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Taking long driving vacations with kids can be a lot of work, and is a good way to test your nerves. Kids, as adults, don’t like being stuffed in a seat for long periods of time. Below are 10 ways to make your trip less stressful.
Every year, millions of people take vacations by driving to their destination. This year especially, many people are opting for a vacation in a car over flying. Taking children on a long car ride can be daunting, and sometimes exhausting. In order to make your vacation a little less stressful, below are several tips that will help you.
We’ve done a handful of road trips with kids, and they’ve generally been alright. The farther the drive, the harder it will be, especially with young kids. They will be ready to get out of the car and start being active - while you can help counteract that with some of the tips below, it’s not going to completely eliminate their need to let you know.
Take the tips below, and make them work for you and your family.
Realize that that kids won’t be perfect in the car
This is likely why you’re reading this article - you know that kids aren’t going to sit and be quiet for a long road trip. They are going to scream, they are going to cry, and they are going to let you know about their displeasure of being cooped up in a car seat for many hours.
Your goal isn’t to completely eliminate this. While it would be nice to do so, it’s simply not going to happen. Instead, your goal is to make those periods of screaming and whining as minimal as possible in order to decrease your stress, and especially the stress of the person driving.
Some kids will do better on long drives than others. You know your child best, and you probably have an idea of how they’ll do in the car. However, a long car drive is a bit different than a shorter drive (less than 2 hours), so kids may change their behavior the further in you get. Be prepared for what’s to come, and if the worst doesn’t happen, then you’ve simply overprepared which is far better than the alternative.
Pack baby wipes and extra clothes within reach
Your kids are going to make a mess in the car. Whether you’ve given them food to eat, or something to drink, it’s going to be messy. They may also make a mess when you stop somewhere to eat. You’ll want to have some baby wipes close by, and in an easy to grab location. Having your baby wipes buried in the back of the car under other items is not going to be very helpful in the middle of a drive.
Additionally, make sure you have a change of clothes in an easy to reach place as well. Your kids may make a spill that requires clothes being changed. They may also throw up (I really hope they don’t for your sake) which would definitely require a change of clothes. Have these items in an easy to reach place so you don’t have to go digging for them.
Bring their favorite toys and books
Your child isn’t going to sit and look out the window forever. At some point, they’re going to want something to do. Our kids will usually start the first hour or so by watching out the window, excited by the prospect of an adventure, but they quickly deteriorate into wanting something to do.
For older children, a chapter book that they can read while driving is an excellent way to keep them entertained. Have them choose a couple of books that they like, and bring both in the car. For younger children, you’re going to need to bring a few more books with you as they’ll be picture books.
If your child is still into toys, bring along their favorite toys that you can give them when they’re tired of books, and other entertainment. We really like our Mario figurines, but we have a few other toys we bring as well - choose the toys that you know distract and entertain your child easily.
Don’t give them the toys or books right from the start. Your goal is to use these items to keep them happy, but you’ll want to use them at wise times. When your child is starting to get antsy, that’s when you give the child these items - especially younger kids. You’ve got a long drive, and the more you can stretch out the items you have, the better.
Sing songs or listen to an audiobook
Make sure that you have your kids favorite songs preloaded on your phone, or some other music playing device (CD players are still a thing in cars, so use that if you have one). If you are using your phone, download the songs on to the phone beforehand. Generally on a long drive, there will be stretches that you don’t get a great data signal. Having the songs downloaded in advance will allow you to listen wherever you’re at.
Beyond songs, you can also get audiobooks to listen to. Audiobooks for kids books can often be excellent. I absolutely love the Harry Potter series in audiobook format, and there are two excellent versions of it so you can't go wrong with either. If that’s too advanced for your kids, there are things like Peter Pan, and other simpler audiobooks that can really capture the attention of your kids.
The great thing about audiobooks is that you’ll get to listen to them as well, and they’re probably a little more enjoyable than listening to Baby Shark for the millionth time. If you’ve not done a lot of audiobooks in the past, you may be in for a real treat as some of the children’s books are very well done.
Pack plenty of snacks
Make sure you have lots of snacks at your disposal, and especially items that your children like. Cereals, crackers, vegetables, fresh and dried fruit, nuts, and other similar items are great for the car. We usually have snacks in the front of the car, and the back of the car. Some items will get shuffled around at stops depending on how people are feeling.
Also, don’t forget to pack snacks for yourself as well. There are things that you likely enjoy that your kids don’t. For me, that’s beef jerky, but it may be something else as well. Make sure you have some on hand as the drive can get long and you don’t want to have to stop all the time.
Be sure to get snacks that you know your child is comfortable with, and that isn’t going to upset their stomach. You don’t want to try new snacks that your child has never had before on a long road trip unless you’re certain they’ll be fine with it (a variety of a cracker is one possible example). Driving in general can upset a child’s stomach, and putting something unfamiliar in there is a great way for a disaster in the car. Just don’t do it.
Play road games
This used to be your primary option for road trips. I can remember plenty of trips in the car when I was younger where we would play different road games to keep us entertained. These games can be a lot of fun, and can be educational as well.
For younger children (and older), you can play the letter game where you work on spotting each letter in the alphabet. As children get older, you can work on word spotting games. For example, find a word on a sign, and then the next word you find must start with the last letter of the previous word. There are plenty of other variants of word games as well that you can play.
For one road trip, we bought these Bingo cards, and the kids had fun spotting the different items as we drove along. And of course, there’s the ultimate game (at least in my mind) which is to find as many different license plates as possible. When younger, we simply watched them all, but keeping track of the plates you’ve seen makes it even more fun to see how many you can get - this also helps your child recognize where each state is at.
Bring a tablet or game console
At some point, your child is likely to get sick of reading books, playing with toys, and whatever other activities you’ve thought up. A tablet is a great way to entertain your child and let them watch movies or shows while in the car.
I’ve written about them in the past, but a cheap option is the Amazon Fire tablets as they allow you to easily download any of the shows directly onto the tablet in advance. You can also download music onto the tablet, so you can use this for both your sing along, and movie watching in the car.
Also, if you have a portable gaming system, then consider bringing that. The Nintendo Switch is a popular system these days, and it’s completely portable. It’s easy to take whatever games you want with you, and your child can be playing their games, the same as at home.
Make sure that you limit the amount of time that your children are using these items. The longer they sit and watch or play, the more likely they are to get really upset later. We like to pull these items out as last resorts, rather than first options. Also, be sure to bring your charging cables for the items.
Plan stops at parks along the way
When you plan a drive, do some searching in the major towns you’re driving through to see what parks they have in those locations. We have found some really cool playgrounds that our kids really enjoyed by doing this - we actually enjoyed them ourselves as well.
Not every stop has to include a park, and not every park has to be the coolest park in the world. However, you should plan on letting the kids get out and run around at the park at a few of your stops. This will allow them to burn some of that energy off, and it will allow you a break from sitting in the car as well.
Whatever you have for lunch, take it to the park and do a picnic out of it. While your kids may not eat a ton, this lets them at least run around while you eat and relax a little bit. The more energy you can let them burn off, the better it will be.
Take turns driving and sitting with the kids
Assuming you’ve got a companion coming with you, take turns behind the wheel. This has a couple of different advantages - it lets your companion not have to deal with the kids forever, and it allows you to get your eyes off of the road and simply do something else. If your kids are being really bad, being the driver might be preferable.
This doesn’t mean you have to split things evenly between the drivers. Discuss what you think is best, and have a plan in place. For my wife and I, I drive 90% of the time. That allows me to get a short break on long drives, and it gives her a short break for the kids. Other people will have different preferences depending on whether they enjoy driving the car or not, so make sure you get on the same page before starting your drive.
Leave really early or later at night
Driving really early in the morning or late at night can be a great tactic to get a lot of driving done in silence. There are a couple of key things that you’ll want to consider before doing this though.
First, you’ll want to know if your kids actually sleep in the car. At some point, they will almost for sure fall asleep, but having a screaming child for multiple hours in darkness can be a real nightmare. If you know your child absolutely does not sleep in the car, then this is probably not the best option.
Second, you’ll want to know whether or not you do well in the hours you’re planning to drive. You’ll also want to make sure you’re well rested before driving at these hours when you’d normally be asleep. Trying to drive in the dark on limited sleep is not a position you want to put yourself or your family in.
For our family, driving really in the morning is an excellent option. I am a huge morning person, and so being able to start a trip at 1AM in the morning works out really well to get about 5 hours of pretty uninterrupted driving in works well. In order to make that type of start happen, I have to be in bed by 5PM the previous day though, which means my wife is getting the kids in bed, and all of the other parental responsibilities. You can do something similar for a late night drive as well - a nap may make it easier for you to get enough sleep to drive later into the night.
Taking a long drive with kids can be a bit daunting at first. A little bit of preparation can go a long way though in making the trip a bit more enjoyable. Get your driving on and have an awesome driving experience.