Four years ago (!) I posted some of my road-trip tips for traveling with young kids. While some of those tips and tricks are ones I still use, I thought it was about time for an updated version including suggestions for older kids, especially since we’re anticipating a 20-hour drive back “home” to see ‘Love’s family again in a few weeks.
Goober has NEVER been a good car rider. As an infant, she couldn’t even make it the five minutes to Grandma’s without screaming. Last year we made it 30 minutes into our first day of driving when she announced, “I’m done sitting in the car. How much longer until we get to the hotel?” Knowing her personality, I always make extensive preparations for car entertainment.
Let me say right from the start that I have the world’s only children who do not sleep in the car. Since that’s the #1 road-trip tip I hear, I figured I’d best include that one up front. If your kids are car sleepers, consider yourself lucky and take full advantage. For anyone whose children are odd like mine, here are some alternative suggestions.
There are some items no child-carrying car should be without on long trips.
- Baby wipes. No baby, you say? No matter–take them anyway. They come in handy if the gas station restroom is out of soap, if someone has greasy or sticky hands after a snack, if someone pukes in their lap…
- Gallon Ziploc bags. An odd one, perhaps, but handy. Kid feeling queasy after eight hours in the car? Hand him a bag. If he uses it, you can conveniently seal the bag and contain the smell. Toss his shorts in a second bag if his aim was off. The bags are also handy for transporting wet swimsuits, containing opened snack packages, keeping the twelve hair-ties your daughter HAD to have in when you left and can no longer stand an hour later, and more!
- Sunglasses for all! You’d hate to get to a rest stop only to have the blinding sun prevent anyone from running off some energy. Toss these in a Ziploc and keep them at-hand just in case. Toss in sunscreen and hats if your skin is sensitive enough to burn in 15 minutes. No one wants sunburn!
- BandAids. Hopefully you’ve got a stash of these in your car already, but if not, toss them in. A reckless kid at a rest stop will often find a way to make them necessary. Pull out the baby wipes to clean off the dirt, and slap a BandAid on top.
- Your favorite pain reliever–for yourself and the kids. What could be worse than driving through rush-hour traffic in the blinding sun at the end of a long day while your kids argue in the back seat? Doing the above with an aching back or a searing headache. And you know how cranky your kids get when they’re feverish or headachey? Better throw in something for them, too.
- Food, water, and entertainment–but you knew that. See below for more tips on this particular category.
Use rest stops to play, NOT to eat. I start feeding my kids about 45 min-1 hour before we plan to stop. (I bring sandwich fixings or crackers, fruit, veggies, cheese sticks, or even Lunchables for meals. Snacks consist of non-crumbly granola bars, Teddy Grahams, mini pretzel twists, Nilla Wafers, Goldfish–anything that can’t melt and either doesn’t crumble or can be eaten in one bite.) A small cooler crowded by my feet in the front comes in handy, or I’ve used the cooler as a footrest for someone sitting in the center of the row behind me.) Usually this is the point at which the kids are getting restless and food helps stretch their “sit” by a little. By the time we stop, liquids have made their way through the kids’ systems (or will before the stop is over).
We try to find rest stations with lots of open space or a playground or a fast food joint with a play area (and the adults have a snack). I even research rest stops along the route to find out which ones are closed for renovations, which have a reputation for cleanliness, which have space for kids to roam. I often list several top choices so we can shorten or lengthen our time between stops as needed. We spend 15-20 minutes playing hard (with adults chasing kids if necessary to make sure kids use maximum energy) and using the bathroom.
On a related note…non-melting candies (especially things that go slowly, like DumDums) are good distractions between snack and meal times. I’m not usually one to load my kids up on junk food and candy, but road trips are my once-a-year exception.
Stop as few times as possible. We fill up on gas each time we stop–whether we need it or not–so we don’t have to make an extra stop for gas later. Even a quick gas stop or potty break will likely add at least 15 minutes to your trip, and on a long trip, no one wants extra time in the car. Remind those with suspiciously wimpy bladders that every stop will take away from evening pool time (see below) or at the very least add to the length of the drive time. If nothing else, maybe the groans of their siblings will help to delay their demands to stop RIGHT NOW. If you do stop, require everyone to try using the bathroom lest you get back on the road and have someone else claim a bathroom emergency twenty minutes later.
Make sure each day ends with a pool. I reserve a hotel with an indoor pool because I remember as a kid being heartbroken when we drove all day and then it was too cold or stormy to swim. Swimming even for an hour uses tons of energy and helps everyone sleep better, as well as giving everyone something to look forward to all day long. On the plus side, most hotels with indoor pools also include a hot breakfast, so while you may be paying more for the night, considering that extra $25 bought everyone some pool time and as much breakfast food as they can fit (not to mention something to look forward to all day and enough exercise to sleep well), it’s not a bad deal.
Long car trips are a time to make exceptions about tech use. We have a tablet that we let everyone have a 20-minute turn on–sometimes once in the morning and once in the afternoon. Last year I also played a DVD on my laptop toward the end of each afternoon when everyone was getting really restless. (Sadly, my DVD-ROM drive seems to have died.) Those prolonged distractions were lifesavers!
Contain your paper clutter while providing ample activity options. I make each kid a binder (built-in hard writing surface) with coloring pages (cool geometric designs for older kids), mazes, blank paper, logic puzzles, sudoku, crosswords, dot-to-dots (everything from simple to extreme)–anything I can find that they might like–and include colored pencils plus a little sharpener (with a securely-attached case to catch shavings) in a zipper pencil pouch at the front. (Why colored pencils? Crayons melt in a hot car and markers tend to accidentally bleed or have their caps left off or get dropped and leave marks or “accidentally” form designs on children’s skin.) Though I looked at various books available for purchase, I ultimately searched online for free sample pages and was able to print off and put together a book with more variety than I could have purchased. I put together a list of activities and where I found them, if you want me to save you some legwork.
Magnetic trays work well for lots of activities. We have jelly roll pans (cookie sheets with a lip around) that are magnetic (not all are–test before buying!).
- When my kids were little, I printed a picture of one of those rugs with the roads on it (sized to fit my tray) and laminated it for the kids to use while playing with cars. I even hot-glued magnets to the bottom of the cars so they would stay where they were driven. My 4-year-old still loves this, and even the older two will play around with it for a while.
- I take a baggie of magnetic letters for the little guy and a baggie of magnetic poetry for the older two. They enjoy trying to outdo each other by making ridiculous, nonsensical stories or sentences.
- Have some tangrams or magnetic puzzles? The tray is handy for spreading out pieces and keeping spare parts from getting lost between the seats.
- I pack each kid a small container of Lego pieces (with a base piece hot-glued to the lid). The tray offers plenty of space to place the small tote on one side and use the remaining space to build.
Ponder favorite game options that would work well for travel. Many games offer specific travel versions, but games like Guess Who?, Rush Hour, Rory’s Story Cubes, Mad Libs, and others can easily be enjoyed on the go. And don’t forget the classic Road-Trip Bingo cards! I picked up a few in Target’s dollar section recently.
Use your ever-changing location to spark interest!
- As soon as my kids started reading, I always printed a map of where we were going and highlighted our route. Now my kids have their own atlases, and Peatie spends most of the trip simply looking for each town as we go and telling us how far away things are and what we’re passing.
- Having the kids look for needed signs (exits, interchanges) is great even for littles who just know a few letters (“We’re looking for a sign with a word that starts with S!”)–except if they get too competitive.
- If you’re driving past or stopping at any points of interest, part of each day could be spent talking or reading aloud about what you’re going to see and why it’s important/exciting. My kids always enjoy destinations more when they’re primed.
- Classic activities like the alphabet game (you know–where you find your ABCs in order as you drive) are always good bets.
- When I was a kid, my siblings and I would keep statistics on various things. We’d note which state license plates we’d seen and how many of each, or we’d track vehicle types or colors throughout the day. I suspect my kids may be old enough to start enjoying this now.
Use your stereo system to the fullest.
- Audiobooks can entertain many a child for hours at a time, whether they’re following along in a book or simply enjoying the story.
- My kids don’t like audiobooks, but they do like to sing along to favorite songs. If I can get them doing motions, they work off some energy at the same time.
- I’m hoping to snag some good educational songs on CD or MP3. If we can memorize the state capitols, books of the Bible, elements of the Periodic Table, multiplication tables, or some other glorious facts whilst we pass the miles, all the better.
- Classical music can work magic. When everyone is angsty from too long in the car, someone is always unhappy about the CD we’re listening to. For some reason, no one complains when I pop in classical music. The kids talk about the instruments they hear, what the music makes them think of, which songs are their favorites, or simply sit and mellow out while looking out the window. Daddy sighs with relief that he doesn’t have to listen to kid-safe, peppy music. I love it!
Books hold a multitude of possibilities.
- While my kids balk at audiobooks, they love to listen to me read aloud for long stretches of time. (Go figure!)
- A few new books can be special treats. Especially engaging are books with detailed pictures (anyone’s littles LOVE Richard Scarry?) or new books from a favorite series.
- Search-and-find books are good for whiling away the hours. ‘Love still had his old Where’s Waldo? books and we’ve picked up a few I Spy books, as well. Even if they’re not searching for the items, the kids enjoy looking at all the details in the pictures.
Sometimes they just need to fidget.
- Our pin art toy is a perpetual favorite for car trips–though my sister-in-law tells me that her plastic version is quieter and thus less irritating to fellow passengers.
- I keep a couple squishy balls or animals from the dollar store on hand for trips. Even if you can’t really DO anything with them, they’re fun to squish through your fingers while looking out the window.
- My cousin said for road trips she always buys each of her kids a roll of masking tape. Apparently it keeps everyone busy for quite a long time, from the preschooler sticking it all over himself to the older kids attempting to create clothing, jewelry, or other items by sticking pieces together. I may try this!