As more of us get vaccinated and begin looking toward a somewhat more normal summer ahead, you may be thinking a good old-fashioned road trip is in order. It’s also possible that while you’ve been locked up for a year, you’ve forgotten how to survive while trapped in a vehicle with young children for multiple hours at a time. Whether you’re traveling to the beach or a national park, or to visit family in another state, a road trip’s journey is almost as important as its destination.
Preparing to leave
As someone who has gone on a good many road trips as a parent—and as the parent who is usually “in charge” of getting us ready to go—I feel it’s important to point out that planning the trip and packing all the stuff you’ll need in an efficient and effective manner is both critical and time-consuming. I start packing for our annual weeklong beach vacation a literal week before we leave, on account of all the clothing, linens, food, and beach necessities I am required to remember. (And I still forgot my swimsuit one year.)
But there are some ways to streamline the process, get the rest of the family involved, and make it easier to find what you need both during the drive and when you arrive. Here’s how—with links to more information and advice on each tip:
There are lots of tasks to attend to when it’s time to plan a trip, from booking the Airbnb and planning the route to finding care for the pets and charging all the necessary electronics. Assign each task to one person—usually splitting them between you and your partner, but also involving the kids if they’re old enough to manage it.
If you’ve got little kids, you’re going to be at your destination for a significant amount of time, and it’s logistically possible, shipping things like diapers or formula ahead of time can save you precious trunk space that will fill up quickly with all the gear they’ll need while you’re gone. If you’re visiting family, this is a slam dunk, but some hotels will also accept packages for guests ahead of time—just call to make sure and give them a heads up.
You’re probably going to remember the obvious essentials (unless you’re me, apparently, sans-swimsuit on the beach), but there are a few things you may not think of that can make your experience a little easier, including baby wipes (even once they’re potty trained), a kid’s water bottle, non-sticky snacks, and large Ziploc bags.
Starting from a very young age, I’ve put my son in charge of packing a bag of stuff to entertain himself on the trip (and then helped him repack when he inevitably chose toys he never played with, a book he didn’t particularly like, and a stuffed animal from the bottom of his toy bin). But you can actually start teaching them to pack their own suitcases, too, with the aid of a visual packing list. (You’ll still need to check it, of course, but it’s good practice for them to begin honing a skill they’ll need later.)
Packing clothing or other items in a laundry basket is my favorite road trip hack. It’s perfect for items you might need while traveling or right as you arrive and don’t want to have to dig out from the depths of a suitcase. After that, a a laundry basket is the natural spot for all the used clothes or linens that will accumulate throughout your vacation. When you get home, the dirty stuff can go straight into the laundry room.
Did I ever tell you guys about the time my puppy and my kid took turns throwing up during a seven-hour drive to visit my family in Ohio? Ah, memories. It was the first time (but not the last) that my son got carsick, and I was not prepared for it. Learn from my mistake. Be prepared for the possibility.
Eating along the way
Food tends to be a major pre-occupation during any road trip. Everyone is bored, so they want to snack to pass the time. You’ll likely need to stop for at least one meal, but you don’t want to prolong the adventure any longer than you have to.
You probably already know to pack plenty (and a variety) of snacks for everyone—and pack more than you think you’ll need, because you will need more than you think. But there are a few other tricks you can try to make eating on a road trip a little more pleasant.
When your child gets hungry for a snack mere minutes after you’ve begun your journey, you could hand over a small baggie full of Cheerios, which they will devour much too quickly. Or you could surprise them—and drag out the experience—with a homemade Cheerios or Froot Loop necklace. Simply string up any O-shaped cereal, tie it in a knot at the ends and let them wear their snack. (You’ll probably have to vacuum the car when you get home, but it’s worth it.)
If you know you’ll be pulling through a drive-thru for a quick meal on the road, you’re also probably wondering how you’re going to manage that situation without someone spilling ketchup down the front of their shirt and dropping fries all over the floor. The answer, of course, is a shower caddy.
(You could also use a shower caddy to store their snacks—they keep chips or crackers from getting smashed while also making it easier for them to view all their options. Shower caddies are so very versatile.)
If you’re not yet close to your destination and they start getting cranky sometime in the late afternoon, declare that you’re stopping to have ice cream for dinner. This 1) is faster than stopping for a full meal, 2) will be very exciting for them, and 3) is but an illusion—you can feed them a “big snack” (their actual dinner) when you arrive wherever you’re going.
Keeping them entertained
This is the biggie, right? Kids whining are we there yet? is not just a pop culture cliché, it’s a thing they all do, and it is very annoying. (My son’s personal spin was to ask how many more minutes? as we pulled away from the house, facing many hundreds of minutes of driving ahead of us.)
Once they’re old enough to bury their face in an iPad or a smartphone for hours on end, life gets a lot easier. But while they’re little, parents have to be prepared to keep them entertained, lest everyone in the car melt down together. Here’s what you can do:
In between their snack times and whatever screen time you allow them, they can have “Backpack Time.” You simply grab an old backpack for each kid and fill it with a variety of fun activities, including coloring books and crayons, fidget toys, action figures, window clings to decorate their window, spiral notebooks, and stickers. It’s all stuff they probably already own but have overlooked or forgotten about long enough that when presented to them in a new way, it suddenly becomes exciting again.
If your kids have never really been exposed to podcasts, now is the time. There are lots of great podcasts out there for kids of all ages, and if you find a couple they like, it can kill a huge chunk of time.
A backpack full of stuff is great for keeping many kids entertained on long rides. However, if your kid is the type who will breeze through everything in that backpack in the first 20 minutes before declaring they’re bored, then a better tactic for you is to spread out the fun.
I’m not suggesting you go splurge on hundreds of dollars worth of new toys in the hopes of keeping them happy on a long drive, but you could hit a dollar store for a few new activity books or sticker sets, and you can mix in some of their favorite books and travel games or toys. If you’re the keeper of the activities, you can help them pace their entertainment throughout the trip.