Good old-fashioned family road trips rule when the alternative is shelling out for plane tickets for your entire brood. And, frankly, logging highway miles instead of bonus miles can make you feel more present in your travels, anyway.
How to Actually Enjoy Family Road Trips
Whether road tripping with kids is something you want to do or something you have to do, these tips can quiet the choruses of, “Are we there yet?” and maybe even help family road trips become your favorite adventures.
Besides, if you don’t strap your kids into the car and take off for parts unknown at least once, you’re definitely missing out. Is it time to take the ultimate family vacation? Here are tips on making the most of it.
1. Maintain Your Chill
There’s major traffic. The hotel lost your reservation. And you left your favorite sunglasses at the rest stop. Roll with it. Staying calm shows kids that cruising the country is worth the trouble.
Jessica Kane, a mom who took her two kids on a month-long family road trip from Boston to Fargo and plans to drive to the Grand Canyon next, says it wasn’t always smooth sailing, but, “We saw so much of the country up close instead of just guessing what it looked like from 30,000 feet. The changes in landscape alone were awesome.”
2. Forget Making Great Time
One twentysomething can drive from Manhattan to Miami in a day, but the same trip with kids in the car should be about seeing more and doing more—not breaking any land-speed records. On a family road trip, never pass up a chance to pull over to check out the World’s Largest… whatever.
“That flexibility is exactly what makes for a great trip,” adds Kane. “You’ll have no regrets.”
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3. Make Strategic Seating Decisions
“An adult squished between two car seats may feel secure, but they’re actually completely mobile,” says Dr. Alisa Baer of TheCarSeatLady.com. “One unrestrained rider in the back makes everyone in the car up to three times more likely to die in a crash.”
Give grownups room to buckle up by putting toddlers in rear facing seats, shifting car seats around, or investing in slimmer models. Bigger kids stay comfier (and safer) in high-backed boosters with headrests that keep them upright while napping.
4. Keep Things Clean
Everyone will stay calmer in a clutter-free car, so toss trash at every stop and tackle messes ASAP with travel packs of baby wipes and plastic bags stashed in every door. Don’t neglect personal hygiene on family road trips, either. Pack dry shampoo and lipstick or a travel razor so you’re inspired to be in family photos, not just take them.
5. Assume There Will Be Barf
Even iron-stomached kiddos can feel the effects of long, winding roads. Pass out pre-opened gallon zipper bags and explain what they’re for. If you know your kid is a champion puker, have them nibble dry snacks and fruit to make the eventual upchuck less potent.
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6. Keep Kids and Cargo Separate
On long family road trips, put heavy luggage that can’t go in the trunk on the floor, as far back as possible, against a seat back. “People put a child in the third row and fold down the opposite seat for more storage, but that’s essentially putting that kid in what’s now the trunk with the luggage,” says Dr. Baer. “Every row with a passenger should be up.”
Why? Because in a 30 mph crash, most things will weigh about 20 to 25 times more because of the G-forces—so even light luggage becomes dangerous.
7. Stop Every Three Hours
Spending a few minutes apart is sometimes the key to maintaining harmony while road tripping with kids. Pull over on a regular schedule even if no one needs a potty. Some organizations, like AAA, advocate stopping even more frequently on family road trips—every two hours or 100 miles—but if the kids are quiet, push for three.
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8. Really Stretch Those Legs
Bathroom breaks offer a chance for kids to crawl, run, and bounce off cabin fever. Have jump ropes, Nerf balls, and bubbles ready in the trunk, or referee a high stakes game of tag with prizes to get little ones moving. To make family road trips fun, challenge older kids to a photo scavenger hunt.
9. Double Check Car Seats
Never assume someone else strapped in your little ones—double check for yourself before you hit the road. A lot of kids (along with all babies) will sit unstrapped for miles without alerting an adult. “Have every grownup in the car confirm children are safely strapped in before you get on the road,” recommends Dr. Baer.
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10. Don’t Rely on Electronics
Screens offer up short-term thrills just like any other amusement, but they key phrase here is “short-term.” Pack drawing tablets, comic books, travel games, and other low tech stuff on family road trips—even for pre-teens and teens—because the novelty of unlimited screen time is, well, limited.
11. Be Okay with Boredom
Switch up quiet activities on a schedule (e.g., 30 minutes sketching, 30 minutes reading, then a movie) but don’t be afraid to let kids get bored on family road trips. “Think about relaxing their bodies over entertaining them,” suggests family therapist and dad Peter Anderson. “Kids stay in a better mood on road trips when we focus on their ability to feel relaxed over making sure they are always having fun.”
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12. Limit Liquids
Don’t dehydrate kids (or yourself), but don’t ignore the reality that random drinks lead to random bathroom breaks. One sneaky way to quench thirst without pounding H20? Munch grapes, then let everyone in the car drink their fill 45 minutes before the next long break.
13. Snack Smart (and Safe)
Avoid syrupy or sticky stuff on family road trips if you value your upholstery, and never unbuckle a wailing baby to breastfeed on the road (so dangerous) or give unsupervised rear-facing babies bottles or finger foods (also dangerous).
Less obvious: Sweets make kids happy for about a minute, then that high octane burst of energy can morph into an epic freak out. Pack veggies.
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14. Say Yes More Often
Take your “no” off cruise control, and stop to peep roadside weirdness, wade in a creek, hit up a carnival, or call it quits for the night just for the hotel pool. Kids may think being trapped in the car is the worst, but a few spontaneous yesses can really take the edge off when taking a road trip with kids.
15. Make It a Date
Grab some Starbucks for you and your co-parent before you plug the kids into a movie. You can have great conversations (or flirting sessions) in the time it takes Moana to make it home.
16. Accept the Inevitable
You will never, ever be prepared enough for a road trip with kids. Your Roadside America app and cooler of healthy snacks will be no comfort when your toddler is losing it and the entire car smells like your teenager’s sneakers. Yet you will look back on this family road trip experience fondly, someday.
Millions of Americans take family road trips every year because they believe that domestic life can still be an adventure. Because road tripping (even road tripping with kids in tow) gives you pop culture cred. Because the vastness of the U.S. invites exploration.
And, maybe, because kids get more mature, parents have selective memories, and it gets easier. One driving vacation with young kids may have you thinking, “Never again.” But if you ignore that voice, you’ll see that a road trip with kids can be an amazing way to see the country.
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