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I’ve traveled more than 16,000 miles in the past 3 years on road trips with my family. Here are some of my favorite family road trip survival tips for surviving hundreds of miles in the car with kids, husband, and a trunk full of suitcases!
13 Tips to Simplify Your Next Family Road Trip
- Write out a packing list for each family member. Include one for any pets you’ll be taking. Once kids are around 8 years old, maybe even younger, they can use the list to pack their own suitcases. Be sure to go through the suitcases once they’re finished packing — you never know what else they might have managed to squeeze in there!
- Use these lists for re-packing at the end of your vacation so nothing gets left behind. Bathing suits and phone chargers are at the top of my list of things that get left behind. I’ve started carrying a high-powered battery pack, with me on trips, specifically for times when we leave a charger somewhere and need one of our small electronics.
- Store these lists on your computer so you can adjust them for different seasons (cold vs. warm weather) and as your kids get older (no more stuffed animals or Cheerios now that my kids are teens!).
- Individual toiletry bags are a huge help. Even large zip-locs, labeled with the names of each family member, are extremely useful, especially if you’ll be camping and using community showers. Everyone has their own bag of necessities, such as a washcloth, soap, toothbrush, toothpaste, etc.
- Decide beforehand on rotating systems for anything that might cause a fight during the time on the road. For example, seat rotation, picking the next DVD, choosing the next snack, etc.
- Begin making a master To Do list long before you leave on your trip. Determine when each item on the list should be done and write it on a calendar, such as haircuts, getting a pet/house-sitter, making car rental and hotel reservations, etc.
- Include a list of things that have to be done or packed the morning that you leave, such as packing the ice chest, prescription medications, cell phone chargers, etc. Although my Last Minute Packing List is intended for emergency evacuations, it might give you some good ideas of what should go on your own vacation list.
- For the long trip itself, having some sort of routine may help the time go faster. You might want to schedule singalong time, naps, snacks, read alouds/books on CD, exercise stops, and car games. This gives everyone something to look forward to, “…in just a few minutes!”
- If you’ll be stopping to spend the night at hotels or other places en route to your destination, pack a single, small suitcase that will serve as a sort of overnight bag for the whole family. It should contain whatever each person will need to see them through the night and into the next morning: pajamas, a change of underwear, a clean shirt, toiletry items, etc. pack this bag into your vehicle last, so it will be easy to reach each night. This is far easier than emptying out the entire vehicle and lugging everything into a hotel each and every night.
- Healthy food is a huge plus, since inactivity is a reality of car travel. Pack fresh vegetables, cheese and crackers, fruit, healthy snack mixes, and lots of water bottles.
- Stuff a handful of plastic grocery bags somewhere handy to use for trash, damp clothes, and yes, a vomit bag if someone gets carsick!
- Pack smaller, cozy blankets and favorite pillows to encourage drive-time naps as well as something familiar in strange hotel rooms.
- Our family’s favorite pit-stops are Costco (for the cheaper gas and even cheaper hot dog meals!), Starbucks (dependable wi-fi connection and mom’s favorite green tea!) and Trader Joe’s (love their huge selection of salads!).
Road trips are also about family time
A number of great life lessons can be learned on these trips.
- Take the bad with the good.
- Life is an adventure.
- You never know what amazing thing could be around the next corner.
- America is a beautiful country and part of our heritage.
- Our family is a team.
- A shared burden is always lighter.
Enjoy your next road trip!
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I'm the original Survival Mom and for more than 11 years, I've been helping moms worry less and enjoy their homes and families more with my commonsense prepping advice.
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17 thoughts on “Survive Your Next Family Road Trip With These 13 Tips”
When my kids were young I kept a plastic container with a lid for the “puke bucket”.
I am currently planning an upcoming family road trip. I have looked for water parks on the way so we can get them happy and tired in a couple hours, then continue on our way.
I like the Costco idea!
If it is a PLANNED trip (especially with kids along,) one of the first things you should do, is indeed PLAN the trip. Too many families just pack, cram everyone into the car, and set-out for their “destination” as FAST as possible (driving straight-through in most cases,) because they want to maximize their time at their destination.
Whereas, if you PLAN places to stop enroute, and maybe even off the beaten trail a bit, it makes the traveling an ADVENTURE instead of a boredom. This also creates built-in “pit-stops” or potty breaks.
Sites to see along the way: Historically noteworthy places, water/theme parks, lakes/rivers, ski resorts, and “YES!” even the tacky, over-advertised tourist traps. When our daughter was in third grade, the teacher was discussing US history. Our daughter kept saying, “Yup, seen it.” and “Yup, been there.” Finally the teacher stopped her and said, “Please stop interrupting the class, you are too young to have been to all these places.” Later in the school year, the students has to create a collage. Our daughter cut-out all of her travel pictures: Tossing pennies onto Plymouth Rock, walking aboard the Mayflower & Godpeed, participating in reenactments of the Revolutionary Way and the Civil Wars; making cnadles in historic Williamsburg (not to mention Jamestown, Yorktown, Washington DC, Boston, Fort Sumpter SC, and so many other places.) She was only in third grade by then. But, she had probably seen, and indeed walked the grounds of places her history teacher only read about in books?!!!!
Also, PLAN your eating adventures, too! Eat lobsters in Maine, eat Philly Steak & Cheese sandwiches in Philadelphia, cracked Blue Crabs in DC, steaks in Texas and KC, not to mention the BBQs of KC, OK, TX, and Memphis. Each town/area has their own culinary creations. FIND them, and EAT them!!!
Don’t forget the tourist traps!!! It KILLS us when we talk to people who seem to skip EVERYTHING. If you pass through St. Louis, have you been up in the Gateway Arch? Have you toured Anheuser Busch Breweries? Have you visited the Clydesdales at Grants Farm?
LEARN about the businesses along the way, too! (And visit their headquarters.) Take a Coke factory tour in Atlanta. Porsche or BMW factory in Germany. Watch Corvettes being built in Bowling Green, KY.
LEARN about some of the off-the-beaten track opportunities. White water rafting trips, ropes courses, rock-climbing, float trips, opportunities to swim with dolphins/sharks/manatees.
Make the travel as adventurous as the destination.
1.) In a van or mini-van, place a plastic bucket (with a handle) on the floor behind the driver’s seat, to function as a trash can. This helps keep wrappers and stuff “contained” and prevent them from going EVERYWHERE. Plus, the bucket can also be used for washing the car; or as a puke bucket in case someone get road sick, or parties too hard one night while on vacation. (Our was even used as a makeshift potty, once.) (blush…)
2.) Maps, maps, maps!!!! “Yes,” typical road maps. TEACH the kids how to use/read them. TEACH the how to be “good” and “helpful” backseat drivers (so they will be good front-seat drivers in the future.) Anytime they ask “How much further?” — just hand them a map, and let them figure it out themselves. TEACH them about mile-markers and how they correlate with exit numbers (in most states.) e.g. exit 11A & B are therefore at mile 11. So, if you just passed mile-marker (lollipop) 13, then you are two miles away from the exit. Join AAA auto club, and get TONS of FREE maps, and road guide books (THICK, colorful books, with TONS of information!!!) FREE!!!! If your kids don’t share well, then get TWO maps of each city/state you are going to drive through. Did I mention that they are FREE?!!!!
But, not ONLY “official” street maps. Also pickup the little FREE coupon books in the entryways of truckstops and Dennys restaurants and such. These have little animated city tourist maps within them. These are GREAT for finding local attractions, and discounts to them. Plus, they are sometimes easier to orient than a more-detailed “professional” map. We also like them, because they tent to point out great “viewing” routes. (e.g. instead of following the concrete jungle, they often divert you onto tree-lined, cobblestone streets adjacent to a park or beautiful stream/river.) e.g. the “scenic routes.”
3.) Baby wipes. Sure, you COULD stock-up on the hand-I-wipes from countless visits to KFC. But, we just buy a jumbo container of baby wipes (plus a roll of papertowels.) These are a great first-line defense to most spills and such. Naturally, they are must-have’s after eating fastfood while underway.
4.) Case of bottle water (plus a variety of Mio squirt bottles, or individual-serving powered drink mixers.) Don’t pre-mix the drinks! Keep the water “virgin” until someone is ready to drink it. You never know when you might need the water to refill an overheated radiator, instead?!!! (P.S. That bucket behind the driver’s seat can also be used to fetch water from a nearby stream to refill the radiator, too!) For the ULTIMATE roadside rescue combo: Cooler with wheels, plus a plastic bucket that’s small enough to fit inside of the cooler. Thus, in an emergency, you can unload your food from your cooler, and fetch water from a nearby stream with your cooler & bucket, and then also use the bucket to refill the radiator. Keep the remaining creek water in the cooler, in case you need to stop and re-fill the radiator once again several miles down the road. (This got us through Utah once in the middle of the night = 100+ miles until the next exit.)
5.) Headphones & personal media player for each kid (even each person) in the vehicle. These electronic-babysitters help keep people occupied with games/music/whatever, and help keep PEACE while underway. (Heck, my wife’s smartphone has essentially DOUBLED her mileage between potty stops!)
6.) Binoculars (maybe 2+ pairs if you have more than one kid in the car, to avoid fights.) Sometimes, the best things to see are off on the distant horizon. Or, when you stop at a tourist trap, these can be helpful, too! (e.g. to watch a baseball game, or horse races, air show, etc.) Again, PLAN your visit, KNOW what’s happening along your route (and adjust your plans accordingly.) It kinda SUCKS to realize you just missed a MAJOR even by a day or so +/-. So, do your research ahead of time.
7.) Rain ponchos, baseball caps, and sunglasses for EVERYONE!!! I also like to include a small day pack per person (and have people carry their own load.) e.g. don’t blame your parents if you forget to bring a camera, or the binoculars, or WHATEVER else YOU may have forgotten. YOU have a brain, too. USE it!
8.) Air fresheners. Nowadays, that means Farbeeze. These are AWESOME for combatting the smells of road warriors.
9.) Wishing balloons. (I like to pack these as a little surprise at times.) e.g. on the last night of your trip (or the big, late night of your trip,) break-out the wishing balloons, light their candles aglow, and send them aloft into the night air… (Memorable, and thoughtful.)
10.) If you are passing a “natural wonder” or state/national park — STOP!!! e.g. if you are passing a snow ski resort — STOP!!! Take your kids/family snow skiing (or at least tubing, or shopping through the alpine village?) DIVERT to see the Grand Canyon. Take the coast highway, so you can SEE the ocean or the Gulf (and indeed pull over, so your kids can put their feet into it, or swim in it.) SEE old Faithful. SEE Mount Rushmore, Crazyhorse, or the giant redwood trees. See the caves where Jesse James supposedly hid-out. Take the trams up to the top of Lookout Mountain. LIVE LIFE (outside of the car.)
11.) Get the kids/family a set of FRS radios. These can be used enroute (to communicate across multiple vehicles — even when there’s no cell signal.) They can be used when trying to back the boat in/out of the water at the ramp (no yelling at your spouse.) They can be used by the kids/parents at the beach, or the ski resort (to synchronize meal times and meet-ups.)
12.) Adjust everyone’s diets BEFORE the trip. Think “low carb.” If you’re lucky, it might even shave off a few last-minute pounds for that swimsuit beforehand? More importantly, it stabilizes our blood sugars, and puts our bodies into ketosis. (Downside, bad breath — so, have some carb-free mints ready, too.) The beauty of changing to a low-carb diet beforehand, is that it STABLIZES everyone’s energy levels. It KILLS the sugar-rushes and the highs/lows/crashes. Instead, everyone’s a bit more even-keeled, and mellow.
13.) Dramamine. Um… Sure, it can be used to PREVENT motion sickness. Or… It kinda just knocks some people right OUT! Ah, car sleepers… (Even people who SAY that they can’t sleep in a car, can usually do so after taking a Dramamine.)
That’s all the tips I have time for now. (Dinner awaits.)
Sorry I don’t have time for more,
You know those clipboards contractors use that store papers inside? Each of our boys has one for long road trips. They can do art on top (Bendaroos!). This time, they will have maps and tourist brochures inside for the to look for things they want to see.
Welcome Centers are a great resource for tourist information – even for your own area.
If you are taking dogs, (or cats), remember their needs too. A dog needs room to lie down and stretch,so no expecting the dog to sleep in between the luggage. If they are traveling in a crate, then that crate needs room around it to circulate air, it needs to be large enough for the dog to lie down, and it should have a crate door water source. The crate pad should be warm for winter and a cool one for summer. Every 2 hours,both cats and dogs need to be ON A LEASH, taken out of the car to stretch, go out, ponder their surroundings, and relax. Offer a fresh drink. Plan on 20 minutes to just hang out or walk them. Remember to put a litter box within the cat crate. Most cats do not travel well, so expect to find the cat hunkered down in the litter. Animals overheat tremendously easy-so keep the air on in the summer. Do NOT expect to leave them in a hot car-a car that is 70o inside will become 90o in no time.I like to keep a sun blocker shade-even with dark windows-where the dogs are. If you have an rv or a van-that is a better choice. More room for everyone and a little easier to travel with animals. Take a record of shots, licenses, and any special needs. Plan on enough food for the trip plus 5 days-because you may not get back when you think you will. Take an extra leash, collar, and harness. I purchased a bag from Outward Hound; the name is all over the bag, so everyone knows who it belongs to. All of their needs go in except their food. If this is all too much-do yourself and the pets a favor. Hire a petsitter that is licensed and bonded so you can enjoy your trip and know that you won’t come home to a disaster.
If it wasn’t for my wife and her lists, we would never have all the stuff we need when we get there.
We travel a lot to visit family many states away. Over the past several years we have gotten really good at it. It especially helps with small kids to have a road trip routine. Try to do it the same way every time from the packing, to the loading, to the snacks & toys, and even the place we stop for the night. When we make the same trip we try to stay in the same hotel. At the very least we stick to that franchise so the kids know what to expect. It helps out bunches and bunches when your kids can fall asleep in a strange bed/crib in a strange place after being in the car all day.
This routine will also help tremendously when you need an emergency road trip plan for unplanned trips. Last year we had to leave our home after a huge storm that left most of the state without power for almost 2 weeks. We followed our routine and had the car and kids ready to go for a week’s stay with Grandma in less than an hour.
I will repeat what Jack has to say in his comments above: MAPS, MAPS, MAPS. In the days of GPS and turn-by-turn directions on our cell phones its easy to forget to have maps in the car. What happens when there’s is no signal or the batteries are dead. You need a map. If you have room, I recommend DeLORME topographical road atlases for each state you are driving through.
Great comments! Thanks for sharing your experiences. I hadn’t thought of staying in the same hotel, but I’ve noticed that when we stay at Hyatt Place, the room layouts are exactly the same, the breakfast foods and lobby area are the same. You’re right. It’s kind of nice to have some predictability after a long day of traveling.
I pack the Bag of Mom. (Yes, we actually capitalize it!) It is a heavy duty Jansport messenger bag. It has a ton of pockets. I store writing supplies in the front pocket with a loud pink 5 pocket accordion file. Each pocket is labeled [maps& directions; lodging; food&gas; attractions info; daily planner, lists & receipts envelope] and we file the trip papers as we go. I have outside pockets dedicated to chargers, basic first aid, and in case of emergency items) The large center pocket stores the laptop, Nook, road atlas and guide books,and an open top bag that scrunches down to a small size. I usual stow this the front seat passenger wheel well. It works great while driving; everything I need is right there. When we arrive somewhere, I pull out the small bag and put just what I need in the bag and leave the Bag of Mom in the trunk.
Jack and I must’ve been separated at birth! That is exactly how we travel! Additionally, I bring a ( a toddler training potty works well) lined with plastic bags (especially when I travel without my husband), plenty of fruit, water and healthy snacks, car games such as car zingo, the license plate game, etc. I also bring window markers for doodling or a game of hangman. We have a DVD player, so DVDs they haven’t seen in a while or new releases are saved for long trips. Did you know video games such as the Wii can be hooked up to the vehicle DVD player? Nice for when there are very long stretches of road with literally nothing to see.
If we travel in the evening, my boys are in their PJs and I bring Crocs so they can just slip them on when we have to get out of the car. A pillow, blanket and lovey is within reach.
Sugarless chewing gum is always a hit! Helps clean the carbs off of the teeth when brushing won’t be for a while.
I’ve done the same thing with clothing! I call them “travel clothes.” Comfy, soft pants with elastic waist bands, crocs! (GMTA!), shirt, soft jacket if the car gets cold. When my daughter was into Barbie movies, we’d make one last minute stop on our way out of town to buy the latest release! Or sometimes a new Disney movie. A DVD is good for at least 90 minutes of peace and quiet, and a lot of the time, they fell asleep during or after.
Perfect timing! We leave for our road trip in 3 weeks. Jill, I’ve started my own Bag of Mom, thanks for the great idea!
I am a firm believer in lists! I have index card sized lists for each member of the family, laminated on a binder ring that I use for every trip. (Since they are laminated I can reuse them using a grease pencil.) Life is so crazy with little ones that I would forget my head if it wasn’t attached, so lists are absolute survival tools when traveling.
If you want a copy I have free printable versions for families with toddlers and infants on my site: http://www.cube2farm.com/free-printable-travel-with-babies/
Good article. Thanks for the tips/ideas .
Pack a nightlight
That’s an excellent suggestion!
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