12 Tips for Road Trips with Kids
Travel Tips

12 Tips for Family Road Trips

Road trips help cement the family lore and introduce good travel habits to little ones. Here are 12 tips for family road trips.

12 Tips for Family Road Trips

1. Start early on your road trip. Hate to sound like your grandpa, but there it is. Get up at 6 or 7 a.m., but leave by 7:30 a.m. Pack the night before, and include breakfast sandwiches so you don’t have to stop too early. Kids are on their best behavior in the mornings – and may even snooze – while you’re at your most alert for the drive. You’ll arrive at your destination by noon at the latest, freeing you from the car and ensuring a good lunch.

2. Drive for only two hours at a time. Unlike your grandpa, I’d never drive for more than two hours straight. Stop for 20 minutes at a playground, a coffee shop, a toy store. The break will do the whole family good and free you from GottaGetThereItis. It also allows for the serendipity of the road, discovering a cool stop — a delicious local ice cream shop or a shaded playground — that isn’t in any guidebook.

3. Plan your road trip around the young child’s nap. Plan to be on the road in the afternoon. Don’t expect a very young child (under age 2 or 3) to self-entertain. You may all have a more enjoyable trip if an adult sits in the backseat to sing, read books and chat.

4. Do pre-trip research on the website Roadside America. Find wacky stops along the way. Kids tend to love these weird attractions: giant hats, lumberjacks, teapot gas stations? Yup. 

5. Snap to it. Give children a camera to photograph the weird attractions (above), a sibling’s drool while sleeping or odd cars you see on the road.

6. Plan for family car fun. Half the fun is getting there! Print out a list of kid-friendly travel games from FamilyFun.com to resolve emergency freak-outs. I also created a Pinterest board of family car trip activities and game ideas. 

7. Sleep over. When planning a road trip, stay for at least two nights in one town. Take it easy, see one attraction or two, make time for naps and know that there will always be a next time (in case you didn’t get to do everything).  Tight planning often makes for stressed-out kids and parents.

8. Go car-free. Try to plan a car-free day where you walk everywhere, visit parks and enjoy the outdoors, instead of driving. My kids are used to the intense travel style of a travel-writer mom, so they think anything other than five activities per day is weird. But we still plan car-free days on our trips, and we walk everywhere on those days.

9. Pack snacks. Bring fantastic, new snacks that require little refrigeration – fruit, bars, crackers, hard cheese, trail mix. Avoid melty snacks with chocolate. My sister-in-law recommends a lollipop (it keeps ’em quiet and takes a looong time to eat). I also created a Pinterest board of family travel recipes and snacks. 

10. Make clean-up easy. Bring wet wipes, freezer-size Ziploc bags, a towel and several large plastic bags, no matter the age of your children. You will need all of these items at some point.

11. Keep the kids surprised. Keep kids entertained with new books, small surprise toys and pocket-sized magic tricks. You can even pick up a treasure trove’s worth at your local Value Village, Savers or Goodwill. Let the kids open one package or surprise, every hour or two. 

12. Just go for the tech solution! The Apple Touch or iPhone is fantastic — just load it up with games and movies and bring headphones (we make the kids share one and use a splitter to connect the headphones). See the Apps4Kids site and the Best Kids Apps sites. My kids don’t get to watch a lot of television at home, so enjoying a movie en route is a total treat. There’s a time and place for tech — and long, dull stretches of I-5 is that time and place.

Road warriors, what are your tips for family road trips? Do you have a favorite game or activity?

Want to read about a truly intense road trip? Check out Amy’s “Pit Stop a Day” road trip from Pit Stops for Kids — she went on a 22-day journey through Oregon, Washington, Montana and down to California. Wow!

Lora Shinn writes about family travel, Pacific NW travel, grown-up travel...and travel in general. Her travel-related articles and essays have appeared in Family Fun, Parenting, AFAR, National Geographic Traveler, AAA magazines and Redbook, among others.


  • Emily

    Since a lot of the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia is bike-friendly, we take our bikes with us to bike around as much as possible between driving days. No matter your kids’ age, it’s worth it to invest in tandems or bike trailers to at least get them out of the car and enjoying some fresh air as much as possible.
    With all travel, we always go into “survival mode” – rules about TV/DVD time, food and sweets, etc. go out the window! The most important thing is that everyone is as comfortable and relaxed as possible. Let some of your rules go so that you can enjoy your trip too!
    -Active traveler and mom to a 3 and 1 year-old

  • Lora

    So true about “rules out the window” — we do the same thing. The hardest thing for our family is remembering to eat when our whole routine is so out of whack.

    Great tip on the bikes. Do you have a car-top carrier?