I remember driving from the University of South Carolina to the University of Florida to visit friends pretty frequently while in college. Six hours, one stop for gas, a phone call to my mom, some good jams, and my bags. No road trip companions meant I could call the shots without considering anyone else’s schedule or needs.
Then, it was all exciting when my husband and I started dating. Driving to new places for our surprise birthday trips and overnight dates was the norm. Sure, we’d stop for gas, food, and bathrooms but it still felt untethered and smooth.
Somehow the same distance now feels ten times longer with kids in the car. The biggest difference between then and now though is the planning that’s required for any family trip, but especially big road trips. Based on our latest drive from South Carolina to Michigan, I put together some tips to help your family road trip go a little more smoothly.
1. Make a “busy basket”
A few weeks before your trip, pick out a slew of travel-sized books and toys to bring on the trip. They should be different from your little one’s usual selection. Hide them away to create excitement around the road trip unveiling of these treasured books and toys. Make the selection based on size, but also play type. Some should require a second person to participate, while others should encourage self-guided exploration and engagement.
2. Pack snacks
Packing snacks for your kiddos is a MUST for a road trip! But, be careful not to pack anything too messy like Doritos or Cheetos. Instead, opt for things like veggies straws, pretzels, puffs, bars, and waffles. Fruit is also a great road trip snack. Bananas, pears, and apples are better options than juicy strawberries, blueberries and watermelon, which can stain the interior fabric of your car. Speaking from experience here … while you can choose not to bring messy snacks like those mentioned above, you will have to accept that crumbs will be everywhere, regardless.
3. Pack like a minimalist
When packing, choose minimalism over excessiveness, when deciphering between necessities and “well, we may need that item that one day or for that one outing.” For us, we decided whether to bring the stroller or not based on how willing and able our toddler is to walk and explore; we were able to nix the need to fit a stroller of any size into the car. Honestly, we didn’t regret that decision at all … even when we went to the zoo on a hot day.
Another hack I used in order to avoid the common overpacking conundrum, was to label a clear Ziploc bag for each day of our trip to ensure I had enough clothes, but not too many clothes. Side note, it also helps guide others should you not be the one getting the little one dressed every morning.
4. Have a plan, but be flexible
It’s important to make a plan for your trip; how many times you will stop, where you will stop, if you will stay in a hotel overnight or not. But remember that you’ve got children with you, so your plans might need to change. Follow their lead. Is the little one extra fussy today? Are they getting their usual naps in? Or are both kids joyful and well-adapted?
In our case, we expected frequent “are we there yet?” comments, and a struggle keeping the youngest strapped into his car seat for our seven-hour drives. But my husband and I were pleasantly surprised that this didn’t happen. On the way to our destination, we made more stops and made each stop longer as a chance to really get out and stretch our legs. However, on the way back we stuck to a single lunch stop or a quick bathroom break. No exploring, like the first leg of the trip. It was tough, but felt easier, and even shorter, heading home … which, in my experience, usually isn’t the case when everyone wants to be home already.
If you’re a fan of taking more frequent breaks, I recommend letting kids wiggle their legs to avoid rashes and restlessness; changing diapers along the same cadence as you would at home. Maintaining a sense of normalcy when surroundings, people, and activities change, is sometimes the best option.
When you make overnight stops, select an activity to help get the pent-up energy out, and reunite the family after hours of mostly self-guided entertainment. On this trip, we opted for a local park, and a local greenhouse café with table tennis, a sand pit, and a water play area. Both ended up being well-received by our 11-year-old and 19-month-old, and memory makers for another family trip.
There are a lot of games you can play when in the car. You can have your kids count as many cars as they can. You can also play “What do you see?” where your kids tell you all they see outside the windows. Another game is to find all the letters of the alphabet, in order from A to Z, on the signs you pass, and license plates of other cars. The game “I Spy” is always a winner. You can also ask 21 questions. The options are endless with creative minds.
6. Curate a playlist
Having a fun playlist is a great way to help pass the time while driving. Podcasts, audiobooks, movie soundtracks, and customized playlists will help keep everyone happy and make the time fly by. If you’re like us, you may even let your older children stream movies or shows from their phones or tablets.
7. Keep cozy
If you’re going to be in the car for hours at a time, you want to make sure everyone is as comfortable as possible. Wear an outfit that is right for lounging. Bring blankets and some pillows. Keep stuffed animals accessible. Have a small fan on hand for extra air, if needed.
All in all, you may supply more snacks than your family can eat, or figure out the original break plan isn’t ideal for the way back (like we did), but you’ll find the tips and tricks that work best for your little nucleus. As I tell often tell my daughter, positive thoughts bring positive outcomes. Happy road tripping!