Family Travel: Making Road Trips Fun for Kids

Planning a family road trip for 2020, but not sure how your kids (or you) will survive it? I get it. Especially during those younger years, when they’re trapped in a car seat and crying and you have hundreds of miles to go? Stuff of nightmares, right?

I’ve gotten a lot of questions recently about our New Mexico road trip and I confess, I probably wouldn’t have wanted to log so many hours in the car with a baby. In those cases, you just try to drive when they’re sleeping and, well, I wish you the best! (And no, it’s really not possible to breastfeed them while they’re strapped in. And yes, I’ve tried. In a cab. I don’t recommend it.)

But once they’re able to look out the windows or ask for what they want, there are ways to make the time more enjoyable. Having “survived” (read: mostly loved, sometimes tolerated) quite a few road trips with my own family, I thought I’d share my tips and tricks for keeping everyone happy. And please share yours with me in the comments below, new ideas are always (needed) welcomed.

1. Pick the right route. 

There are always lots of search results for queries like “best stops along [insert insanely long highway route].” Take a little time in advance to find someplace with a playground or a park, if not a point of interest. Sometimes it actually even makes sense to take a longer way if it means more fun stops to break up the drive. (Here’s that argument for considering between Hwy 101 and Hwy 5 when crossing California.) And check in advance to see if you’ll be passing through cities during their commute rush hour.

2. Have food on the go.

I find that kids with food = happy kids and so I like to prep a grab-and-go option the night before. Freeze things like yogurt sticks (or even a banana on a stick!) the night before—they’re like a sweet treat, and they take a while to finish. These berry muffins are hearty and satisfying. I would make mini-ones and toss a few in a ziplock for the ride.

You can also use the occasional bathroom pit-stop to sit at a picnic table and enjoy a packed lunch: keeps you from splurging on gas-station food and makes for a nice fresh-air break. But in general, my philosophy is to avoid stopping just to go sit in a restaurant with little ones.

By the way, I do recommend that you find out (on a smaller road trip first) how your kids’ bellies do on longer trips, as some children tend to get carsick (and let’s just say some smells don’t go away, no matter how hard you).

3. Did I mention snacks?

Of course packing meals is important, but packing snacks might be even more. The best are things that can be easily consumed (and dispensed) with minimal reaching back to help. (In other words, items that avoid the frantic, blind arm-waving to grab a knocked-over-cup-of-yogurt disaster that is bound to otherwise happen.)

For a longer trip with little kids, I like to have a couple of no-spill thermoses that keep drinks cool (these were my tried-and-true favorite for straws), and some snack cups (like these) that can be filled with finger foods (think grapes, pretzels, raisins, banana chips, dry cereal, baked veggie chips, dried apricots, etcetera.) Divided trays are great for sandwiches, hard-boiled eggs, carrots and hummus, and the like. Everything goes into an insulated bag. If you have really little ones, consider taking a roll-up bib with you to contain the mess.

Oh! And I always bring along a few lollipops! They can be a special treat after a restaurant-stop, or a way to encourage a bit of quiet (while they see how long they can make it last without biting it). Lollipops can also help with queasy tummies.

4. An arsenal of classic car activities.

Scratching your head? 

  • Sing sing-a-long songs like “Down by the Bay” or “Old MacDonald.” (You can print out lyrics or take along a song book like this one.)
  • Glove-Box or Arm-Rest Memory game. (Everyone looks inside and then you close it up. Can you name everything? For young kids, try 5 items at a time to start).
  • Pick a color. How many cars in that color? What can you find in that color?
  • I spy. (Or any variety of 20 questions.)
  • Rock, Paper, Scissors
  • What if? (If you were superhero, what power would you have?)
  • Family Trivia—How old is mommy? What do you think Uncle Joe does at work?
  • Letter or category games: see how many words they can come up with starting with a particular letter or belonging to a specific category (colors, animals, shapes, etc)

5. Audiobooks & Podcasts for kids (or magical quiet time for adults). 

Audio books are the best! Audible Kids has a wonderful selection—Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny stories are favorites—or you can record your own. (Here’s how.)

Listening to an engaging story keeps everyone’s eyes up and looking out the window. (I’ve always been prone to feeling queasy if I look down too long—a common problem for kids.)

And now we’re really into podcasts. Here are some of our favorite podcasts for the road. (And a follow up post on the topic).

Don’t forget: bring along headphones specifically for the kids (with a splitter). You can plug in and listen along or have the kids share a device.

6. A bag they packed.

We have Hudson and Skyler pack a small backpack with a few books, something snuggly to fall asleep against, their headphones (for when the time comes to hand over the iPhone), and a few favorite activities of their choosing.

They make so many great options now—Crayola has markers that only write on special paper (and not your leather); you can pick up some search-and-find books (just be sure they’re using pictures and not words you need to read), and we love these reusable sticker pads and these felt boards. (Here’s how to make your own felt board.)

Some other winning activity books have been:

Mazes: The Kumon practice books are great and are targeted to different age-ranges.
Hidden Pictures: Highlights makes a series with stickers that were a huge hit. They also work as coloring pages.
Water Wow: Sometimes they open the pen and spill the water, but it’s never very much and you can keep refilling it at your seat. They can use the pages over and over. And over. Skyler loved these.
Scratch Art: These came right after Water Wow in our house, and Hudson used to be obsessed. They’re a bit messy (think Lottery tickets), but seem to tap into something deeply satisfying (again, Lottery tickets).
Color by Number: We love all the Usborne activity books.
Re-usable sticker pads: These Melissa & Doug scenes are really too large for airplanes, but they’re awfully good for the two-year-old set. (Has anyone found better, smaller ones?)

Hopefully these are all things you can use at your destination, too.

An easy DIY is to get a magnetic white board or magnetic chalkboard (I picked up this one), and then tote along little sacks of magnetic toys. Alphabet letters and Magna-tiles are super choices. You can also make your own: look for magnetic strip tape in any craft store and add it to plastic animals, train sets, or even just cut-out shapes (you may need to use additional super glue or a hot-glue gun). You can even make the board yourself—they sell magnetic paint primerThe best part? The toys stay put—meaning you’re spared from being asked to reach back and retrieve every fallen toy. 

7. A playlist of songs your kids love.

Yes, they might end up driving you a little crazy, but as long as they’re singing along everyone’s nice and entertained.

8. A “surprise.”

Truthfully, it doesn’t matter what this surprise is: it can be a small toy from the dollar store, a special piece of chocolate or candy, or even revealing a fun activity you will be doing on the trip. The trick to “the surprise” is (perhaps a bit sneakily) using it as leverage in moments when all hell breaks loose. Nothing makes a better behaved kid than the sentence “if you guys are good, we’ll let you in on a surprise.” Then, drag it out by giving them small clues or having them guess it.

For me, the key is managing expectations—for everybody. How long will you be in the car? What breaks will you be taking and what will you be seeing along the way? And how much ground can you happily cover in a day without feeling exhausted at the other end? We usually try to read a few books before setting out about the things we will see on the road.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t bring along some great distractions.

What are your favorite strategies? 

P.S. A Pacific Northwest Road Trip with four-month-old Skyler & Where to, When: Best ages to travel.

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