After 10 years of car travel with kids, I’ve learned a few practical ways to survive a road trip and arrive at your destination with happy children and parents. None of them involve packing things in Ziploc bags and printing off License Plate Bingo sheets.
1. Have an easily accessible change of clothes for everyone. Let’s say little Tommy figures out how to unscrew the lid on his sippy cup while you’re searching for a dinner stop on Yelp. Next thing you know, there’s red fruit punch all over him and the back seat. You have 15 suitcases stuffed in the back of your minivan with enough clothes to open a thrift shop, but getting something out in a hurry isn’t easy.
Keeping a bag packed with one change of clothes for everyone, where you can easily access it, will save you time and frustration. And yes, even pack a change of clothes for the adults. Let’s say this same scenario takes place, only you’re at a restaurant. Tommy spills the fruit punch all over himself and you. It happened to me more than once.
2. Have some basic cleaning and sanitary supplies at the ready. The red fruit punch all over the back seat brings me to my next tip. Carry a few basic cleaning supplies with you:
- Paper towels for wiping up spills. Also comes in handy for restrooms without paper towels. Most kids are terrified of those noisy hand dryers, and they don’t get your hands dry anyway.
- Wet wipes for wiping sticky faces and hands. They can also be used in a pinch to wipe down dirty picnic tables if you bring lunch with you.
- Hand sanitizer for when the bathrooms are out of soap or you have to make an emergency stop in — ahem — the woods.
- Bring something to collect trash. Several plastic shopping bags work great, since you can fill them, then toss them every time you stop.
3. Bring sunglasses or window shades for the kids. Sometimes you’re driving in just the right direction that the sun is in the kids’ eyes. Maybe it’s not so bad on a short trip to the grocery store, but no one wants to take a long road trip with the sun blinding them. You’ll save yourself the pain of listening to a lot of complaining if you bring sunglasses along for the kids to wear or those vinyl shades that stick to the window. Trust me. I’ve been on the receiving end of, “Mom! I can’t see! The sun. OH. THE. SUN!!!!!” You’d think there were vampires back there.
4. Just accept you’ll have to stop often. Speaking of emergency stops, it doesn’t matter how many times we ask, “Do you need to go?” or say, “Well, try anyway,” we end up stopping almost every hour. If it’s not to use the bathroom, it’s because someone spilled something, ran out of their drink, or lost a toy under the seat. If the map app says it will take 4 hours to get there, you can add an extra 15 minutes per hour, per child, and that will give you a more accurate arrival time. Just look at the stops as opportunities for everyone to stretch their legs and get the wiggles out.
5. Bring an actual paper map or atlas. We do love the map app on our phone, and it usually gets us to our destination without a hitch. But our kids are always asking, “Where are we?” It’s not that easy to show them on a phone. This is when you pull out the paper map. My boys are fascinated with maps, and looking at one usually keeps them occupied for a few minutes at least. Also, on those rare occasions where you find yourself in an out-of-the-way place with no GPS signal, the map will save the day!
6. Embrace electronic entertainment. Oh, I know there are games you can play like the Alphabet Game, and you could pack crayons and paper. But crayons usually end up lost under the seat in 10 minutes, and those verbal games get old fast. When you’re talking about really long trips, nothing keeps the kids quiet and occupied like a movie or a game on a tablet. We purchased kid’s Kindles from Amazon for our boys, and they’ve been worth every penny. If we’re on the road all day long, we do make them take breaks from the tablets, but portable electronics are one of the advantages we have as 21st century parents, so use them, I say!
7. Pack snacks instead of buying them on the road. Kids get board and they want to eat. Or maybe it’s another 50 miles to an exit with food, and everyone is hungry and getting cranky. Also, full mouths are usually quieter mouths. So snacks and drinks are a necessity when road tripping. You don’t want to stop and buy them at the gas station, because it wastes time and you’ll pay $4 for a bottle of chocolate milk. It’s also hard to find healthy alternatives at rest stops. Visit the grocery store before leaving home and stock up of your family’s favorite snacks and drinks. If it’s a trip that covers several days and you run out, find a local grocery store on your route to restock.
8. When in doubt what to eat, choose pizza or the Chinese buffet. Eating meals on the road with kids can be a trial, especially if you have picky eaters. Besides, who knows what restaurants you’ll find along the way? Something I’ve learned over the years is that even the smallest towns usually have a pizza joint and a Chinese buffet.
Most kids like pizza, and it’s hard to make a bad pizza. Pizza is also one of the most inexpensive meals a family can get in a restaurant. We can usually order pizza, bread sticks and drinks for the four of us for the same or less then we can get burgers and fries at a fast food restaurant.
The Chinese buffet is also a good choice. You can almost always get fruits and veggies on the buffet, many offer a few “American” options as well, and kids will usually eat the plain chicken nuggets intended for sweet and sour sauce. Bonus, most offer some sort of dessert which is always a hit. Chinese is affordable too, because they often charge half price for kids.
Finally, you always have the option of packing a picnic. This definitely saves you money. Just make sure there’s some place on your route to stop. Most rest stops have picnic areas that even offer grills. Or you can always go to a town park which will also give the kids someplace to burn off their pent up energy.
9. Still try for nap time. It’s after lunch and everyone is full of pizza. Now is a good time for naps if your kids still take regular ones. You don’t want to skip it and have a meltdown later in the restaurant at dinner. Bring a travel pillow and a blanket, so they can get cozy in their car seat. Tell them it’s quiet time and put away the toys and snacks. Hopefully they’ll doze off for awhile.
10. Kids don’t need to be occupied every single minute of the trip. Yes, kids get bored, antsy and loud. They even fight. Who hasn’t heard the, “He’s looking at me! Tell him to stop looking at me! He touched me! Tell him to stop touching me,” argument? But do kids really need every single moment in the car occupied with something? Like I said, we do make our boys take a break from their tablets. They can and should look out the window at the mountains and enjoy the scenery. They can’t see mountains here in Michigan. Road trips are also a great time for conversation. We talk to them about where we’re going and what we’ll do there. Sometimes we just talk about silly things like what if Big Foot is real, he lives in the U.P. and takes showers in bathroom at the campground? Family time doesn’t have to wait until you get there. It can start in the car.