Smart Travel: 24 Mom-Tested Tips for Road Trips With Kids

Almost every summer, our family makes at least one road trip. We’ve been from Philadelphia to Texas and back several times, and most of those drives were just me and my four kids.

The farthest I’ve done with the kids is Texas to Connecticut and back. In the years B.C. (before children), I also did trips from California to Philadelphia, from Connecticut to Arizona, and back again. This summer I’ll be driving from Philly to Chicago with the kids.

We actually really enjoy these trips. When I posted on my Facebook page asking for parents’ favorite tips for road trips with kids, some of the responses were, “no such animal,” “fly,” or “leave the kids at home.”  However, I disagree, and so do more than a hundred other parents who shared their tips. It’s really all about the attitude, the approach, and the expectations.

Overall, we’ve had incredible amounts of fun on our road trips, and our kids have learned a ton, including how to handle the inevitable curve balls to the plan. There was one trip that turned into a slippery descent into hell, but that’s because we all came down with Swine Flu. (Click here for the story of that delightful little adventure.) Although it was pretty awful at the time, it’s now one of my kids’ favorite stories to tell.

Based on my experiences and those of the many, many parents who offered suggestions on Facebook, here are more than 24 of the most helpful tips for road trips with kids. Don’t just survive your trip–thrive on it! These are the kinds of memories that last forever.


  • Smart Travel: 24 Mom-Tested Tips for Road Trips With Kids 1 of 25

    Family road trips can be an adventure until themselves. Click the arrows to scroll through more than 24 tips from parents who have survived--and thrived on--road trips with their kids!

  • Lower your expectations. 2 of 25
    Smart Travel: 24 Mom-Tested Tips for Road Trips With Kids (via Babble)

    Far and above, the most popular piece of advice from moms is, "lower your expectations." This doesn't mean you should expect the worst or that your trip is going to suck. On the contrary, it just means you can't get too worked up if your schedule gets thrown off by traffic, a carsick kid, a missed turn, or the thirty-seventh potty break.

    Don't just focus on the destination ("everything will be okay when we get to Disney/the next hotel/Grandma's house"). The road trip itself is part of the adventure, and dealing with the random things that come up are part of that. Family road trips are a great exercise in just rolling with it. Remember that your kids learn how to react to obstacles from you: if you're calm and collect in the face of challenges, they will be too.

    (Photo Credit: iStockphoto)

  • Make sure your car is prepared. 3 of 25
    Smart Travel: 24 Mom-Tested Tips for Road Trips With Kids (via Babble)

    Before taking a road trip, have your favorite trusted mechanic give your car a check-up. Tell him or her that you're taking a road trip. Change the oil, change the filters, fill up fluids, check the tires. If your mechanic thinks anything looks dubious, fix it before the trip. 

    You also might want to consider joining AAA before your trip. Besides being able to get roadside assistance, you'll get free maps (super-helpful even if you do have a GPS), and discounts on hotel rooms. My membership pays for itself in those discounts.

    (Photo Credit: iStockphoto)

  • Pack like a pro: one bag per day, not per person. 4 of 25
    Smart Travel: 24 Mom-Tested Tips for Road Trips With Kids (via Babble)

    On my first major road trip with the kids, I packed a bag for each of them. Rookie mistake. One bag per person means schlepping too many bags into the hotel every night. Now I pack one duffel for each day of the trip. There's also a second small bag that has all the toiletries, medications, and bathing suits. My kids are big enough now that they can help with carrying stuff, but even a  little kid can bring in a third bag: the snack bag. You need that one because they will need something to eat before bed, and they will wake up at the ass-crack of dawn and want something to eat right away, before you've even figured out how the coffee maker works, let alone by the time you can get everyone dressed and down to that Continental breakfast.

    (Photo Credit: iStockphoto)

  • Let your kids help with everything. 5 of 25
    Smart Travel: 24 Mom-Tested Tips for Road Trips With Kids (via Babble)

    Even very young kids should help pack the bags and load the car. If you're taking this kind of trip, make it a family adventure, where everyone participates and feels like a part of the team. When little things inevitably go wrong, everyone can help problem-solve. Let your kids order for themselves in restaurants. Show them how you calculate the tip. There are constant opportunities for learning during road trips, and they're not just in learning about state capitals and historical sites.

    Some day, your kids will grow up and travel without you. Now is the time to teach them those skills: reading maps, planning, dealing with curve balls, finding hotel rooms, being safe while travelling, being polite and respectful to hotel and restaurant staff. Those real-life skills while help your children be more confident and independent long before they're off on their own.

    (Photo Credit: iStockphoto)

  • We cannot over-emphasize the importance of snacks. 6 of 25
    Smart Travel: 24 Mom-Tested Tips for Road Trips With Kids

    We pack as much of our own food as possible, including bread, peanut butter, and plenty of fruit. On a cross-country trip, we do eat out and we do hit some fast food places, but that stuff gets both expensive and tummy-trouble-inducing.

    Snacks at rest-stop convenience stores are wicked expensive. There might be healthy options, but you will end up trying to decide whether $8 seems reasonable for a banana, or if you should just buy the $5 X-treme Spicy Pork Rinds.

    I usually pack a mix of healthy snacks like fruit and nuts, and then some "contraband" items that I never otherwise let them have (like fruit snacks). Word to the wise: you probably don't want to sugar them up too much, though, because then you have to deal with a sugared-up kid who's strapped into a car seat. All of that energy will be converted into voice volume. 

    For drinks, we bring water bottles that can be re-filled, and things that don't need to be refrigerated, like those little shelf-stable milk boxes. We also bring a 12-pack of diet Coke for me, because nobody wants Mommy to run out of caffeine.

    Before the drive home, we hit a real grocery store (not a convenience store) and re-stock.

    (Photo Credit: iStockphoto)

  • A possibility: driving through the night. 7 of 25
    Smart Travel: 24 Mom-Tested Tips for Road Trips With Kids (via Babble)

    Quite a few families start their trip after dinner the first night, and drive through the night. The kids zonk out in the back, and you don't have to stop every 10 minutes to pee.

    "My husband and I actually get to chat for hours which never happens anymore," said one mom, making this part of the trip something she and her husband look forward to.

    I should note that this would never work for our family, because there's not enough coffee in the world that can keep me up past 10 p.m. Also, I'm pretty sure I'd be a raging you-know-what the next day. But for those who enjoy this method and can make it work, more power to you!

    (Photo Credit: iStockphoto)

  • Give them a map and teach them how to read it. 8 of 25
    Smart Travel: 24 Mom-Tested Travel Tips for Road Trips With Kids (via Babble)

    If they can follow along with where they are on the map, and watch for exit signs and other road signs, they will stop asking you if you're there yet. Really. 

    (Photo Credit: iStockphoto)

  • If you make one purchase to prepare for this trip: buy each kid a plastic lap tray. 9 of 25
    Smart Travel: 24 Mom-Tested Tips for Road Trips With Kids (via Babble)

    Plastic lap trays are cheap (usually around $5), stackable, and really don't take up too much room, but they do give each kid his or her own surface to work on. There are a few different styles out there--I like the ones with a full-size pocket on one side for paper and coloring books, and divided pockets on the other for pencils, crayons, journals, and other supplies. Bonus: kids are less likely to drop their crayons, Lego guys, etc. on the floor and then freak out because they can't reach them.

    (Available from Walmart)

  • Surprising car craft choice: aluminum foil. 10 of 25
    Smart Travel: 24 Mom-Tested Tips for Road Trips With Kids

    Aluminum foil is the perfect crafting medium for road trips. Easy to tear, easy to fold, easy to bunch up and shape. No muss, no fuss. Sure, you'll end up with little balls of foil all over the place, but I promise you that is the least of your problems. (Seriously, just accept that your car is going to be somewhat of a disaster area for the entire trip. If you're the kind of person who freaks out about crumbs on the seats, road trips may not be the best choice for your family.) I'm pretty sure your kids will think of plenty of things to make, but here's a short list to get them started: hats for teddy bears, hats for everyone in the car, slippers, doll clothes, boats for LEGO guys, jewelry, a sculpture of their favorite animal, letters of the alphabet, ear muffs to block out the noise of one's whiny siblings.

    (Photo Credit: iStockphoto)

  • Bring quiet stuff to do independently. 11 of 25
    Smart Travel: 24 Mom-Tested Tips for Road Trips With Kids (via Babble)

    Great choices for kids of all ages:

    • An inexpensive composition notebook to serve as travel journal, doodle pad, tic-tac-toe board, etc.
    • Twistable colored pencils (no sharpening needed)
    • Sticker scenes

    What not to bring, ever: Markers, glue of any kind, glitter.

    (Left: Crayola Twistables pencils available from Amazon, $3.78. Top Right: Composition notebook available from Amazon, $1.72. Lower Right: Sticker Scene Sheets available from Oriental Trading, $3 for a pack of 12.)



  • Audiobooks are awesome (and free from your library). 12 of 25
    Smart Travel: 24 Mom-Tested Tips for Road Trips With Kids

    Several moms suggested audiobooks as even better for car rides than watching movies. Listening to a story allows kids to close their eyes if they want to, or keep looking out the window. There's no fighting for the best view of the screen, and no chance of getting carsick from looking at tiny screen.

    Before you go spending money on pricey CDs or iPod downloads, be sure to check your local library for CDs and audio downloads! 

    Top picks for younger kids are the Ramona series by Beverly Cleary, narrated by Stockard Channing; and the Junie B. Jones books by Barbara Park. If you're looking for a choice that works for all ages, try Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl, narrated by the incomparable Eric Idle. And of course for about ages 9 and up, you absolutely cannot beat J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series on audiobook. Why is it so perfect for road trips? The first book alone takes over 8 hours.

    (Photo Credit: Warner Bros.)

  • This is the best travel activity book. 13 of 25
    Smart Travel: 24 Mom-Tested Tips for Road Trips With Kids

    We've done enough cross-country road trips that we've burned through a few different travel activity books, and this one is by far our favorite: enough so that once we had filled it all up (which took more than two cross-country trips, by the way), we bought new copies. Full of games and puzzles, it also has a place to keep track of which license plates you spot.

    (Available from Amazon, $11.10)

  • Plan to make lots of stops. 14 of 25
    Smart Travel: 24 Mom-Tested Tips for Road Trips With Kids

    I don't know what it is about road trips. Is it the potholes? Is it the soothing vibrations of the highway? Is it the insane number of Capri Suns they just drank? I don't know, but it doesn't matter. Just plan to stop a lot, and don't try to get your kids to "hold it a little longer." It's not their fault they have tiny little bladders. (Although it is kind of their fault that my bladder, while not tiny, doesn't have nearly the holding power that it did before being stomped on by four babies in utero.)

    Keep in mind that one reason they may keep wanting to stop is that they're not relaxing enough at public restrooms to completely empty their bladders. See the next slide for making those stops more "productive."

    (Photo Credits: iStockphoto)

  • Make public restrooms feel more like home. 15 of 25
    Smart Travel: 24 Mom-Tested Tips for Road Trips With Kids

    Four Public Restroom Tips:

    Public restrooms can make even the most seasoned potty expert wet their pants, what with their jet airplane hand dryers and terrifying self-flushing toilets. You need to try to make the experience as home-like as possible if you want to avoid wetting, or worse, constipation on the road.

    --Bring your potty seat from home. I did try the folding travel potty seats, and they suck. They're not as sturdy as the regular ones, so my kids felt like they were going to fall in and couldn't relax enough to pee. Also, the places where they fold pinched my kids in sensitive places. Much better to just bring the regular potty seat (what we refer to as the "butt-reducer") in a plastic grocery bag every where you go.

    -- Or maybe just bring the whole potty. If your kid isn't ready for butt-reducers, or tends towards "issues" in this department, just bring the entire potty from home and have him or her use it in the car. For easy clean-up, line the potty with a grocery bag and put a diaper at the bottom of it to catch all the stuff. Toss the wipes in when you're done, tie up the bag, and dispose of the evidence.

    --Sticky notes to the rescue! If your kids, like mine, are terrified of "magic toilets" that automatically flush, use small sticky notes to cover the sensor before they sit down. Magic!

    --Now is *exactly* the right time to be a germaphobe. My son is really, really freaked out by hand dryers. He can either wash his hands and flap them dry, or if the sound is just too overwhelming, we just use hand sanitizer. Even if you're all about not overly-sanitizing your life because kids need some germs and blah blah blah, now is not the time for that hippie nonsense. Now is the time to swab your family in sanitizer gel, possibly using a paint roller. You do not want a stomach virus on a road trip (trust me). Also, you will, at least once, have to make an emergency stop at what will appear to be the most disgusting gas station bathroom in the nation, and there will be no water in the sink, let alone soap. Assume that everything you touch has been marinating in a cocktail of Bird Flu, e Coli., dysentery, and the Plague.

    (Photo Credits: iStockphoto)

  • State Welcome Centers are the best rest stops. 16 of 25
    Smart Travel: 24 Mom-Tested Tips for Road Trips With Kids (via Babble)

    The best places to stop are those state "Visitor Information Centers" or "Welcome Centers." They're always a mile or so over the state line on major highways, but you can Google and find them pretty easily. Besides having nice clean restrooms, they often have picnic tables and some outdoor space to run around. We've found a few with indoor play areas, and some even have picnic areas where you're allowed to grill.

    Also, this is how you get those cute pics of your kids with the "Welcome to" signs without stopping on the actual side of the highway.

    (Photo Credit: iStockphoto)

  • Stop at places where your kids can run around. 17 of 25
    Smart Travel: 24 Mom-Tested Tips for Road Trips With Kids (via Babble)

    As I said, we've found that State Welcome Centers seem to be the most likely to have some outdoor space to run around. If you stop at a regular highway rest stop, even if there's nowhere to run, have your kids stretch and move around. We do jumping jacks at each stop to get the blood flowing and burn off some energy. On rainy (or extremely hot) days, I'll use my smartphone to do a Google search for nearby fast food restaurants with indoor playlands.

    (Photo Credit: iStockphoto)

  • For when that one kid JUST CAN’T TAKE IT ANYMORE. 18 of 25
    Smart Travel: 24 Mom-Tested Tips for Road Trips With Kids

    These, my friends, are ear-protecting headphones. They are used to protect a construction worker's hearing while they work. They are also used to protect your sanity when that one kid is all "OHMYGAHD WOULD YOU JUST SHUT UP ABOUT THE BOTTLES OF MILK ON THE WALL ALREADY?"

    It's okay for kids to need a break from the yammering of their siblings. I mean, really, I sympathize. There have definitely been moments when I would have used these, except it's important to be able to hear stuff when you're driving. On the other hand, if someone else is driving, by all means, put yourself in the cone of silence for a while. It's bliss.

    (Available from Amazon, $17.89) 

  • Tech Tips for Travel With Kids 19 of 25
    Smart Travel: 24 Mom-Tested Tips for Road Trips With Kids

    You don't need video screens, electronic games, or iPads for trips. You really, really don't. It's good for kids (and parents) to unplug sometimes. However, here are a few tips if you do decide to bring electronics:

    -- Put the iPads and DSi's (or whatever hand-held thing your kid plays games on) away for a few weeks before the trip so it will seem new and fun again.

    -- A new game for older kids is fine, but trying to teach a younger kid a new game while on the road is just annoying and frustrating for all concerned.

    -- For older kids with cell phones, and for kids with game units like the DSi: for some reason, texting and instant messaging in the car is hilarious. When my husband is driving, I'll use one of the kids' DS things to draw pictures and send messages with the kids in each row of the van. 

    (Photo Credit: iStockphoto)

  • Take the road less travelled. 20 of 25
    Smart Travel: 24 Mom-Tested Tips for Road Trips With Kids (via Babble)

    For less traffic and better sight-seeing opportunities, consider taking an alternate route. Instead of I-95, take 81 and enjoy a view of the Shenandoah Mountains. Step slightly off of I-40 and enjoy some of Route 66. (It winds from Chicago to L.A.) The National Park Service has an amazing website that can help you plan a Route 66 trip. (Don't forget to add at least one version of "Route 66" to your iPod playlist, by the way! My family's favorite version is the Depeche Mode Beatmasters Mix.)

    On paper (or Mapquest) it will often appear that these alternate routes will take longer, but that's because it's not factoring in the traffic.

    (Photo Credit: iStockphoto)

  • Stay at hotels with pools. 21 of 25
    Smart Travel: 24 Mom-Tested Tips for Road Trips With Kids (via Babble)

    You cannot reasonably expect your kids to sit in a car all day and then just go to sleep in a strange bed at a decent hour. If at all possible, stay in hotels that have pools so that you can all get some exercise. We usually hit the pool after dinner and swim until they seem like they're getting at least a little tired.  Then we go back up to the room, shower, and get into jammies.

    (Photo Credit: iStockphoto)

  • Tips on choosing hotels and motels. 22 of 25
    Smart Travel: 24 Mom-Tested Tips for Road Trips With Kids (via Babble)

    Sometimes, you'll have lots of choices for hotels and motels. Other times, especially if you're on long stretches of empty-ish highway out west, you'll pretty much have only one option. That's okay. If you do have some choices, here are a few things to keep in mind:

    • As previously noted: swimming pool is key.
    • If there is a brand of hotels you like, try to stick with that brand. Many hotels offer points or benefits for frequent visitors, but that's beside the point. The point is that kids thrive on routine, and travelling puts everything about their routine out of whack. If at all possible we stay at the same chain every night. Every room at every Holiday Inn, for example, is laid out almost identically. The breakfast items will be the same. The kids' menu at the restaurant will be the same. Especially since two of our kids are on the autism spectrum, this consistency and predictability offers a level of reassurance that helps keep our kids on an even keel.
    • Read reviews, but don't worry about them too much. First off, people are more likely to write reviews when they're annoyed. Also, I think some people have deranged expectations for a highway motel. It's a motel, people. It's not the freaking Ritz-Carlton. If it has clean sheets, the door locks, and there isn't too much of a funky smell, that's pretty much all you can expect for $49 a night.
    • Don't be afraid of slightly beat-up looking motels. We've had some of the friendliest, best service at those places. Plus, honestly, you can survive just one night in even the skeeziest of motels. Your kids probably won't even notice. Chalk it up to seeing a "slice of America."
    • Have a couple of options for hotels/motels in mind. I usually identify a hotel/motel I think I'll reach by dinnertime, plus a hotel in an hour's drive in either direction. By the time we stop for a mid-afternoon snack/pee/stretch, I'll usually know where I'll end up. That's when I make the reservation call.
    • If you have more than one kid, consider packing sleeping bags. Even if you only have two kids, there's a chance they're going to be really sick of each other and not want to sleep in the same bed. Or, it will turn out that one of your kids sleep-slaps the other all night. Having a sleeping bag gives one kid the option of sleeping on the floor. (Practice this line over and over until you can say it firmly: "Either sleep on the floor or stop complaining. It's your choice.")

    (Photo Credit: iStockphoto)

  • YES, you can single-parent a road trip. 23 of 25
    Smart Travel: 24 Mom-Tested Tips for Road Trips With Kids (via Babble)

    If you're the only adult/parent/driver on this trip, take all this advice and then multiply it times 10. Keep it simple. Stop a LOT. Like, every two hours. Stop for the night before you get tired. Don't sweat  the small stuff. You totally got this.

    I've driven cross-country "by myself" with all four kids more than once. It's more than fine. It's fun. And remember, you're not just telling your kids that women can do anything, you're showing them.

    (Photo Credit: iStockphoto)

  • Your GPS is INSANE. 24 of 25
    Smart Travel: 24 Mom-Tested Tips for Road Trips With Kids (via Babble)

    I hate to be the one to break it to you, but your GPS is smoking crack. It will always tell you to take the most insane route, by which I mean, I-95 through Washington, D.C. at 5 p.m. on a Friday. GPS, Mapquest, and the like do not understand about traffic. Not only will it tell you to take that route, but it thinks you're going to sail through in like 45 minutes. It is wrong. So very, very, very wrong.

    I adore my GPS (whom we have named "Bossy Helga") but Bossy Helga doesn't always know about road construction, detours, and weird new exit ramps. Even if you're planning on mostly relying on a GPS, always travel with a paper map and review your itinerary in the morning. 

    Also, and I can't emphasize this enough: unless you're actually driving to Washington, D.C., avoid the hell out of that beltway. Just no.

    (Photo Credit: Mapquest)

  • Slow down and enjoy the ride. 25 of 25
    Smart Travel: 24 Mom-Tested Tips for Road Trips With Kids (via Babble)

    The best piece of advice from experienced road tripping parents is to simply slow down and enjoy the ride. Don't hesitate to stop at quirky roadside attractions (world's largest ball of string? yes, please!) and local places to eat. Sure, you could do 13 hours of driving in one day, but it's not going to be fun for anyone. Break up your trip into manageable distances so that you're able to see things along the way besides highway and more highway. Do at least one picnic lunch along the way. Which do you think your kids are going to remember: yet another Happy Meal, or that you stopped and had a picnic?

    We usually start driving pretty early in the day, but we stop for the day just before dinner time. That gives us time to check into a hotel/motel, eat, swim, and play a little bit. Besides giving us the opportunity to have some family fun in the evening, it really helps keep the kids' bedtime routines as consistent as possible.

    (Photo Credit: iStockphoto)


Read more from Joslyn on Babble and at her blog, stark. raving. mad. mommy. You can also follow Joslyn on FacebookTwitter, and Pinterest.

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