Traveling In A Car With Kids- Here's A Plan!

Car trips with a family are great. And awful. And fun. And harrowing.

But a little planning can go a long way to ease the bumps and smooth the way.

I know something about traveling with kids. When my seven children were young, my husband served in the Air Force. We moved all over the country, with eleven moves in twenty years. Both our families remained steadfast in San Antonio, TX.

Note: San Antonio is far from everything! If we lived in any other state than Texas, it was far. Even when we cross the Texas border- still far!

Looking back now, long road trips with my kids are actually one of my favorite memories. All together in one place, we had a great time, if I managed it well. I learned some tricks to make car trips not only tolerable, but also relationship-building and even enjoyable.

Thinking through what we learned over the years,  I want to tell you some of the HOW. Since I have gained a masters degree worth of logistical training in travel over the years, I might as well share it!

While electronic diversions can be mind numbing (and therefore tempting), if everyone has headphones on and is watching their own show, there is no relationship going on. So be brave. Limit screen time. Confiscate the ear phones. Enjoy the fam!

Practical Travel Hints:

Here are some details to think about BEFORE you get in the car.

  • Set expectations for the trip.
    • Let everyone know how much or how little they will get to be plugged in. That way there are no surprises.
    • Have everyone pack one back pack to have by them with non-electronic entertainment. Have a few inexpensive surprises packed in your own bag for emergencies (Seek-and-find books, new coloring books, WASHABLE markers, games with magnetic pieces, deck of cards, etc.)
  • Practice gas stop plan.
    • Before you leave the house decide how your stops will work. Talk with kids about safety and efficiency in the stop. With a large family, we would partner an older child with a younger one. Those partnerships did not change through the day.
    • Talk over with your spouse who is getting gas and who is overseeing kids.
    • Have all shoes (slip on shoes, No laces!) in a bag by one of the doors (The Magic Shoe Bag will save you headaches from searching for the one missing shoe!) Each time they get in the car, they put shoes in bag.
    • Candy aisle plan. This is a death trap, and not just for health. A ten minute stop can stretch into twenty or thirty minutes as everybody tries to decide. Let kids know before- "We are not buying snacks. Fits, tears, and "your own money" will not work. You may purchase a snack at __________(name stop, and make it last stop of the day- planning ahead gives you control!) if you have not asked earlier or complained." Then stick to your guns! No one needs to be amped up on sugar while cooped in a car.
    • You can make short stops fun and competitive. Watch a youtube video of Indy race cars. Races are won and lost at the pit stop. We use to say as we were exiting the highway, "Okay, get your shoes! (Which everyone can find because they are in The Magic Shoe Bag) Let's get ready. Everybody in and out- just like an Indy pit stop!
    • Time each stop. Can you beat last time? Celebrate when you do.
  • Start early-
    • Leave As Early As Possible!  I mean VERY early which gets you miles down the road before the kids wake up. The earlier you start, the sleepier the kids, and the better chance they will fall back asleep in the car.
    • In order to successfully start early:
      • Pack up car completely the night before. All that needs to go in are essentials and the cooler. (And the kids- don't forget the kids!)
      • The night before, dress kids in comfortable clean clothes they can sleep in that night and wear the next day in the car. That way they roll directly into their car seats.
      • Parent that is driving first shift goes to bed earlier, while other parent finishes up details in house.
      • All shoes already packed in The Magic Shoe Bag and in car.
      • Get EVERYTHING in the car, the driver's coffee in a travel mug, and car running with soft music playing before you put kids in car.
      • Make sure you have sleeping aides with each child in their car seat: blankies, pacifier, stuffed animal, or whatever they sleep with.
  • When They Wake Up
    • Have a breakfast snack and juice available when your early riser wakes up before everyone else.
    • As each person wakes, hand them theirs so they don't wake the others. (Cereal in individual baggies or little boxed cereal. Breakfast bars. Grapes. Boxed juice or milk)
    • Make it a game to see how long the others will sleep.

Have a Schedule

One of the best tricks of parenting I learned was to plan and then tell everyone the plan. It sets expectations and gets the family on the same page. It also eliminates decision points. Decision points are prime opportunities for arguments, differing opinions, and general unhappiness, all of which drain a Mom's energy and happiness.

Write up your schedule and plan your stops. (the only time I would ignore the schedule is if everyone was still asleep. Then we kept driving!) POST THE SCHEDULE at the front of the car. I taped it to the dashboard.

Go over your schedule with your kids before the day before the trip. That way everyone knows the plan and the options.

We planned a stop every three hours. Toddlers may need to stop every two hours when they are not sleeping, but the three-hour rhythm worked well for us. We would determine a town we wanted to stop at, but if the schedule was delayed by traffic issues then we go by the clock. 

Either way, because it is already set, you can help your kids count down to when the stop is coming, by watching for the town or watching the clock. 

Here is what a typical schedule would look like for one of our long drives (twelve hours)

4:30-8:00- Drive while kids sleep

8:00-8:30- Stop. Gas. Bathroom and diaper change. Walk around and stretch. Put shoes in shoe bag as get back in car.

8:30-9:30- Fun music or book on tape. Breakfast. Books.

9:30-11:00- Movie

11:15-11:30- Stop. Same routine. Fix or buy lunch

11:30-12:30- Snack or lunch depending on mood of stomachs. Audio Book.

12:30-2:30- Quiet hours. Nice music in car to set peaceful mood. Hopefully littles will be ready for nap. Older kids can have headphones or book (you can decide!)

2:30-3:00- Stop, gas, stretch, run, bathroom. You might want to make breaks longer, later in the day.

3:00-4:00- Snack and car game. (Advice: ignore all moans, groans, and eye rolls about the game and cheerfully continue) The older child who is most likely to be uninterested may be the perfect person to lead the game (Sneaky Mom!) You could even have him or her come up with the car game before the trip (always a good idea to have them double check with you on their plan!)

4:00-6:00- Choose activity: Audio book, reading, game, coloring. You can always say the first hour is non-screen, and then can use screen second hour if you want.

6:00-7:00- Dinner! (Everyone is ready for a longer stop and a hot meal. But to avoid the pain of deciding on the spot, look ahead and decide with your spouse on the restaurant. Announce WHERE you ARE going with a smile and enthusiasm. Asking for opinions will most likely cause one or two kids, or a husband, to be very unhappy.)

7:00-9:00- Last hours until hotel. Good time for a movie to endure the last hours.

Congratulations! You have just traveled 12-13 hours and depending on the roads and traffic conditions, could have made it about 700 miles!

This is just a sample, and that may seem like a long day, but think about it. When you only have 7 days of vacation, do you want to spend half of it in the car or do you want to get to your spot and enjoy the beach or the mountains or the theme park or wherever you are going? Your vacation hotel will probably be better than the Best Western off the highway. So for us it always made more sense to travel long and get where we were going sooner.

As I wrote, I discovered I have too many travel ideas for one blog post, so I will continue this next Friday. But until then- enjoy the adventure.

Take joy in the journey. Your time with your kids in the car just might be one of you favorite memories some day (and theirs as well!) It is worth the effort! Because no matter where you go, you will have gone together.