will be kids. And when they get excited, they don’t listen as well. So, if you expect their excitement to alter their ability to listen, obey, sleep, etc…. you can remind yourself to be patient with them, you know they’re not being difficult intentionally.
30. Give Your Kid a Camera
Kids love to take pictures. While I’m not sure my toddler’s pictures were anything to write home about (many of them were of the back of the car seat), having a camera “of his own” really made Toby proud. He would pull out his camera to take pictures of the mountains, of the cows, or other things we saw that he found interesting. And then, when we got to the hotel, we could pull them up on the laptop and look through the pictures that were taken that day.
Well, what do you think? Did I miss something? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments. Also, make sure to check out my related post, 50+ Road Trip Games + Activities to Keep Your Kids Entertained.