5 Tips for Planning a Family Road Trip

Traveling long hours on the road with kids in tow doesn’t have to be stressful.

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Traveling long hours on the road with kids in tow doesn’t have to be stressful. In fact, with a little preparation and thoughtful planning, cross-country family road trips can actually be both worry-free and the source of fun memories that you’ll all treasure for a lifetime to come. So, before you buckle up and hit the road with the kiddos, take a deep breath and consult this helpful guide. With a few simple tips and tricks, you can make sure the whole crew has a fun and safe time on your family road trip. Let’s get started!

Timing is Everything: Plan Your Departure and Pit Stops

An infant girl wears comfy pajamas as she sleeps, buckled into her car seat on an early morning.

One of the best ways to ensure an easy road trip is to make time work for you by planning a strategic departure. This simple move will help you avoid the stress of traffic and get down the road more efficiently while also utilizing the hours your kiddos would be sleeping. Family road-tripping pros know that the benefits of starting off a road trip either late at night or early in the morning ensures more miles can be driven with fewer pit stops, cries of complaints, and road rage.

Once you and your partner make it through those late-night or early morning hours on the road, be sure to plan some strategic stops when your kids are awake. Consider family meals at restaurants on your route that also have a park or play area nearby so everyone can stretch their legs. Also, don’t be afraid to get creative and think of ways to let your kids burn off energy on your rest stops. Having a few simple items such as jump ropes or a stopwatch handy can encourage your children to be active. Try setting a timer and racing around a park for a few minutes. You’ll be surprised what a difference a little exercise can make when you’re spending hours on the road.

Pro tip for those pesky bathroom breaks that are sure to happen frequently with kids: keep your eyes peeled for hotels (specifically budget chain hotels). These chains are often very easy to locate, conveniently placed near highway exits. Most have accessible restrooms in lobby areas that are known to be both cleaner and less frequented than those in fast food restaurants and gas stations.

Choose a Reliable Vehicle

Before you hit the road, make sure your road trip vehicle is also ready for the trip.  If taking your own vehicle, ensure you gas up and are up-to-date on all vehicle maintenance.  If your personal vehicle doesn’t fit the whole family plus their luggage, or if you don’t want to put the miles on your car, then renting a vehicle for your road trip is a great option.  Rental vehicles are recent-year models and you might even be able to try out that family vehicle you’ve had your eye on before you commit to buying it.  Just look for nearby airport or neighborhood rental locations and you can pick up the vehicle the night before you leave, so you can pack and get on the road.

Use Travel Apps to Your Advantage

A driver uses a navigation application while on a road trip route through busy New York City

The digital age may have its cons, but road tripping with smartphones sure isn’t one of them. There are so many apps that you can download on your phone that will make a huge difference in letting the time pass smoothly and efficiently when you’re logging those miles on a cross-country family adventure. Here are some must-have free apps that will make a world of difference on your next family road trip:

  • WAZE – This well-known navigation app helps steer you around construction delays, traffic jams, accidents, and other issues that could log extra time on your trip.
  • iExit – This app shares helpful info about stores, coffee spots, and gas stations that are located on upcoming exits on your road trip route.
  • GasBuddy – The name says it all: this app helps ensure you find the gas stations with the best deals.
  • TripIt – If you find it challenging to keep track of all of your travel details, such as your hotel addresses, reservations, etc., this app is for you. Just forward all of your confirmation emails to TripIt and it will convert them into an easy-to-read chronological trip itinerary.

Pack the Essentials in Easy-to-Grab Backpacks

Three happy young children sit in the back of a car holding backpacks while awaiting the next stop on their road trip

Knowing how to pack the essentials for a family road trip is a lifesaving skill. You probably have the suitcases down by now, but what about the ever-important backpack? Frequent family road trippers advise that to make time on the road enjoyable for all, be sure to plan ahead and keep the essential items close by and accessible by those who need them. Consider helping each child pack a backpack of their own with their most cherished items, including blankets, learning tablets, books, stuffed animals, headphones, etc. This way, everything they need is at their fingertips. Then be sure to give each child easy-to-open snacks and drink pouches in their bags, so that they don’t have to ask for your help each time they want to munch on something.

Along with the kids’ backpacks, it’s important to pack a parent essentials bag as well. Consider keeping not only a first aid kit handy, but also a backpack filled with extra food, water, blankets, wipes, and trash bags for cleanups. If traveling with little ones, keep an extra set of clothes, underwear, and diapers close by in case of bathroom uh-ohs. It can also be helpful to freeze waters or other beverages the night before you travel and keep those in a small cooler. Those frozen drinks can keep other food and snacks cool before being enjoyed as a refreshing treat. Plus, you’ll save money by purchasing snacks and drinks ahead of time instead of at pricey gas stations along the way.

Master the Gadgets: Charge the Night Before

Three sisters smile as they ride in the backseat together with their digital devices handy on a road trip

Your road trip is going to include gadgets — most likely, several of them. So make sure they are ready for hours on the road! A day or two before you set out on your journey, gather your family’s essential digital devices (smartphones, e-readers, tablets, iPads, DVD players, etc.), plug them in, and charge them up. Avoid the headache of being just a few hours into a road trip and hearing one or more kid from the backseat cry, “My tablet is dead!” By charging everything beforehand and again each time you stop for an overnight stay, you can make sure that your journey is a peaceful one.

It’s a good idea to have some car chargers available as well. Keep in mind that if you’re purchasing car chargers for certain devices for the first time, you’ll need to double check that your purchases will actually charge your devices. Test the car charger out before your trip, because not all charger packages tell the truth about the devices they work with and you won’t want to learn that the hard way.

Make the Road Trip Fun

A family of four looks at a map together, after making a stop on their road trip to explore nature

The final step of planning for a family road trip is to make sure that you and your loved ones remember to have fun! Other than planning strategic stops at roadside attractions or parks that are ripe for fun activities, remember that passing time in the car can be a time of bonding, too. Whatever you and your kids enjoy doing or learning about, find a way to incorporate that into your hours on the road.

For younger children, consider buying picture books or easy-to-read maps about the states you’re traveling through so that they can compare their books to what they see out the windows and on your stops. A great travel hack is to purchase an inexpensive metal cookie sheet for each kid that can be used as a lap table. There are so many purposes this portable table can serve: a playing board for different magnet puzzles, toys, and letters, as well as a place to write in their journals or hold food and drinks!

Even though gadgets are a great use of time on the road, remember to set limits on screen time and set intentional time to bond together as a family. This can be as simple as just listening to music as a family – maybe even letting each family member have a turn playing DJ. You might all walk away with a new favorite song! The most important thing to keep in mind when planning a family road trip (other than safety) is that these memories will last a lifetime. Take some pictures, have some fun, and breathe in the togetherness.

We hope that this guide has you feeling inspired for your upcoming family adventure. What destination are you heading to on your next family road trip?

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