A road trip is such a great way to see so much on a vacation and it also provides a lot of flexibility in packing and timing. But upfront planning is needed to make it a success. Here are 10 must-do tips to create an amazing road trip with kids. Really? Yes, really.
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1. Include your kids in road trip planning
If you have school-age kids, planning a great road trip starts with including them in some of the upfront trip planning so they feel more ownership and investment in the trip. You can start by figuring out a general route and then ask them to help to plan some of the stops along the way as well as research the areas you know you’re going to. You can provide choices to pick from or let them come up with ideas. Younger kids can also make choices from set selections a pick a favorite toy to bring. We love showing up and having our kids share a fun fact about a trail we’re on or where to find the largest tree in the world. A kids car atlas can also be an engaging way for kids to follow along during the trip and learn about the areas you’re traveling through.
2. Upfront road trip planning + breaks
We love using the Roadtrippers app to plan stops along our route. This will show you if you have the world’s largest ball of twine or Carhenge along your route for interesting and unique stops. We pair this along with very dependable google maps for navigation. Google maps is great to look for a unique park or sculpture garden to let the kids get in some running or to also check crowd levels at any attraction stops. We try to pack food to eat meals in the car and only stop for kids to run around for an energy break or bathroom stop.
Time Saving Tips for Road trips with kids
Find grocery stores that deliver near your destination. Download their app and grocery shop from the car before you arrive, setting delivery or pick-up a couple of hours after you expect to arrive just in case of any delays.
3. Timing is everything
Think about drive timing and what will work best for your family and the ages of your kids. Driving at night can sound like a good idea but really you need to make sure you have a partner to switch with for driving and you can safely manage when the kids are awake. It can be a good option with very young kids, especially those under age two, but you’ll need to consider when you’ll sleep, whether you can be alert when the kids wake, and whether it can be safely managed. For many families, leaving early-morning is the best option and still allows you to have energy for any sightseeing stops along the way. We find leaving early in the morning and wrapping up at 8 hours or less, just before dinner time to get settled and allow the kids to swim in a hotel pool or have their own time goes a long way to having a successful next day.
4. Car entertainment planning
Three magical words. Download in advance. For us all bets are off during a road trip and we ease all screen time limits. If you have Netflix, Amazon Prime or Disney+ it’s important to log in and download content to each kids’ device in advance of being offline. This can take time so do this a day or two before. Note: Disney+ currently has an issue where it logs out on Amazon Fire tablets when offline and doesn’t allow you to log back in until online. I repeat don’t depend on Disney+ on an Amazon Fire tablet or you’ll be out of luck. Disney+ does work on an ipad. Also, remember to download music playlists and podcasts and plan for that moment when the kids are in the car longer than expected and you need to pull out all the stops. We love Disney movie songs playlists or ‘Longer Disney Stories and Kids Stories’ on Spotify. Playing over bluetooth works if you have kids of similar age or downloading the app and playlists to an individual device. If you have a long car trip where you know battery life will be an issue, especially while using the battery draining google maps app, remember a car charging plan. We like dual USB chargers as well as bringing a longer charging cord so kids’ backseat devices can charge while in use.
Tech we love for road trips with kids
Lil Gagets Headphones
Highly recommend these headphones for kids if you’re looking for new ones. They’re a little more expensive, but such great quality and we’ve had them 5+ years and they’ve held up great. I love that two or more kids can watch the same thing using the shareport cord or by using wireless bluetooth. Learn more here.
Amazon Fire Tablets
Amazon Fire Tablets are another must-have when we travel. I like that I can ensure all the content is kid-friendly based on their age and download new movies and content before trips. We’ve found the Amazon Kids + (formally FreeTime Unlimited) subscription service is really worth it and gives access to thousands of kid-friendly books, movies, TV shows, educational apps and games. Be sure to also download the Amazon Kids+ mobile app that gives you access to the parent dashboard on the go. Find the tablet here.
Tablet Headrest Holder
We love this tablet headrest holder for long car trips. It can go vertical or horizontal and we use it for ipads, Amazon Fire tablets, and even phones. It works for kids rear-facing and charging cords can also remain plugged in while using it. The best part is it’s easy to set-up and use!
Remember to turn off all device time limits as you don’t want to be on hour 7 in the car and your child’s screen time limit notice pop up. For many devices this can be difficult to change when offline, on the road so remember to do this in advance. If you’re in a pinch, and your kids are on an Amazon Fire tablet the Amazon Kids+ app can work to access the parent dashboard and disable the daily time limits, but it’s unreliable in offline mode.
5. Engaging road trip toys
When we look for road trip toys they need to be engaging and ideally have a dual purpose or be good for more than one kid in order to simplify packing. Tactile toys can be great for younger kids as well as wrapping new toys in wrapping paper. For toddlers, these busy boards can keep them engaged. Play-doh, coloring, reuseable stickers can all be fun. These tray tables are also great to keep kids’ activities organized and mealtime mess-free. Be careful of bringing anything with small pieces as they can be a choking hazard when not in close sight or easily lost.
Below are a few other favorites for school-age kids.
Play floam–it is mess-free and we just bring one color for each kid. You can also find them individually in a clear case.
Travel Tangram–magnetic puzzles that are fun to solve and the pieces aren’t easily lost.
Speks Magnetic Toys –engaging toys that are great for the car. We love the Fleks Magnetic Silicone Building Set and bring a metal cookie sheet which is great for activities as well as meals.
Paint by sticker books–these take up a lot of time for school-age kids
Mad libs on the go–interactive fun for the whole family.
Shashibo Shape-Shifting Cube–this one is a little more expensive but was a huge hit on our last road trip. It’s magnetic and they can create different shapes. Also, has an app that pairs with it for more games and ideas.
A few engaging toys can go a long way when paired with music, movies, and kids’ audiobooks or podcasts. If you have a long stretch of time in the car that you know will push your kids to the max, work in some small surprises that can keep them going for a longer stretch of time. Consider giving a special snack or a small wrapped toy at a designated time; like when you hit a state border crossing or on the hour. This helps by giving them something to look forward to. Have a special lollipop or treat saved just in case of a traffic jam or you’re in the car longer than expected as this helps when the kids (and adults) are at their limit of road trip fun.
6. Packing Perfection
Being organized with packing can go a long way and save time looking for things on a road trip.
Here are few of our must-haves for road trip packing
- Use a car top carrier. They can be spendy but really create so much extra space and can be used for all future trips. Our favorite one is the Yakima Skybox (we went with Carbonite 21) and if you don’t already have a roof rack this one from Rhino Rack is easy to install. There is a fit finder where you put in make/model of your vehicle. We found this easy to install ourselves and we’re not handy. For the Yakima we recommend buying this in person locally vs online as it’s really hard to judge size.
- For packing, clear plastic bins work better than loose bags and allows you to easily see what’s inside. If there’s something you think might be needed on the way, like jackets or a change of shoes, pack the whole family’s items in one bag or bin and pack this in last.
- Clothing works best in duffel bags like this especially for fitting in a car top carrier. We like to use packing cubes (get the large size!) to easily separate family members clothing. We give each member or those staying in the same room a designated color and then it’s easier to pull out the cubes and organize once arriving.
- For road trips, we always pack a cooler. If you’ll have a long trip with multiple destinations, consider the food you’ll want to bring between locations. Buy groceries and bring them between locations as this can be a time and cost saver. For longer trips, we like Blue coolers and find they pack efficiently, keep things cold for up to 5+ days, and have wheels (most good ones don’t). We also love this fold flat cooler to bring for day trips.
- If there’s something you think might be needed on the way, like jackets or a change of shoes, pack the whole family’s items in one bag or bin and pack this in last. Kids’ activities can go in the back seat in a backpack and one snack bag for the front passenger seat. Staying organized on a road trip helps save time and stops.
7. The one-nighter road trip bag
Plan a one-nighter bag if you’ll be driving for longer than a day to your main destination. This helps have all your family’s clothing and toiletries quickly accessible for the nights before getting to your final destination. Pack one small piece of luggage last so it’s easy to pull out and have everything needed. Keep this separate from the main luggage so it’s an easy grab-and-go upon arrival. We love this Samsonite bag for this purpose and it’s also a great carry-on piece when flying.
Don’t forget to pack swimsuits & goggles and anything else you might need to make a short hotel stop fun in the in the one-nighter bag. Electronics chargers too!
8. Strategize seating
Do you have kids who generally get along and others who don’t? Can your eldest help the younger ones get snacks and get devices started? Does one parent need to sit in the back to help younger kids? Take time in advance of the trip and plan out seating. It can go a long way to having a great trip.
9. Plan for the worst
Get your car serviced a few weeks in advance to make sure everything is in working order. When you do this, ask them to check your spare tire to ensure it’s inflated. Also, it doesn’t hurt to watch a Youtube video on how to change a spare tire just in case this is your moment.
Make sure to have a roadside emergency kit along and warm clothing and extra food if you’re traveling during the winter. Also, for winter/early spring travel, it’s great to throw in a small shovel (the small kid’s ones work), sand, or tire chains if you think you’ll need them. Many national parks can require having tire chains far into spring so it can save time to bring them just in case.
Also, bring car sickness medicine as you never know when you’ll need it. We recommend Nausene as it’s non-drowsy and we’ve found it works the best for our kids who get car sick. Also, bring a garbage bag with a change of clothes, a bottle of soapy water for clean up, wipes, and if you have it an extra car seat cover.
10. Embrace the unexpected
Unexpected things will come up as they always do. It’s all part of the adventure and if you have a good attitude your kids will too. With these 10 must-do tips, a road trip with kids can be an amazing way to see so much more and make lasting memories.