Here’s our top 50 tried n’ true road trip tips, culled from families who’ve logged enough car miles to circumnavigate the globe.
Whether you’re driving to the local mall or road trippin’ across the sands to Timbuktu, there’s bound to be a way to soothe the kids that you haven’t thought of!
Road Trip Tips: Prep Car Before Departure
1. Make sure your vehicle or rental car gets a thorough pre-journey inspection.
2. Pack a spare tire and repair kit, LED flashlight, candles, safety matches, a waterproof tarp, blankets, and a gallon of water in case of emergencies on your road trip.
3. Copy and carry all drivers’ licenses, registration, insurance policy papers and car keys, as well as pet health forms and kids’ photo IDs. Put one set in the glove compartment, one set in a suitcase and have photos of each on your phone.
4. If you’re renting a car, don’t pull out of the lot until you’ve checked the owner’s manual or online link, spare tire, tools, tuner/CD player, headlights, windshield wipers, A/C, GPS and obtained a 24/7 contact number for roadside assistance.
5. Visit NHTSA Parents & Caregivers tips for the latest safety information and best practices on keeping kids safe in the car on highway driving vacations.
Prep the Family on Your Road Trip Itinerary
6. Contact the local tourist information office or your automobile club for free maps and destination information. Research www.myfamilytravels.com and destination resources to find local festivals and special events en route.
7. Ask kids ages 3+ to help with trip planning by sharing destination brochures or photos from your iPad with them.
8. Select one activity per day to please each child, note hours of operation, then plan ahead. This is especially important as attractions may reopen in phases after the coronavirus lockdown.
9. Long drives with infants are easiest on the whole family if you stick to flat, well-marked, well-lit highways, where the driver can breathe a little easier.
10. Review your route and explain if there will be stressful driving zones ahead. Devise a signal in advance so children will know immediately when you need tranquility to navigate tough intersections or narrow winding roads. Try “heads up!” instead of “shut up!”
11. When the kids learn to appreciate scenery, visit National Scenic Byways for a list of federally-designated National Scenic Byways and cruise to the best views you can find.
12. Set realistic driving goals for your road trip. End each day at a motel or hotel with pool or a playground/playroom for off-road fun.
13. Make a route map for the backseat: photocopy an enlargement, cut it into one-day-drive sheets, cover with clear contact paper or have your copy shop laminate it, and let kids ages 4+ discover on their own, “Are we there yet?”
Safety First Road Trip Tips: Car Seats
14. Never let children under 11 ride in the front seat of a car equipped with passenger-side air bags.
15. Lead by example; studies show that less a quarter of passengers under 14 wear a seat belt when the driver doesn’t.
16. Learn how to properly use and install your child safety seat to maximize its effectiveness. Here’s a good car seat installation guide.
17. Children between 40 lbs.-80 lbs., if not in a car seat, should have a booster seat to elevate them for proper seat belt use. (This helps prevent motion sickness, too!)
18. Shell, Allstate Insurance, AAA, Hertz and many other vendors offer free carseat and car safety information for all ages. Read it.
Backseat Essentials for Every Journey
19. Keep a trash bag and some zip-loc bags in the car; the former for car sickness and garbage, the latter for preserving toys, souvenirs and creating new snack packs.
20. Make a small First Aid kit, with bandages, tissues, extra facemasks and wipes for the glove compartment. Spare toilet paper, hand sanitizer and paper towels can be a life-saver in funky public restrooms.
21. Provide rolls of masking tape or painter’s paper tape so siblings can stake out their backseat and hotel room territory.
22. Print out Family Travel Forum’s How-To Pamphlet of the most popular, classic car games so you can all play.
23. Keep a booklight handy so children can read or play after dark, along with spare batteries or a charger and an overnight bag; all the other luggage gets buried so you don’t have to reload the trunk or roof rack after every stop.
Scheduling Your Days on Long Leg Road Trips
24. Plan to begin long car drives after a good night’s sleep and breakfast. Some parents swear by The Early Start. In our experience, this only works if you load the little ones into the car without waking them. Otherwise, throwing off children’s sleep schedules is sure to backfire!
25. Imitate routines from home. If you eat lunch at the customary time, your child is much more likely to take her usual nap.
26. Plan your stops: as often as needed to nurse; every 3 hours to check diapers (overnight diapers help); every 2 hours to stretch.
27. During night drives, simulate bedtime. After supper, change your child into sleepwear (at least, slipper socks and a blanket) and share a story or audio book until she falls asleep. Don’t make changes to the temperature, velocity, sound level or her car seat until she has settled into a deeper sleep (usually 20-30 minutes.)
28. Long periods of confinement and constant car motion will make most under-3s quite sleepy. Be prepared for restless babies at night!
Road Trip Tips for Snacking On Super Highways
29. Have beverages readily available but don’t let infants drink too much at once. OJ makes many little ones carsick.
30. Bring plenty of dry snacks and finger foods. Rice crackers, pretzels, bagels, string cheese and dried fruit will survive in a warm car for hours.
31. Have a folding nylon cooler and compact knife/fork/spoon sets ready so each passenger can have a movable feast. Put lunch meat roll-ups, cut fruit, milk and beverages into the cooler chest. Don’t buy too many perishables — it’s impossible to keep things cold overnight unless you’ve got a motel fridge.
32. Take meal breaks in small towns, so the kids can enjoy a playground or local park outside.
Entertaining Kids on Road Trips
33. Keep baby amused with plastic mirrors, cloth books, jangly keys, and some soft cuddlies. Toy bars connected to her waist guard on the car seat really make time fly. Consider bringing a second toy bar for her car seat to distract her on the ride home.
34. Load your device with favorite music for little ones, with a lyric sheet so you can sing along. Did you know that a 2021 survey found Justin Bieber, Eminem and Taylor Swift are the top three preferred road trip artists? Amazon.com and iTunes have many other suggestions. The streaming service TIDAL is also a bargain for families, who can share a music and video plan managed by parents.
35. Bring age-appropriate audio books or podcasts. Classic children’s literature read by professional actors is available in different formats at your local library.
36. Plan some games for the over-3s: a Highway Hunt for objects you’ve pre-marked on index cards or printed out from clip art; a poetry contest with words from billboards; a raindrop race to see which drop on which window falls fastest; or maybe a spot-the-colors contest with pre-readers. The variety of age-old games is endless; draw on your memory or on dozens of game books (Rand McNally’s are excellent) to create more.
37. Keep some tricks up your sleeve: cool placemats, colored Band-Aids, stickers, crayon sets, and fast-food packaging provide instant distraction when you really need it.
Favorite Toys for Long Road Trips
38. Hands-on toys and art projects will keep kids 3+ amused, though you may lose a lot of parts. (Some companies offer free replacement of lost parts on toys.)
39. For toddlers, consider Crayola’s almost mess-free, washable markers and coated paper. Auto Bingo, widely available in toy stores, is our favorite for pre-readers.
40. Felt Tales and other great family-tested travel toys and games are available from Amazon.com.
41. Kids 4-8 like Magnadoodle and Etch-a-Sketch. Wonderboard makes magnetic game pieces and abstract shapes that stick on their own metal board.
43. Ask older children to pack their own sound systems, a headset and music. Would they like to create a Spotify list of their favorite music or program your iPad for everyone to share on the road?
44. Showing a movie on a portable DVD player, laptop or iPad is an expensive but unbeatable way to entertain kids.
Behavior Modification: Road Trip Etiquette
45. Keep the mood light; stop bad moments quickly before they become blow-outs. Distraction is key.
46. Distract babies by suspending a clothesline or string with clips, hung with soft toys and baby pictures, behind the driver’s seat.
47. Make a grab bag of small wrapped toys. Let kids select one when squabbles and complaints begin; hand out treats in stages.
48. When transporting several kids, move the car seat or change seating at regular intervals. At rest-stops, our family enjoys Musical Seats: we all get out, blast the music, run around the car until the song stops, then grab the nearest available seat. If the minors end up in the driver’s seat, joke’s on you! (Kids love that.)
49. Reward patience and good behavior. Some parents dole out one quarter to children 5+ for each successful driving period. Some try the reverse; they start with a quarter roll and deduct one for each squabble.
50. Start a Trip Log. Make it tangible, not digital! Pick up souvenir ticket stubs, menus, autographs, dried leaves or brochures. Have your journal keeper note each day’s special stops. Working with your hands instead of making digital albums is incredibly rewarding. Let little ones use a Polaroid Snap or Fujifilm Instax Mini 9 instant camera which dispenses print photos as you shoot. After all, this trip is bound to be unforgettable.
These trusted tips, compiled by FTF’s staff and members, are updated regularly to make road trips — a family rite of passage — easier for the next generation of Tiny Travelers and their adults. If you have pets, please read our Pets in the Car tips to include them safely on your next road trip.
And with any luck, you can avoid the “Are We There Yets?”
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