Surviving a Summer Road Trip with Kids

The ultimate family road trip: National Lampoon's Vacation.

I may be premature with the title of this post. You see, I haven’t actually embarked on a long road trip with my kids yet. Max we’ve done is 3.5 hours in the car at a time. That’s nothing by road trip standards. I have multiple friends who pile their younglings in the car for a trek and seemingly return unscathed. Whether it’s my own intolerance for being stuck in the car for long periods of time, or the fear of the unknown (i.e., how my children will react to being strapped in while miles of highway stretch ahead and behind them), I’m not sure it’s actually possible to maintain one’s sanity during a summer road trip with kids.

However, we plan to embark on a 10+ hour trip this month, as are many local families heading South to the Outer Banks, North to Vermont, Maine or Canada, or West to any number of destinations. Luckily some friends, area parents and local shop owners are full of recommendations for managing long road trips with kids. Just recently, a thread popped up in a Facebook group for local moms about surviving long rides with the under 5 set, and my friend Kathie Smarick recently shared a success story about traveling 1900 miles to and from Michigan with her 4 year old and 2 year old twins. How did they do it? A few key tips from these seasoned traveler parents:

Twirl Toy Store in Pennington features a display of travel toys.
Twirl Toy Store in Pennington features a display of travel toys.

Media. You aren’t going to get past this on a long-haul car ride. Even for the most media strict families, now is the time many parents choose to bust out the iPad, portable DVD player or music CDs. I went to Target and picked up some $5 DVDs with 8 episodes of Curious George and Thomas the Tank Engine for my boys, and we’ve downloaded some of their favorite shows and age-appropriate games on the iPad (a few favorites include SoundTouch, My Play Home and anything by Duck Duck Moose). Another friend swears by the “Peep and the Big Wide World” series of DVDs for my younger guy. Kathie recommends holding the media card close until other sanity-saving options have been exercised.

Snacks. Everyone has suggested bringing lots of snacks, and including fun snacks that might be different from the usual goldfish, raisin, graham cracker routine at home. Kathie had a smart idea of bringing a box of ziplock bags and a master supply of snacks that she kept up front with her. “When the kids dropped the bags, no problem–just made another when and passed it on back!” Of course any food in the car ups the mess factor a bit, but a short vacuum upon arrival may be worth the cost of having snacks at the ready.

Strategic Pit Stops. My friend Kathie also suggested being strategic about when and where to stop along the way. “Minimize the number of stops, but don’t rush when you do stop,” she told me. “Really let the kids run around.” She also lauded the rest areas on Ohio’s turnpike. Mental note to drive through states with good rest areas. 🙂

The TrayKit, sold at Twirl Toy Shop in Pennington.
The TrayKit, sold at Twirl Toy Shop in Pennington.

Games, Toys, Travel Activities. I plan to hit up the dollar bins at Target before our road trip to pick out cheap board books and these great coloring books that only work with an invisible marker that won’t leave marks on other surfaces. Twirl Toy Shop in Pennington is featuring toys that come in handy on long trips for kids. The salesperson I met with pointed out the game Auto Bingo for $1.99, Magnatab for $23.00 and a toy called the Boogie Board, an LCD writing tablet that erases with the push of a button and retails for $29.99. They also sell a kids backpack retailing at $34.99 called the TrayKit that attaches to the back of the seat in front of a child, stores toys and activities, and unfolds into a tray with sides to contain travel activities.

Other Tips. One friend recommended bringing a portable potty, so true pit stops or emergency bathroom breaks can be done in a comfortable place. Kathie also recommended keeping any necessary medications up front instead of packed away with other toiletries, in case a toothache, fever or other affliction arises en route.

We also plan to break up our trip into a two-day adventure and remember that above all, it’s about the journey, not the destination.

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  1. Just back from a road trip to Maine and we all loved listening to books on CD together as a family. Harry Potter kept us relaxed and happy for hours. It’s also fun to scout out and find on the mobile phone tucked away restaurants along the way that may be serving amazing Vietnamese or Mexican food. If they have enough praise on yelp, the tiny detour is worth it to avoid the standard fare at most rest stops or highway exits. We also gave the kids headlamps so they could read or find a missing toy easily. For older kids, it’s great to have an oversized US atlas on hand to help them learn to read maps. An important skill for road tripping!

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