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Anyone who knows me knows that sitting still is not one of my strong suits. And planning vacations is one of my favorite pastimes. So you better believe tactical road trip planning is something I’ve been practicing since I’ve had children. Long road trips with kids sounds like hell on earth for some people, but if you prepare and remain relatively flexible, these adventures can be some of the best memories of their childhoods.
No matter how long I’ve been doing this, I still get anxiety before taking off on a trip – especially ones with lengthy travel times. (Seriously, three days before we leave, our house is drenched in luggage bags, clothing piles, lists buried under lists buried under more lists, and panic. So much panic!) The good news is, once we take off and I feel like my preparation was fruitful, relaxation sets in and life is good again.
THE JOY OF PACKING
How do I prepare for a super long road trip with three kids + two adults (and an occasional dog) in a Honda Pilot? First things first, I pack one child at a time. Child #1: Pajamas, outfits, toothbrush, etc. Then move on to Child #2, Child #3, and so on. I also grab one outfit per kid and shove them into a freezer bag to toss in the trunk in case we have an emergency juice spill, a potty accident, get caught in the rain at a rest stop, or make a spontaneous pit stop at a splash pad (all of which have happened to us).
Our family uses these great luggage cubes to help sort our items nicely and we combine the kids’ items into one bag and the parents’ items into another so we only bring two large luggage bags with us on all of our trips. How? Nate and I were gifted these truly awesome Rick Steves travel bags for our wedding nine years ago and swear by them. STILL! Nine years later, we use them for every getaway we take, and they’ve held up great. I always pack a large garbage bag for laundry too because, hey, unpacking is sucky enough when you don’t have to separate out the dirty underwear from the clean ones. This saves you that step and makes arrival back home just a little less daunting.
ON THE ROAD ENTERTAINMENT
For long road trips, I like to have some non-electronic fun packed for the kids to prevent hearing “Are we there yet?” a million times. On our most recent trip to Chicago, I made the older kids each a binder filled with paper, pens and markers, plus a pocket envelope for souvenirs (ticket stubs, etc) and a map of our trip. On the map, I starred locations every two hours apart and wrapped up small gifts for each child to open when they arrived at that star. The Dollar Store serves as a great merchant for these types of items. I also bought my oldest a pocket road trip journal that he could fill out. He thought this was pretty cool!
Another fun find was the bookmark timer. If you have a reader who likes a challenge, pick up one of these for under $10 and it’ll buy you hours of silent (and educational) fun. If you’re a trusting parent, consider buying window markers for your kids to color on their car window during the trip. Mine would end up with green mustaches and leg tattoos, but maybe yours have more self-control.
Other ideas that don’t cost a dime:
- Create recipe cards listing items commonly seen on a road trip (stoplight, gas station, maroon minivan, deer, the letter Z, you get the idea). Kids pick one card at a time and the first one to find their item gets a point. First to 10 wins. Don’t feel like making the game? Pick up travel bingo here.
- Play a variation of a guessing game. “I’m thinking of a character in Star Wars…who wears a long white robe…and has funny hair.” If they need more clues, they have to ask for them, but they only get three. Depending on the ages of your children, you can make this one as easy or difficult as you’d like. This game kills time in the car, at a restaurant waiting for food, at the dentist office, you name it. It’s a family favorite! There’s a fun version of this game you can buy too called HedBanz. Perfect for traveling.
If you don’t have a third seat and need to cram in one more kid but space is tight, we’ve gotten a lot of use out of our Bubble Bum. It’s an inflatable booster seat (say whaaa!?) that can roll up into a tiny bag and holds air so kids can be comfortably boosted up to a safe seatbelt height without taking up a lot of room in your luggage. This is more used when we fly somewhere, but in case it fits your needs, we really do like ours a lot.
If you’re traveling at night, we enjoy picking up glow bracelets and necklaces from the Target Dollar Spot or mini reading lights. Neck pillows are great for kids who tend to car-nap but no longer have those soft padded edges on their car seats.
ALL THE TECHNOLOGY
Our Pilot doesn’t have built-in DVD players, and sometimes you just need to cave and let them watch TV and play their handheld devices and zone out and not give a crap because being stuck in a car is hard for everybody. So we bought the Philips dual DVD players, which simply hook on the headrests ahead of them. SO easy to hook up and they have individual volume control and headphone jacks, in case complete silence is needed. Also attaching to the headrests are the personal travel trays I purchased for the big kids. These fold down and tuck into the back pockets of the seat, and work semi-well to hold food and drink or to do some coloring, and they were about $12, which made me happy. As far as headphones go for kids, we’ve gone through a number of kinds that just plain stunk…slipping off their heads, breaking in one ear, too heavy, too loose, too plastic-y…finally we were gifted these Lil Gadgets headphones and they are the BOMB! Fit nicely, no slip, comfy on the ears, and good sound to boot!
Want to keep things simple and just hand them over your phone? Well, I’ve got a decent list of our 20 Top Kid-Friendly (and Educational) Apps to keep them busy for hours.
SNACKY AND DRINKY
Packing snacks and drinks is SO. VERY. IMPORTANT. What better way to kill time than to eat, am I right? I’ve found that keeping a laundry basket of goodies within arm’s reach is a very important key to our family’s road trip successes. Buy a small, collapsible cooler with juice boxes and waters, throw in some Crystal Lite packets to spice it up, and freeze some of the water bottles before you go to help keep the rest of the drinks cold. Our laundry basket usually consists of individual bags of popcorn, trail mix, nuts, veggie straws, and a few “please-be-quiet” bribery treats (such as M&Ms or bubble gum). I pack individual bowls for the kids to collect their treats and it makes refills so much easier. While you don’t need anything fancy for kids to eat or drink out of, there are some cool options out there, like this snack/drink combo case. I’ve also seen some cute ideas that involve tackle boxes or toolboxes, but I’m not that ambitious if I’m being completely honest.
NOW, GO DO IT!
The best part of road tripping is obviously arriving at the destination, but if you do a little preparation ahead of time, the actual on-the-road portion will not be as dreadful as you might expect. The biggest advice I have is this: Stay flexible. Don’t rush. Make planned (or spontaneous) pit stops to stretch legs, take walks, go potty or find a new adventure entirely. I know it’s nice to “just get there,” but remember – they’re kids.
I’d love to hear how you survive a road trip with little ones. Tips and tricks? Helpful products? Muzzles and straight jackets? (I kid, I kid…)
Happy road tripping to you and yours! Remember…it’s all worth it. I promise.