Road Trip Tips for Traveling With Kids

My family just took our first “epic” road trip, driving from Seattle to Breckenridge, CO, for a family reunion. It was a great trip! Remarkably, we experienced no melt-downs and everyone seemed to have a really good time. More than that, we did a lot of singing, laughing, and connecting on the road. We made some really special memories during our three days of driving!

As I’ve been reflecting on what made the trip go so smoothly, there are a few things that I know made a huge difference. I recommend the following for any family traveling with small kids!

  1. Easy Does It With the Schedule. We allowed ourselves three days to cover about twenty-two hours of driving time. We certainly could have pushed it and done the whole trip in two days, but instead, we broke it up and allowed ourselves the luxury of stopping often for bathroom breaks and stretching our legs. And planking (see photo below).
  2. Motels/Hotels With Indoor Pools. We drove for three days, which meant we stopped for two nights in motels/hotels. I mapped about 7.5 hours of driving time each day and used Priceline a few days before we hit the road to find sweet deals on a Super 8 in La Grande, OR, and an Embassy Suites hotel in Salt Lake City, UT. Both hotels had indoor pools (important so you can guarantee swim time no matter the weather. This was great in SLC, where we arrived during a lightening storm!) and breakfast included with the room. For a family of five, that is a huge value! The kids got to look forward to swimming at the end of a long day in the car, and we made sure they got the all-important exertion needed to ensure sleep! NOTE: Always call ahead before booking to be sure the hotel’s pool is working. I learned that the hard way on a past trip, when we arrived and discovered the pool was undergoing maintenance. I won’t make that mistake again!
  3. Warm Fuzzies! I borrowed this from my daughter’s school as an incentive for my children to treat one another with kindness and keep whining and complaining to a minimum. Each child had a jar with his/her name on it. Every hour, on the hour, we did a “check-in.” If they used kind words, refrained from whining and were generally pleasant to one another and Mom and Dad, they got a “warm fuzzy” for their jar. At the end of our trip, each child got $.25 for every warm fuzzy in his/her jar. It worked SO WELL, and gave each of them some spending money for the trip. (Our two-and-a-half year old was less impressed by the money and more impressed by the colorful warm fuzzies in his jar!)
  4. Treat Bags. I asked my Vibrant Happy Women community for road trip tips, and this was one of the things shared with me. It took some planning ahead and a small investment, but it was worth every minute and every penny. About two weeks before the trip, I started visiting my favorite thrift stores (Goodwill, Value Village, a.k.a. Savers) and Dollar Tree, where I picked up small toys, clean crafts, sugarless gum, fruit snacks, and lolly pops. I bought brown paper lunch sacks and put one small treat in each bag, about twenty total per child.  I labeled three large gift bags per child and put all of the small sacks in the bag. Every hour, after we did our “warm fuzzy check-in,” I gave each child a sack to open. They LOVED this, and they knew they had something to look forward to each hour. Some hours rolled around and the kids were still playing happily with what they had already gotten, or they were napping, so we did skip a few hours. But I had the treat bags ready to go for when they needed a pick-me-up during the long hours in the car. Some examples of things in their bags were:
    • Frozen character dolls (Goodwill)
    • License plate game
    • Mr. Potato Head (Goodwill)
    • Travel Size Spirograph-knock-off (Dollar Tree)
    • Ninja Blow Darts (Dollar Tree) – they stick to car windows 🙂
    • Books
    • Sticks of sugarless gum
    • Fruit snacks in individual bags
    • Blow Pops
    • Magnetic Letters and a cookie sheet (Dollar Tree)
    • Toy insects, toy motorcycles (Goodwill)
    • Crayons, Paper, Clipboards, coloring books
  5. Daily Intentions. This is a good practice for every day, but especially when you’re about to be in a van or car for many hours with a group of people. Before we started out each day, once everyone was in the car and buckled in, we took a moment to ask each child, as well as Mom and Dad, what their intention for the day was. (We use the “fruit of the spirit” list from the Bible as possible intentions). We each choose one or two to focus on and remind one another about for the day. (This is part of my daily practice, when I finish yoga and pray, I set my mind on something to aim for throughout the day.) While our two-year-old doesn’t quite get it, our four- and nine-year-olds certainly do! They each chose “kindness” as their intentions. My husband chose “joy/fun and kindness,” and I chose “joy and gentleness” for mine, as I can get a bit harsh and short-tempered when I’m in stressful conditions (like a hot, crowded van with a lot of noisy kids!) It really helps to say aloud what your intention is, and since we’ve all shared them with one another, there is a level of accountability when we start to veer off course.
  6. Audio Books! I recently began listening to the Read Aloud Revival podcast and I just love it. It’s so inspiring! I’ve been trying to make an effort to cut back on screen time and amp up our family’s literary education, and this road trip was a perfect time to borrow some great books on CD from the library. We listened to The Magician’s Nephew (Book 1 of the Chronicles of Narnia,) Little House in the Big Woods, and Little House on the Prairie. It was great to rediscover these beloved stories with my kids, who were completely entranced by the narratives. Bonus: no motion sickness from staring at screens!
  7. Music, Singing, and Pointing Out New Terrain. We sang along with the Moana soundtrack about eight (OK, twelve) times, as well as some of our favorite kids’ songs (“The Wheels on the Bus,” “Down By the Sea,” etc.), and we pointed out all sorts of things we saw, from animals (look at the cows! the horses!) to machines (see that tractor? Look, a train!) to new terrain (deserts in Utah, canyons in Colorado, and mountains all the way). All of life can be a series of teachable moments, if we are intentional.
  8. Snacks. Duh! We packed a cooler with fresh fruit, veggies, nuts, cheese sticks, hard-boiled eggs (peeled), and water. We also packed goldfish crackers, popcorn, and peanut butter on cheese crackers. These snacks helped keep bellies full and spirits up. No hangry kiddos in our van!

I hope this helps if you’re planning a road trip. A bit of planning ahead and intention can go a long way to making a long road trip a really fun, rich, educational bonding experience for your family. And now that we’ve done this trip, I can’t wait for the next one!

What are some of your favorite tips for making family road trips awesome? Share them in the comments below!

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