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How to survive a family road trip without losing your mind!

How to survive a road trip without losing your mind

The wide open road was calling my name…

Family road trips have always been one of those things I have been excited about since before even having kids. I would imagine summer vacations revolving around a packed car-full of kids, hitting up roadside attractions and loads of slap-happy good times.

So, with boys now getting to a good road trippin’ age (4 and 7), I decided to make a plan to fulfill my many decade-long (albeit, young and naive) dream of hitting the wide open road. My family road trip (sans Hubby) spanned 11 states in 17 days, and in-the-car hours totaled a whopping 56.

Wrap your head around that for a minute … fifty six hours in the car with two, can’t-sit-still, active little boys.

Needless to say, I learned a thing or two about traveling with kids on a long car ride!

Oh, but don't they look so cute and sweet?

Oh, but don’t they look so cute and sweet?

Think it is impossible without a large dose of mommy-happy-pills? Think again! It IS possible and even (gasp!) FUN. Here are some road trip tips and tricks, I learned along the way.

Preparation for your road trip is key

I’m not talking about simply figuring the best route from out point A to point B. I’m talking about planning for the meltdowns, too many questions, potty-breaks and constant wanting to buy plastic-schlock at every pit stop. I will go into detail on some of these, but in the meantime here is a list of my must-have items.

My road trip essentials included:
  • Seat back organizers with plenty of pockets, totally stocked with workbooks, healthy snacks, colored pencils and little toys
  • Headrest iPad cases for easy movie viewing (iPad also stocked with not-quite-new-but-still-fresh apps)
  • Plastic trays with storage space
  • Two rolls of quarters
  • Healthy snacks
  • Travel Fairy gifts
  • Printed kid-sized maps and state information cards
  • Audio books, including a Spanish language learning audio book
  • A bin FULL of wear-‘em-out-roadside activities
  • An empty Gatorade bottle
  • Two coolers; one for beverages and one for food
A good set up is an important part of a successful road trip.

A good set up is an important part of a successful road trip.

Setting your road-trippin’ rules

Before we headed out on our journey, I made sure to set some ground rules. There were the obvious rules: no whining, no throwing, no hitting, and no telling-me-you-need-to-pee AFTER-we-leave-the-rest stop (or they would have to pee in the Gatorade bottle – this obviously only works with boys).

Another rule was that the boys had to try local cuisine and participate in local activities, without the above-mentioned whining. But, the most important rule was that we were going to have fun (damnit!)

Bribery on the road? It works!

So, how did I get the “rules” to actually stick? Bribery. That is sad and pathetic, huh? However, it works…. like, really, really works. Here were my two bribing techniques:

  1. Money – Give each child a roll of quarters just prior to long travel days and remind them of the rules. Then, the way it works is, if they break a rule (and, I added “ be generally annoying” to the list), I would take anywhere from one to four quarters away. Whatever they had left, they could spend on just about anything they wanted (I did have to talk the older one out of a crappy, plastic $9 game, once).  This WORKED! I only took away about $1 each. And, having this little threat kept more fights at bay than I can count. Go me!
  2. Travel Fairy gifts – Prior to our trip, I – ahem, I mean the Travel Fairy – started stocking up on little, inexpensive gifts. The Travel Fairy would magically trickle these gifts during our long driving days when the boys were obviously starting to get antsy.  They got new coloring books, Legos, little puzzles and new iPad apps.
Snacks for long car rides

Sugar consumption with kids is an interesting topic. I have talked to moms who have kids that are not affected by sugary snacks (!) and I have my own experiences. One Thanksgiving my youngest had two pieces of pie and chocolate ice cream; he was a spazz for three days straight! (I kid you not.) My oldest is so tuned into it, he self moderates. It’s a good thing he knows when to stop (or maybe I’m a bit too obsessed?)

Needless, to say, I had to be careful of what kind of snacks and food to pack, especially on days when I knew we were going to be logging in five to seven hours on the road. The last thing I needed was to a) take away quarters, b) start screaming while driving – there must be a law against that, right? or c) knowingly sabotage my many-months-of-planning perfect road trip. When restaurants did not offer healthy sides, I even went so far as to bring my own carrots. Yes, I have turned into one of “those moms.”

Some of the road trip snacks I packed included: cheese sticks, baby carrots, apples, raisins, pretzels, and nuts. But, don’t get me wrong, I did allow my kids special treats from time to time, just not as a snack option in the car.

Traveling well beyond the car

Probably the most fun part of the trip was when we all got a little goofy and started making up games. My 4-year old made up a True or False game where he would throw out these random questions that would get us all giggly. Another game we played was “Would you rather?” (Ex. Would you rather eat a live snake or a dead dog?) We were entertained for hours, even though it got utterly disgusting, AND, we learned a ton of interesting facts (thank you iPhone.)

Beyond the games, we created a ton of really imaginative stories (my boys amazed me with their stories!) We imagined living in the parts of the country that we were visiting and talked about what after-school activities we would do there. We talked about the people who could have settled that part of the world, about where they originally came from, about what they could have been like and so much more. We did a lot of talking.

Roadside stops

I am blessed with two wonderful, amazing, super-fun and energetic little boys.  During our day-to-day life, I’m constantly on the go, taking them to soccer practice, riding bikes, skiing, running, swimming, playing American Ninja Warrior and SO much more. I was pretty nervous about being in a car with my little athletes for multiple hours on end. So, I decided to NOT fight it, but to embrace it! I packed a bin of wear-‘em-outables for pit stop fun.

My bin included: a soccer ball, jump ropes, scooters, a few golf clubs and balls, small tennis rackets and balls, and pool toys (for our hotel visits). On lunch stops – at local city parks or rest stops – they would get their ya-ya’s out while I prepped the food.

My wear-'em-out bin included scooters and golf clubs.

My wear-’em-out bin included scooters and golf clubs.

In addition to my wear-’em-out bin, I made sure every hotel had a pool. So as soon as we checked in, they could swim, swim, swim. Plus, pool-side dining and working in the evenings isn’t so bad!

I mastered poolside working, eating and relaxation!

Got a road trip plan? Great! But, flexibility is a MUST.

Our trip took many unexpected turns and detours; rather than get edgy about changing up our “perfect family road trip,” I know I had to go with the flow. The best detour we took was to skip a big city and opt instead for a nearby smaller town that had a Gator Park (awesome!) After our first “of the beaten path” detour, we started looking for more. The boys and I had a blast revising our trip and I learned out to relax a little.

The Gator Park was a family favorite! Who wouldn't want to pet a baby alligator?!?

The Gator Park was a family favorite! Who wouldn’t want to pet a baby alligator?!?

Having fun on your family vacation

Seems like a no-brainer, right? Family vacations are supposed to be fun! Well, that’s easy to forget when you’re in the thick of it schlepping bags to and fro, playing ringmaster to too-ramped-up-hotel-wrestle matches, and getting frustrated by the lack of healthy food options at a lot of restaurants. But, I can honestly say that being on the road with my boys for over two weeks was the best thing that’s happened to us in a long time. I bonded with my kids in a way that I can’t do during the hustle and bustle of the school year. We were able to experience new and fun activities, food, and ways of living.

This road trip provided so many fun bonding opportunities. (Now, if I could get them to stop asking for a 4-wheeler!)

This road trip provided so many fun bonding opportunities. (Now, if I could get them to stop asking for a 4-wheeler!)

We had so much fun the boys keep asking when we can do it again! And, you know what? I would totally do it again. Next time I’ll have to bring Hubby though.

Meet the Author | Susan Tucker


Susan lives with her husband, two young sons, and a new super-cute puppy near the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in Boulder, Colorado. When she’s not chasing her boys on the ski slopes or watching them on the sidelines of the soccer fields, she helps start-ups with social media and online marketing. Susan is social media junkie and you can often find her live tweeting from just about everywhere she goes.

9 Comments
  • September 4, 2013

    Thanx for Sharing this post Susan. It helps me a lot to survive a family road trip.

  • September 4, 2013

    thanx for Sharing this post susan. It helps me a lot to survive a family road trip.

  • Susan Author
    September 5, 2013

    Thank you for reading, Mark. I’m glad you got some good tips out of it!

  • September 5, 2013

    The roll of quarters trick is genius! LOVE IT. I am so going to do this on our next trip whether we are flying or driving!

  • September 5, 2013

    Love the roll of quarters trick too. And the outdoor play bin. With two little guys getting more energetic by the day this will be a must for us!

  • Susan Author
    September 5, 2013

    Thanks, y’all! My MIL recommended the roll of coins (she said pennies, but I figured that wouldn’t have much pull with kids these days) and I was totally shocked at how well it worked. And, Keryn, the bin was a must-have for active little boys, they went hard core at every stop.

  • September 5, 2013

    Oh my gosh, these are AWESOME tips. We make a couple trips a year to Edmonton to visit my husband’s family, and it’s about a nine hour drive. I needed these ideas!

  • Susan
    September 7, 2013

    Thank you, Franki! I’m so glad you found them helpful.

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