School’s out for the summer and American families all over the country are packing their bags and hitting the road, probably in higher numbers than any time in recent history. In my humble opinion, family road trips are a necessary part of growing up, and if you have children on vacation from school, chances are good that you have at least one road trip planned for the near future.
That isn’t to say that the family road trip is easy. In fact, some of our road trips have been right up there with dentist visits and taxes, but that doesn’t stop us from embarking on them. It’s kind of like childbirth – once the pain is over, all you remember are the magical moments, and you are ready to do it again.
Anyway, family road trips will be a lot more awesome if you plan ahead just a bit. If the family road-trip anxiety is already settling on you like an early-morning fog, don’t fret. Not only can you survive the family road trip this summer, but with a little planning, you can make it a delightful and memorable experience for everyone.
After more than 20 summers of road-tripping all over the United States with our kiddos, we want to share some of our best tips for planning, executing, and enjoying your next family road trip.
1. The Right Food will Make or Break Your Family Road Trip
Hungry kids are cranky kids, and the same can probably be said for moms and dads too. Typical American road-trip food will often consist of lame vending machine selections or fast food, which will not add anything to the magic of your trip. You don’t have to be the perfect mom and dole out carrot sticks and kale juice, but finding a good balance between nutrition and taste will satisfy your kids in more ways than one.
Special treats are critical to the success of your road trip, but it doesn’t have to be junk food. What constitutes a special treat will be different in every family, but in our family, hard-boiled eggs, granola bars, trail mix, fresh fruit, and yogurt are all good bets. We always bring along a small cooler and a picnic basket so that we can restock at supermarkets along the way. Our favorite grocery-store snacks include string cheese, grapes, and smoothies, but we’re not perfect. Potato chips are a weakness, and the boys love beef jerky.
If your family is juggling special diets or dealing with food allergies and sensitivities, you have an even bigger incentive to pack your own food. Restaurants and grocery stores are getting better at providing food choices for different diets, but it’s not worth taking a wait-and-see approach if a special diet is crucial when traveling. Traveling gluten-free? Here are some great tips for traveling gluten-free with kids.
2. Plan a Few Surprises for Back Seat Road Trip Emergencies
Unexpected surprises are always a great way to soothe bruised egos and cranky kids, as long as you plan strategically before you embark on your family road trip.
Before heading out on any long car ride, I try and buy or borrow a few new toys, games, and CDs to distract my kids from what is otherwise a long and arduous journey. A few years ago, we received this awesome road trip game box, which is essentially a shoebox filled with different games and activities for the kids. It even included a custom score-keeping book.
We change up the contents of the game box every so often, and because it only comes out during the family road trip, it’s kind of like being acquainted with an old friend. Not only is our game box for car rides, but it’s great for camping trips and hotel rooms too. It also makes an awesome gift for any travel-loving family! The contents of the game box change over time, but over the years, we’ve included:
- playing cards
- coloring books and crayons
- Mad Libs
- drawing pads
- Travel editions of our favorite games – Connect Four, Battleship, Scrabble, Checkers, etc.
3. Change up the Seating Arrangements During Your Road Trip
Adults often take it for granted, but the front seat is where you’ll find the best views, most comfortable seating, and access to the radio. If your kids are old enough, allow them to take turns sitting up-front. A short stint in the front seat on the family road trip will easily work its magic on a grumpy child. As an added bonus, the front-seat passenger can keep the driver company while Mom or Dad takes a snooze in the backseat.
We also give the front-seat passenger the important job of being the navigator. This was way more important before we started using a GPS, but we still use a paper map so that we have a visual of our journey. While sitting up-front, our kids are looking for parks and historic sites, places to have a picnic, and important landmarks.
Insider tip: Our favorite USA atlas is the National Geographic Road Atlas because it includes lots of natural areas, campgrounds, and scenic routes. We still use our GPS for bringing us to specific destinations.
4. Make Time to Exercise on Long Road Trips
An important and often overlooked component to the family road trip is making frequent stops that allow everyone to move their bodies. How often you do this depends on your kids, but we tend to stop every two hours for at least 20 minutes. Keep a Frisbee or ball in the car for break time, stop at a playground, or play a game of tag. Everyone should get in on the action, even parents. Especially parents. We stiffen up so much quicker than the kids do.
We try and find parks instead of rest areas or truck stops for our breaks, but that’s not always possible, so we make do with whatever we find.
Here are some of our favorite road trip toys that find the way into our trunk whenever we travel:
5. Become a Back Road Rambler
There’s nothing less exciting than driving 65 miles per hour for days on end – past billboards, rest areas, and truck stops. I know that interstate travel is sometimes necessary, but if you have time, travel the back roads for a portion of your trip.
On back roads, you will likely come across some interesting picnic spots and photo ops, and your kids will remember your road trip for the new and exciting roads you’ve chosen to take. Let your kids take turns taking photos as you meander around the country. There are so many beautiful places to discover!
6. Listen to Your Favorite Audio Books
Nothing makes the hours melt away on a long car ride like a good story, and audiobooks are available for just about any story you can think of. For your next family road trip, pick something new or a family favorite and listen together on your car’s stereo.
Our favorite audiobooks for long car rides include every single one of the Harry Potter books, Anne of Avonlea, The Little House on the Prairie series, and the Narnia books. We never leave home without a few good audiobooks downloaded from Audible. is truly something we never leave home without, and our kids begin researching ideas as soon as they learn of an impending trip.
7. Let the Kids Choose Stops on Your Road Trip
Want to avoid the dreaded, “are we there yet?” As I mentioned above, letting your kids navigate your route will keep them busy and teach them to use a map. They will also feel incredibly accomplished if you also tell them that it’s their job to choose a spot for lunch or your afternoon hike.
While my kids don’t always choose the same spots I would have, it’s been really interesting to see where we land with kids in charge. Surprisingly, they almost always try to find a place that we will all enjoy. Some of our favorite road-trip stops have been chosen by pint-sized navigators. These have included an aerodrome, a roadside botanical garden, and a super awesome wolf sanctuary.
8. Play Family Road Trip Games
Road trip games are a nice distraction for long stretches of highway. Here’s one of our favorites: Ask one person to secretly choose something outside of the car to count. It could be mailboxes, street signs, police cars – just about anything goes. Each time the chosen item is seen by that person, he counts it out loud. The rest of the family has to try and figure out what he is counting. Whoever guesses correctly gets a turn to count. The goal is to stump your family by counting something that nobody can figure out.
Need a few more road trip game ideas? Family Travels on a Budget has some ideas for a family road trip scavenger hunt that will keep the kids busy the whole trip. Or play some of these road trip games from Family Vacation Critic.
9. Master the Fine Art of Parental Patience
I will never forget one memorable road trip when my kids were 13 and 11. We were driving on a lonesome stretch of highway and the boys were bickering nonstop. We had been dealing with it for hours and had enough. I am ashamed to say that we pulled over and threw our oldest son out of the car and told him to walk. I still can’t believe we did that, and it often comes up in conversation when we look back on our most memorable trips (I’m so sorry, Rowan!).
Every parent will have moments where they want to take drastic measures, but I can tell you from experience, that they always backfire. The family road trip can be an exhilarating adventure, or it can be a tiresome struggle. It’s important to keep in mind that your kids are away from the routines and structures of home. They will act out at times. Despite the urge to reprimand, shout, or pull out your hair, remember that keeping yourself calm will have a soothing effect on your whole family.
If you have the urge to throw one of your kids out of the car, pull over. Instead of banishing someone, make everyone get out of the car. If your kids are old enough, they should find a place where they can escape from their parents and their siblings. If they are young, then parents should split up so the kids can have time apart. Take a deep breath. This too shall pass.
10. Be Flexible
Don’t be afraid to deviate from your family road trip schedule. In the moment, you may not be able to remind yourself that the journey is more important than the destination, but it is! Your family will remember spontaneous side-trips far longer than hours and hours in the backseat. Now that our kids are young adults, I can say this from experience. They remember both the good days and the bad days, but they definitely do not care to remember the endless hours in the car.
Are you ready to hit the road with your family? What are your favorite tips for dealing with long hours in the car with kids?
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Our Favorite Resources for Road Trips and Outdoor Adventures
These are the resources we use to plan road trips, save money while traveling, and shop for outdoor gear.
Car Rentals: While we use our own car most often for road trips, we also enjoy flying into major airports and then renting a car for more regional road trips. We use Kayak to compare prices and find deals from dozens of car rental agencies at once.
Flights: We use Kayak to search out flight deals. Money-saving tip: If you find yourself using the same airline repeatedly (we are huge Southwest fans), consider joining their loyalty program and getting an airline credit card. With our Southwest Rewards Visa, we earn a few free flights each year.
Hotels: When it comes to lodging, we seek out small boutique hotels or quirky roadside motels. First, we search for hotels on TripAdvisor so we can read reviews from other travelers. Then, we use Booking.com to make reservations (they have the best prices, plus a flexible cancelation policy).
Camping: Camping is one of our favorite things to do on long road trips. It allows us to explore the outdoors, cook our own food, and save money. We use They Dyrt Pro to find campsites and read reviews before booking on Recreation.gov or state park websites.
Glamping and Vacation Rentals: For weekend getaways and shorter vacations, we love glamping (check out our glamping resource guide). We book glamping properties through Tentrr, Hipcamp, and Airbnb. For cabins and vacation rentals, we like to use VRBO (they have fewer fees and a better cancelation policy than Airbnb).
Guides and Maps: If we are visiting a new region, we usually invest in a Moon Travel Guide for the area. We pass them on to friends and family after our trip. If we are planning on hiking, we also purchase a Falcon guide in the Best Easy Day Hikes series.
Outdoor Gear: We are REI Co-Op members. It cost us $20 for a lifetime membership, but we get a yearly dividend based on our purchases, plus great deals and coupons throughout the year. REI also has a great return policy.
Check out our complete guide for planning a road trip on a budget