Survive the Family Road Trip in 10 Easy Steps Skip to Content

Survive the Family Road Trip in 10 Easy Steps

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School’s out for the summer and American families all over the country are packing their bags and hitting the road. 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 doesn’t make the family road trip 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. It’s not a race. It’s an adventure.  If the road trip anxiety is already settling on you like an early-morning fog, don’t fret. Not only can you survive your family’s road trip this summer, but with a little planning, you can make it a delightful and memorable experience for everyone. Here’s what you need for a fabulous family road trip.

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. Rstaurants 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. 

Read Next: Kid-Friendly Recipes for Road Trips and Hiking

Plan a Few Surprises for Back Seat Emergencies

Unexpected surprises are always a great way to soothe bruised egos and cranky kids, as long as you plan strategically. Before heading out on an adventure, 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.

a homemade game box with a scrabble theme.

Our game box always comes along on the family road trip.

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 this awesome for car rides, but it’s great for camping trips and hotel rooms too. The contents of the game box change over time, but over the years, we’ve included:

  • cards
  • coloring books and crayons
  • Mad Libs
  • dice
  • Uno
  • Bananagrams
  • drawing pads
  • Bingo
  • Stickers
  • Travel editions of our favorite games – Connect Four, Battleship, Scrabble, Checkers, etc.

Change up the Seating Arrangements

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.

The National Geographic Road Atlas

Our favorite atlas for family road trips

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 for this reason. While sitting up front, our kids are looking for parks and historic sites, places to have a picnic, and important landmarks. 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.

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.

Read Next: 5 Simple Ways to Survive a Road Trip with a Toddler

Here are some of our favorite road trip toys that find the way into our trunk whenever we travel:

      

Become a Back Road Rambler

A car stopped at a gas station in the North Cascades.

A family road trip through the North Cascades in Washington.

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. 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!

Listen to Your Favorite Audio Books

A woman sits in the middle of the road on Route 66 in Arizona.

Taking a little break on Route 66 during a family road trip.

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. Pick something new or a family favorite and listen together on the car’s stereo. Our favorite audiobooks include every single one of the Harry Potter books, Anne of Avonlea, The Little House on the Prairie series, and the Narnia books. This is truly something we never leave home without, and our kids begin researching ideas as soon as they learn of an impending trip.

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.

A cargo box with "CA or Bust" written on it with markers.

California or bust! One of our longest family road trips.

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.

Read Next: Road Trip Essentials for Outdoor Families

 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.

 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 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? 

Read Next: How to Pack a Small Car for a Big Trip

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A road winding through a mountain pass. Caption reads: Survive the family road trip in 10 easy steps. An old greyhound bus. Caption reads: Survive the Family Road Trip in 10 Easy Steps

 

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Carrie

Friday 28th of July 2017

Plan ahead to stop at playgrounds. The major cities usually have a parks section to their website. We regularly stop in Texarkana, TX at a city park with multiple playgrounds just off the highway (I-30) (bring soap for the restrooms). Downtown Little Rock has Peabody park. Don't forget to use street view to look around at the playground before you stop there. You don't want one in a dodgy neighborhood. I think Illinois has playgrounds at most of its rest stops. Some of the newer rest stops in Texas now do.

Cristal

Wednesday 21st of September 2016

Love these tips! Especially about audiobooks. They're my favourite way to pass the time while driving.

Kimberly Erin

Tuesday 20th of September 2016

There is a lot to be said about packing the right travel snacks as well...ones that doesn't cause grumpiness ahahaha. and exercise and stretching is a good one too :)

Plushy

Monday 19th of September 2016

Some of the tips are for the grownups!!! Thanks for sharing :)

Christine K

Monday 19th of September 2016

This is a great list. I especially like the surprise idea. Traveling with kids definitely takes preparation and you've come up with a good collection of things we can do to not just pass the time but have some fun. Thanks for the survival tips!