Road. Trip. Two words coveted by some and feared by many. I’m willing to bet that a disproportionate number of those falling into the latter category are traveling with passengers under the age of 12. It doesn’t have to be that way, though. With a little creative thinking and forethought, and a lot of organization, your next family expedition on the open road could be the memory-making trip you never thought possible.
Head to Pinterest and you will find more hacks, ideas, and activities than you can count. I’ve done the leg work for you (or rather, the road work, on a recent 10 hour road trip with two tots in tow) and pared down the list to 20 must-have creative tips for success.
Without further ado:
General Tips for Success:
1. Plan to stay on the road during naps: No matter how you slice it, road trips can be, well, long. Kids often add extra breaks to the schedule, so planning your breaks thoughtfully is a wise move. My biggest hack for making great time is looking ahead to nap time and being absolutely sure that you have what you need to keep moving throughout its entirety. This means filling up with gas, picking up food for adults, and stopping for a restroom break if necessary just before nap time. Believe me, there’s nothing worse than watching those precious, fleeting moments of slumber slip by while you wait for the tank to fill up.
2. Set times for special activities or snacks: One great way to break up your day is to promise (and deliver) special surprises, activities, or snacks when you reach certain landmarks or times of day. For my son, all I needed was a snack that he doesn’t typically get at home (Gushers, as the case may be. And, for the record, those things are nowhere near as awesome as I remember from my childhood.) to get him excited about being in the car for another hour or two… or four. “Don’t forget, when the clock says 3 you can have some gushers!”
3. Pack a first aid kit, and keep it within reach: Whether you go with something fancy, or make one DIY-style, planning ahead and avoiding stops for Tylenol, bandaids, or car-sickness remedies will save you time in the long run.
4. Use seat backs for organization: Buy an organizer meant for the car or a dollar store variety over-the-door shoe rack to hold all of the little things that your tots may need and may otherwise end up out-of-reach on the floor.
5. Incentivize great behavior: I just love this little tip meant to coax the best behavior out of your little ones. Everyone in the car has a clothespin adorned with their name attached to the car’s visor… good behavior and it stays up, bad and it comes down. Everybody whose name remains on the visor at the next rest stop gets a special treat!
6. Have a plan for your trash: Crowded cars can be overwhelmed by bits of trash in no time. Plan ahead and create a spill-proof road trip trash bin to keep things neat and tidy. Something like this reusable cereal container will do the trick, and can be repurposed once you get home.
7. Pack children’s clothes by day: For multi-day trips, you can save valuable time and energy unpacking and repacking unnecessary items (as well as hauling extra baggage in and out of one-night hotel stops) by packing your kids’ essentials by day. I love to utilize packing cubes for this purpose, one per day. A large ziplock could also do the trick. When you stop at a hotel for the night, exhausted from the day’s travel, just grab the packing cube for the following day (which should include pjs, a change of clothes, and undies for each child) with no additional thought required. One less stressor in the morning, too, when you won’t waste a minute searching for those elusive matching socks.
Car-Friendly Activities for Kids
8. Cup-holder coloring and activity books: Your children’s cup holders are among a road trip’s most underutilized assets. Sure, they are great for drinks, but they are also the perfect place to store crayons, markers, or water and brush (for paint with water books). Stock up on cups with lids that fit nicely in your cup holders, or try out this DIY method that I went for on our last road trip: individual serving cookie containers with lids (available in the snack aisle of your local market) emptied and decorated with colorful tape. The lids make this super easy to stash in your bag of tricks, and capitalizing on the cup holder means one less thing for your child to hold (and drop!).
9. Washable Window Markers: Pick up some of these to keep boredom at bay for any little ones who love to draw or have an affinity for coloring on walls and windows!
10. Cookie Sheet Magnet Tray: This one is as simple (and effective) as it gets, especially for tiny tots and toddlers. Purchase a small baking sheet (often available at the dollar store) and repurpose it as a magnet tray. Pack a bag or two of children’s refrigerator magnets and let your little ones go to town practicing recitation of their letters, spelling words, and creating mini magnet murals. This hack comes with the bonus of having magnets on hand to throw on the refrigerator when you get where you’re going for an instant distraction while you unpack and unwind.
11. DIY I-Spy Bags: I just love this quiet and mess free activity, perfect for the period just before the kids fall asleep for a nap. These bags challenge your children to find each of the items pictured on the attached card, or can be used as a simple sensory toy for those a bit younger.
To create an I-Spy bag, simply take a photo of 10-15 small objects, throw them in a gallon-sized ziplock bag, fill the bag with dry pasta or rice, and seal with decorative duct tapes. Next print a copy of your photo and attach with a ribbon or string. Viola! Easier than pie.
12. Felt Box Creative Activity: Here’s a chance to get a little creative yourself! Convert a plastic shoe box into a felt activity space by gluing a felt backdrop onto the inside of the lid and creating several tableaus for your child to recreate or reimagine. I chose to cut a village of tiny felt houses, a scene with butterflies and flowers, simple shapes, and collection of colored stripes (to be used in experimenting with pattern making). Each set was sorted into its own ziplock, a photo of the finished scene was added to each bag, and the sets are conveniently stored within the box.
This box activity is especially great for a long trip, as you can ration the ziplocks, providing your child with new scenes to create on each leg of your journey.
13. Apps and Videos: I am all for limiting screen time while at home, but this simple time killer can be a lifesaver for the latter hours of a long trip. Charge up your i-pads and check out this list of great educational apps to download before you leave the house. One of our favorites for a road trip is the Disney Appisodes App, which allows your child to watch (and participate) in some of their favorite Disney Jr. shows. Psst: hey offer a free week-long trial, too!
14. Pony Beads and Pipe Cleaners: Once again utilizing those cup holders, fill a cup (with lid!) with pony beads, present your child with a handful of pipe cleaners, and watch the miles melt away as they string bracelet after bracelet. The activity is great for little ones interested in creating patterns as well as those fine tuning fine motor skills. Pipe cleaners are perfect for in-car bead work, as they hold the beads tight and a dropped pipe cleaner does not equate to beads all over the car.
15. “Are We There Yet” Trip Tracker: Curb the nagging before it begins by creating one of these clever in-car trip trackers. Mark passing hours or landmarks in a visual way to help kids better grasp how far they’ve come and how much travel remains.
Snacks and Drinks:
16: Pack reusable snack bags: Pack a variety of dry snacks in these amazing Stasher reusable silicone zip lock bags. A staple in our car for after-school snacks, as well, these bags are a great size for little fingers and are perfect for long trips. They stay tightly sealed so you can toss several in your snack cooler without concern for spills.
17. Freezer PB&Js for the Win: Make a few peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, cut into halves or quarters, and freeze them a night or two prior to hitting the road. Just throw them in your snack bin on the way out the door… they’ll be just right, ready to eat for lunch or a mid-afternoon no-stop-necessary sort of meal.
18. Snack “Bento Boxes” for independent snacking: Have an old tackle box or bead storage box that you could stand to repurpose. Create a smorgasbord of offerings for your little people and allow them to be in charge of their own snack destiny. This gives you the added bonus of a few extra minutes to focus on your audio book rather than rummage through your snack bag for that certain treat they crave.
19. Pack Healthy: This may seem like a no-brainer, but its awfully easy to pack a bag full of gold fish and red vines and realize a few hours in that all you (and your tots) really need is piece a of fresh fruit. Remember, you can always find more snacks and candy at your next rest stop. Finding fresh berries or a juicy peach, on the other hand, can sometimes prove challenging.
*…and one of my favorite hacks, saved for last…*
20. Use straws for spill-proof snacking: Most of my children’s go-to afternoon snacks (like greek yogurt cups, go-gurt tubes, and single serving apple sauce) are total no-go’s for car time snackage. That is, unless we have a straw or two around. Pack extra straws in your road tip cooler and simply puncture a small hole in the foil tops of your kids’ favorite sip-able snacks. This no-spill solution is total game changer.
I hope you’ll give these tips and tricks a try on your next big family adventure and let me know how it goes. And if you’ve got a great tip that I missed, help us all out and add it to the comments below!
For more creative ideas from my family to yours, click here.