Road trips are a rite of passage, but the inevitable “Are we there yet?” from the back seat doesn’t have to be a part of the scenario. Before you hit the road with your kids, consider these tips for road trips with kids to keep everyone (including you) happy.
1. Drive at Night
This will definitely help, especially if your kids are younger. We used to do this when our kids were the 2-and-under set, and it made for a more peaceful experience. Keeping babies or toddlers occupied for even a couple hours at a time is never easy. “Sleeping children meant my husband and I actually had uninterrupted conversations, which in our busy life is rare, and was much appreciated,” says fellow night owl Corinne McDermott, a travel agent and founder of Have Baby Will Travel.
2. …Or Leave Bright and Early
Other parents swear by the early morning wake-up call for mastering the road trip. For longer road trips (10-plus hours), it’s often easiest to leave in the middle of the night.
3. Take Care of the Driver
While happy kids are important, a safe driver is also essential. “You need to make sure the driver is rested,” says Gretchen Breuner, founder of Road Scholarz, who traveled around the country on a road trip with kids in an RV for several months. “I would even pull over and sleep for 10 minutes, giving me just the boost of energy I needed.”
4. Give Up the Wingman
While having your partner in the passenger seat is nice for navigation and company, it might be better to put an adult in the back for at least part of the trip. “This will make playing games or simply chatting with the kids a lot easier,” says Jennifer Durbin, author of Baby Traveling Tips for the Clueless Chick. This is especially key when your kids are still riding in car seats that face backward in the car.
5. Don’t Overload on Electronics
Movies and travel apps are great, but this is the perfect opportunity to help your kids find more imaginative ways to entertain themselves. “It’s okay to leave them to their own devices and let them be bored,” says Eileen Gunn, founder of FamiliesGo! “When my daughter has absolutely nothing to do in the car, it’s amazing the way her imagination kicks in and she spins all kinds of imaginary scenarios for herself. I think it’s important to give them the space to come up with their own ideas, rather than constantly feed them data with DVDs and video games.” Just use the DVD player and iPad a little more judiciously, and consider playing some classic, electronic-free games instead. We like this road trip hack!
6. Get Crafty
Craft supplies are super easy to pack, and can keep kids occupied for hours. I swear by origami paper folding kits (we’ve filled the back seats with paper cranes and cats), but any kind of crafts — from paper and crayons to beading and pipe cleaner sculptures — will work. “My girls loved making friendship bracelets, and those are so car friendly,” says Breuner. “Just use a piece of duct tape to attach it to the back of a head rest and they’re ready to go.”
7. Spend Quality Time with the Kids
“More than anything else, kids crave their parents’ undivided attention, and being stuck in a car or plane for several hours is a good opportunity to give them a little bit of it,” says Gunn. “Telling your kid about where you’re going, asking about what they liked and didn’t on the way back, letting them ask questions or express what’s on their mind can be a good way of learning about what’s going on with your child at the moment, and can also be highly entertaining.”
8. Pack Healthy — and Not-So-Messy — Snacks
Skip the drive-thru restaurants and go for healthier homemade food for this road trip tip. “I boil eggs, slice apples, bake bread and make honey-rosemary roasted pecans the night before a long trip,” says Sarah Sloboda, a frequent traveler. “It is very tempting and easy to eat poorly in transit, and this can lead to meltdowns — not just for kids, but for adults, too! Do yourself a favor and avoid the crash by eating well.”
9. Map Out Breaks
Don’t leave your rest stops to chance. Do a little research on your route and find local eateries, great roadside attractions and other spots for a good pit stop. “Find interesting places to stop for breaks, like historic sites, museums, charming towns, and also beautiful places for picnics, including state parks, lakes and waterfalls,” says Lia Batkin of In The Know Experiences, a travel consulting agency. “The important thing is that the kids burn off some energy. The more active they are outside the car, the more likely they are to fall asleep inside.” If nothing else, stopping at a playground for 20 minutes during your family road trip will do the trick.
10. Stop the “Are We There Yet?” Questions
“Distraction” is the name of the game here (and it’s why playing road games is one of the most widely recommended hacks for road trips with kids). The next time you get the age-old “Are we there yet?” question, simply hand over the map. “Ask your child to figure out how much longer you’ll be on the road,” Batkin says. “Knowing how to read a map is a valuable life skill, so it makes me happy that he’s learning, and he’s happier that he has a job to do.”
Quarters are a also a good way to keep the kids distracted, and can be used toward souvenirs. Give each child a roll of quarters prior to the trip. Every time they ask how much longer it’ll be until you arrive at your destination, take one quarter away.
11. Be Prepared for Emergencies
We’re not just talking about an emergency stash of lollipops for a sugar crash. Make sure you have a roadside emergency kit stocked with extra food, water and blankets, especially during winter travel. Tangela Walker-Craft, a mother and travel writer, always brings along frozen juice boxes on road trips with kids, which can keep other snacks cool before becoming a refreshing treat. She also carries large Zip-Loc bags, which can hold soiled clothing or serve as a toilet for a small child in an absolute emergency. Emergency numbers are also key. “Always have a list of contact numbers — pediatricians, relatives and roadside assistance — in the car,” she says. “If you print out a map and/or the written directions for long trips to have in the car, write contact numbers on the map. This information might prove invaluable, especially in the event of an accident.”
12. Spoil Your Kids a Little
Lydie Thomas splurges by giving her kids a few special treats they don’t normally get — like lunch at a fast-food restaurant or a little candy. “I let them buy one or two toys that they have been wanting for a long time, and I also let them pick a special snack. That special snack or toy can only be enjoyed after one hour of driving without complaining,” she says. “I bury my feelings about eating healthy food and getting educational toys when we are doing long trips — we are asking them to make an effort, and they should be rewarded.”
Our team of parents and travel experts chooses each product and service we recommend. Anything you purchase through links on our site may earn us a commission.