How to Have a Happy Road Trip

A roadtrip with the kids can be fun if planned with these tips in mind.

Time to hit the open road! Photography by Breahn Foster, via Flickr (CC)

This week we are embarking on our annual trip down south, which for us, means a 20-hour drive down the I-75. I can hear some of you shuddering in horror, but rather than this being the stuff of nightmares for us, we are voluntarily and quite happily hitting the road for the third year in a row. It’s a quarter of the cost of flying, and quite frankly, the logistics of driving with two kids and all of their gear is simpler than flying. (Plus, you can bring back more stuff.)

But before I go any further, a disclaimer: My kids are good in the car. Great, even. We don’t have to deal with carsickness, back seat screaming or any of the other things that would make such a long drive a deal-breaker. But that doesn’t always mean it’s smooth sailing. I plan. A lot.

Before we even buckle up, I have spent hours (and a few dollars) getting things ready for the trip. From snacks to activities to plans A, B and C, our road trip tranquility depends on a safe, clean car and a creative bag of tricks. Add in a tacit understanding between the two people in charge (aka the parents) that peace in the front seat begets peace in the back seat, and we are on our way.

Here’s a look at what’s in my road trip preparedness kit:

1. A case of water and low-sugar snacks
Forget the mess factor and focus on safe, healthy snacks. Dry cereal, clementines, crackers, mini-muffins and halved grapes all help to keep the kids satisfied, reducing stops between meals.

2. Favourite and new activities
Books, reusable stickers, magnetic toys, figurines, colouring books and back seat bingo are handed out, one at a time, every few hours. New toys (from the dollar store) hold their attention and are played with on inexpensive lap desks that fit in their car seats.

3. Electronics
We use these, but sparingly. We have a back seat DVD player, Leapsters, and this year, an iPad, but they don’t make an appearance immediately. In fact, last year we didn’t even turn on the DVD player until day two. We know that once they go on they won’t go off, so we try to keep it analog for as long as possible.

4. A separate overnight bag for motel stays
Pack a small backpack with toothbrushes, pajamas and a change of clothes for everybody. When you finally stop driving for the night, you’ll be glad you won’t have to lug in all the luggage.

5. A good attitude
We have been stranded in the mountains with a toddler that barfed her breakfast all over herself and the car seat, lost power steering on the on-ramp to a busy highway, made wrong turns, and broken off the gas cap, blocking our way to the empty tank. Keep calm, and carry on. It’ll be worth it once you’re sitting in the sun.

Karen Green recently traded life in the biggest city in Canada for life in the biggest cornfield in Canada. Freed from her full-time job as a writer and editor, Karen now spends her time…writing and editing. And frolicking in the leaves with her two small girls. Karen is a speaker, the founder of Mom The Vote and the author of the blog, The Kids Are Alright, where she has been writing about the humorous and poignant moments of family life since 2005. She is thrilled to be a part of

4 responses to “How to Have a Happy Road Trip”

  1. Stokely says:

    A humble suggestion: swap the case of plastic water bottles for reusables. A lot of places in the US don’t recycle. I know it can be tough with little ones, but even a couple water bottles can cut waste substantially over the course of a road trip, or trip overseas, even if you eventually end up resorting to your cache of disposables. I carry a shared water bottle everywhere (me and my kid), and although we still end up buying “emergency” bottles of water, or soda, sometimes, it’s a small fraction of what it once was. And if there’s no recycling, we cary our plastic back home (That’s what a car trunk is for, right?!).

  2. The truth is, I cringed writing it. We never buy bottled water, and we all have a nalgene that goes loyally with us wherever we do. The reason I recommended the case of water is that experience has taught me that it can be the best way to go. Refilling our bottles from a larger dispenser has resulted in a very wet seat (usually mine), and stops along the way often offer questionable water sources – I’m never sure if we should trust the taps in a $60 motel in Georgia or a Dennys in Kentucky.
    That said, I agree with you 100% on the reduction of water bottle use, and we do in fact cart our empties with us until we get to the condo, where recycling is available. But I totally appreciate your advocacy for the environment.

  3. canadianholly says:

    I read your article just in time! March will be our very first, very long road trip down south (previously we have flown). very big planner but a little overwhelmed. I know you are busy but if you have any other advice (where to stay along the way, best places to eat, best beach for kids,non-Disney things to do, anything, everything??) please please email me !!?? Thanks bunches!

  4. @canadianholly – for sure! I’ll shoot you an email as soon as I can get to a real keyboard – too much to say on a bb or iPad with spotty wifi – but hey, let’s crowd source! What are others’ tips?