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Travel Tuesday: Surviving a Road Trip with Young Children

Our family loves to travel, and our travels often include road trips.  After doing a successful road trip from Texas to California (including our family Route 66 road trip) about a year and a half ago, we decided we could definitely handle it again.  We have learned some great ways to keep the kids occupied and make the trip fun for everyone.  I will be sharing more about the itinerary for this year's road trip in next week's Travel Tuesday blog post, but today I wanted to share my tips for how we survived this 3,350 mile road trip with two young children (aged 2 and 5).
How to Survive (and Actually Enjoy) a Road Trip with Young Children
1) Take your time.  Don't try and rush through it.  Young children need a lot of breaks (bathroom, food, leg stretching and play time), so allow for that in your schedule.  My husband and I try to average 7-8 hours of drive-time in a day on a road trip, which allows for plenty of stops and some sight-seeing.  Some parents prefer to do no more than 6 hours, but we have had luck keeping it at a max of 8.
2) Seek out fast food restaurants with indoor playgrounds (like McDonald's Play Places).  Even if you prefer not to eat fast food, you will appreciate a clean bathroom and a chance for your kiddos to burn off some energy and have some fun.  Here are our kids enjoying themselves at a McDonald's in El Paso, Texas on last year's road trip:
3) Pack lots of snacks - ones the kids actually like.  It is amazing what a snack can do to stave off a mid-drive meltdown.  You also can't worry about the mess.  The car will be a mess by the end of the drive regardless.  We made sure to pack all their favorites, including fun ones (like these cheese and crackers) that they don't have often:
Speaking of snacks, don't forget to try unique, local foods found along the way.  This is a great way to further engage your kids in information about the cities and regions you are traveling through.  Look for things like local fruit, nuts, beef jerky, and things only found in certain regions.  When we were in Sedona, Arizona we tried fried cactus.  For the record, it was good!  A cross between fried zucchini and fried okra.  The kids even gave it a try (check out their faces!):
4) Give them treats to open up during road trip milestones.  This worked exceptionally well for us this trip, as it kept them looking forward to opening their next goody.  We had two for them to open each driving day.  All of the goodies were small dollar store toys, but it kept things interesting for them.  When possible, we tried to have a theme for the little toy (for example, a little alien figurine to open when we reached Roswell).
Edited in 2016 to add photos of the bags for our 2016 spring break road trip.  I took it a step further this time by typing the "Do Not Open Until..." messages and printing them on 2"x4" labels:

5) Plan for lots of kid-friendly car activities.  I made these activity folders for each of them that included crayons, coloring pages, blank drawing paper, stickers, and printable road trip games (links below):
We put the printable games in plastic sheet protectors so the kids could put stickers over the sheet protector, and remove the stickers if they wanted to play again.  Printable games included this state license plate game, this road trip bingo game,  this slug bug game, and this I Spy game.
For coloring pages, we did a mix of road trip themed coloring pages, coloring pages for the states or sights we were going to see, and coloring pages of characters and things they enjoy. All of these were found online for free.
My husband and I had a lot of fun with the license plate game.  We took it much more seriously than the kids!
The inclusion of stickers in their folders gave them an opportunity to decorate the outside of their folders too.
6) Bring a bag of toys they don't play with often. These could even be new toys you save from their birthday or Christmas, or ones that they haven't seen in a long time (think the bottom of the toy box).  "New" toys always seem to hold their attention longer.  Just make sure you are not bringing huge toys, otherwise you may end up like this and sharing your seat with a giant dinosaur:
7) A great way to contain toys and create a nice play or drawing surface is to pick up dollar store cookie trays. Attach magnets to the bottom of puzzle pieces and matching games, as well as little toys like army men.  The army men were a big hit!  Tip: the magnets with adhesive did not stay stuck to the bottom of the army men.  They required some KraGle (Krazy Glue) to keep the magnets on.  It is worth the effort to do this, as the kids had so much fun with their magnetic army men.
Another way to contain toys, activities, and snacks are these Super Easy DIY Hanging Organizers.   
8) Have a DVD player and/or a tablet available.  6-8 hours is a long time on the road each day for little ones, and a favorite movie, iPad game, or one of their favorite shows can hold their attention for a good amount of time.

9) Look for sights along the way that are interesting for children.  For example, this trip we went through Roswell, New Mexico, which the kids just loved:

You can also use the time between stops to educate your kids on the next one.  I would read online articles about Roswell, the Grand Canyon, etc. to the kids before we got there to get them engaged. 
Also remember that there are neat things to see even in the smallest cities.  For example, on last year's road trip we found the "world's former largest roadrunner statue" in Fort Stockton, Texas:
10) Allow for unexpected stops too.  We didn't expect to see snow on the way, and since we live in Central Texas, we just had to stop and let the kids play for a bit.  This set our time back a bit, but as you can imagine, this ended up being one of the highlights of the trip for the boys.

11) Make sure to budget for souvenirs.  It will help the kids remain connected with the trip for long afterwards if they can show their friends a special stone purchased at a national park, or a funny t-shirt from a new state they have visited.

12) Dress comfortably, and be prepared for different types of weather.  We didn't go for "cool," we went for comfort.  Letting them wear their favorite comfy clothes will save their and your sanity.  Having layers available is also good for bouts of unexpected heat or cold.

13) Request ground floor hotel rooms.  This is for a few reasons.  First, you have a lot of things to carry when you are traveling with young kids (including the sleepy kids themselves), so it is nice to avoid flights of stairs.  Second, you won't have anyone under you to disturb when your kids stomp around.  Cars tend to lull kids to sleep, and that coupled with being cooped up for hours will mean your kids will want to run, bounce, and play by the time you get to the hotel each night.

Do you have any tried and true family road trip survival tips?  If so, comment below!  I'd love to try some new ones next time!


Papi Cruz said...

I can now put this to practice with my grand children Thanx.

The Educational Tourist - Natalie Tanner said...

Great tips! You can NEVER be too prepared when it comes to traveling with the kids. I love creating new packets of things to do on the road for mine. They now look forward to what Mommy has come up with! :) Thanks for the great tips!

ramonaruby said...

@Natalie - thanks and I agree! You can't be too prepared! My kids also look forward to what I have planned for them next. It makes me so happy and proud! We are doing our next road trip in a few weeks, and I am trying to think up some new ideas!