When I tell people that I drive cross country with my kids every summer, they laugh. “You’re crazy…I could never do that…How do you do it!?”
It is possible. Yes, it is. You can survive a road trip with your kids. Stop arguing. Road trips with kids are not only possible, but probably one of the most memory making experiences you can have with your family. Ok, every moment isn’t going to be full of sunshine and rainbows..but it’s worth it. Some do truly think I’m crazy…and they might be right, but I’ll stand by my firm belief that car trips with your family are spectacular.
Packing up your car with kids and driving anywhere further than the grocery store can be daunting…and might even deter you from taking the trip of your dreams. Don’t be afraid…it’s all very possible, if you go in knowing a few things. Trust me, road trips are perfect for helping you learn a thing or two about yourself, your family and your ability to maneuver I-40 traffic with two kids melting down and one wanting a drink from the cooler, but can’t reach it. You can do it!
I’ve been traveling cross country by vehicle with my kiddos since 2008. We drive between 4,000 and 7,000 miles a summer. We have road-tripped through breastfeeding and potty training and diaper leaks, motion sickness, diarrhea, severe boredom, lack of gas stations, crazy drivers, hurricane-type weather, full hotels and more. We have made our favorite trip 17 times and I’ve learned a thing or two about surviving this method of vacationing with kids.
I’m about to give you my top 50 tips for surviving a long distance (or maybe any distance) road trip with your children. I plan on breaking this down into the following categories; Planning, Car Maintenance, Packing, Hotel Tips, Snacks, Movies and Games, Safety & Emergency, Motion Sickness, Diapers, Potty Training & Breastfeeding, Driving Rules and Most Important Things To Remember.
So, buckle up and enjoy the ride!
Here’s the truth, I don’t make a plan, other then I know I want to go from here to there. Every summer, the kids and I leave Burbank, California and head to a small town in Michigan, called Petersburg. (North of Toledo, Ohio and south of Ann Arbor) My favorite route is the ‘Southern Route’ along I-40 from California to Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and then up through Oklahoma, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio..and Michigan. I like this route because it’s pretty flat and straight. We’ve taken the northern way, as well…but if you’re trying to avoid motion sickness and a lot of curves, well, the more mountainous way is not for you. (or us)
50. Make a plan…or not
I do not plan hotel stops ahead of time (see expectations at number 2). We love to go with the flow. We find sleeping arrangements when we know we’re done driving for the day. We can rock out some days at 13 hours on the road. And others, we get 6 or 7.
We do make plans sometimes to stop and look at something or visit a place we haven’t been. For example, we knew we wanted to go to Waco, Texas to visit Magnolia Farms, so I planned for that stop. However, if we see a roadside attraction on the way…we may do that too. (Like the ginormous golf ball in Arizona off Route 66, exit 25 on I40) I have found keeping my ‘itinerary’ completely flexible makes for a better trip. Making concrete plans or not is going to be a personal choice for you…and maybe not a choice, if you have to get back for work. But I highly recommend being very flexible, if possible. It takes a lot of pressure off and helps you relax on the trip!
49. Choose a good co-pilot
This is absolutely important. Whoever is in the co-pilot seat with you, as driver, needs to be willing to work. As the driver (and maybe this is your spouse or partner) you are responsible for driving. That is it. The co-pilot needs to be able to hand kids things that fall, grab snacks from the cooler, change out DVD’s and answer phone calls. The driver is to drive and the passenger is to help. Ideally, you’ll be trading out seats and your roles will change, but this is super important…the driver cannot tend to kids and be settling fights while driving. (See also Driving Rules below) As the driver, you can sit back, relax and enjoy the ride. Shhhh….don’t tell anyone but this is seriously my favorite part of our road trips.
48. Hotel/Gas Station Reward Programs
I have found I like some hotels over others, and I join their rewards programs because, hello…rewards! Some hotels, with points earned will give you free snacks and water. Maybe a free upgrade in room choice, etc. I actually get all of my magazine orders free because of how much we travel. (It’s the small things sometimes) Gas stations work the same way. You can earn free coffee at certain stations with member points..or free slurpees for the kids after making a certain amount of purchases. This is something I definitely do to the places I frequent.
47. Travel Packet Envelope
Stuff happens and you might not have cell service…or forgot your charger at home (don’t do that) and you need to know the right freeway to take. This is where you make sure you have your Road Atlas, Thomas Guide (yes, you can still get them at Costco and other places) and itinerary print outs. Now, I just said I don’t make plans, and I don’t. But, if we knew we were headed straight to the Grand Canyon and I did make a hotel reservation there, I’m going to print out that confirmation and bring it with me. I’ll also have any confirmation numbers for any other experience I pre-planned. Or maybe a list of numbers printed out for the most important people…because hey, face it, there’s not many phone numbers we ‘have to’ remember anymore. And panicking is the best way to forget all the information, so have it close at hand.
46. Meal Planning
You don’t want to forget about meals on this trip. And eating out at every meal, even on the road, can leave you feeling bloated and your wallet feeling empty. So, when we travel long distance by car (or super awesome Yukon XL) I plan for hotel breakfasts (see hotel tips), lunch in the car, normally at rest areas and dinner at a restaurant near the hotel we find for the night.
You can’t get far in a vehicle that isn’t well maintained. Things do happen out of your control, but these things, you can control.
Have all of your tires checked and rotated a week before hitting the road.
Have your alignment checked while you have the tires rotated. Feeling safe in your vehicle is the best way to start a trip!
44. Oil Change
Get your oil changed. I time out my oil changes to my trips. Some are in the mindset of changing every 3000 miles, while others change it every 5000. This also depends on the kind of oil you put in your vehicle. Do some research on what is the best oil to have in your specific vehicle, as there are many options!
Fill these fluids: Radiator, Transmission, Power Steering, Brake, A/C and washer fluids.
(FYI…driving across the south, you’ll get the most amazing amount of bugs on your windshield and front end. Have fun scrubbing those babies off!)
Not only will you need to pack clothes and toiletries for your destination, but you’ll need to pack your vehicle with the right things, too. Over the past 8 years of this trip, I’ve figured out a few things to NEVER leave home without. Yes, I can easily stop at a Walmart or Rite Aid along the way, but there are periods of hours where there is literally nowhere to stop…so be sure to bring what you need with you!
42. Car Trip Tool Kit
This is not a typical tool kit (although I carry one of those too). This is a tool kit of essentials that I have found I have used consistently on every trip. This personal tool kit of mine consists of these items: Dental floss, Tweezers, Nail Clippers/cleaner, Chapstick, Sewing Kit, Swiss Army Knife or something comparable, Can opener, Scissors and rubber bands.
These have all been used on multiple trips, so now I actually keep a small case in my truck at all times with these items.
41. Paper Towels/Toilet Paper/Tissues
I’m sure this seems like a no-brainer. But Having a roll of paper towels has been life saving in the event of vomit or spilled drinks. Toilet paper is always necessary for bloody noses, roadside bathroom stops and can completely serve as tissues to save room. Tissues…well, you know what those are used for.
40. Gallons of Water
I never, ever leave for a road trip without at least 3 gallons of water easily accessible. The first use I have for these is to refill water bottles, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to clean hands on the side of the road. Or rinse out poopy pants when diapers have exploded, clean up vomit via roadside shower, washed out sippy cups, brushed teeth, rinsed feet after a side excursion or you name it. These gallons come in handy.
39. Plastic Bags
Ziplock bags, garbage bags, grocery bags…bring them all. You’ll need one for trash and laundry and wet cloths and vomit cleanup and throwing diapers away (or at least tying them up until you can find a trash bin.) Ziplock bags are good for all of those too, as well ask super awesome rocks the kids can’t leave Meteor Crater without. (I40 exit 233, Arizona)
38. Zip Ties
Although sometimes you’d rather use these for tying the rugrats to the roof rack, they actually come in handy for the most crazy reasons. Trust me, just keep a handful in the glovebox.
This is an absolute must. (and a no-brainer) I get a cooler that fits on the floor behind the driver seat. I stock it with those baby sized soda cans. I do not ever keep soda in my home, but on the road, an ice cold soda at a rest area in Amarillo, Texas when it’s 102 degrees, is amazing. And it keeps the kiddos looking forward to lunch. I definitely use them as a bargaining tool when whining creeps in. In the cooler, I also keep boiled eggs, cheese sticks, fruit, cold cuts for sandwiches and definitely those frozen PB&J sandwiches from the frozen food aisle.
36. Paper/Plastic Products
Plastic cups make the best snack holders on a car ride. The best. I make sure to have plenty of disposable bowls, cups, plates and utensils. This makes lunch on the go easy peasy. I also keep all of the paper cups from the hotel rooms as snack cups (See hotel tips)
35. Baby Wipes/Clorox Wipes
I’m not sure why I would have to explain the need for these to any parent. My kids are in elementary school and middle school, and I still keep baby wipes wherever I go. Clorox wipes are great for spills.
34. Water bottle/juice bottle for each kid
I’ve done this since they were little. I hate putting juice or milk in a water cup and then rinsing it out to put water in it. The kids all have a refillable water bottle with them, as well as a bottle for juice, chocolate milk or whatever else special treat we encounter along the way.
33. Medicine Cabinet
I keep a small plastic tub with me everywhere. In this tub, I keep my First Aid kit and all kinds of medicine for both the kids and adults alike. Tylenol, Advil, After Bite (because the mosquitos are huge and plentiful in our great United States) and extra Benedryl (see Motion Sickness section below). I keep sunscreen and aloe with me too.
Because not all places take cards. When you’re traveling across some of the most remote places, credit cards are not always welcomed. Not to mention, toll roads! There are several toll roads as travel options and you’ll need cash.
31. Sun Shades
Oh, my, these come in handy. There is nothing worse than a young kid saying ‘the sun is in my eyes’ over and over and over…..and over. You can only get so far into a science lesson with a toddler (or an 11 year old) about how if we just wait, the sun will move. That doesn’t work. You can get cheap sun shades at travel stations, some cars come with them built in and even a pillow case closed in the window works amazingly well.
30. Pack one bag for the hotel
To not have to drag everyone’s luggage in and out of hotels on your trip, pack ONE hotel bag. We use a great big duffle bag that fits clothes and toiletries for all of us, for as many days as I think we’ll be on the road. And yes, we can re-wear clothes. Make sure you have plenty of underwear and you’ll be good.
29. Choose a hotel with a continental breakfast
Okay, I’m going to be the first to admit that continental breakfast’s at hotels can be a bit of a traumatic experience. I mean, honest to goodness, I’m not sure what some companies make their ‘eggs’ out of…however. There are hotels that include breakfasts’ that are so good, you wish you could come back for lunch. We have some favorite hotels for breakfast and I shoot for those. This makes the morning take off, easy. We can eat there or grab it to go, or both! Normally my kids fill a plastic cup with dry cereal for the road. This saves us a lot of money too. Don’t get me wrong. If a hotel has coffee that tastes like it was made last week, we hit the closest Starbucks. Mama needs her coffee.
28. Carry all swim stuff in a plastic bag separately
My kids are all old enough to swim on their own, without me getting into the pool, so now we find hotels with pools! This is their favorite thing at the end of a trip in the car. And it truly helps get the energy out after sitting in a car all day. Pools are a must. And I keep all goggles and suits in a separate bag that can handle the dampness. We know where everyone’s stuff is.
27. Make every kid/adult responsible for something at every hotel.
When kids know what their job is, and what is expected of them, it makes it easier. Of course, if you’re with an infant or itty bitty, they can’t do much…but make your kids help! At every hotel, we make one kid responsible for opening the door, another gets to push the elevator buttons (hello, have you ever NOT had to deal with elevator button pushing meltdowns) and another kid is responsible for grabbing the luggage cart from inside the hotel door while we’re unloading.
26. Fill your cooler in the morning at the hotel ice machine
Fill your cooler each morning in the hotel. At night, if the ice is melted enough, we unload our food in the hotel refrigerator. Simply re-fill as the last thing before you head out in the morning. Saves money and time.
25. Carry a trash bag in and out for dirty laundry
Hotel laundry bags work well for this too. Those are the bags hanging on the hangers in the closet area of a hotel room. They are quite small, most of the time, so I opt for a full size garbage bag, but know those bags are there for you!
24. Grab paper goods from your hotel room!
Every hotel room I’m in has plenty of paper cups…I take them all! And we use them.
**Bonus tip…save all of the free toiletries across the country. These make fantastic stuffers for donation boxes like Operation Christmas Child or goody bags for the homeless.
Snacks, Movies And Games
Road trips are the time you throw all of your food rules out of the window. All of them. I mean it. Don’t get all “you have to wait another hour” or “You JUST ate..you can’t be hungry” stuff. Road trips are the time to say…”Here, just keep this extra apple, fruit strip, bag of goldfish and ginormous box of cheese puffs close by.” I do not condone feeding kids junk. I’m not a fan of junk. But, I am a fan of not losing my mind. You can get creative with snacks, healthy or otherwise, but be sure you have plenty. I mean so many, you will get back home from the road trip with enough stuff to put in the cupboard.
Do not get stingy on snack foods while road trippin.’ Same thing goes for the movies.
**I know potty stops are annoying, but it’s best to make sure everyone in the car is drinking plenty of water, especially you, as driver. Dehydration sucks. It leads to headaches, cramps and irritability…adults and kids alike.
Borrow new ones from friends, get $5 deals at the store. Get a series like Loony Tunes or Little House. I don’t do a lot of screen time in our home…but that rule is squashed the minute we leave. Having said that, I do chose times with no distractions. It wouldn’t be a road trip if you didn’t completely ‘bore’ your kids by making them stare at the terribly beautiful scenery out of the window. FYI, we normally go the entire first day of a trip without electronics.
21. The Kids Backpack
I let my kids pack a backpack to keep by their feet throughout the duration of the trip and It has their mp3, clipboards, pencils, crayons, books, travel board games, etc
20. Secret Sanity Gifts
One of my go-to’s when traveling in the car with the kids is having a secret stash of emergency toys.
But what it doesn’t have are the really inexpensive toys and games I secretly bought at the Dollar Store before we left. The Sanity Gifts. Sometimes, I even wrap them. It can be anything! You can gift wrap a stick, call it a magic wand and tell them to be Harry Potter for the next 30 minutes…make it a surprise thing they’ve never seen and it’s magic. Pun intended. I’ll grab new books, markers, paper, Mad Libs, small figurines, anything.
19. The extra time game
If you are in a long period and nothing is satisfying them, ask them to hold out for 30 minutes..set the timer and reveal a new surprise! Those 30 minutes just buys time..because, let’s face it, that’s all you’ve got in a car with kids. Time.
18. The License Plate Game/Scenery Search
There are apps for these nowadays! We still love to put it all to paper and pencil. You will absolutely be surprised at the diverse state plates you’ll see in the middle of Texas. Turns out, a lot of people like to road trip! We also like to make pictures drawings, especially for the younger kiddos who can’t truly read yet…they can understand pictures!
If you know you’re headed through Texas, give them pictures of cows. If you know you’re going through St. Louis…draw the Arch!
Safety & Emergency
17. Personal Safety
This is very important. Especially if you’re driving alone with your kids, like I do occasionally. I have had moments where I felt that I was being followed. Whether it was true or not, I made my way to public areas and made sure I was absolutely aware of my surroundings. A few other things to keep note of…be aware of people around you, park in well lit areas, keep mace in the car door, always carry a flashlight, don’t let your tank get below 1/4 full, keep a whistle close and always pay attention to where your next rest area is.
It truly doesn’t matter what kind of travel you take, emergencies can arise. I be sure to keep a first aid kit completely accessible and recently stocked. I have had to call a pediatrician in the middle of the country and have a prescription sent to a pharmacy in literally…the middle of nowhere. Always know there are Urgent Cares in most cities and 911 is always available.
Be sure to keep jumper cables in your car and know where your spare tire is located and how to access it. No one wants to encounter an emergency, but if you prepare, you’ll feel more calm in any situation. And the odds of an emergency are slim! Don’t panic over this.
This is the part where I tell you to drug your children. I’m only half joking. I, myself, am a terrible passenger in any car due to my innate ability to vomit and make people never want me to be in their car again. Car sickness is the worst. Well, probably the worst part of any road trip for people like me. It also makes me the driver..everywhere. Preventing your kids from getting sick is key. Depending on the age of your little ones, there are a couple of options. And I’m going to interject that you should always talk to your pediatrician before listening to the advice of a blogger. (Just so you know, I’ve talked to my pediatrician and I’ve driven across the country with my kids 17 times…17. Not a typo.)
This pink antihistamine is like gold when it comes to prevention. Every day I drive, the kids know they get 1tsp of the pink stuff before we leave. Now that the kids are getting older, Benedryl, be warned, sometimes has the reverse effect on kids. For some, it makes sleepy. Others it wires with more energy than they had before…and you thought that wasn’t possible. It is. However…no car sickness.
These work for some people and not for others. Personally, wristbands do not work for me and the first time I used them on my kiddos, I had puke in the backseat…and after a while, they hurt. So…this is not my go-to. But, when it comes to motion sickness, I’ll try anything to keep it at bay.
13. Kids’ Dramamine
I LOVE it that Dramamine makes a kids’ version now. When I first started my road tripping with kids, this was not available. But now, I keep this in full stock. I have taken it and it works on me too.
Ginger ale, ginger chews….ginger works. And if you’re going to stock Ginger Ale, do yourself a favor and keep Vernons on hand. You can get it at Kroger companies, like Ralph’s.
Diapers, Potty Training & Breastfeeding
When it comes to taking young ones on a road trip, I cannot express the importance of lowering your expectations. See #2. No, seriously….lower them.
11. Changing diapers on the road
Mommies and Daddies, diapers need changed. We all know this. They’ll always need changed and you’ll have to fully understand, that if you’re driving long distance with kids in diapers, keeping your baby’s diaper dry is going to be important. Keep plenty of plastic bags on hand. You may be changing diaper on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere an you’ll have to tie up that soiled diaper until you get to the next pit stop. I’ve changed diapers in the front seat, back seat, trunk and on my lap. We get it done.
10. Potty training in the middle of nowhere
If your kiddos are potty training, then you’ll want to absolutely have a travel potty with you. The end.
9. Breastfeeding on the go
Mammas, don’t let this stop you from taking the road trip. Just, please, pull the car over and don’t breastfeed the baby in the front seat while the vehicle is in motion…yes, I’ve seen this a few times.
***Bonus tip… if you have little kids and need to stop every 1 1/2 hours, this is completely normal and fine. Whatever you have to do to not lose your mind, is what you do. See below #2 on expectations….lower them. The end.
8. Seatbelt always on and kids in proper seats
There is no excuse for not wearing seat belts. And while we’re at it, always make sure your kids are in the right seat. You can get your seats checked by any Highway Patrol or Fire Station. Go online and make sure you know your state laws on car seat safety. Best to be as safe as possible as you’re may be crossing state lines.
7. Never Drive Drowsy
This is so dangerous. If you’re getting tired, pull over and change out drivers. If you’re both tired, or you’re by yourself, stop for the night. End of story.
**A super awesome trick of mine are Tootsie Pops. For some reason, when I start to get bored, Tootsie Pops (and maybe just having something to do) helps keep me focused.
6. No Texting and Driving
This one needs zero explanation. There should be NO texting and driving. This is the co-pilots job. Or it’s a job you do when you are filling up the gas tank. Distracted driving kills and is completely stupid. Yeah, I said that. So does speeding and falling asleep at the wheel. This is not the time to be on your phone.
The only job the driver should have is to drive. That is it.
5. The Speed Limit
Always, always drive as you feel safe. My rule of thumb is not to go more than 5 over the speed limit. Do I condone speeding? No, but when you’re traveling with a bunch of people on a long freeway, going slower than the speed limit can be as dangerous as going significantly over. I keep up with traffic, as long as I feel safe. I remind myself constantly, I have my family in the car with me and I’m responsible.
Most Important Things To Remember
4. Day 3 is the worst
I mean it, the absolute worst day. You can drive for 6 days and days 1, 2, 4, 5 and 6 will be totally fine. There is something about that third day. Day one is about the excitement of something new. I can usually go this entire day without any electronics whatsoever. Day two, the kids are still excited but wondering when we’ll get there and all is okay. Day 3 is when everyone wakes up and decides pushing buttons will be more fun than anything else in the entire world. This is the day everyone’s butt hurts from sitting and the entire Universe is against you because your kids turn into one long Rene Zelwegger movie. Oh, what…you don’t find those movies completely annoying? Day three is one big, long overrated Rene Zelwegger movie. And then when you survive Day 3 on a road trip with kids, then you can probably book the sherpa to help you get to the top of Mt. Everest..because you can now do anything.
3. Make Memories
Yes, you have a destination (or maybe you don’t!) and there is a goal. But, these road trips are serious opportunities to get to know your family better. Who am I kidding, this is an opportunity to learn more about yourself, than anyone. Pit stops, restroom emergencies, sleeping together in big beds, figuring out meals, dealing with the strange people in the middle of nowhere (yes, I said it), maneuvering navigation snafus and whatever the heck comes your way, you will not be the same!
2. Set Your Expectations Low
I mean it. Low. You and your husband plan to hit the 400 mile mark today? Let’s just call that a nice idea. You may hit it, you may not. And if you do hit it, you’ll probably have to stop every 2 hours or less for potty breaks, stretching of the legs, changing of the diaper or just to take a break from each other. Here’s the truth, most of our kids are not accustomed to riding in a car for a long period of time. Know that going in. Give them a grace period where you know they’re going to whine and complain and say they’d rather be at home. It just is. But…when they get used to being in the car, (and sometimes it’s the second day) it gets exciting. Don’t expect that the kids will be happy and not fight. They will. Don’t expect that you won’t lose your temper. You will. This is like going into battle when you’re sleep training or potty training or asking the kids to try new foods. Just be patient. It will work out okay.
Place your hands on the car or directly on your husbands face and say ‘Heavenly Father give me patience and understanding for the sounds, screams and noises my children will surely make. May they not drive me to threaten to pull the car over. May my spouse and I not argue over which way to turn.. Give me strength Lord to endure the questions and the siblings fighting and the people tailgating. Lord, let there be no vomit and if there is, please help me to remember to have a bag close by. Father God, be with us today as there may be tears and tantrums and leaky diapers. Lord, be with us and guide our path safely.”
All joking aside, prayer is our number one go-to. Whatever your Higher Power is, have a nice conversation before you drive off every day.
As I drive cross country every year with my kids, I am floored by the number of roadside memorials we see. Sometimes in groups of 3 or 4, where you know several people have perished. Safety is key. Don’t drive distracted or tired. The co-pilot (and that could be you) should be responsible for everything with the kids. Let the driver, drive. (That could be you.)
I find myself praying continuously throughout our trips. Have I lost my temper? Yes, I sure have. Have I lost my voice screaming at my kids? I’d be lying if I said I didn’t. Do I learn something about myself every single trip. Yes, I humbly do.
Pray for safety. Pray for patience and most importantly, pray that God reveals something to you about yourself and your family you didn’t know before, even if it is to discover that you all secretly love cheese puffs.
This country is big. It’s so beautiful. Get in the car and take a trip.