If you are planning a cross-country road trip with kids, you will love these tips for long road trips with kids! I polled others who have done it and asked for their best advice for even month-long road trips with toddlers and children.
Every three years or so, my family packed up and headed West to visit family in the summertime for a big family reunion on my dad’s side.
We crammed our giant family into our van and left our home in Wisconsin and traveled over 1400 miles West to Utah.
One year we even made a detour up to Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. I don’t remember too much other than it was late at night, my sister tripped on something and was crying, and that the faces on the mountains were quite awe-inspiring, even if I didn’t know who everyone was that carved into it! I was little, but still thought it pretty neat!
I loved visiting with my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins in Utah as we didn’t live near any extended family in Wisconsin. I also enjoyed how different Utah was from Wisconsin with all of its mountains (one of which we climbed while visiting), deserts, dry air, lack of lightning bugs, and high concentration of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
In Wisconsin, we are the super minority as members of this church, so it was so weird to drive down a single street and find a dozen or more chapels lining it as well as multiple temples so close together!
I looked forward to our long family road trips out West whenever they happened.
And even though these cross-country road trips weren’t all that amazing in and of themselves, we made the most of them as a family.
Now that I have my own large family with five kids, ranging in ages from 1-9, I love taking my kids on long family road trips! The last few years we’ve taken several almost month-long road trips!
Last year we traveled from Austin, TX to Pasadena, CA then to Salt Lake City, UT, then to Denver, CO then back home.
A month after that trip we drove up to Wisconsin, then to Indiana, then to Tennessee, then back to Austin.
It was something like over 4700 miles in a single summer.
With FIVE kids aged 5 months, 2.5 years, 5, 8 and 8.
It’s not easy to manage a long road trip with a toddler or with a baby which is why I previously shared 20 toddler road trip games and activities and what to do if potty training while traveling in the car for a road trip (thanks to some hard lessons learned).
I also have a post dedicated to how to handle a kid getting car sickness on a road trip in case you need that too.
But, honestly, the road trips have been fine. Even enjoyable often, or most of the time, and our kids don’t hate being in the car (okay, minus the baby).
In fact, we don’t even do a lot of technology, especially now that our portable DVD player for the car stopped closing properly so that we can no longer use it.
Shockingly, we just let the kids be bored and it’s great. There’s often periods of silence in the car. It’s so relaxing.
If I can do it with five little kids, and many other people can do it, chances are, you can do it too, especially with only one or two kids (or however many you have).
To make things easier, I’ve created a few handy printables to help you get ready for your long road trip that you can receive when you subscribe in the form below:
Tips for Long Road Trips for Kids
To prove my point that you can do it, I asked for advice from other homeschooling families who have done long road trips with kids for weeks what their best tips were.
It just seems like they’d be the perfect audience for tips as they tend to have larger families and take an extended road or month-long road trips.
Enjoy and good luck!
Long Road Trip Audiobooks
There are lots of great ideas for entertaining the kiddos while traveling, and several people agreed with me that less is often the way to go!
“Definitely limit electronics. Great for short road trips. Disastrous for behaviors on long ones” – Hanna Lyons
“I find if I have toys they want more and more fun. If they have nothing they sleep or listen to the book on tape or talk.” – Emily D.
“We’ve done lots of long road trips, and one thing we’ve discovered is that the kids do better listening to audiobooks than watching DVDs or playing electronics.” – Jillian R.
“Audiobooks. Adventures in Odyssey is awesome, we have like 30 seasons/albums from all our road trips.” – Kristin M.
“We did a three-week road trip in the fall, and audiobooks were our best friend.” – Linsey W.
“We binge listen to (free) audiobooks. Each child gets to pick one. If my husband is coming I make sure they bring books to read for the times we just want to talk and not have an audiobook on.” – Annie P.
Someone else recommended that you get a few copies of the audiobooks you will listen to on your trip so your older kids can follow along as they listen.
When it comes to how to listen to audiobooks on road trips, it was recommended that you:
“Put every bit of audio you can onto mp3 players. It is VERY stressful trying to keep CDs from getting damaged in the car. The storage containers, no matter what you use will fall between the seats, or under someone’s feet and it is awful to scratch a library disc. I brought headphones and mp3 players and ran all my audiodiscs through itunes so I could move it to a player. It was well worth the time.” – Marie S.
I love using Scribd for streaming audiobooks! Been using it for well over a year and am very pleased with the selection of audiobooks you can listen to from your phone or tablet. You can try it out for free for 60 days with my referral link! It’s only $8.99/month after that for unlimited ebooks and audiobooks (and more).
Plus, you can download them to your device and not worry about data usage.
We either use the aux port in our car to play through the stereo, or use a Bluetooth car stereo to do that.
Long Road Trip Electronics
Even though I prefer audibooks and few electronics, others swear by them for long family road trips! But, there are some logistics and ideas on how to manage them all that were shared.
“My rule was you read and play for an hour then you can watch a movie. ” – Ashlee Uhl
“I did a 2 month road trip with a 10 yo, 7yo, 5 yo, and 18-month-old. Our best friend was tablets. I load those suckers up with new movies and games before our trip. I balance the tablet time. I give them tablets in the morning and then after we eat lunch, I take the tablets away so they will nap. They all sleep with a full belly and no entertainment. After naps, I usually pull out a few toys or tablets again. Also while they slept tablets charged.” – Lorri T.
“Our kids all have Kindle Fires. I put large memory cards in and load lots of shows, movies, auidobooks, and music. You can download Prime movies to watch without internet as long as you connect to the internet every 2 days. Headphones are a must for each of course! External batteries are awesome for recharging devices too. Then I have a multi-plug charger to recharge them overnight.” – Shannon D.
“Redbox saved our bacon. Pick one up dropped it off and get another.” – Terra K.
Long Road Trip Activities
When it came to finding other things besides audiobooks and screen-time for the kids (and yourself) to do, there were a lot of great ideas!
Cross-Country Road Trip Maps & Stops
Several people recommended that you build the fun into the trip, taking longer to get to your destination, but making it more enjoyable for all.
Joanie D. recommended that you “find opportunities beforehand to get out of the car often, making your “there and back” part of the trip.“
She continued, “Study your travel routes for interesting things to do or see along the way. Get an ice cream cone and swing in a little town’s park for 15-20 min. If you see a pretty sunset/tree/wildflower/statue/impressive building, stop and break out the camera and let your older kids take some photos–or, better yet, video with you and kids narrating–to document your trip (5 minutes maximum). Then, when you are driving away, bring out notebooks and crayons or colored pencils and draw what they saw.”
Sara K. drives from TX to MI every summer, and now that her twins are older (6+) they chat more about the things they pass. When they stop at a rest area, they take a few extra moments to look at the maps or other items posted in the lobby.
Ashlee U. made each kiddo a special folder with a map of where they were going and a matching map for her. She drew out the path they were driving and put matching stickers along the way.
That way if they asked “Are we there yet?” she could say “Pull out your map and find the purple diamond. This is how far we have gone. The gold star is our destination.”
It worked wonders for them to have a visual of where they traveled.
I always enjoy playing the Car Alphabet Game and on our last trip I downloaded a simple license plate app so we could better keep track of state license plates we saw! It was a fun thing to do on a family road trip that my husband and I enjoyed doing.
Jillian R. recommended that “You can put a map of your route on the car window with stars on it.”
Rebecca R. said “We work on our state road trip geography workbooks while we drive. Part geography lesson about each state we go through, and part scrapbook place to put pictures of themselves at each sight.”
Michelle W.’s husband would tell the kids they get money for every native animal they find while they drove. When they went to Yosemite, it was $10 for a bear (which was never seen), $1 for deer, 5 cents for squirrels.
“Look for some national parks along the way and get a stamp in your national park passport book (you can buy one in the visitor center if you don’t have one) AND have your kids do the Jr. Ranger program at each stop. My kids LOVE this!” – Tara F.
Special Bags for Kids Long Road Trips
A popular idea that many people had was to create special bags for each child either of snacks or activities.
“Have little toys (like from Dollar Tree) wrapped up, then when you get to a certain point give them a toy to unwrap.” – Jillian R.
“Our kids get special bags they get just for the trip filled with new things to do and play with: mess-free coloring, dolls, books, stickers, snacks, movies and maybe a driving bingo for the older ones.” – Irene R.
“I keep little bags of snacks that we pass out every so often. Each kid has a bag of activities, mostly from the dollar store.” – Rebekah G.
“Dollar store for small games. We wrap those up and hand them out as presents when they start to get stir crazy. Bandaids are one of the best “toys”. – Caitlin C.
“My mom had surprises for us for every time we stopped. On the 6 week trip, I think she spaced it out so we got one surprise a day, maybe after lunch? To space it out a little. And to motivate us to be good.” – Amy D.
“Each kid has their own activities backpack, which only gets brought out for road trips. We put travel games, books, coloring, etc. in them. I try to put one or 2 new activities in the bags for each long road trip, and a new DVD for each of them. I also usually put 1 special treat in each bag. My kids are older and we’ve gone on enough road trips now that they’ve started packing their own activity bags.” – Michael R.
“Some new-to-them toys (thrift store is great for this), books or magazines (maybe take old ones you don’t mind losing!), magnetic games or magnetic toys. I bought a “lot” of Happy meal toys and little educational books on eBay. Put those in a bag and passed one back every so often.” – Janna S
Long Family Road Trip Food
I once compiled what I thought was a pretty good list of family road trip food and drinks.
But, I didn’t share enough about the logistics about how to make eating and drinking on road trips super feasible, as I learned some great new ideas from the people I asked.
Some people want to pack everything they will want to eat ahead of time, and others want to save the cooler space and just grab things as they go. Some do a combo of the two.
I know we found it hard to keep everything cold past 2 days, so sometimes food was tossed as it spoiled. So plan ahead and remember that cars get HOT and things melt, and you only have so much space in your vehicle.
Rebecca R. shared her struggles with this aspect of long family road trips:
“Food was a tough one for us. We took a huge cooler in the back of our van, plus a smaller cooler for just behind the driver. The huge cooler had most of our breakfast/lunch food for a couple of days, and the smaller cooler had snacks that we passed out in the car, like cheese sticks and go-gurts.
“We also had a box of snacks up front and a box of non-perishable stuff in the trunk. All our luggage was on an external luggage rack hanging from the trailer hitch, so the back of the van was our food. We usually did fast food or a restaurant for dinner if anyone was still hungry by then. A few times they had eaten so many snacks throughout the day that they didn’t want more food.
“We tried to plan our food times. We would tell the kids, morning snack is at 10am. It prevented them from constantly asking for food. The older ones would check the clock and tell the younger ones how much longer.”
Michael R. even said they “got a Saratoga Jacks thermal cooker so we don’t have to eat out for dinner every night” which is a pretty smart idea!
He also kept a big Rubbermaid tub or a full size cooler full of snacks on the back seat where one of the kids can reach it. Apple slices with individual serving size cups of peanut butter are a favorite of theirs.
Nicole T had a warning about snacks and treats:
“I recommend no sweet drinks and minimal sugary snacks. They tend to get too hyper cooped up and sugared up.”
And I have to agree!
Too many treats gives your kids belly aches, indigestion, gas, or diarrhea. Be wise with what you feed your kids and yourself when you won’t have the chance to burn off the calories or sugar and will have to just sit with it heavy in your belly for hours.
“I have my kids pack a lunch box with sandwiches, snacks, and ONE drink they are allowed tiny sips from because I ain’t stopping every 30 miles for someone to pee haha! We also have a cooler but with the lunch boxes I don’t have to pass stuff back constantly. Dum-dum suckers are great for when the toddler wants to cry for an hour.” – Jessie N.
“Tacklebox snack kits! (Best sanity saver ever)” – Dionne
“Those hardware organizing cases at Wal-Mart are the BEST long trip snack case #1 we have one for each of our 6 kids.” – Nicole T.
“I went to Michaels and got a bead box, we personalized them together and that is what their snacks were in! I only did healthy snacks and they got one treat along the way because sugar didn’t go over well on their bellies when sitting for so long!” – Rebecca R.
One time we took a 12 hour trip with 4 children, ages 1, 4, 6 and 9. I have found Snackeez cups helpful. This allows you to buy bigger bags of snacks and bigger containers of drink. They are easily divided up and only take up one cup holder.” – Carrie W.
“I cannot over-stress the importance of frozen water bottles. In fact every bit of ice in your cooler should be drinkable. But every kid should at the least have a water bottle frozen solid before you leave.
“Reason 1: Cold water is a wonderful thing in the car, but Reason 2: if you top it up with water at your rest stops you will slowly acclimate to the various tastes of water rather than having your kids complain about nasty water.
“Refreeze it every chance you get if you get to spend the night where there is a freezer.” – Marie S.
“I had a small ice chest with pre-sliced snacks ready to go. Cubed cheese, apples, yogurts. I got the kids their own personalized water bottles. Kept waters in the ice chest and everything on ice for easy access.” – Terra K.
“Look for fast food places with playlands to get out some energy.” – Jennifer C.
One person loved these kids backseat organizers that hang down from the seat in front of them into a little table that they can use to color or draw or use as a table to eat at! Bonus: It zips shut.
What to Take on a Road Trip with Kids
Several parents recommended specific road-trip awesome items to bring that are perfect for keeping the little ones entertained and not bored.
There are a LOT of opinions on what to bring or not to bring, what to pack light on and what not to skimp on. It will depend a lot on your kids, how long you’ll be gone, your vehicle size, and your personal preferences. Pack wisely!
I highly recommend you look into additional storage options, especially if you have a large family or a small car, or will be gone for an extended period of time.
There are a LOT of different options out there. We ended up getting a Yakima Skybox that’s a hardtop (waterproof) and very aerodynamic (better for fuel economy). It stores quite a few luggage bags and additional smaller items around them. It was easy to install and uninstall as well on top of our suburban and is easy to get in and out of from either side of the car.
We didn’t have a trailer hitch on our suburban, but if your SUV does, there are also a lot of different Trailer hitch storage and bag options as well, like this Curt Basket Trailer Hitch Cargo Carrier.
There are pros and cons to either additional storage carrier option (taller vehicle versus longer vehicle), so do your best making that decision for your long family road trip.
After you figure out exactly how much space you have, there were a lot of tips for long road trips on what to bring.
I will share specific quotes, but will also give you a “short list” of what people recommended you bring along for these long family road trips across the country to make them easier and better. I am not including specific food items, or clothes in this list.
- Case of water
- Paper towels
- Trash bags/grocery bags
- Small portable potty seat
- Kids Backseat Organizer with Lap Tray
- Portable travel desks
- Backseat Organizer
- Coolers or Ice Chests
- Small backpack for each kid for their toys
- Portable DVD players/CD Players/iPods
- Activity Books
- Travel Pillows
- Seatbelt Pillows
- Coloring Books
- Coloring supplies
- BrainQuest Books
- Magnetic Games
- Magnetic Toys
- First-Aid Kit with Dramamine or MotionEaze
- Travel Journals
- Maze Books
- Word Search books
- Crossword Puzzles
- Worksheets about each state you’re visiting
- Road Trip Books and Atlases
“A case of water saved us when the two-year-old vomited in the car out in the middle of nowhere. I’ll be sure to pack a gallon or two of water on our next road trip with an emergency bag of cleaning supplies like paper towels and trash bags, just in case.” – Becky W.
(Here’s a quick way to get rid of vomit smell in the car by the way)
“Each of my kids could fill a backpack with things to entertain themselves and what they wanted to bring had to fit in that bag. It cuts down on way too much stuff! “ – Jennifer C.
“Each kid gets a “car blanket”… a small throw that they can use to cover up with if cold, use as a pillow, use as a sunshade, and in one case, we used it as a divider from siblings!” – Jennifer C.
“My oldest got playdoh and legos. Youngest got magnetic coloring boards and “color magic” coloring pages. Neck pillows or seatbelt pillows for anyone not in a car seat or high back booster. Car bingo. Mad libs. I spy. Where’s Waldo books.” – Kristin M.
“Consider travel journals! The kids can make notes about funny things that happened or places you stopped. ” – Jennifer C.
“No crayons in the car! ?. They melt when they are left lay, in the window cup holders or on the floor… trust me.” – Crystal B.
How to Pack the Car for Long Family Road Trips
When it comes to how to pack the car, it will again depend on preference, and how much storage space you have (so get one of those additional storage options I mentioned earlier) and how long you’ll be gone.
But, I have created a Family Vacation Packing checklist for those who subscribe in the form below!
“The first few times we did long trips, we overpacked– now we try to pack bare essentials with the plan to buy things if we need to. Vever really had to except to replenish snacks and a pair of shoes once when a kid threw one out the window on the highway. We pack 1 outfit/kid/day with one spare + sweatshit/pants and two pairs of PJs– I pack it in labeled ziplock baggies (quart or gallon depending on size of outfit or kid)” – Natasha E.
“If you will be needed to stop for the night on the way, pack a “overnight” bag (or two) with what you need in the hotel (toiletry items, one set of clothes and PJ’s per person) that way you will minimize what you have to bring into the hotel for just one night. Consider a hotel with a pool: it’s a great way to wear off some energy after the car ride all day and gives the kids something to look forward too.” – Jennifer C.
“This is more logistics, but no suitcases. Get those stackable Rubbermaid boxes. Everyone gets one for clothes. Outfits are stored in separate baggies and when you go to a hotel for the night, grab the correct baggie. Toiletries together in a bag.” – Amy D.
“Pack all clothes for everyone by the day. We would pack one pair of PJs and one outfit for everyone in one duffel bag. Then when we would get to a new location we just took in that one bag and our toiletry bag. All dirty clothes went back into the duffel bag the next morning, and we took that back out to the car until we got somewhere with laundry facilities. We also created outfit rolls by putting a pair of pants, a shirt, socks, and underwear all rolled together with a rubber band holding it together. That made it really easy to hand a child their whole outfit. We also put pull-ups with the PJ roll for those who needed one.” – Rebecca
“We did a 33-day road trip around the western USA a couple years ago with 4 kids (ages 6, 4, 2, & 6 months). It was amazing and unforgettable! I recommend NOT going lite on the clothes (there may or may not be a photo of our family in Olympia National Park standing in the snow wrapped in beach towels ?… Going light on food worked well for us, though – it was easy to grab things along the way, with one large grocery run weekly.” – Jen H.
“I keep a bag separate from our luggage with a fresh change of clothes for everyone in easy reach. Then if there’s a bad spill or accident you have access to a change of clothes without needing to dig through all the luggage.” – Kari H.
“We had 3 regular day duffel bags, one Sunday suitcase, and one Sunday shoe bag. Four outfits per person total. We stayed at several airbnbs or with friends and were able to do laundry every 3 days or so. Then we would repack all the bags.” – Rebecca R
“We take 5 outfits and 5 pjs per person and wash at laundromats/motels as needed. We also LOVE Super 8. Decent beds and their king-sized bed/queen bed pull out and we toss an air mattress and all 8 of us stay for an average of $60 and get free breakfast. “ – Nicole T.
Long Road Trips Logistics
Finally, let’s talk logistics. Managing a long road trip with kids is challenging (hence why you’re reading this post) so I was so glad to have various ideas on HOW exactly to survive road trips with kids that are multiple long days in the car.
There are a lot of great ideas here, so pick and do what feels best and easiest for you and your family. The logistical side of these trips is something that takes personal fine-tuning over multiple big road trips with kids.
But, first, I did want to mention that it’s always a great idea to make sure your car is in proper working order BEFORE your road trip begins, which is why you should check out my road trip car checklist that you can get for free if you subscribe in the box below!
How to Manage the Long Hours in the Car
“If there’s two of you, have one gas up while the other handles kids (potty, diapers, ENERGY DUMP, run, find a spot of grass and do circles, something).” – Kristin M.
“Try traveling super early in mornings, later at night, or overnight, when the kids are more likely to sleep through some of the drive. Try finding stops along the way, near the highways. Short “roadside” stops that can get everyone out of the car for an hour to move and engage. We tried to pair them with our meal stops/gas stops if we could.
“For example, on one road trip, we were 15 min away from the “birthplace” of Kentucky Fried Chicken. The original store was still there (updated and still functioning) and they had a small little museum area with memorabilia etc. Strange, but we can say that we were there and it got everyone out of the car and mentally stimulated!” – Jennifer C.
“I’ve done a cross-country road trip that took 12 Days to go from Virginia (DC area) to California (Sacramento area). I get kids out of the car to run around every 3-4 hours for 20-30 min. We do take a ball or two for that purpose.” – Katrina A.
“I nurse the baby and the kids are required to run around, go potty, stretch, even if it means waking up someone. At the end of the day, everything is collected/car tidied up and it starts again the next day. We try to travel in chunks, usually no more than 2 days in a row in the car. We usually cap travel time at 14 hours per day.” – Natasha E.
“We did a 9 day trip to WV, Ohio, Kentucky, and Virginia. I used roadtrippers.com to plan it. We drove mostly at night or early morning, and planned the big and fun stuff for in-between. Our drives were normally 3-5 hours in between places with the first being 7 hrs. We stayed at Air BnB’s which was major with three kids and gave us the downtime we needed. Road Trippers was essential though and gave ideas of great places to stop and see along the way, many of which I had never heard of.” – Alycia G.
“Put kids who are rear-facing in the middle row so they can watch/make faces at big kids in the back. The big kids can climb in and out easier/buckle themselves.” – Natasha E.
Shannon D. had ideas for reassessing the car seats and boosters you have in order to make everyone more comfortable, turning kids over 2 back to rear-facing so they don’t drop as many things on the floor, and putting backs on the booster seats so kids have a headrest and seat belts lie better where they should when kids fall asleep.
Shannon also said for long road trips with kids, it’s sometimes better to put an older child beside a rear-facing younger child for entertainment purposes. It’s also helpful to have a big kid in the second row behind the driver and passenger seat who can pass things forward and backward.
I hope you have a fabulous, unforgettable family road trip!