Our Tips for Road Trips with Kids

Our Tips for Road Trips with Kids

Today, I’m sharing my tips for taking road trips with kids.

At the end of last month, we went on a big family road trip around California. We had a few things on our “to-do” list for the summer, so we decided to combine it all into one big adventure. 

We kicked things off with a few days in San Luis Obispo. We stayed with our close friends Bianca and Andrew. They also have two little girls and just finished renovating this gorgeous house (see, we aren’t the only crazy ones). It was absolute chaos and SO MUCH FUN. 

After a few days in SLO, we drove up to Lodi, where Tyler is from and spent five days with his family. We love Lodi in the summer. Charlotte and Emmie spent the entire week out on the river, at the farm with Papa, or stomping around the backyard with KK. The girls have an almost maniacal obsession with Tyler’s parents which is always really special to watch. 

From Lodi, we made our way over to Lake Tahoe where we spent a few days in a cabin near Homewood–our first getaway ever with just the four of us. Bringing the girls to Tahoe always feels special, but this last stay was extra magical. We explored a lot, played at the beach for hours on end, and spent nap times reading on the patio. We basically had to tear ourselves away that last day.

(I think I’m going to do a little Lake Tahoe guide for next week’s post).

From Tahoe, we drove back home to San Diego. This was definitely the longest day: ”door to door” (Tyler’s favorite phrase), it took us 12 hours exactly. 

We ended up spending somewhere around 28 hours in the car over the course of 11 days. I calculated this based on the total travel time, so this is taking bathroom breaks, food and coffee detours, and stopping to charge the Rivian into account. 

The girls really impressed us on the road trip. I had pretty low expectations (the key to all of parenting, I think), but they rose to the occasion and were such troopers on those long drives. And outside of a collective meltdown in that last stretch of the 395 on our way home, it seemed like they were truly enjoying themselves. 

In this post, I wrote out some of my advice for road trips with kids. Now, obviously, kids are unpredictable. These tips are by no means fool-proof. This is just a list of things that worked for us and I think would be worth a try if you’re planning a road trip with small children. 

My tips for road trips with kids: 

Prep, prep, prep

I’m pretty sure something of this nature is on most of my family travel tip posts, but it deserves repeating. The best thing you can do in these types of situations, in my opinion, is build hype. 

Tyler and I talked ourselves silly about this road trip for the entire month of July. Every day, it was “are you guys so excited for our big road trip??” and a full breakdown of destinations and who we’d see where, etc. We repeated to them many times that we were going to be spending a lot of time in the car and that it may feel hard at times. We’d yammer on and on about how lucky they were to get to go to all of these fun places and see all of their favorite people. By the time our take-off day came around, they were both absolutely beside themselves to jump in the car and get going. 

Now, of course, they had their grumbly moments. But because we had laid the foundation of what a big deal the road trip was, we were able to remind them of what we had talked about. And they knew something super fun was always waiting for them on the other side of the long day. 

Let them help you get ready for the trip

Something that works like a charm with our kids is when we get them involved in the process. Fostering a sense of ownership is one of the best things we can do for our kids in general, but this especially applies to travel. For example, Char’s most prized possession is her suitcase, so I let her “help” me pack it (meaning she rearranged the clothes I laid out, fetched her bathing suit for me, etc). Same with her backpack–I left this out on the floor for her in the morning and she packed her water, Uni, and a few books in it before we left. We do this for flights too (more tips for flying with small kids here). She gets a real thrill out of being in charge of her things, and I think this helps get her in a good head space for the long days. We do this with Emmie too now. We had her pick a few books and a baby doll to bring with us.

Another thing I let them “help” with: I took them to a local toy store and let them each pick out a new sticker book for the drive. I actually did this weeks in advance but they were still SO excited to use them in the car. And when we were at Target the day before, I went through our list of things that we needed to get for the trip as we walked up and down the aisles and let them each choose one of those magic marker coloring pads from the dollar section (linked below). 

Bring a handful of new shiny activities

I remember my parents did this when we were little too, and, if executed correctly, it’s one of the most effective tips on this list. I already mentioned letting the girls pick out a new sticker book. These Usborne ones are the best, and Char loves the dress-up ones. You can use my friend Stephanie’s shop link or find them on Amazon (kind of a hassle), but if you’re local to San Diego they sell them at Geopetto’s, and I’ve also randomly seen them at Ace Hardware. 

These mess-free coloring pads are perfect for the car–you can get them at the front of Target or on Amazon. I kept these hidden away until the drive, and even then, I presented them at the most opportune time possible. 

And then outside of the activities they had picked out and were looking forward to, I had a couple of tricks up my sleeve. I surprised them with these LCD drawing tablets, and they were a HIT. I thought they might be a little advanced for Emmie, but she got the hang of it after a while. The “screen” is really, really dim but they worked fine for the price. The tablets are easy to use and really lightweight, and Char got a kick out of pretending hers was a “show” for a while too which was kind of cute. 

I had also stored away a small stack of new books to save for the trip–they spent the first hour flipping through them which I’d consider a huge success. 

Let them choose the music (in a very strategic manner, of course) 

Tyler and I both stick to this general order of events in the car: we begin with country music and enjoy it as long as possible. Then, right when the girls start to get antsy or begin to complain, we ask in the most ceremonious way possible, “Okay Emmie/Char, would you like to choose the music??” and they squeal and beg for one of The Big Three soundtracks (Frozen, Moana, Encanto). We’ll listen through the whole thing and then the next girl chooses the next album. 

This strategy worked great for the road trip too. We’d basically begin the cycle again each time we’d get back in the car after a stop. 

Be strategic with screen time (but don’t stress about it)

We wanted to use the iPad as little as possible on this trip because our girls become monsters when they watch too much TV (Char especially). But we also knew that it wouldn’t be the end of the world if we did end up letting them watch a show or two here and there. 

Our strategy going in was that we would try to go as long as possible without so much as mentioning the words “show” or “movie.” Much to our surprise, they didn’t even ask! Every few hours, Tyler and I would side-eye glance at each other and shrug. Finally, on the last day, we were all really tired so we decided to offer it to them at the halfway mark. We let them do a movie marathon for the last few hours of the drive, and that was nice because they were so happy and grateful, lol. 

My tips, if you are going to use an iPad or tablet: download everything beforehand so you don’t have to rely on cell service. Make sure you have a secure way to display it–this contraption from Amazon seems really sturdy. And wait as absolutely long as possible to offer a show because once you do then they’ll just keep asking for it. (I think this applies to most kids, right?). 

Pack a bento box with a healthy breakfast

Finding nutrient-rich meals on the road can be challenging, but I didn’t want to have to stress about what the girls ate on our long drives. For most of our travel days, I’d pack their bento boxes with a mostly-healthy breakfast: fruit, hard-boiled eggs, cucumbers, cheese, etc. Basically, it was my goal to get them one nutrient-dense meal to start the day, and then I didn’t stress the rest of the day while they filled up on Goldfish and fast food. I love these bento boxes for the car too. The girls love all of the little compartments, and I feel like the meals take twice as long as they normally would. Breakfast was an activity all by itself. 

Get on the road as early as possible and take breaks 

This is probably common sense for roadtrips with kids–maybe this whole post is–but I think it’s worth mentioning specifically in the context of small kids. Not only are kids generally in better moods in the morning, but it seems like you have to make twice as many stops throughout the day. In our experience, the drives always take much longer than you think they’re going to, so it just makes sense to hit the road as early as possible. 

Tyler and I were super intense about getting completely packed and ready to go the night before each leg of the drive. This made getting out in the mornings really easy, and I highly recommend it. 

In the morning, we’d wake up 45 minutes before we’d want to leave, get completely ready, pack the car, and THEN wake the girls up. We’d get them dressed really fast and hand them their bento boxes as soon as they were strapped in. I love sleepy roadtrip babies. 

We had to stop a few times each drive to charge the Rivian, so our kids had “run around” time baked in. I suggest factoring in some breaks–you might even look at Google Maps to see if there happens to be a park near the Starbucks you’re going to stop at. Fresh air is crucial for kids and can be a great way to change up the vibe in the car during a long day on the road. 

I hope you found this post about road trips with kids helpful! Feel free to check out a few of my other family travel posts linked below.

More posts about traveling with kids:

Tips for flying with babies and toddlers

26 tips for traveling with a baby in Europe

SlumberPod Review

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