The Top Family Road Trip Tips from Real Parents

published May 14, 2021
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My best memories of being on the road with my parents are the pit stops at gas stations. My mom would hand me a five-dollar bill ($10 if we were flush!) and let me go wild in the convenience store. Then I’d snack happily all the way to our destination, oblivious to the sea of crumbs and wrappers littering our backseat. After all, there are no real rules when it comes to vacation. 

When my husband and I began planning our first family road trip with our 4-year-old (only six hours, a laughable total to parents who’ve traveled cross-country with kids), I knew I needed to dig into my parent network for some of their best tips. As usual, they did not fail to deliver. 

Here are some road trip tips from real parents: 

Drive when it’s dark out.

Some brave friends of mine travel overnight, so kids can sleep in the car and wake up at (or near) their destinations! We don’t have the road stamina for that, but for those who do, it could be a relatively stress-free option.

“We would leave at 4 or 5 a.m. — or as my kids called it, the dark side of morning. It was great because they would fall back asleep and when we were ready to stop for breakfast, we’ve already driven a third of the way.” —Melissa

Snacks, snacks, and more snacks. 

Whether you use a thermos or individual snack bags, make sure to have more than you think you need. Sliced fruit works great, along with cheese sticks, crackers, and granola (as long as you don’t mind the mess). Our favorite TikTok hack is adding an over-the-door shoe rack for easy access for tiny hands to grab what they need. 

“A soft sided lunch box is a must for traveling with kids. Not only do they help contain lap lunches — be it picnicky foods grabbed on a stop or drive thru — they’re also awesome for taking advantage of free hotel breakfast and getting on the road quicker.” —Meghan

Stock up on small activities. 

The element of surprise is essential in keeping little ones engaged; hide the new toys and whip them out when tensions run high. Alternatively, give them a small gift card to the dollar store and let them pick out their own toys beforehand — to be reserved for the car trip, of course. 

“Reusable stickers keep my daughter busy for hours and hours. She can ‘decorate’ anything she can reach, and everything easily peels off when we finally arrive.” —Caroline

(Editor’s note: we also love window clings for this same reason!)

“Keep a ‘road trip only’ toy box in the car, with things like an Etch-a-Sketch, road trip bingo, or other small games.” —Vada

“Pipe cleaners. Fun building toy, with little mess.” —Meleyna

“If the kid is watching stuff on iPad, we make her use headphones so we can still listen to our podcasts or music. No one wants to listen to ‘Daniel Tiger’ for six hours.” —Christine 

(Editor’s note: try Bluetooth headphones for added convenience!)

“We used to take a 12-hour drive to South Carolina every summer. I would buy little presents and wrap them up. We would play a car game, like spot cars in different colors or similar scavenger hunt ones downloaded from Pinterest. Then the kids would get to open a prize when it was over.” —Melissa

“Bring wrapped gifts to give away every 100 miles!’ —Vada

“Check out a podcast for kids, like Stories Podcast!” —Kate

Build stops into your road trip. 

Play areas are everywhere — one friend even told me about an app that tells you where nearby playgrounds are. Just grab the sunscreen and let them run free for a bit. I also love to bring small outdoor play items like water guns, an inflatable ball, or jump ropes. Rest stops usually have green areas for stretching legs as well. 

“Stop for playground breaks every few hours, usually at some nice rest areas.” —Debbie

Don’t forget the necessities.

Bring the reusable water bottles and wipes, as well as a medicine kit with plenty of bandaids. For little ones, you may want to have bibs and a change of clothing accessible too. And, of course, don’t forget masks and sanitizer for the open road. 

“I make sure to have napkins, baby wipes, and a small bag for trash. Too many times, drive-thru cashiers have forgotten the napkins!” —Christine

“If your child is potty-training, just take the potty with you and line it with a diaper to ‘catch’ any business. Actually, this is a tip that works well for traveling with older kids too! We have pulled over many a times and turned the back of our van into a bathroom stop.” —Christine

Let go.

No matter how many hours of planning you invest, there’s always bound to be a hiccup. But that’s okay! You know what they say about the journey, not the destination.

“Keep expectations low. We’ve done 6–12 hour road trips with my son when he was 5 months, then 18 months, then 2 and half years old. And we’re going on one this summer. Always some hard moments, but it’s gotten easier with time.” —Debbie