Who’s got an epic road trip playlist, a cooler full of snacks and enough sunscreen to coat your kids 30x over? That’s right, you do. But even the most prepared parent/guardian/fun aunt can check all the boxes on how to prepare for long road trips with kids, and still be left at mile 354 with a now-empty cooler and a backseat seething with boredom. Have no fear, with these tips and tricks you’ll never have to hear the nagging question… ‘are we there yet?’ again!
Before you hit the road
Organize your itinerary and packing list. There’s a lot to check before you get on the highway (or low-way). We put together our top tips and checklists to ensure you have what you need before you go. We also recommend that if you’re road-tripping with young kids, pack a few barf bags. Car-sickness in children is real. To teach your kids about why car sickness happens (and give them some skills on how to prevent it), check out this video.
Prepare for the inevitable messes. Small children can create some serious messes and oopsies are bound to happen. If you’re prepared, you can clean up quickly and go about your way. Keep a bag within arms reach (not in the trunk under your suitcase) packed with extra clothes and diapers along with wipes, paper towels, sanitizer and large resealable plastic bags for smelly or wet messes.
Don’t forget the essentials. We also recommend making a list of the soothing and comforting items your baby or child absolutely needs and checking it twice before you head out on long road trips with kids. Does your child have a favorite stuffed animal or blanket that they can’t fall asleep without? Check and double-check that these things are in the car before you pull out of the driveway.
But only pack what you need. Some of the stress of traveling with babies and small kids is thinking about everything you need to bring to keep them content and happy at your destination. You’ll likely want a stroller, a high chair, a pack ‘n play, maybe a bouncy seat and a swing, but unless you are renting a moving truck, you’ll likely never get everything packed in your car comfortably. Did you know you can rent everything at your destination instead? Baby gear rental companies like BabyQuip will deliver everything you need right to your destination. How’s that for a road trip win?
Pack a cooler… then pack it some more. When it comes to road trip snacks, always pack a bit more than you think you need. Traffic jams, “closed for lunch” signs and other hazards of the road can push mealtimes back and amplify those hangry mumbles. Mess-free snacks are best for long road trips with kids (especially if you rented a car!) but we forgive you if you pack large bags of cheddar puffs and boxes of sticky fruit snacks. You’ll just want to get your kid’s car seats cleaned when you get home!
Curate the playlist. We get that you’ve been dreaming about introducing your kids to the music you listened to in 8th grade, but when it comes to road trips – relinquish control over the tunes. Let the kids pick out a few bops they’d like to hear while on the road so your list is truly family-friendly. Hit shuffle play and bet on whose tune will show up next. In-car dance contests are highly encouraged (unless you’re the driver, of course).
Plan, plan, plan… bathroom breaks. For anyone who’s been 20 minutes into a ride when the “I have to go to the bathrooooooom” starts, this is for you. Before you go, have several spots picked out along the way that’ll make for decent stops. Pack disinfecting wipes, spray and a roll of toilet paper, just in case. And get comfortable with nature pees.
Manage expectations. Decide before you get on the highway what the ride will look like for your kids, and communicate it to them. Everything from naps to screentime to stops along the way, If your kids get antsy (and car seats aren’t an issue), have them switch places every so often to get a different “view.” You can even put together a fun itinerary (with pictures for pre-readers) that helps them visualize what will happen next.
Tools of the trade
New toys for the ride. It goes without saying that you’re going to need several toys to keep your child engaged on a long road trip. But, you may want to consider a new toy (or two). New doesn’t have to mean expensive, just the novelty of something new may capture your child’s attention for a bit longer. Perhaps pack a few small, inexpensive wrapped toys that you can share at intervals during long, uneventful stretches of the drive. Congrats, you just won yourself some car ride peace and quiet!
A paper map. Employ this handy tool to a) use if your GPS/phone loses WiFi and b) so your kids can follow along on the journey (and learn some geography on the way). Bring some paper and pens and have them draw their own maps, based on the journey you’re taking – you can even bring an extra map and encourage them to draw on that. Ask them to imagine how far you’re traveling or what kind of landscape you’re going through.
A few fun apps.
- Krayon – Keep the kiddos creative without the mess of markers jeopardizing the interior of your rental car with Krayon in the KAYAK app. Kids can choose from tons of travel pictures and color digitally from their smartphone or tablet.
- Star Walk – No doubt you’ll be driving at night or have to make an overnight stop somewhere. The Star Walk app lets you point your phone at the sky and discover which stars, planets, and constellations are above you. It’s fun and education all in one.
- Roadside America – Like to get a little weird? The Roadside America app enhances your road trip by mapping out all of the kitsch, bizarre, and one-of-a-kind points of interest along the route. You can also use our Road Trips Nearby tool to see points of interest within a short driving distance.
On the road
Do boring portions of the ride at night. If you can time it right, tackling some of the long stretches of highway with nothing to see while the kids are sleeping can help alleviate some of the stress of traveling with small children. Just get the rest you need before you head out.
Road games. These can be old-school car games or modern ones that get your kids looking around and out the windows. in other words, something that will get them off their devices.
- Road Sign ABCs – Look for road signs, billboards, bumper stickers and license plates and search for the letters of the alphabet starting at A and ending at Z. If your children are young, play along to keep them engaged and give them hints at where the letters are.
- I Spy – This is always a fun road trip activity and is easy for everyone. The first person says, “I spy…” then describes something inside the car. Typically with a color or a basic shape. Then everyone guesses. This game can easily chew up an entire hour of the ride.
- Silly Storytelling – This is a game even your littlest talking traveler can participate in. This is simple and silly storytelling at its finest. Each passenger makes up the silliest story they can think of and tells everyone else. The smiles and laughter will make great road trip memories.
Pull over. While truck stops are convenient for quick bathroom breaks, you may want to consider looking for some other fun opportunities to stretch your legs along the way.
- Playgrounds – Letting your kids climb on play equipment for 20 minutes or kick around a soccer ball can do wonders for the body and mind on a long road trip. Download an app like Playground Buddy before your trip so you can find playgrounds along your route.
- Roadside attractions – Those brown “Attractions” signs and boastful roadside markers promising the “World’s largest whatever” – heed them well. Look for farm stands, oddities and antique barn sales. Don’t get so committed to making your next marker that you forget that the whole fun of driving is being in control of the journey.
Relax your position on screentime. If you’re not keen on letting your kids go wild on Roblox or watch Peppa Pig for five hours, think about setting them up with an educational app like ABC Mouse or an educational movie. Pro tip: Don’t forget to pack headphones or earbuds for your kids so you don’t have to listen in.
Enforce quiet time. Especially on long trips, make sure you have mandated quiet. Radio off, talking stopped… silence. With nappers, it’s easy to time this during regular naptime. For older kids, this might prove a bit more difficult. But if you can eek in even 20 minutes of silence, looking out the windows, it’ll help reset everyone’s energy for the rest of the trip.
Listen, long road trips with kids aren’t about making great time, having a perfectly quiet ride, or speeding through places so you’re in the hotel dining room by 6. They’re meant for lingering a little longer, enjoying that second ice cream cone to calm everyone down, and pulling over to look out across the mountains. So relish in these moments together. We hope this helps you make your road trippin’ adventure with small children easier and more fun! So, get out there and see the world, what are you waiting for?
In partnership with BabyQuip