9 Family Road Trip “Must Haves”

Our family has spent the past three months slow traveling around the Western U.S. in our trusty (and jam-packed) Honda Pilot. During that time, I estimate that we’ve spent well over 100 hours in the car with our children, including several 8-10 hour driving stints. Miraculously, the kids now think of four or five hours in the car as no big deal.

No big deal doesn’t mean all happy and skippy, however. Our kids (ages 12, 9, and 4) may be road-trip veterans, but they still moan and complain and ask how much longer we have to drive. Pretty much every trip. Sorry, no miracle cure for that one.

We can talk up the benefits of travel until we’re blue in the face, but the truth is that being in the car all day isn’t much fun, for kids or adults. Thankfully, we grown-ups have all kinds of deeply philosophical things to ponder while we stare out the window, decades of favorite tunes to jam to, and smartphones for the lucky parent in the passenger seat. But meditating on life and rocking out to their parents’ music only lasts a matter of minutes with our kids, and then they need something else. (And they’re not getting smartphones anytime soon.)

Here are eight road-trip “musts” that have worked the best for our crew:

1. Electronics

They may not have smartphones, but we have a smattering of iPads, Kindles, iPods, etc. that our kids pass around in the car. Yes, it’s a total cop-out. Totally don’t care. I know some people get all sanctimonious when it comes to kids and electronics in the car, citing their own childhood road trips with no A/C, no seatbelts, and nothing but AM radio to listen to. That’s cool, but my feeling is that when you’re stuck in the car all day, sanity trumps sanctimony.

I’m actually a big Scrooge when it comes to screen time on a normal day, but on long road trips, I let the kids use electronics to their hearts’ content (or until the batteries die, whichever happens first). Our iPads have been our best travel companions, quickly followed by the DVD player. When the DVD player went kaput, I propped up my laptop between the front seats, and that worked just as well for watching movies. On a 10-hour road trip, electronics are a total sanity-saver.

2. Audiobooks

If you have a kid who loves to read and can read in the car without getting carsick, count your lucky stars and pile up the books. We don’t have any of those kids. I can’t read for very long in the car, either. Thankfully, before we left on our trip, a friend bought us a subscription to Audible. We get one free audiobook download a month, and can purchase others for reasonable prices. Awesome.

However, for the next stint of long travels we do, I will figure out a way to have each kid listen to his or her own audiobook with headphones. While the idea of listening to a book all together sounds great on paper, the reality is that the road noise is loud enough to make it difficult to hear sometimes, we have three kids of very different ages who enjoy different books, and as soon as someone interrupts the story to ask a question, all hell breaks loose. So audiobooks, definitely yes. Just be aware that you may have to adjust how you use them, depending on your family dynamics.

3. Paper & Pencils

On one of our stops, a friend gave us a bag of car activities, which included some tiny little blank notebooks. I handed one to our 9-year-old, and kept one for myself, and we wrote and passed notes back and forth for a good hour. She’s always been a reluctant writer, so it got her writing, we got some bonding in, and the “secret” nature of it kept her interested. Sometimes we wrote questions and answers, and sometimes we wrote a story together, each writing one sentence at a time. Our 4-year-old wanted in on it, too, so I passed him notes with some simple words to read. They loved it. Kids can write notes to each other, too. Nothing but paper and a writing utensil needed. So simple.

(You could save some trees and do the same thing with a dry erase board or something, but half the fun for the kids was unfolding the note. Sorry, trees. I’ll plant you a sister to make up for it someday.)

4. Magazines

As I mentioned, we have too many carsickness issues to read books in the car, but children’s magazines seem to be another story. Kids magazines usually have short snippets of reading material, which is much more conducive to car reading. And most have activities kids can do, too, which kills time and makes up for some of the brain-drain of the screen time binges. Plus, most magazines are a bit more disposable in nature than a book, so you don’t care as much when they end up stuck to the bottom of the car floor with gum, crumbs, and dirty footprints all over them. (That’s not just our car, right?)

5. Maps

Maybe it’s because we just covered 7000 miles of the U.S., but our kids loved looking at the road atlas to see where we were, where we’d been, and where we were going. I highlighted our trip route as we went, and it was immensely satisfying for them to see our travels on paper. Thanks to our “Stack the States” app (seriously awesome app), they even enjoyed just flipping through the various state maps and seeing where the capitals were, etc.

(A quick Pinterest search would probably offer up a zillion-and-one map activities for the car. Now that I think about it, a quick Pinterest search would probably offer up a way better list of travel tips than this one, too. But you know, you’re already here, so you might as well stay a while. Here, put your feet up. Can I get you a cold beverage? Something to eat, perhaps? Oh, speaking of which . . . )

6. Food

This one’s obvious, but there’s a wisdom to certain food choices while traveling. Sitting in the car all day can make your digestion a bit, um, sluggish, so we try to keep snacks healthy and simple and fiber-filled. A small cooler, if you have room for it, expands the options beyond chips and crackers. Our kids’ favorites are grapes, apple slices, sugar snap peas, and yogurt cups (if your kids aren’t too messy, or your car is already so messy that you don’t care about a few yogurt drips).

But the real key to happy travelers is an unexpected treat every once in a while. Gum seems to keep our kids busy for a while, and also helps with the ear-popping through the mountains. And an occasional candy or other sweet is a great reward for the patience and perseverance required to sit in a car for hours on end. In fact, get yourself some treats, too, while your’e at it. You deserve them as much (if not more) than the kids.

7. Towels

In a moment of unbridled genius, I draped a beach towel over the back of each person’s seat before we left on our road trip. This was mainly a way to save space in the back of the car, but it turned out to be quite useful. They can use the towel as a blanket if they get cold, fold it or roll it to use as a lumbar pillow, or roll it up in the top of the car window to use as a sun shade. I’m sure there are a bunch of other uses you could think of, but I think those are pretty brilliant. I didn’t even use Pinterest for this one. Yay, me!

8. Praise

When the kids are quiet and peaceful, it’s easy to ignore them (while holding your breath for fear of disturbing the beautiful silence). But being quiet and peaceful on an all-day road trip, even for just a short part of it, is pretty impressive for a kid. Ten hours in a car is a psychological feat as much as a physical one, and praising kids during the times they’re handling it well is motivating. A simple, “You guys are really doing great with not complaining!” can really boost the kids’ spirits and give them a sense of accomplishment. It also helps you realize that there really are moments of bliss during the trials of car travel with children. A little bit of praise, and everyone wins.

(Yes, I know the popular theory that praise is ruining our children and causing the downfall of our society. I have my doubts, but it doesn’t really matter in the car. Again, sanity trumps sanctimony. Praise away.)

9. Patience

Even with all the greatest, Pinterest-worthy travel tips on Earth, families are not always going to be perfectly content in the car together. People’s backs and butts will hurt. People’s personal space will be invaded. People will get queasy on windy roads. People will be bored, tired, hungry, and need to go to the bathroom. People will ask how long until you’re going to get to your destination, even if they can tell time and you’ve told them how long it will be. 
I always try to remember that however long it feels for me, it probably feels at least twice as long for the kids. Remember how time went by so much more slowly when you were little? Well it crawls by in the car. And so a little complaining, whining, and bickering is to be expected. That’s when I pull out my sillyness. I flip my hair over my face and put my glasses on like Cousin It. Or I start a dramatic lip synch concert. Or I get totally base and make snorting and farting noises. Whatever it takes to not turn around and lecture my kids about how much better they have it in the car than I did at their age.
Not that I haven’t done that. But I try.
Have you ever driven long-distance with your children? What are your travel must-haves? 

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Annie writes about life, motherhood, world issues, beautiful places, and anything else that tickles her brain. On good days, she enjoys juggling life with her husband and homeschooling her children. On bad days, she binges on chocolate chips and dreams of traveling the world alone.

Comments 6

  1. Of course don’t forget to make your hotel reservations beforehand! I t would be nice if you draw your route on the map you take or a GPS would be better. Also for long trips I prefer taking a lot of electronic devices to help the time pass. I prefer taking my PSP or my Kindle to read or I can even watch some movies on my iPad. Those are great options for the people who are not driving. If you are the driver I suggest recording a nice CD with tons of “travel” songs 🙂

  2. “I didn’t even use Pinterest for this one, Yay me!” …Haha..Love it! I just stumbled apron your blog and I love it. I think what you’re doing for your kids and family is great 😀

  3. Thanks, all! Makes me feel better to know others don’t limit screen time in the car, either. 🙂 It is nice to talk, too, but the road noise really gets to be too much sometimes. I found myself not even wanting to listen to music a lot of the trip, just to cut down on the number of sounds in the car. 🙂

  4. We drive 14 hours to my moms at least once a year, so the 5-6 hour trips are a piece of cake to my kids. When the boys were younger I sed to wrapmstuff like presents, even a new box of color pencils (don’t melt like crayons 🙂 ) was a big deal when it was a surprise. Also pipe cleaners and wooden beads are great for sculpting. And I am 100% with you on screen time till they can’t take it anymore in the car. We even have portable batteries for the kids to charge their iPods when the battery runs out 🙂

  5. I consider myself a seasoned traveler with kids, but I’ve earned my experience through years of trips between MN, IL and OH, you’ve earned all yours in 3 months!!! That’s monumentous, and you’re not done yet!

    I TOTALLY agree w/ you on the sanity trumps sanctimony! Our dvd player went kaput a year ago, and now that I’ve got three chatty kids, I’m missing it big time. I’m all about using the car time for long talks, answering questions, singing songs, playing games and being silly, but for long trips, it would be sooooooo nice to have some electronic distractions! We are currently an ipad and kindle free family, but I don’t see that lasting much longer, especially with at least 2 multi-state trips ahead of us.

  6. Let’s see, what comes easily to mind but is definitely only a partial list… a day is always better once we sing together, prayers or any song we all like. Listening to cds we all like, especially when we can singalong, Jim Gaffigan Pandora station with a ready hand to skip inappropriate routines, telling family stories from our own childhood and telling the kids stories from their younger years, setting a timer and calling it Quiet Hour, laughing for 15 seconds on purpose, having the kids take pictures, and yes, thank heavens for electronics.

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