We just wrapped up a 6.5 week road trip around the United States with three kids ages 6, 3, and 2. The almost 8,000 miles of driving was definitely an education in what works and what doesn’t work for keeping young children happy on a long trip!
I thought I’d share a few ways we made it easy on ourselves and held onto our sanity.
Planning the Trip
For our trip of visiting friends, cities, and national parks all over the country, we planned our itinerary with our small children in mind.
We tried to make it as easy as possible on the kids by keeping the drives as short as we could. We aspired to:
-No days with more than 6 hours of driving.
-Few back-to-back driving days.
-Plenty of stops for snacks and bathroom breaks.
Preparing for a Driving Day
Before getting in the car we made sure everyone was full of good food (with some protein), had a water bottle for the car, and had used the bathroom just before getting in the van. We also tried to give the kids plenty of time to run around and get their wiggles out before they would be cooped up in the car for a few hours.
We usually started out with crayons and coloring books. We also printed out maps of each state we were driving through for them to color. Once they lost interest, we passed snacks to them in plastic bags.
If none of them had fallen asleep at that point and they were getting antsy, we’d stop to let them run around at a rest stop and get a bathroom break. (Usually this was about 2.5 hours into the drive).
When we got back in the car, it was naptime/quiet time for an hour and a half or so (the two-year-old and three-year-old always nap). And either during or after quiet time, we’ll bust out the audiobooks.
Audiobooks Are the Key to Your Sanity (Trust Me)
We discovered the first week of the trip that the DVD player we bought for the car was decidedly unhelpful in keeping the kids under control in the car. It just was NOT working. They would talk over it and bicker and it seemed to cause MORE problems.
Audiobooks on the other hand require you to really pay attention in order to understand the story because you have to listen and imagine the story in your head. So it requires concentration and QUIET which is your sanity in the car. No really. If you’re on an extended road trip with small children quiet is the golden ticket.
I wrote a pretty extensive post all about the best audiobooks for kids (and how to find them for free) so that might be helpful if you have a trip coming up!
Has your family ever tackled a massive road trip? What did you do to keep the kids happy and to maintain your own sanity with all the family togetherness?
Gosh this is such a difficult thing! I feel like I’ve been driving my 21 month old EVERYWHERE lately. When I’m by myself (3.5 hour drive the other day) it is so tough. But a helper makes all the difference. And knowing when to stop!! haha. If we go too late and he gets a second wind, he’s up all night. whew.
In other news, welcome back to TEXAS!I went to law school at Baylor and didn’t quite grow to love Waco *as much* as a Baylor undergrad, but I still love it. #texasforever
Great tips, especially the audiobooks! The only road trip we’ve taken with our little girl was when she was 2 months old. Which had it’s challenges of course, so if anyone needs tips on pumping & nursing while traveling, I’m your gal!
As kids, we would take family trips from TX up to MN and WI and one thing I always remember (besides the license plate game) is that my mom would give each of us kids a little “surprise” whenever we entered a new state. It was usually a book or small toy, or one time we got the Lion King soundtrack on cassette which was obviously memorable. 🙂
Argh, we do crazy long road trips (like 14-15 hours in one day) and they are awful. Our youngest has always hated being strapped in to her car seat, so the screaming (once almost 11 hours straight with a brief nap break) is awful. I think we need to break it up into more manageable distances than we do. BUT our 4 year old does awesome, and enjoys audio books! Have you guys listened to the Mercy Watson series, yet??? Soooo funny.
I love Cherry Jones! I’m totally picking up the little house audio book. My daughter also loves the bbc radio dramatization of The Hobbit which has lots of songs and music. i loved following your family’s adventures this summer and can’t wait to read about your new life on the farm.
We’ve take long drives from 8-22 hours straight frequently! Including a solo-mama trip of 12 hours with a 3yo and 12m baby, and my favorite tricks are: Wikki Stix, wrapping up dollar store trinkets as “travel surprises,” glow sticks for after dark, and stickers. We always make sure everyone in the family eats plenty of healthy food and we are generous with snacks (and coffee for the parents!)
We have a 3 week road trip with kids aged 6, 4, and 1 last year. I completely agree with all of your tips. We have a few longer driving days but other than that our experiences sound very similar. We listened to many of the same books. The Little House series was our favorite!
When I was younger my family spent a lot of time in the car. Since we lived far from any extended family, we often took 10+ hour car trips all in one day. We loved listening to music and audiobooks to pass the time. Some of our favorites were the “Adventures in Odyssey” stories. They are imaginative, wonderfully wholesome stories that promote Christian values through character building dramas. These were great as they’re easy for young children to follow while keeping older children interested at the same time!
Our kids are a bit older—now 14, 10, 8, and 3. We have always taken them on long road trips, this year’s being our longest yet. 8,400 miles. We also travel from MS to NC every yr. We let them pack their own trip fare—each has a case or backpack and it stays with them. They choose what they bring(with a bit of help). Typically, it’s the book they are reading, art stuff, a travel journal, and some toys. We allow them to bring electronics but try to limit those to night driving. We also love travel bingo and have gone with different sets at times. ( The Melissa and Doug is better for younger kids.). One of the biggest things is stopping at the “biggest ball of twine” type stuff—if they see a billboard of something they want to see, within reason, we try to stop. It keeps them more engaged. We have a car that came with a DVD player. We only used it twice this last trip. Once at night, once in boring traffic. They weren’t really into it.
Audio books are a great idea! I will keep that in mind if my husband and I make any big road trips in the future 🙂
When I was 8 1/2, my parents moved the four of us kids from Oregon to New York, taking about 10 days to sight-see and visit friends along the way. One of the things that they did was surprise us with new books. Never seen before/exciting/brand new adventures to read; they gave these to us on the first day of the trip. I can’t really read much in the car anymore, but I used to be able to, and my younger siblings did, as well. So the new books were a very beneficial way to keep us happily occupied 🙂
Coloring books in car – how do your littlest manage them and the crayons with out constant rearranging/dropping/breaking/tearing?
Jessi Ann says
Such good tips–Thank you!–we do a lot of road trips to visit family and on our vacations–and are not likely to stop now that we have a little one. We learned right quick about how to road trip with a little one when adopted our baby in California and drove with her back to Texas when she was two weeks old, but while somethings get easier other things get more difficult. From that experience I would definitely add to the list to check traffic patterns and construction from major cities when you are planning your travel days so you don’t end up parked on a freeway for 8 hours on a Friday afternoon leaving LA.
We always listened to audio books on road trips when I was a kid – even until all of us were much older than your kids (me, the oldest, a high school senior and 3 younger siblings). It’s amazing how even a book you’ve read before many times can sound and be so different when you listen to it! I love hearing that other people are as “weird” as we were. 🙂
We have taken our younglings on some long trips. To visit family, we pile them in the van and drive all day for three days. We pack each child a backpack with age appropriate activities. I avoid coloring books because of the mess, but I get water wow painting books, sticker books (Usborne sticker dolly dressing are our favorites for 4 and up–though it helps if the kids can read page numbers), maze books, and books for the readers. I get small toys and puzzles and dole them out over the three days. We read aloud (though i may have change to audio books, because it is hard to hear a front seat reader in the back of the van). We get a map of the US showing where we are going and color our progress in, and we have a bag of small candies we pass around every time we cross a state line. We try to stop at rest areas and at parks where the kids can have a break and run. Also, on our long days, we make sure to have one meal in a good sit down restaurant. (We pack food, too, and sometimes stop at grocery stores, but we find it is good for morale to go somewhere and act civilized (though we had one experience where the restaurant staff were plainly appalled that we came in with three small children and my husband and myself in our comfy car clothes–that was not as good for morale). We also bring books and movies and music. We try to limit movies, but by day three the toddlers usually are running low on activities and there is not a lot they can do, so we plug em in.
Also, twice I have done these trips with a nursing six month old. My advice there… Don’t do it if you can avoid it. But, otherwise, lots of little manipulable toys, including some that light up and make sound (in case you are driving in the dark and your little one is awake). Make sure they are hydrated and try to keep them from being constipated.
Sounds like you had a great trip! We haven’t taken our two kids (age 1 and 4) on very long trips yet, but will definitely be doing so (and probably with more kids by then) in the future. I meant to make this suggestion to you before you left, but didn’t get to it: when I was growing up we LOVED Focus on the Family’s Narnia series audio dramas. I’m sure your kids (and you!) would love them too!
Yes, audio books are awesome! A few years back we did a road trip to the Outback, three straight days of 9 hours of driving! We had 9 children then, the youngest was 6 months and the oldest was 18.
Audio books were definitely fantastic for the middle and older children but the three youngest weren’t as enthralled for as long. I made hanging bags to slid over the back of each of the seats and the children had colouring books, suduko, crosswords, and age appropriate toys in them. Also had created fill in sheets for what we saw, ie eye spy sheets for how many emus, camels etc they saw along the way, though truth is we really didn’t expect to see so many dead animals.
oh and a couple of other tips we quickly discovered, keep the shoes by the door of the van, easy to find when we stopped for breaks, which weren’t as frequent as yours;)
But best for those wriggles was we took their scooters and bladeboards, they were also stowed by the door, first item out, last item in. Really helped at the parks to burn off energy.
Your road trip sounded amazing!! But I bet it feels nice to get settled. Hope everything is going well in TX!
We drove a total of 53 hours this summer with our son….. our secret weapon was to go when he was 5 weeks old 🙂
What a great round-up! And, as I am about to drive 1200 miles in my mini van with my 3 kids, I TRULY, TRULY appreciate this post. Thank you for including our travel maps.
Audio books are wonderful! I have such fond childhood memories of listening to an audio book of LOTR with my sisters while driving to and from Virginia to visit my grandmother.