How to Survive a Road Trip With Young Kids

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Take a road trip with kids, they said. It’ll be fun, they said. 

Wait a minute. No one has said that. EVER. 

Well, maybe they have. But probably only when the kids are older than age five. Long drives with young children are a totally different story. So, when my family took a road trip from Maine to Washington D.C. this past October, we prepared for the best and braced for the worst. 

The good news – we survived the trip with our two young boys! Sure, there were some meltdown moments, but there was also tons of fun. The frustrations were overshadowed by the wonderful family memories that we made. And our next road trip plans are already in the works.

Visiting the World War II Memorial in Washington D.C.

How did we do it? With lots of tricks up our sleeves and serious planning ahead. Here are the essentials that made our road trip doable and tolerable. 

How to Survive a Road Trip with Young Kids

Get Organized 

Before you put the key in the ignition, I recommend getting organized. If you can, do so way ahead of time. There is nothing worse than scrambling at the last minute and forgetting something important. I discovered that less is more when on a road trip with your kids. These organizers helped us keep the important things together. 

These packing cubes were great for keeping organized during our trip.
These backseat organizers were filled with goodies at the start of the drive.
Keeping the food all in one place was very helpful.

When you pack the car, make sure that the things you’ll need often are accessible. You’ll want food, drinks, favorite toys, and the diaper bag easy to grab – trust me. I had to completely rearrange the car during our first stop because I couldn’t reach something important. 

Another tip – keep extras of things close by, or at least know where they’re packed. I kept clothes, diapers, medications, Band-Aids, and small plastic bags handy. I also planned snacks and meals ahead of time. Snack holders were great for the kids and fun containers made lunch easy.

Activities, Activities, Activities 

Our survival was definitely based on keeping our kids busy in the car. We brought new crayons and coloring books, magic coloring sets, and new books along for the drive. We also played a fun car scavenger hunt game. Having a scratch map was an exciting and interactive way to learn about where we were and where we were headed. 

Using a scratch map to keep track of our travels was a fun car activity.

For my oldest, a portable desk was great to have on the trip. It was perfect for coloring and he stored all of his art supplies inside. He also really liked the 100 Things for Little Children to Do on a Trip wipe-clean cards. We did them together and they helped pass the time. 

A portable desk was great for my preschooler on our road trip.

When nap time rolled around, window shades were key. I also recommend keeping any nap essentials, like favorite blankets or stuffed animals, handy. 

Plan Multiple Stops 

Long drives require stops to stretch and move around – for kids and adults! Having an idea ahead of time where the rest areas are located will save you stress. Find exits that have good options like favorite restaurants, playgrounds, or open space to run around. 

On our trip, we stopped every few hours and made sure the kids had a chance to burn some energy before hitting the road again. That was a game changer. Another trick – if you have a potty trainer in your family, bring a portable one along with you. We had this one stashed in the back, just in case. 

Screen Time 

Okay, let’s be honest. My oldest son probably would have been happy as a clam to play Super Mario the entire trip. Was I going to let him do that? No way! But did I use screen time here and there? Absolutely – and I’m okay with that!

Here’s why. I knew that when we made it to our destination, the screens would be limited, maybe even nonexistent. We packed our Washington D.C trip full of great activities to keep the kids busy. If they had a little extra screen time on the drive down, so be it. 

Devices were used, sure. But not all the time. Our youngest viewed Daniel Tiger more than once, but only when desperately needed. And we tried to keep the screen time educationally focused. Here are some suggestions for online educational resourcesAnd if you want more information about screen time and kids, check out this article

Another piece of advice – make sure you know how to use all devices ahead of time. Scrabbling to figure out something technical while you’re on the road is not fun. 

Build in Surprises 

When all else fails – bring on the surprises! I stocked up on dollar store treats before the trip, things like small toys, books, and stickers. Every few hours, I would bring out a new item to distract the kids. Spacing out the surprises kept the excitement level high.  We also planned time for favorite treats. Stops for smoothies and milkshakes made a difference. 

Have you ever taken a road trip with young children? What are your tips and tricks for surviving a long drive? 

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I’m a Maine native and after a long stretch of time living in Chicago, I feel lucky to again call the Seacoast my home. I currently live in Kennebunk with my husband, two sons, and a spaniel mix who truly believes he is a furry big brother to our boys. I hold a Master of Education degree from the University of Maine and as a certified English and Special Education teacher, a passion of mine has always been helping students and connecting them to reading and writing. Free time is best spent in the sunshine with family and friends, curled up with a good book, eating my husband’s incredible cooking, running the beautiful roads of the Maine and New Hampshire coastlines, or creatively writing for the kids in my life. Being a mom is the most challenging and amazing job I’ve ever had. I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.

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