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How to actually enjoy a long road trip with kids



Theresa Civantos Barber - published on 04/05/24

If you’re planning a long road trip with kids, for spring break or over the summer, here are 5 things that made all the difference for us.

Against all odds, and in spite of justifiable questioning of our sanity, my husband and I just successfully completed a road trip from Chicago to Miami… and back. 

That’s 22 hours each way, for the folks keeping score at home, although each drive was actually several hours longer, owing to bathroom stops about every 37 minutes.

Because, oh yeah, did I mention? We brought along our four kids, the youngest of whom is 3 and the oldest of whom is 9. 

I know. Who does that? But the wildest part is that we actually had a lot of fun! It went so well that we plan to do it again next year. 

Surprisingly, there are a number of reasons to prefer driving to flying when traveling with kids. For one thing, driving is more relaxed: There are no hard deadlines, so the inevitable kid dawdling is much less stressful. For another, there’s no worry that your child will be loud and annoy others on the flight. They can be as loud as they want in the car! It’s also really nice to be able to bring whatever you want instead of cramming everything for 6 people into a few carry-on bags and those annoying 3-oz liquid containers. And yes, it’s a lot less expensive!

If you’re planning a long road trip with kids, perhaps for spring break or over the summer, here are 5 things that made all the difference for us.

Screen time rules go out the window

We are a very minimal screen time family most of the time, and my kids often go weeks without watching any screens at all. But I make a huge exception for travel.

Traveling with kids is pure survival and I have no qualms about giving them many hours of screen time on a plane or road trip. The kids got about 4-5 hours of screen time per day on our long drive, but the timing was strategic. 

We did sticker books, activity books, drawing, audiobooks, music, play dough, and other activities first, and then saved the movies for the last leg of the drive. (Hands down audiobooks were the most popular activity other than screen time, and we listened to about half the Narnia series on the drive.)

Typically, the last few hours of driving are the hardest part, when everyone is just absolutely done with being in the car. By saving the screens for that time, those hours became something fun that my kids looked forward to and enjoyed. The end of the drive flew by as my husband and I got some quiet alone time for conversation. Saving screen time for the last few hours was really key to enjoying the trip so much!

Pack your own food

I packed a lot of food in coolers and I highly recommend doing that, as every time we stopped to buy a meal, it ended up taking at least 45 minutes. Thanks to complimentary hotel breakfasts and packing a mix of snacks (nuts, granola bars, apples, homemade muffins, pretzels, and other shelf-stable items), we stopped for a meal only once a day, which saved a lot of time.

Bring your own potty for small kids

Thanks to the aforementioned constant bathroom stops, we made good use of a foldable travel potty, which is truly a genius parenting invention. We literally just set it on the floor of the car for the kids to use whenever we stopped, and it was a lot faster and more hygienic than bringing preschoolers into random gas-station bathrooms!

Plan a daily surprise or two

I packed two “surprise toys” for each day of the drive, to keep the kids entertained during the long hours in the car. These included things like hidden picture books, sticker dolls, puffy stickers, magnetic dolls, scratch art, color wonder, water wow, mini squishies, and maze books.

The kids each packed a small bag of activities from home they wanted to do in the car, and I also brought clipboards, lap desks, blank sketchbooks, colored pencils and a small pencil sharpener. We also alternated listening to audiobooks, listening to music, reading aloud, travel bingo, and travel games.

Keep a few essentials handy

The kids were often thirsty, so pack extra water so you don’t have to stop to refill too often. We were glad we brought several water bottles and a backup large jug of water! 

Keep handy a stash of plastic grocery bags, tissues, and baby wipes, just in case of emergencies. We also set up a little trash bag between the two front seats and that was very useful.

My oldest wants to tell you that you should choose carefully who sits in the middle row, as that person will be constantly passing things back and forth from the front and back rows. He was in the middle row and did an admirable job as designated “passer,” passing probably hundreds of things with great patience.

Finally, I recommend consulting with your children’s pediatrician about medication for motion sickness and sleep aids (kids get pretty riled up when they arrive at a new hotel).

Despite a few setbacks, like car sickness and endless bathroom stops, the drive overall went really well, and we would absolutely do it again. I hope these tips can be helpful for you if you’re planning a big road trip, and don’t hesitate to reach out with any questions in the comments!

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