This Land is Your Land: An Experienced Road Tripper’s Guide to Car Travel with Kids

When my siblings and I were kids, our family went on a BIG road trip about every summer — we’re talking two or three weeks on the road. Back then, I was clueless about all the preparation and effort my parents put in to make things run smoothly. Road trips aren’t always easy, but they ARE ripe with opportunity for family bonding and learning about the world beyond your backyard.

I hope these tips and recommendations help make your family road trips as enjoyable and memorable as they were for this crew in the rad nineties…



Okay, let’s go!

The most important road-tripping tip I can offer is BE FLEXIBLE. A decade ago, I thought I wouldn’t allow screen time in the car, and I wasn’t a huge fan of the idea of eating in the car either. Because choking. Because mess.

THEN, I became a momma of three BUSY boys whose grandparents are 750 miles away. Dust off that Game Boy and break out the Funyons, boys — we’re in survival mode now!

Joking aside, car snacks are ESSENTIAL. Save money by bringing your own, but allow yourself to splurge on some fun things you wouldn’t normally buy. The way I spin it is that the right processed foods are still going to be healthier than most fast food you can find on the road. Look for snacks that dissolve easily (less choking hazard) and don’t make a ginormous sticky, drippy, cheesy mess. Our faves are Annie’s White Cheddar Bunnies, Veggie Straws, Glutino Pretzel Sticks, Late July Mini Cracker Sandwiches, Tasty Organic Fruit Snacks, and string cheese whips (the skinny ones).

Or break all the rules and pass out colossal lollipops.

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It’s nice to have a small cooler along too, if you have room. This is one time we don’t push a lot of water (‘cuz it goes RIGHT THROUGH YOU). We usually go for electrolyte drinks, OJ, or milk.

Speaking of going right through you, place a small towel under the bottoms of little ones in case of leaky baby diapers or accidents from daytime-potty-trained toddlers who sleep hard in the car.

Bonus perk: bringing car snacks and drinks saves money in the long haul. Pack your own breakfast and lunch, then spring for a restaurant dinner. Some restaurants offer free or cheap kids’ meals. Score!

Some other things you’ll be happy to have are baby wipes, a roll of paper towels, and a wet bag for stashing pee pants (or worse) until you find a washing machine. I usually throw a bucket in too, in case of carsickness.

Kids are always too hot or too cold in the car, so dress them in light layers and adjust accordingly. They’re also notorious for kicking off their shoes, so we keep ours in Crocs or something that makes for easy on and off.

When you’re planning the day, think about how many miles you can realistically cover in one day. Our 750-mile trip to the in-laws is at the tipping point of too-much-for-one-day. With three kids and a dog, it takes us about 15 hours. Sometimes we get a hotel at the halfway point to break it up. Other times we charge all the way through.

If we stop at a hotel, we always, ALWAYS spring for one with a nice swimming pool. An hour or two in the pool at the end of the day is a wonderful treat for little travelers (and a hot tub can be pretty nice for the ma and pa, too!)

Back to that whole flexibility thing: expect a lot of stops.  There’s no use making anyone miserable because your next scheduled potty break is 40 miles away, but someone has to go RIGHT NOW (I’m talking to you, Dad!) Part of the beauty of a road trip is that you’re on your own schedule. Seek out interesting places for potty stops and stretch breaks. Yes, it will add a little time to the trip, but it adds enjoyment too.

Cabelas stores, tourist traps, playgrounds, roadside parks with grass to run and play (watch out for landmines of the canine variety) can break up the monotony. Play a game of tag or Simon Says. Do some group stretches. Bring along a jump rope or baseball mitts and a ball. It’s fun to make family traditions even in the small stuff; my dad always sought out state capitols where we’d play catch with a baseball on the well-manicured lawn. (I’m still sad about losing that dolphin earring on the capitol lawn in Denver.)

Another fun tradition is choosing a theme song that you play at the beginning of each travel day. My dad is a big Paul Simon fan, so for whatever reason, he always fired up “Call me Al.” Decades later, I’m still playing that jazzy tune at departure, along with my own addition: “This Land is Your Land.”

Pack plenty of upbeat tunes for the ride, along with some soothing music for naptimes. Books on tape are great for passing the time. DVD players save lives. So do HEADPHONES.

Bring a small tote bag or backpack filled with Magna Doodles, Color Wonder books and markers, and Water Wow books for mess-free fun for littles. We made the mistake of providing stickers once, and my preschooler stuck 47 of them on his car window. THAT was a treat.

Take advantage of car time for teaching skills and playing games. Print out a US map outline and have the kids check off or color in the states from the license plates they spot on the road. Give them some change for each one they spot.

My dad was awesome at keeping us engaged and tricking us into learning. He’d hand out maps or atlases so we could follow along on the journey. He’d have us look for city names written on the driver-side door of semi trucks, look them up in the map index, and then find them using the grid squares. He pulled in math skills by having us find what highway mile marker we were at, then calculating the miles between our location and our next exit. He’d encourage us to watch for landmarks by promising a quarter to anyone who spotted the Mackinac Bridge or some other landmark first. We learned a ton of geography and map skills on those trips.

Make up fun and silly games to play together on the road. Come up with “Would you rather do THIS or THAT?” scenarios. Play the celebrity name game. (One person says “Tom Hanks.” The next person names a celebrity whose first name starts with the last initial of the previous celebrity. So “Harrison Ford” would work for the next one. Double initials reverse the order of game play.)

Don’t miss opportunities for skill practice. Work on skip counting, multiplication facts, rhyming games, practicing colors and letters on road signs, memorizing a poem, or whatever your kids are diggin’ these days. Play geography trivia. Quiz each other on state capital cities. You get the idea.

Encourage kids to keep a travel journal with drawings or descriptions of their adventures. These are WAY fun to read years later.


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“Smell-ay.” Ha.

Did I mention snacks? You’re gonna need lots of snacks.

Road trips are a lot of work, but with the right planning and attitude, they can be a blast for the whole family, so get out the map, friends!

And happy trails.


What are your best road trip tips and on-the-road memories? Share them below!


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13 thoughts on “This Land is Your Land: An Experienced Road Tripper’s Guide to Car Travel with Kids

  1. We took a 2 week road trip last summer. There was way more electronic time than I hoped for. But oh well. It kept them from getting bored and fighting (for a little while). Lots of movies and they loved that the sound played through the truck’s speakers. You’re totally right about LOTS of snacks. I made sure to pack lots of dried ones that could be vacuumed easily. Other than that we just had fun seeing all the big trucks and bridges and idiot drivers 🙂


  2. Brings back lots of great memories! Love it!
    I keep the trivia cards in the car. You can get them for all different ages now. And love the drink cups with the snack cups on top.


    1. Thanks, Michelle! That is a great idea to keep trivia cards in the car. I have never seen the drink/snack cup combo. What brand is that?


  3. Outstanding story. I am glad that you learned and appreciated all of those travel tips and lessons and are sharing them. Great bonding, great memories and great fun. Love Dad


    1. Oops, I forgot to mention forcing your kids out of the car for panoramic views, and packing a stash of green towels. Haha. Love you, Dad.


  4. I LOVE this one and can’t wait to road trip with my family in the coming years! I loved the game where we would look for the letters of the alphabet on road signs along the way. We made memories that my terrible memory will NEVER forget! Like peeing in a casino bucket in the back seat while stuck in a traffic jam…this was also the first day I ever saw/tasted clear Pepsi. Priceless!


    1. Bahaha, I refrained from the peeing in the bucket story, and also the time Dad scraped up the side mirror at Cape Cod and said a SWEAR WORD. Or getting lost in DC. Or losing Mom in Chinatown. Or Mark’s green Silvertabs. Or…


  5. WOHHHH!!! Stacy , all I can say girl is you have it all together, Your Mom and Dad taught you well and what fun!!!! Your advice was right on. Trips can be fun if you know how to do it and you sure do.Keep on rolling with the family and your boys will have lots of wonderful memories like you. Thanks again for sharing with me and I wait for your posts. Happy Traveling!!!!


    1. I don’t have it all together, Dorie, but the threads we’re hanging on are pretty sturdy — haha! My mom and dad really did do a great job instilling road trip love for us. It’s so much fun to share adventures with my own boys now.

      As always, thanks for reading!



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