It’s a warm summer day and I can feel the hot sun on my shoulder coming through the sunroof as I hear the low hum of the tires on the highway. The wind whips my hair into tight tangles as I reach for the radio to turn up one of my favorite songs. For this brief moment, an overwhelming sense of freedom and joy washes over me. I turn to my husband and give his arm a squeeze as he navigates us on our grand adventure. Then, of course, I am quickly jolted into the reality that we are not alone on this road trip when a small voice shouts, “Mom! Sister took my snack!”
The experience is a great lesson in how family road trips usually play out: Blissful moments on these family adventures are rare, but they are possible. Before you hit the open road with your kids this season, here are four of our road-tested tips for packing to make the journey as easy as possible.
Less is more
The biggest secret to packing for a successful road trip with kids is to keep it simple. Don’t overpack your car to the roof with stuff. Consider packing one electronic tablet loaded with the kids' favorite movies, apps, and songs. Don’t forget the headphones and (if you have more than one child) a splitter, a small adapter that plugs into the tablet's headphone jack and allows you to plug in two headsets into one device. In addition, healthy snacks, fun road trip games, drawing pencils, paper, and a good book for each family member can help maintain happy travelers for miles. We even create a family roadtrip playlist to keep everyone happy, engaged, and interested.
Build in tech-free time
While it may be tempting to “plug kids in” for the duration of your road trip, I’ve found that too much screen time makes my kids cranky and over-stimulated once we arrive in our destination. Instead, consider alternating screen time with nap time, playing “I Spy” or Road Trip Bingo, or reading and homework (for older kids).
Viewfinder Tip: Consider getting the kids involved in creating an A to Z list of fun places to see, stop, and play on the road.
Pack a backpack full of surprises
Before every trip, I grab a backpack for each of my kids and fill with some of their favorite things (and a few new surprises) that I pick up from the dollar bins at Target. I don’t allow them to open their backpacks until they get into the car and we are on the road, adding to the excitement of the trip.
Reward kids for good behavior
Let’s face it. It’s hard for everyone to be confined in a car for hours on end. We have one rule of the road: To have fun. Anticipation and rewards are big motivators for kids, so make sure to bring special treats to reward them for good behavior. We also have had great success allowing our girls to make critical choices about the itinerary of the trip, such as where to take a potty break. Sometimes we also have our kids put together their own A-Z roadtrip list on what to see, places to visit, where to eat dinner, and more.
Sometimes the best way to approach a family trip is to let serendipity take hold. On frequent road trips to Portland, Oregon from Seattle, we book our hotel on the go using the Expedia app, letting our older daughter peruse the last-minute hotel deals available for that night. Ultimately, my husband and I are the ones who decide where to book, but giving her the chance to do the research allows her to feel like she is part of the decision-making process.
More packing tips
Not sure what to pack? Here’s a quick cheat sheet of what to pack for a road trip with kids:
What not to forget: Sunscreen, healthy snacks and drinks, iPad/tablet device, car chargers for devices, headphones, Ziploc bags for cleaning up trash and baby diapers, wet wipes, a picnic blanket, books for quiet time, colored pencils and paper, a small blanket to roll into a pillow, and chocolate or special sweet treats. We also like to bring cookie sheets to serve as lap desks; you'd be amazed at how well they work!
Want more ideas? Check out our Road Trips with Kids Pinterest board packed with great ideas for your next road trip.
How do you keep your kids busy on the open road?