Our family LOVES road trips. Every year, we load all four of our kids into the family vehicle and adventure together around the country. Whether traveling around our beloved Pacific NW, driving to Disneyland, or trekking across the country, we’ve spent countless hours/days/weeks exploring the country and enjoying quality time together as a family. (It’s probably one of our very favorite ways to be together!)
Before we get started, there are two of my other road-trip related posts I want you to check out:
7 Things To Do Before You Hit the Road : This handy checklist will remind you to do some of the things you may not think about prior to leaving on a trip, AND will make your life so much easier when you get back.
8 Books About Road Trips for Kids: Books are such a fun way to get kids (more) excited for your upcoming road trip! (Books can also help prepare a kiddo who needs to know what to expect – especially if they tend to prefer being at home!) These are some of my faves.
Okay- are you ready? I’m so excited to help you get ready for your trip….or maybe encourage you to take one – even a small one! Let’s get started!
In this comprehensive post, I’ve covered all the ins and outs of a great road trip – planning your route, food, lodging, activities for the car, etc.
Roadtrippers.com is a fantastic resource for helping map out your route. Not only can you select your start/end points, you can also discover attractions, museums, parks, and other points of interest along the way.
You’ll need to decide which type of trip you want to take:
Type 1- A carefully planned out trip where you head to a pre-determined destination/hotel/etc. each night
Type 2-A more spontaneous trip where you estimate your daily destination and adjust based on your family’s needs/how the day goes, etc.
We are type 2 travelers, and we’ve found that this way of doing things works really well for us. First, we determine the length of our trip and our list of “must-dos.” We make sure to allot for how much time we plan to spend at each stop. Based on the pre-set length of our trip and our desired stops, we set a rough estimate of about where we want/need to end up each night.
For example, if we know we want to wake up on Wednesday morning and drive into Yellowstone for the day, we know that we want to end up at a hotel within an hour or two +/- driving distance to Yellowstone on Tuesday evening.
There are times where we have more flexibility in our schedule, and can simply stop when we/our kids are tired. We’ve enjoyed the freedom and flexibility of this type of traveling, as we can adjust our plans here and there to accommodate the needs of our family. I like being able to linger at the waterfall a bit longer, or conversely, to push ahead a bit further down the road, and end up closer to the next day’s goal. It works for us – but you’ll need to figure out the game plan and type of trip that works for you.
Where To Stay:
Everyone always wants to know where we stay on our road-trips – and we’ve stayed nearly everywhere!
As Type 2 travelers, each night we decide when we’d like to/need to stop driving, and check to see what the nearest town/city is. Next, I utilize the Hotels.Com app and search for hotels in that city to find the cheapest available booking. We call when we’re close, book, and head to the chosen hotel. One thing I love about this particular app, is that after staying 10 nights, you earn a FREE night.
*There are several hotel apps you can utilize on your trip, and I recommend downloading several and doing some price comparison before booking to make sure you’re getting the best deal.
Using this method of last-minute booking, we have stayed in a very wide range of accommodations – from bargain motels to the types of hotels that have marble floors and bellhops – all for about the same price.
Book ahead for popular/touristy areas! While we don’t book ahead for most of our trip, I absolutely book ahead when we’ll be in an area where lodging will be in high demand. For example, I booked our Disneyland hotels six months out. (FYI- Yellowstone is another area I recommend booking in advance!!)
Whenever possible, we book hotels with the following:
- free breakfast
- free parking (*Make sure you check for this often hidden fee!)
- free WIFI
- non-smoking facility (*Several states still allow smoking in hotels, so if the smell bothers you, check beforehand!)
Hotel Sleeping Tips:
- Bring white noise/use a white noise app.
- When possible, ask for a room away from the stairs/elevator.
- Bring a portable bluetooth speaker to play lullabies/instrumental music for your kids (if that helps them).
- If you find yourself in a bind, and more than 2 kids need to share a bed, you can easily fit 3+ if you take the blankets off and have them sleep using the width of the mattress instead of the length. (It’s not ideal, but it saved us a time or two when our kids were smaller.)
- If you are traveling with more than 2 kids, bring a couple of sleeping bags. We’ve found that sometimes it’s better for everyone involved to have someone on the floor than to deal with fighting over sharing a bed/pull-out couch, etc.
Where to Stop:
We’ve found that our kids are great travelers, and are able to handle longer stretches of driving. However, it is important to take/make time for stops, and to make the most of your stops. We try to choose stops that allow our kids to get out of the car and play/explore/learn.
I know a few roadtrippers who are solely focused on the destination. They only stop when they have to. This method of road-tripping is efficient – but it’s not FUN. For me, what makes a road trip memorable, is the JOURNEY. It’s that cool little park you found in Oregon, the restaurant that put gravy on everything in South Dakota, and the super hokey roadside attraction in Arizona. Don’t let yourself get wrapped up in “making good time.” Absolutely do things that are efficient, like having everyone use the bathroom if you stop to see a landmark, eat lunch at a place with room for a wiggle break, etc. But, do stop – more than for the bathroom and when you need to eat.
My advice is to give yourself some wiggle room to truly explore and ENJOY your trip. If you see something interesting – stop and visit it! Some of our favorite moments from past trips are because we saw a sign for something that piqued our interest -and we allowed ourselves to stop. Give yourself permission to have fun and make memories.
Here are some of my top tips to make the most of your stops:
Find the local parks and school playgrounds. Taking half an hour to let your kids run around a local park/school playground can help an afternoon of driving go much more smoothly. We recommend letting a stop like this pull double-duty, and stopping at a park/playground to eat a meal. After having your picnic lunch, let the kids run around and play for a bit!
Embracing the kitsch is a vital component to a great road trip. There are so many wonderfully quirky things to see in our country – and often, they’re some of the things your kids will remember. It’s corny and silly and made of the stuff that bonds a family. So yes, stop at the Corn Palace, take your picture next to the Paul Bunyan statue, visit places like Trainland USA, and definitely – ride the giant jackalope.
Find the history wherever you can. Use roadtrippers.com or another similar website to help you find the museums and other historical landmarks near where you are traveling. Often, even months after pointing out something of historical value on a trip, our kids will recall it/ and show a great interest when the topic comes up in school. For example, one year we visited Fort Kearney, a well-known stop along the Oregon Trail. When we studied the Oregon Trail the following year, my kids remembered the fort, and were able to visualize the experience of the pioneers that much more clearly. It’s invaluable. Take advantage and stop, or point things out whenever you can.
Enjoy nature and the scenic beauty of our country whenever possible. I cannot stress this enough. Visit our National Parks. We want to build an appreciation of nature into our kids – and our country is FULL of beauty. I am in awe on every trip we take.
If you have a 4th grader, make sure to take advantage of the Every Kid in a Park program, which will get your entire family FREE admission into all of our national parks. This is a phenomenal program – and I urge you to take advantage of it if you have an eligible child.
I get asked about food and what/where to eat on a road trip. Here are my favorite tips regarding road-trip food:
Make sure everyone in your group has their own reusable water bottle. (I recommend a vacuum-insulated bottle!) Fill them up whenever you are in a location with good-tasting water. It’s so important to stay hydrated!
- We’ve found that we are spoiled with great tasting spring water where we live. As we’ve traveled around the country, we’ve noticed that water tastes very different in various regions. In some places, it’s hard to choke it down- yet, we know how crucial it is to stay hydrated. SO, I recommend bringing along some kind of water flavoring. There are packets, drops, etc.
Bring a supply of paper plates, plastic cutlery, and paper towels. (Paper towels are easier to keep track of than napkins – and are better if spills occur!) You may also want to bring a sleeve of plastic cups, should you buy milk/2 liter/etc along the way, and don’t want to have to rinse it out of your reusable water bottles!
Stay at hotels that offer free breakfast. You not only save money on food, you can also fill up on free coffee as well.
If you find yourself needing to stay at a hotel that does not serve breakfast, here are some options that will be cheaper than stopping at a restaurant/drive-thru:
- Run into a local grocery store and grab muffins/donuts/bagels from the bakery. Throw in a bunch of bananas and a half-gallon of milk, and you’re set for less than $10.
- Pack quick breakfasts like cereal bars, protein bars (my favorites are the CLIF Kid bars) sleeve of bagels, etc.
Invest in a nicer cooler (look for ice retention time), and pack it with lunch essentials! We always have a loaf of bread, peanut butter, jelly, lunch meat, cheese slices, and condiments. I also like to take fruits and veggies that don’t spoil as quickly like apples, oranges, carrot sticks, etc.
Some of our favorite moments from our road trips come from finding a little spot to pull over, make our sandwiches, and eat our lunch.
- Fill up your cooler with ice before you leave.
- Utilize the ice machines at hotels to re-stock your cooler with ice along the way. (You can also stop at most grocery stores/gas stations to get bags of ice if necessary.)
Do NOT buy your drinks and snacks from convenience stores! There is no reason to pay $2 for a soda or $1.25 for a candy bar when you can bring better/cheaper food with you!
- Pack your own snacks and items that can be eaten with your lunches! Ideas include granola bars, pre-portioned bags of chips/crackers, raisins, applesauce pouches, etc.
- Bring your own drinks! We tend to bring water bottles (some places will have drinking water with a taste you’re not used to – bring your own!), juice boxes, and 12 packs of soda. Each night/morning, we just put what we’ll need for the day into the cooler to get cold.
Stop and re-stock your cooler as needed along the way. Find the closest grocery store and get what you need.
While we enjoy preparing our own food, we DO eat out on road-trips. We found however, that we get tired of hamburgers REALLY quickly. While those golden arches can sometimes be the only option for miles and miles, when you have choices, we’ve found a few out-of-the-box ideas that can save you money. Here are a few of my money-saving, creative ideas for eating out on a road trip:
- Take-out Pizza! Grab a couple of take-out pizzas and head to a local park/school playground. We’ve found we can order 2 pizzas for about half of what we spend at a given burger joint.
- Costco! If you have a Costco membership, use it on your road trip! Head in and take advantage of that $1.50 hot dog/soda deal. (We don’t have Sam’s Club where I live, but I’m told they have something similar!)
- Ikea! In addition to hard-to-put-together dressers, we’ve found that Ikea offers some good deals in their smaller concessions area. Like Costco, they have a great hot dog deal. (If you need a breakfast, they also sell 6 packs of cinnamon rolls!)
- Rotisserie Chicken! You can grab a rotisserie chicken for about $5 at any grocery store these days. Grab a chicken, some fruit, and a bag of chips, and you have dinner!
- Check the local grocery store for pre-packed “lunch boxes” in the deli. Our local store has boxes that contain a deli sandwich, bag of chips, and a cookie for about $3.50. You may also find large sub-sandwiches (easily split between several people), pre-made salads, etc. These meals are often cheaper and fresher than most drive-thru offerings.
If you DO get stuck going to a fast food restaurant (which can run my family of 6 about $30), here are some tips:
- Don’t order drinks. Pack your own drinks!
- Look for the “bundles.” We’ve found a bundle at McDonalds that will easily serve 3-4 for about $10.
- Check the apps! Many of the larger fast-food chains have free apps you can download. Within the apps are often digital coupons you can use to save money – including $ off, free items, bogo, etc.
We have faced our fair share of health concerns on our various road-tripping adventures – including what we so lovingly call “pukepocalypse”……twice! (It’s funny now – not so much then.) With each trip, we’ve become better prepared for any illness or ailment that may pop up along the way.
Here is my list of all the health essentials you’ll want to bring on your trip:
- children’s Tylenol
- any other medicines you find a member of your family using on a weekly/bi-weekly basis (Tums, allergy meds, etc.)
- aloe-vera or other after-burn care
- hand-sanitizer (If you’re against hand-sanitizer, definitely bring hand soap! Many rest-stops do not have soap OR hot water!)
- ice packs (Throw a couple in your cooler!)
- feminine hygiene products
Though not for everyone, I’m planning on bringing a handful of my favorite essential oil rollers on our next trip. A few of the blends I’m bringing are geared towards sleep, headaches, germ-fighting, tummy bugs, and calming down.
Okay, I’m about to get real….because we’ve been there….more than once! If a stomach bug hits, you’re going to be glad you packed:
- a roll of trash bags
- paper towels
- box of baking soda
- canister of cleaning wipes
- Altoids (Peppermint calms the stomach, and you may be a ways from a place to brush teeth…)
If you should find yourself needing to deal with…unpleasant…smells, I have a couple of ideas to share. We’ve found that most of the car fresheners on the market give us a headache. My top two products for freshening the car are:
- A car essential oil diffuser
- Coffee grounds! (When you have a bag of coffee grounds that is getting low, secure the top of the bag so it won’t spill, and then stick it under the seat of your car!)
Sanitize your room! Do not rely solely on housekeeping. Many hotels (especially bargain hotels in heavily populated areas) do not do a thorough cleaning. Here is what we bring to sanitize our hotel rooms:
- canister of disinfectant wipes (Bring Lysol, Clorox, Thieves cleaner – whatever you use to kill germs!)
- Lysol spray/diffuser with Thieves or similar oil (basically, you’re going to want to kill the germs in the air – in whatever fashion you trust/use at home)
- stack of pillow cases! (After watching an expose of hotel maids not changing pillowcases, we bring our own!)
- flip-flops for the shower (just in case)
In the Car
When taking a road trip, you’re going to spend a LOT of time in the car.
As parents, we’ve made the decision that our children will not have phones (until they can drive) or tablets – so we’ve come up with other ways to keep the kids occupied in the car – while remaining connected with the family AND enjoying the scenery passing by.
Here are some of the ways we pass the time in the car:
Audiobooks are a fantastic activity to enjoy as a family. I love it when all six of us are wrapped up in a story together.
- Choose audiobooks that appeal to everyone in the car. Consider language, content, frightening elements, etc.
- We’ve found that the quality of the narrator makes ALL the difference with audiobooks. It doesn’t matter if the book is wonderful, if the narrator is terrible, you will not enjoy the experience. I suggest listening to the first few minutes prior to packing/loading an audiobook for the trip.
- Utilize the library! Many people aren’t aware that your public library offers audiobooks. Ours offers them in both cd and digital formats. There’s no need to purchase an audiobook when you can stock up at your local library for free!
A few of our favorite audiobooks have been:
Escape From Mr. Lemoncello’s Library (The narration is FABULOUS!)
This year, we are bringing:
The Call of the Wild
Road Trip Playlist! I’ve been working on what I call the “Epic Road Trip Playlist” on Spotify for several months now. (I’m almost to 24 hours of music!) Before you head out, create a playlist of fun, upbeat songs for your family to enjoy. We love exposing our kids to all the genres of music, so my playlist has everything from Journey to The Clash to Disneyland rides to songs from Broadway musicals. It’s awesome – and they can’t wait to see what I put on it.
Activity Bags are a must-have for road trips. Each of my kids will fill a bag or backpack with activities that can be done in the car. Here are my tips/essentials:
General Rules of Thumb:
- Activity bags work best when the items are new to the child. Something they’ve never seen before will hold their attention far longer than the word-search book they’ve had for 2 years.
- SPACE OUT THE ACTIVITIES! Do not, I repeat DO NOT allow your kiddo to open up and look through every workbook/activity within the first ten minutes of the trip. Keep some intrigue and set some limits. If your kids aren’t able to self-regulate and choose one activity per set time limit, try keeping their bag in the front/trunk and pulling out new activities every so often for them.
- Crayons melt! We learned this lesson the hard way. Crayons left out in hot cars overnight WILL melt. Trust this mom and bring colored pencils instead. (If you DO bring crayons, keep them in Ziploc bags, and toss them into your cooler at night to prevent them from melting!)
Items I Love for Activity Bags:
- Reusable Sticker Pads – Melissa and Doug make a huge variety of this fun activity. These are like a throw-back to colorforms, and are always a huge hit with my kids.
- Mad Libs! These can get the whole family involved. There are SO many varieties now, including Avengers Mad Libs! (Tip: Have your kids complete the Mad Libs in pencil, so they can re-play them!)
- cheap spiral notebooks – My kids will draw, journal, play games, etc. One year, my son wrote down all the interesting street names he found, and stayed amused for hours that way!
- Books! If your kids don’t get carsick while reading, have them pack several lengthy books. A road trip is a great time for your kiddo to bring that Harry Potter (or similar) book they’ve been avoiding due to length. They have the time! For younger readers, I find that the anthology type storybooks (books with multiple stories – any of those “5 Minute…Stories”, etc.) are great for road trips.
- Atlas/maps –My older kids really enjoy looking at an atlas as we’re driving – anticipating what’s coming up, and finding where we are on the map.
Other Activity Ideas:
Sidewalk chalk is another quick and easy thing to toss in the car. If your kids need to unwind at a rest area or in the hotel parking lot – let them draw! (It’s a good option if you’ve stopped to eat a meal somewhere and the kids finish before you!)
When we’re going on a cross-country trip, I like to glue a map of the USA that has each state outlined in the front of a spiral notebook for each kid. They enjoy coloring in each state was we travel through it, making a mark for each big city, etc.
Classic “car games” are surprisingly always a hit. Our favorites:
- The license plate game! We keep a running tally of the different license plates we see, and try to find all 50. (It’s never one of the states you’d expect to hold you up from getting them all too! One year we couldn’t find Nevada of all things!)
- The alphabet game is always a favorite -and a great way to stay busy, especially in a more populated area. For this game, we try to find words that start with each letter of the alphabet. For example, we could find Applebee’s, Big Lots, Curves Ahead, Detour, Exit, etc.
Grownups need fun too!
As parents, we’re used to putting our kids first. But, when you’re planning on spending hours a day in the car, you’re going to want to bring a few things for YOURSELF as well….especially if you’re not the primary driver. Here are a few of my favorites:
- Sometimes while the kids are reading or coloring, etc. my husband and I like to put on our headphones and listen to comedy together. (We use a headphone splitter, so we can both listen at the same time.) Our very favorite is Jim Gaffigan. (One year we drove past his tour bus while listening to him!)
- spiral notebook – I find that I often get great ideas in the car. The scenery, the quiet, and all that time to THINK allow for some good thoughts. I like having a place to jot them down.
- If you enjoy puzzle books like crosswords or sudoku, bring them along.
- Many people can’t read in the car, but if you’re lucky (like me) and don’t get carsick while reading, a road trip is a great place to bring that LOOONNNNGGG novel you’ve been avoiding. You have the time.
Other Kid Tips:
Give them some space! I strongly recommend no more than two kids to a seat. Having your own sense of space in the car is key. If the kids are squished and/or don’t have room to spread out a bit, they’ll be more prone to bickering or whining.
For example, one of our cars has a seat that can technically and legally fit three kids. One would be sitting on that awful “hump” in the middle – but everyone would be buckled. Would this be doable? Sure. Would this be enjoyable? Nope. I like to think about this in terms of airplane seating. Could I sit in an airplane seat for 8 hours a day for 2 weeks? Sure. Would I want to? Nope. (Neither would your kids.) Considering your vehicle is important if you’re planning on taking a longer trip. What works for a quick trip to the grocery store may not work for a trip across the country.
Practice. Your kids won’t learn how to become travelers until they travel. If you’re not sure your kid(s) can handle a longer road trip, work them up to it. Start with a day-trip. Go somewhere 2-3 hours away. Go away for the weekend. Just like learning any other new skill set, your kids can learn to become awesome travelers with practice.
Set the tone. In each family, there tends to be a parent who sets the emotional tone for the house. If they’re grumpy, everyone is grumpy. If they’re stressed, everyone’s on edge. Kids can easily sense when we’re upset, bored, impatient, etc. Have FUN, stay upbeat when you can, and try to be positive. Kids really do feed off of our emotions and moods.
Talk about rules/expectations ahead of time. Be clear and up-front with your expectations for behavior, and follow through. For example, before heading into a hotel (especially if a hotel is a new experience), talk about indoor voices, running, respecting property, etc.
Don’t be afraid to parent on the road. It can be intimidating or sometimes feel embarrassing to have to “parent” in public – but addressing problems will make for a smoother trip.
Pack a comfort item, but not THE comfort item! Several years ago, my son’s favorite plush went missing. They were ultimately reunited, but that experience changed the way we care for our kids’ favorite comfort items. So, when we head out on road trips, we leave their favorites at home. When the kids were younger, we made more of a ceremony out of it – setting up their friends in a special place, so they’d be ready for us when we got back, etc. Now, they’re old enough to understand that we just don’t want their favorite thing to be left behind at a random hotel or rest stop.
However, the car ride can be much more enjoyable for a kiddo if they have a lovey in the car. My kids each get to bring one blanket, a pillow (or pillow pet/Moosh-Moosh), and a small (non-favorite) plush.
- You never need as much as you think you do. I tend to be an over-packer – and just can’t be on cross-country trips.
- Pack smart! Pack items that can be worn in multiple ways. For example, pack the tee that you can wear with the shorts, the maxi skirt, under the caridgan, etc. Let your items pull double duty whenever possible.
- I’ve tried a bunch of the tricks on Pinterest when it comes to packing for my kids. Personally, I found that packing the outfits in the gallon Ziploc bags stressed me out. For my kids, what works best is to pack a stack of shirts and a stack of bottoms that basically all coordinate. I like to pack items where my boys can grab any tee and any pair of shorts, and it will look okay. (Road trips are not the place to pack the shirt that ONLY looks good with that one pair of pants! Bring basic, easy to coordinate items.)
- Re-wear items. Unless someone spills or a shirt smells stinky, re-wear it.
- I pack 2-3 pairs of pajamas for everyone, instead of a fresh pair for each night. (*If you have little ones, don’t forget pull-ups so you CAN have your kiddo re-wear their jammies!)
- Bring a bag for wet items. (*Caution when opening the bag to wash them! Plug your nose!)
- Don’t waste suitcase space on towels!
- Pack comfortable walking shoes! If you’re going somewhere like a theme park or a national park with hiking trails, it is imperative you bring comfortable walking shoes for EVERYONE. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen little kids with plastic princess heels or cheap flip flops at Disney and thought, “That kid will be whining by mid-morning.” Pack for comfort! (Slip on shoes for the car are great! It takes precious time to wait for all the kids to inevitably tie the shoes they took off when you need to get out to use the bathroom!)
- Pack for the weather where you’re going, not for where you live.
My favorite luggage is American Tourister. These are the perfect size for each of us to have our own case. They stand up really well in the trunk and don’t take up too much space. It works really well for our family.
I get asked about laundry a LOT. For shorter trips (1 week or less), I recommend packing in such a way where you won’t need to do laundry.
- If you are visiting family/friends along the way, do laundry at their house!
- Many hotels offer a laundry room where guests can do their own laundry. Check for this under hotel amenities. (It is a searchable amenity when using expedia.com)This is a much better option than camping out at a laundromat. (Send one parent to the laundry room while the other takes the kids for a swim or gets the bedtime routine started, and then switch!)
This & That/Misc. Tips
- Pack trash bags! Even if you never eat a meal in the car, trash WILL accumulate, so it’s best to have a trash bag or two in the car.
- Bring a full-size bottle of shampoo. Some bargain hotels (like Motel 6, etc.) do not offer shampoo, and we find that even in hotels that DO offer shampoo, we often don’t have enough for 6 people to wash their hair!
- Don’t sweat it if you forget something. (And you probably will – that’s the way it goes.) Just remember that just about every town in America has a Walmart or a place you can grab a toothbrush, socks, sunscreen, etc.
Above all, take the trip. Don’t let the what ifs or the fears hold you back. Will it go perfectly? Of course not. Will it be worth it? Absolutely. So get out there, see the country, bond as a family, and experience family time like nothing else. See you on the road!