I know I’m not alone in my feelings of hating being in the car, especially when it involves small children for more than an hour or two. Road trips with kids can be torture. You may as well strap me into a dental chair for those several hours because that’s how painful it is to me.
I’ve come to realize, though, that as painful as traveling with children can be, there are definitely ways to make it less so. Planning ahead is the key on road trips with kids. We’ve got some of our favorite tips below.
Rest Areas/Welcome Centers
I know, I know, no one likes stopping at actual designated “rest areas.” They’re gross, dingy, and usually packed full of truckers on break. But did you know that rest areas aren’t as awful as they were back when we were growing up? They’ve made huge strides in being more appealing to travelers. Plus, when kids get whiny in the backseat, sometimes a short break can do wonders for their little souls.
For example, on our road trip from South Dakota to Utah, where we have to make the long, torturous nine-hour drive across Wyoming, one rest stop even had a playground. Yes, a playground. We almost didn’t stop. Almost. And then we saw a sign that said “Next Rest Area 90 miles” and that changed our minds real fast.
Let me tell you, that 15 minute break was the best thing we did that trip. Stretching our legs, breathing fresh air, and that playground lifted everyone’s spirits. Plus it stopped the whining for a solid couple of hours. My two-year-old even fell asleep after we got back in the car. That’s gold right there.
In addition to having things like playgrounds, many welcome centers also have rooms with tourist information and brochures. They even offer guides who will gladly tell you anything you need to know. On our way across South Dakota last weekend, one center even had a table with free South Dakota coloring books that a cute little information lady excitedly pointed out to me.
So, instead of speeding by those rest areas thinking they’re just a waste of time, consider stopping once in awhile. You and your kids might be very glad you did.
For a list of Interstate Rest Areas, go here.
Establish Technology Rules
This is a no-brainer, but we know children can’t be plugged into technology on an entire road trip. Establishing ground rules before the trip even begins is key.
For example, as we were packing the car, we let our kids know that yes we were bringing our iPads but no they would not be allowed to have them the entire time. In fact, for the first hour or two we literally gave them nothing and told them to look out the window and enjoy the scenery while it was still pretty (once you get past the Black Hills, it gets ugly real fast for us).
Of course, there was complaining. Until we told them the more they complained the longer it would take for them to get the iPad. And then they instantly stopped the complaints. Seriously though, kids shouldn’t be so immersed in technology that they forget to enjoy the world around them and can’t cope without it. Make them open their eyes. Make a game out of the scenery around them, like “I spy” for instance. When the scenery turns on repeat for hours on end, there is always time to pull out the screens.
We also make our kids take breaks in between movies instead of back to back entertainment. In between breaks, it’s back to observing the view out the window or doing something in an activity book to get their brain outside that technology rut.
Games for Road Trips with Kids
That brings us to creative ways to get your kids to look outside. Even adults get sick of just staring out their window on road trips. So how do you make it more fun and appealing for kids? There are Here are a few ideas.
1) Interstate Bingo
Even my two-year-old who can’t read a single word loved playing with our Interstate Bingo game boards. He honestly just had fun looking at the pictures and opening and closing the slots.
For my older two children, we added an extra element of fun and made getting “bingo” a contest. Whoever won got to pick out a treat at the next gas stop. It got a little competitive. We have several sets and like to switch them up depending on where we’re traveling.
You can find them here.
2) The License Plate Game
The license plate game is the perfect game for road trips with kids. My kids are still young but they are old enough to recognize different license plates. They would point out when they saw a new one and I’d tell them what state it was and keep track of what we had found. They loved it and it was different from “bingo” and other short games in that it was on-going.
We do it the old-fashioned way and just write down what we see on a paper. But, there are several actual game editions out there. My favorite is the Melissa and Doug lift-the-flap type version.
3) Travel Scavenger Hunt
Every kid loves a good scavenger hunt, right? This car version will keep their eyes glued out their windows and their ears perked. This deck of cards provides entertainment with things like, “Find a license plate with the letter Q.” But there are even “smell it” (skunk), “hear it” (sirens) and “feel it” (bump in the road) cards to keep your kids engaged.
There are SO many car games on the market… and even ones that just encourage you to use your imagination a bit.
If it has been a long time since you’ve made an actual pitt-stop and stretched your legs and your kids are in a funk, dance it out. Turn on some music and let your kids go crazy! It’s even more fun if the adults join in, even if they’re not the dancing type (I admit I’m a stick in the mud sometimes). Kids love it and before you know it, they’re out of their funk and everyone is happy again.
Road Trip Craft Projects
On a recent instagram post, one of our readers suggested giving your kids pipe cleaners and letting them create whatever their little hearts imagine. I tried this on a road trip last weekend and it was awesome. It was a good 45 minutes of entertainment at least.
Another reader (thanks, Candria!) said on her road trips they have foil sculpting contests. How fun is that? Plus, it’s not messy. Just scrunch it up and throw it away when you’re done.
Perhaps this doesn’t fall under the “craft” category, but when we were kids, we would bring along pens/markers and a big pad of paper. We’d fold a piece of paper in thirds and each draw a different part of a person. For instance, the bottom third would be the legs, middle the body, top third the head… You get the idea. We’d keep the paper folded as we drew our “third” of the person. When we were done with our portion, we’d hand the folded paper over to the next artist to draw the next part of the body. When all three portions were completed, we’d unfold it and see what kind of crazy person we all drew together. We loved doing this!
Umm, does anyone talk to each other anymore? Long road trips with kids are the perfect time to discuss important family matters, set goals together, and just make good old-fashioned conversation.
Some of my kids favorite things to talk about are stories from when they were little. Nothing brings a smile to their faces more than when I pull out our family quote book. It’s filled with hilarious anecdotes and things our children have said that I knew I’d forget later if I didn’t write down all in one place. I also keep track of things they say on the notes section of my phone. So when I can tell they’re bored I’ll whip out “Hey James, do you remember the day we were at the zoo and you said this?”
My kids also love looking at family photo albums, so make extra copies of chat books for road trips and pull them out. Talk about what happened and what you have learned as a family over the years. You will be amazed at how quickly time passes by this way.
Any other suggestions for road trips with kids? Comment below! We’d love to hear them!
Former White House and Capitol Hill staffer, wife, and mom.