Road Trip Tips :)

Road trips can be an awesome thing. We just got home from a road trip from Texas to Idaho and back, which put over 3,000 miles on our van and was 22 hours of driving each way, not including the stop-overs. With a 7-, 5- and 2-year old, you might expect it to be miserable, but we all LOVED the trip – even the long hours of driving.

Here are some things that we did to ENJOY the journey. Some of it is in the beforehand preparation, and some of it was things to do while traveling.


Tip #1: Make Lists Beforehand. Think about how long you are going to be gone and what you will be doing. Are you planning on camping? Swimming? Hiking? Eating in the car? Make lists of everything you will need for each event (“Camping List”, “Mom’s Packing List”, “Food List”, etc.). Also, find a spot to write things down that you think of randomly that you know you will forget – mine was on our bathroom mirror with dry erase markers.

If you want to combine lists, great. For me, it worked best to have separate lists typed out so I could print them off and hand them to each kid, or to my husband, or put with a certain “type” of thing. I also had a pile of things that I started a couple of weeks in advance on my bedroom floor that were less commonly used things that I would need to bring as I ran across them (like phone and camera battery chargers, card games, etc.) that I knew I would likely forget. I only forgot one thing this year, and it was a non-essential, which I count as a great success.

Tip #2: Make sure that your packing fits your car – even do a “dry run”. It can be easy to over-pack a car for a long trip. Make sure that the things you pack are what you really will need, and not a lot of extras. My husband and I even did a “dry run” of packing things a couple of days before we actually needed to pack, just to try and figure out where all of our stuff could go without being too much in the way. That paid off big time because it helped us to think through what things we actually needed to access and what things we didn’t and where it all could fit.

We didn’t have bags packed, but we did have other “space taker” things like our cooler, tent, Rubbermaid bin of camping gear, stroller, and a friend’s computer we were bringing up to them that we could use, and then just visualized how much space the bags would take. It took probably 30 or 40 minutes to do the dry run and talk through things, but saved us a lot of time later when we were actually loading the van.

Tip #3: Plan your “accessible” space wisely. There is nothing worse than feeling crammed during a long drive. Try to load everything that you won’t need to access into your trunk, and leave your open space for things like food, diaper bags or car entertainment that you will likely need to access during your trip. The less you have cluttering your main area and the easier it is to find what you will actually need while you are driving, the happier everyone will be. Last year I actually was able to find a cooler that fit perfectly between the front seats of our van so it wouldn’t take up other precious space and would be easily accessible.

Tip #4: Plan your food carefully. Pack normal, healthy foods. When we were first married and would take driving trips (before we had kids), we would pick our favorite junk food, get our favorite flavored waters, and maybe throw in some chips or crackers. And we would feel disgusting at the end of the trip. You are going to feel like whatever you have eaten.

This time around we packed things that would be “treats” to us, but would still be smart things to pack like beef jerky (the Great Value Teriyaki is really, really good in case you were wondering), dry cereals (our kids love to snack on them), dried fruit, fresh fruit, good sandwiches, granola bars, string cheese, etc. Think about how you want to feel, and pack foods accordingly. Also, avoid sugary drinks – you will end up making a lot more pit stops. A tip that we learned a while ago is that if you want to stay hydrated, but don’t want to have to get up to use the bathroom often (during long tests, long drives, whatever), drink Gatorade or Powerade. We have done this the past several drives and it has been perfect for us.

Another thing to consider with food: don’t forget to pack whatever bowls, plates, cups or utensils you might need. I found a smaller plastic bowl with a lid on it for each of my kids to use so we could pass things back to them without spilling. We also had a plastic water bottle with a squirt-top lid for each kid that we could fill with Gatorade or water and hand back to them without worrying about spills. If you are planning to make sandwiches on the road, don’t forget to pack knives to spread out PB or jam or mayo or whatever you might need.

Tip #5: Think through the drive. Think about who is going to drive when, and what everyone else’s responsibilities are going to be. I am typically the driver and my husband is typically the “go to” guy who passes things back to the kids and regulates things there. That is what works for us. Figure out what your expectations for everyone are and make sure they are clear and reasonable. You cannot expect to reasonably drive for 36 hours, or for your kids to be silent for 12 hours straight. That is not reasonable…well, at least not for us. :) Also, make sure you have clear directions to where you are going. Figure out where major cities are along the way to make sure you know where you can get gas and use the bathroom. Not every “point” on the map is an actual city large enough to stop in – know your larger cities so you don’t end up stranded because you thought you could plow through “one more city” without getting gas. 

Tip #6: Don’t overdo the amount of things you bring to entertain your kids. Last year I decided to make these great bags for my kids with all kinds of things for them to do along the way. I made binders with worksheets that I stuck into plastic sleeves so they could use the Dry Erase Crayons on them. They packed “meaningful” toys, stuffies and trinkets to take along. Etc. It was a mess. Literally. The Dry Erase Crayons MELTED in the car on the seats because it was 100 degrees outside. The toys and trinkets ended up all over the car. The kids would use one thing for 10 seconds and then get over it and it would end up wherever – it was awful.

This year we went very minimal. Each kid had a notebook of plain white paper that I found at the dollar spot at Target so they could draw and have everything stay together, and they could take one stuffed animal and their blankie. That was it.We packed DVDs, but saved them until we were at the point of desperation (we watched 2 in our 50+ hours of driving around), and had a DS that each of the kids played for a few minutes each. We also had downloaded a bunch of Piano Guys songs that ended up being lifesavers for us – our 2-year old would only nap when she heard their songs, and the rest of us loved hearing them over and over again. Find what works for you.

My kids are, admittedly, very self-entertaining. By the end of the trip they were just telling stories, or making shadow puppets as the sun got lower down, or did whatever they do to keep themselves happy. Your kids may be totally different. Think through what your kids normally do at home, and try to modify that for the car. My kids do a ton of imaginative play, and tend to turn into zombies if they have too much media so I tried to steer them away from movies until we needed them to avoid them getting grumpy and whiny. Your kids may be different, and that is perfect.

If you are looking for ideas of fun things for kids to do, is an awesome resource.. My mom had printed off some bingo cards from this website last year for our kids that were fun, and I couldn’t find the printed ones this year and our printer ran out of ink the night before we left (of course), but I think the kids would have loved to do that. There are also some fun game ideas on there that just take looking out the window to play. We tried one where you find a “rainbow” of colors outside (Find three red things, then three orange things, then three yellow things…..). We were driving through some flat New Mexico land at that time, and there was not very much color so it actually took us quite awhile to do it. You could modify the number of items depending on how much there is to see around you.

Tip #7: Be reasonable in your expectations. For us, I know that in order to get a long day of driving in that we need to be up really early, and plan on driving late. Our kids are really good in the car, and (as I mentioned before) are very self-entertaining, so daytime driving is not a big deal for us. We have talked to some people who leave at 8 p.m. or so and drive through the night so that way their kids will sleep (hopefully) for most, if not all, of the time. I would crash and die if we planned on doing that because I am not capable of staying up all night, but I am very capable of getting up early in the morning. Know what your limitations are, and know the limitations of everyone else in the car.

Eat normal meals. Give normal snacks. Take a potty break every few hours to stretch your legs. Make sure your expectations are set in such a way that you won’t be grumpy about not making unrealistic deadlines. If you have small kids, plan on stopping often. If you don’t need to stop as much as planned – great! Bonus. We hit a good deal of construction on the way back at a few points that took time. But we had left at 3 a.m., so it wasn’t a huge stress – we just wanted to be home before midnight and definitely exceeded that deadline. If you plan on things taking longer than Google Maps or Mapquest says they will take, you will all be much happier. Be reasonable.

Tip #8: Don’t camp at the end of a very long day of driving. You may disagree with me here, and that’s fine. This tip is mostly for us when we are planning for next year. For two straight years we have packed and planned on camping after our first long day of driving. It sounds great in theory, but after a 13-hour drive one of the last things we have wanted to do when we got there was to pull out the tent and set things up, only to take them down the next day and stink for the next 10 hours of our drive because we don’t have access to a shower. Both years we have hit our camping spot, and then decided to keep on driving for another 3-4 hours and just stay in a hotel. It would have saved us a LOT of space both years if we hadn’t packed all of that gear only to haul it across the country and back without using it.

Tip #9: Plan detours and stops along the way. This year our stop on the way up was in Arches National Park in Moab, UT. It was incredible, and definitely worth stopping and visiting for a couple of hours. We also went a different route than was recommended on the way home and drove through some beautiful country that we would have missed otherwise. It is refreshing to have some change in the middle of a long drive.

Tip #10: Take a minute to organize things at each stop. My husband initiated this idea this year, and it worked out well. Every time we stopped, we would have the kids organize their space and we would organize the rest before we got out of the car. This kept a lot of messes from getting out of control, and helped us to be able to find whatever we needed to find more easily. It also made it a lot easier to unload at the end of the trip because there weren’t odds and ends strewn around.

Tip #11: Bring an atlas. Really. Even if you have nice maps that are printed out and clearly mark your path, or you have a GPS, it costs very little to get a big road atlas, and we have found it to be very helpful. If you need to alter your route, you can clearly see your options. If you are wondering if you missed a turnoff that “should” have happened, it is easy to check with the clear exit markings on the freeways on the map. Seriously, it is a good “low tech” investment to have.

Tip #12: Plan a budget. All of these tips could be an individual post in and of themselves, but this one probably especially could be. Make sure you know what you are planning on doing and spending before you go so you don’t have the stress of not knowing what you have already spent, if you can afford to stop in a hotel, if you should buy that souvenir, whatever. Budget. We used to figure out the price of gas in the places we were going to be driving through and staying. You can use your average gas mileage (you can usually get an estimate of that online or in your car owner’s manual, though the number may be a bit off) and figure out how much you will likely spend on gas. Figure out your hotel stays. We used this year and booked a great hotel that normally would have cost around $100/night for less than $60/night. It was awesome. Make sure you plan whether you are going to eat out or pack things to eat in the car, and budget for that. Budget for souvenirs. Think through your trip and figure out what you are likely to buy and plan it into your budget. That will also keep your stress WAY down to know that you are spending what you had planned on spending instead of feeling like everything is a “surprise expense”.

Tip #13: Have fun. This is the most important tip. One of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite people is from Joseph B. Wirthlin (this link will take you to the original talk, which is excellent). In talking about driving trips he took with his family he said,

I remember loading up our children in a station wagon and driving to Los Angeles. There were at least nine of us in the car, and we would invariably get lost. Instead of getting angry, we laughed. Every time we made a wrong turn, we laughed harder. Getting lost was not an unusual occurrence for us. Once while heading south to Cedar City, Utah, we took a wrong turn and didn’t realize it until two hours later when we saw the “Welcome to Nevada” signs. We didn’t get angry. We laughed, and as a result, anger and resentment rarely resulted. Our laughter created cherished memories for us.

Don’t forget to laugh and to create memories. Long driving trips are not just about getting from one point to another – they are about enjoying time with the people you are traveling with. We definitely had a building experience with this drive, and definitely had a few times that we had to remember to laugh because we had made a wrong turn. Coming home from the trip, we thoroughly enjoyed the time we had visiting the family and friends that we visited, but we also enjoyed our time together on the road and came back as a closer family for it.

There you go – 13 tips to get you going! Happy Summer Travels! :)

For one more tip, click here.

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