By Matt Villano, on July 10, 2015

5 tips for summer road trips with kids

Road-tripping is as American as apple pie, reality television, and obesity. It’s something all of us have done at one point or another. This summer, according to Expedia’s very own Road Rage Report, tens of millions of Americans were expected to hit the road for an extended car drive. A whole bunch of those probably were going to do it with their families in tow.

We were one such family this June. My wife and two daughters and I flew from our home in Northern California into Portland, Oregon, rented a car, and drove north from there. Over the course of the three weeks that followed, we toured the San Juan Islands of Washington State, stopped for a few days in Seattle, then flew home.

You can read all about our day-to-day adventures on my blog, Wandering Pod. We also learned (and, in some cases, re-learned) a number of important lessons about road-tripping with kids.

Here, in no particular order, are five tips based upon that knowledge.

Tip 1: Keep their minds working

Unapologetically, I’m not a fan of plopping kids in front of mobile devices during trips. My wife and I would rather engage their brains than give the kids programs and movies. On our recent trip, we played three games:

  • The first, “Last Letter,” is a game about places; someone picks a place and the next person has to pick a place that starts with the last letter of the name of the first place. The game lasted about 45 minutes each time we played.
  • Game No. 2: Progressive storytelling. In this game, someone starts a story, then hands the entire plot over to the next person, who tells a few lines, and hands it off again. The four of us went around like this for hours. And the girls loved it (most of their stories involved cats).
  • The third game we played is one you can buy in any toy store: Rory’s Story Cubes. The game comprises nine dice, each of which has six images. You roll the dice, come up with nine images, and have to tell a story that connects all nine. The game even comes in app form; at least on this summer’s roadie, that’s the extent to which the kids got screen time in the car.

Bopping balls along the journey


Tip 2: Get out and move

Kids generally can’t sit still for more than 90 minutes at a time. So when we hit the road with our girls, we plan to stop every 1.5 hours or so, just to give them the chance to get out and move around. On this recent trip, I brought an inflatable beach ball with us and got the girls to bop it around every time we stopped. This exercise enabled them to release any pent-up energy. It also enabled me to move my legs—something I really appreciated. (I talked more about this strategy in a recent interview with Trips + Giggles, another family travel blog. Check it out here.)

Tip 3: Snack up

Snacks are important on a road trip—not only for the kids but for the grownups too. Generally we’re a pretty healthy crew. This means we’re big into all-natural snacks such as carrot sticks, sugar snap peas, rice cakes, and raw almonds. Still, I recognize that kids like goodies, and usually bring a few less-than-healthy snacks along as rewards for good behavior. On our recent San Juans trip, every time one sister went out of the way to be kind to the other, both kids got Peanut M&Ms. About halfway into the trip, they were encouraging each other to make good choices. The plan worked like a charm.

Viewfinder Tip: Invest in snack cups with lids before a big family trip, so no two children have to share.

Tip 4: Let them drive

Don’t be alarmed by this subhead—my wife and I do NOT endorse letting underage kids take the wheel. What I mean by “let them drive” is to let the kids pick and/or plan certain aspects of the strategy for each day. On road trips in the past, we’ve given our older daughter a map or guidebook and tasked her to pick out our stopping points for a day. On this most recent trip, we presented both girls with a list of options for each day and let them decide what to do. For the most part—at least when they were able to agree—this helped cultivate a real sense of ownership about our itinerary. It also enabled my wife and me to kick back and enjoy the scenery as it passed by.

Tip 5: Be flexible

Finally, perhaps the most important piece of advice I can offer for a family road trip also is the simplest: Roll with the punches. If your kid has to pee on the side of the road, pull over. If two of your children are fighting over the last Ritz cracker, be prepared to buy more. If you drive into a horrendous rainstorm, go slow. If the kids fall asleep (see the photo at the top of this post), drive as much as you can without stopping to take advantage. And if one of the backseat deejays gets tired of your Mumford and Sons, accept that you might have to listen to the new Rachel Platten song on repeat 10 times.

One thing is certain when you’re road-tripping with kids: Nothing is certain at all. The sooner you embrace this reality, the better off the journey will be for everyone involved.

What are your tips for road-tripping with kids?