For families with young children, the prospect of taking a three-, four-, or five-hour road trip is exhausting. But if you know how to keep your kids busy for that length of time, the journey can become more pleasant.
Before the Road Trip
The key to a successful car trip is to plan ahead. The more intentional you are about preparation, the more likely you’ll have a smooth experience once the engine starts. Here are five useful suggestions.
1. Create a Packing List
Start creating a packing list at least a week in advance. Why so early? Because it gives you plenty of time to prepare.
The first time you put pen to paper, you’ll probably get only about 75 percent of your travel needs recorded. The other 25 percent will come to you over the following days.
Also, you may think of a few items you’ll have to order online, so you want to give yourself time to get them shipped prior to heading on the road.
Your packing list needs to include all the basic essentials for a smooth trip. This may include individually wrapped snacks, water bottles, tissues, wipes, trash bags, batteries, medicine, and anything else your family regularly uses on trips.
2. Task Kids With Creating Their Own Car Bags
Want to keep kids busy in the days leading up to the trip, as well as make sure they’re also occupied once you’re underway? The simplest solution is to let them create their own “car bags.”
A car bag should be no bigger than a backpack. And though you may impose certain rules with regard to toys that can make a mess or a lot of noise, you should otherwise give your kids total freedom to include anything that fits in the bag.
3. Create Your Own Surprise Car Bags
Some kids will be totally satisfied with their own car bags. Others might get bored anyway. So it’s a smart move to pack your own secret car bag for your kids.
Your surprise car bag doesn’t need to contain anything fancy. In fact, we suggest a visit to the dollar store and buying three to five items you think each child would like.
Place these toys and games in the surprise bag, and pull it out when kids get bored. If you plan ahead, you can also create your own activity books for each child and have them custom printed for the trip. Printing Center USA makes this pretty easy.
(Note: The key to the surprise bag is never to let the kids look inside it. If you let them choose their items, you run the risk of a fight ensuing. Instead, state that you’re in charge of giving out the contents. Let everyone know that any complaints will lead to a child missing out on the next surprise handout.)
4. Plan Your Stops
Kids always want to make stops. You can prevent a four-hour drive from turning into a seven-hour one by pre-planning your stops.
In other words, you might schedule a 10-minute stretch break for every 90 minutes of drive time (plus a 30-minute lunch break to reset). By creating a plan ahead of time and letting the kids know when the stops will occur, you set the proper expectations for everyone.
5. Consider Driving at Night
If you’re a night owl, it might make sense to drive overnight rather than during the middle of the day. Not only does this ensure the kids will be occupied (they’re more likely to fall asleep fairly readily), but it also reduces the amount of traffic you’ll encounter and allows you to make the most out of the daylight hours instead of driving. (Just make sure you also plan a sufficient nap upon arrival!)
On the Road
Once you hit the road, you may control the experience by doing the following.
1. Pace Yourself
Don’t blow through every surprise car toy or family activity in the first hour. Pace yourself to ensure there’s enough fun to last the entire way.
The best thing you can do is give your children periods of undivided attention. At the end of the day, this is the thing that kids crave the most. If you give them some quality interaction (rather than sitting in the passenger’s seat with your nose stuck to your phone), they’ll be much more cooperative in general.
2. Try These Games & Activities
Tablets and toys are great, but sometimes it’s helpful to mix in some car activities and games to keep everyone occupied. Here are a few suggestions:
- Alphabet game. With this game, you challenge kids to find words that start with each letter of the alphabet. Each person begins with the letter “A” and works his or her way through to “Z.” Words can be found on billboards, signs, bumper stickers, and so on.
- License plate game. See how many different state license plates you can spot. This is a good game to play as a family. Rather than competing against each other, everyone works together.
- Interstate bingo. With this game, you create a list of 10 to 20 items that are often seen during a road trip through the region you’re traveling. Give each child a card and have her or him mark off the items as they’re spotted. The first person to complete the card wins. (Good items for interstate bingo include: a red car, a school bus, a McDonald’s, an airplane in the sky, a police car, etc.)
Choose the games and activities that are age-appropriate for your kids. If you can occupy 30 minutes with one of them, consider that a win!
3. Make the Most Out of Stops
When you make a stop, have every child get out of the car to use the restroom and stretch. It doesn’t matter if they want to or not. This lowers the chances that you’ll get 10 minutes down the road and hear your five-year-old scream from the back seat that he needs to take a bathroom break now.
Adding it All Up
A vacation is all about the destination. Nobody says, let’s plan a trip with the kids so that we can spend five hours cooped up in a hot van on the interstate. Nevertheless, the travel to and from your destination can make or break the entire experience.
If the road trip is a miserable time, everyone comes home tired and frustrated. If on the other hand it’s a positive experience, that can make the entire vacation worth it.
By planning ahead, you can increase your chances of enjoying the latter. Good luck!