5 Tips for a Stress-Free Road Trip with Kids

There is something freeing about road trips.  The vibration of the car as it travels along the asphalt highway.  The scenery whizzing by as we are nestled in our cocoon of fabric, glass, and metal.  A well-prepared playlist plays in the stereo, providing the soundtrack to our journey.  No doubt about it, road trips always seem to awaken the explorer in us all.

My husband and I love road trips.  It’s no coincidence that both our star signs involve four legged animals (he’s an Aries and I’m a Sagittarius).  The need for movement and travel is part of who we are.  Now that we have children, we want to instill that same desire for exploration in them.  But as our family grows, we find it’s a little harder to be free-wheeling and adventurous when you’ve got a couple little guys and girls to look out for.  Having kids hasn’t completely changed our travel style, but we have had to make a few adjustments.

After two cross-country road trips (from Seattle to Washington, D.C., and back again) and multiple road trips up and down both coasts, I’ve come up with five helpful tips that can make traveling with children a little bit easier.

Tip #1: Make a budget for your trip

Traveling with children is not cheap.  The very act of having children is not cheap, and this can sometimes act as a deterrent for traveling.  With meals, lodging, tickets, and extra activities to account for, your travel costs can more than double, especially if you have more than two kids.  This is why having a budget for a trip is so important.

For every road trip our family has taken, my husband and I have put together a budget ahead of time, estimating the cost of gas, hotel rooms, meals, and any other incidental expenses that may come up during our trip.  This allows us time to save up for the trip, and provides us a goal of how much we want to save.  We try to be as realistic as possible, sometimes even overestimating costs.  When we road tripped from D.C. to Seattle, by way of the Southern states, we knew we wanted to make a stop in Las Vegas, even though it would be eat up a big chunk of our budget.  So we balanced it out with stays at family and friends’ houses at other points along our trip.  As we went along our journey, we kept track of our expenses and made adjustments to the budget as necessary.

Tip #2: Break up your car time

As exciting as road trips are, being in the car for a really long time can get boring.  And for kids, it can be even more boring.  We have a toddler as well as a teenage boy in our family, so for us, multiple stops is essential for our own sanity.  For our road trips, we try to limit the total time on the road to a maximum of ten hours a day, with stops every two and a half to three hours.  We found the stops help break up the monotony of being on the road, and gave opportunities for bathroom breaks, diaper changes, or road side attractions.  Yes, this did limit the distance we could cover in a day, and yes, there were some days where we broke this rule driving for more than fifteen hours, but for the most part, we aimed for ten hours or less of driving a day.

Another helpful tip to break up the car time is to build in some rest days.  Take a break from driving and go sightseeing.  Part of the joy of road trips is experiencing different parts of the country.  We always try to spend at least a day in each place that we visited.  At age 14, our teenage son has already visited Times Square in New York, the first post office in Philadelphia, Disneyworld in Orlando, Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, the Mall of Americas in Minneapolis, Bourbon Street in New Orleans, The Vegas Strip, Hollywood Boulevard in LA, The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, and countless other sites.  Pretty impressive for a kid, I think.

Tip #3: Minimize your stuff

We currently own a Honda Accord, which we’ve lovingly logged over 130,000 miles on.  For us, packing light is a necessity.  But even if you own a minivan, it’s still helpful to try and minimize the amount of stuff you take with you on the road.  You don’t want to be constantly unpacking and repacking the car, looking for the spare tire that’s buried under your piles of bags, clothes, blankets, snacks, and gear.

We learned the hard way, when road tripping with our then three month old daughter, the hassle of having too many things.  Even though we tried as hard as we could to pack minimally, babies come with a lot of baggage: a portable bed, diapers, wipes, bottles, formula, extra clothes, extra blankets, baby carrier, and not to mention the car seat that takes up over a third of the backseat.  We had so much baby-related gear, it was like a Tetris game trying to pack it all into the trunk.  We’re so thankful that our daughter is older now and doesn’t need as much gear.  Take it from us, when it comes to packing, keep things to a minimum.  A bag of clothes, a few blankets, some small travel pillows, an i-Pod, a road atlas, and some snacks.  That’s all you really need.

Tip #4: Involve the kids

I find that road trips are more fun for kids if they have a hand in planning it.  We let our teenage son pick some of the places we would stop at during our road trip.  When we do our sightseeing, we let him choose some of the activities that we do.  We also let him take the camera every once in awhile and take pictures.  It gives him a chance to develop his budding photography skills, and it gives us a chance to see the road trip from his perspective.

Tip #5: Flexibility is key

For our family, the fundamental rule of travel is this: things don’t always go as planned.  Accidents happen.  Road closures occur and detours pop up.  Maybe you want to stay longer in a city.  Or maybe your toddler is just too tired of being in his or her car seat for six hours straight.

Once, in Oakland, we accidentally locked our keys in the trunk of our car.  We had locked the interior latch to our trunk, as an attempt to secure our belongings in case our car was ever broken into.  The only way to get into the trunk was with a key, which was conveniently stashed in the pocket of my husband’s jacket.  In the trunk.  Needless to say, it took us a few hours to finally get a locksmith to come and open up our trunk.  We had planned for an early morning departure, but ended up with a late afternoon one instead.

These kinds of things happen.  In any case, it’s important to allow a certain amount of flexibility when you’re on the road, especially if you want to maintain your sanity.  We like to overestimate the time it takes for us to get to where we’re going.  That way, we won’t feel rushed if something does happen to go wrong.

An enriching experience

For self-proclaimed vagabonds and nomads like us, having children doesn’t mean an end to travel.  In actuality, it’s an opportunity for a deeper connection to our family and our surroundings.  We bond on the road.  We laugh, we cry, we have fights, we make up.  We learn, we explore, we observe.  That doesn’t change with children.  By preparing a little beforehand, you can avoid some of the stresses that come with traveling with children.  And that makes for a more enriching and enjoyable road trip.  We know that in the end, our children will come away with a greater appreciation for the world and a stronger understanding of themselves.

Astrid Vinje’s travel writings can be found on the travel sites On A Junket and Wanderlust And Lipstick . Her fiction work has been published in “quiet Shorts,” a literary magazine based in Seattle, WA. For more of her writings, visit The Wandering Daughter.

Photo credits:  401K 2012, Joshua Berman, all other photos are courtesy of Clint Bush and may not be used without permission.

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