A LONG road trip takes lots of planning. This comprehensive list of things to do — from getting your car checked before you pack the trunk to planning stops along the way and which snacks to pack to keep a smile on everyone’s face throughout — adds up to more than a long road trip survival guide. It’s a road map to road trip success!
My family is no stranger to road trips. Sometime around child number three, it became more cost effective to drive and not have to rent a car large enough for all of us once we arrived at our destination. We’ve road tripped to Walt Disney World from Texas several times (roughly 14-16 hours)- one time with no stops.
This summer an epic adventure involving me, my three kids and one baby took shape. We traveled from Texas to Vermont and back covering a total distance of 4171 miles. As the sole adult on this trip, I did as much advance planning as possible to make life easier on the road. Here are my many miles tested long road trip survival Tips.
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1. Get your car checked.
Shredder (my Toyota Sienna minivan) is not young. She is a 2006 and has 160K+ miles on her. However reliable she may be at home, I was not about to set off across the country without making sure she was at peak performance. Luckily, she was in need of an oil change so I had her checked over while she was in. You can also make an appointment for a quick check for $30 or less at most mechanics. They’ll top off the fluids and make sure everything is running smoothly.
Not confident about your car seat installation? This is a great time to go to your local police, fire or EMS station and see if they can perform a car seat safety check. Keep in mind that on long trips kids sit differently than around town. They fidget and fall asleep.
My 7-year-old rides in a booster seat at home but for this trip? I put her back in a super high back 5 point harness. I didn’t want to be looking in the rearview at her slumped over worrying. Start your trip off with peace of mind.
2. Make sure your AAA membership is active.
Have an AAA membership? Find your cards and make sure it will cover you through the whole trip. Don’t have a membership yet? It’s a great time to sign up. Not only will your membership provide you with roadside assistance (and gas if you run out) but it also offers hotel discounts while you’re on the road.
3. Don’t over pack. You’ll make your car a target.
When I was prepping for our road trip, I went to Pinterest. I mean where better to look for cute things for the kids to do in the car? But y’all these posts were advocating decking out the car with maps, long pieces of paper where you moved a little car to show how far along your trip you were and all sorts of elaborate setups for the kiddos to keep them busy.
Do you know what that screams? “Our car has everything important to us in it and we don’t know the area!” The last thing I needed to worry about while on the road solo with 4 kids was my van being broken into at one of our stops. Road trip survival definitely includes making it there with the car in one piece and all your belongings still in it! (Instead, consider packing these inexpensive yet fun family road trip games.)
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It took a little bit of effort, but we packed the car so that none of the luggage showed above the back seat level. The girls were required to keep the back seat fairly neat in order to get new distractions. Road maps were folded and put in the glove box. Electronics had special cases and were slid under the seat at every stop. Even in our minimalist packing, we ended up having everything we needed and I didn’t miss any of the extras.
Read More: Consider investing in these 16 best car accessories that every Traveling Mom should have.
4. Strategically pack the luggage and stock your car.
We’ve already covered not overpacking the car and making it a target, but how you pack what you have in the car is also important. We packed suitcases by when we would need them.
Two always stayed in the bottom of the van truck with clothes and items we wouldn’t need until we reached our destination. The 3rd suitcase was packed with 4 outfits for each kid, and for me, one for each day on the road and a spare. plus our toiletries. The diaper bag also came in at each stop. This minimized the amount of luggage we lugged into each hotel.
We also stocked the car with needed items in each “zone.” Up front, we stored tissues, wet wipes, sanitizer, trash bags, etc. The girls were in the third row and also had their own set of all of these items. These items are key for road trip survival.
5. Look up local rules & regulations ahead of time. Make a list.
Do you know when the wrong time is to look up cell phone laws? When you’re in the state in question.
My van is an older van and lacks Bluetooth, so I bought a headset. Prior to starting our trip, I researched cell phone laws in all the states that we’d pass through. Although I utilized the headset the majority of the time, it was good to know where I could pick a ringing phone quickly before handing it to my teen to hook the headset up.
Another item to look up? State laws on leaving kids in cars. Every state has different rules.
Traveling with a 13-year-old was fantastic because we could take turns running to the restroom. I would have him sit with the baby (and he would even change him in the van for me!) while I took the girls in.
Once I returned he would run in and use the bathroom. This cut down significantly on our time at each stop and made road trip survival more likely.
However, if he had been 12 instead, some states do not allow even him to be left in the car unattended.
Avoid surprises by doing your research.
6. Prep the kids for an emergency.
When it’s you as the solo adult and a gaggle of kids, you need to prep. I made a photocopy of my health insurance card and wrote all of our doctor’s information and emergency contacts on that paper. All of the kids knew where that paper was in the car.
I also brought two old cell phones that were fully charged. Even a non-network cell phone will dial 911. The kids knew where those were as well.
I also labeled all of the car seats with the kids’ info. Many parents don’t realize how vital this can be to EMS personnel in case of an accident. Luckily we didn’t need any of these fallback safety mechanisms, but it was good to know they were there.
7. Save the electronics until the evening.
There is always the temptation to default to DVD’s once you set foot in the car. I discovered my kiddos behavior levels were higher the longer we hold off on electronics. It’s easy to introduce a DVD once they’ve completely lost it, but it is a challenge to take them away because they’ve been watching for hours on end.
Instead, I introduced them around dinner which kept them awake until we got to the hotel. Solo and pregnant with twins I wasn’t interested in carrying any sleeping 40-pound kiddos in from the car.
During the drive, how about introducing those old fashioned road trip games?
8. Find your flow. Adjust your driving hours to your peak energy times.
Depending on the ages and schedules of your children, set driving hours that work for you.
For my family, it was best if we slept in (none of us are the best morning people). Then I’d allow them to wander around for a bit, grab breakfast with no rush and watch a cartoon while they eat. Most days we hit the road around 10 am and pulled into our hotel for the night by 10 pm. This also meant that by the time we were in the car the baby was getting ready for his first nap. Minimizing his awake time in the car allowed us to make it long stretches between stops.
9. Plan an adult stop.
If you’re venturing forth on a thousand mile plus road trip as the only adult, you’ll need a break.
Our road trip schedule included a stop in Pennsylvania, so that I could have coffee with a great work friend I hadn’t seen in a while. We met at a playground and chatted while the kids ran around and played. Sure, it ate up a few hours of drive time, but it was our last day of driving and by then I needed the adult conversation. To say that it reenergized me for the rest of the trip would be an understatement. Work in a friend visit if you can!
10. Play it by ear when it comes to hotel bookings.
There are a lot of planners out there. They map out the whole road trip, potential stops, and book hotels for the route. Do you know what this doesn’t factor in? Real life.
Downpours in Mississippi significantly slowed us down. One day I got a second wind, and we made it WAY farther than planned. On the way back, we got stuck in a mystery two-hour traffic jam in Alabama that had us sitting in park with the car off.
Especially when road tripping solo with kids, you don’t want to feel like you have to sit in the car for four more hours at 7 pm just to make it to your prebooked hotel.
That doesn’t mean I wait until we feel like stopping to look for a place to stay. First I pick our chain. Staying in one chain for the entire trip normalizes things for my kids and is one of our main road trip survival tricks. They know what to expect, what the room will look like, what breakfast will look like, and I know that I’ll be earning points and loyalty with one brand.
Hampton by Hilton
For our family, Hampton by Hilton is our go to. The kids love their breakfast. Their rooms always have enough space for us to set up the baby’s pack and play. I have Diamond status so if we do have any issues they are quickly attended to.
Don’t have Diamond status? That’s fine too because Hampton by Hilton has a 100% guarantee that you will be satisfied. Kids don’t come with guarantees but luckily your hotel can!
Another feature we love? Most locations have a pool. Forty-five minutes of pool time in the morning does wonders in helping kids sit quietly in the car.
In the morning, I look at cities that are roughly 8-10 hours out. This is mostly to avoid any super high rates due to special events. I can adjust our expectations accordingly if I only see steep prices. Then we set out with a city vaguely in mind. I reassess shortly before dinner to see if I think I can still make it and then we book.
(I’d like to note that I am a member of Hampton by Hilton’s Real Travel Blogger Group for 2017. However, Hilton brand hotels have been my chain of choice since I started my first 4 night a week business travel job in 2004 so the loyalty runs deep.)
11. Road trip survival relies on synchronized bathroom breaks.
If one person pees, everyone pees. This was our rule back when I was a territory sales manager. Whenever I had a trainee on the road with me, everyone used the bathroom if we stopped. There is no opt out. You try. It works with kids just as well. Synchronized bladders make for more miles between stops.
12. Want to Win Road Trip Survival? Stock up on surprises.
This goes hand in hand with avoiding electronics until later in the day. We travel a lot so I’m always on the lookout for bargains that will keep the kids busy.
Target’s Dollar Spot is a treasure trove for us usually. I definitely make sure to hit it for season end clearance. Some of the items that the kids love? Sticker books with scenes that they put the stickers on blank bound “books.” We snatched some of these up at Target on 90% clearance after Christmas one year and are still going through them! They also love basic crayons and coloring books and pipe cleaners will keep them busy making bracelets for hours.
13. Pack a cooler with snacks and drinks.
We minimized meal stops (and spending) by stocking a cooler. We packed cheese sticks, juice boxes, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, fruit snacks, granola bars, carrot sticks, grapes, baby food pouches, and more. My teenager could reach the cooler and easily hand out food as needed. The cost savings was great.
Added bonus? I was in my first trimester and the ability to have everyone eating food that didn’t smell in the car was priceless.
14. Clean the car as you go.
I cannot emphasize this one enough. I stocked the car with plastic bags that I had saved up from shopping. We filled one with any trash in the car every single time we stopped. The girls knew they’d lose their crayons if they didn’t go back in the container every time.
15. Driving with a baby? Plan ahead for road trip survival!
Throw a baby into the equation and all bets are off. I’ve mentioned tips about trying to drive during nap time and keeping a fully stocked diaper bag at hand.
Another must-have? Put a waterproof liner in the car seat or bring an extra car seat cover. Trust me you’ll be thankful when you’re in rural West Virginia and don’t have to make the choice to put Junior into a pee soaked car seat.
16. Make the most of your stops and abide two-hour rule.
Try to plan multipurpose stops. Need gas? Find a travel center where you can also grab a meal and use the restroom. We’re big fans of Chick Fil A. My oldest son and I eat while the littles get some energy out in the play area. Then we buy their meals to go and get back in the car. Good behavior may earn a stop at a book store for a little present.
As for the two-hour rule, my kids know that if we haven’t been in the car for at least two hours we aren’t stopping. Ensuring we always make it two hours between stops keeps the pace we need to reach our destination.
17. Procure a toll pass!
I keep an EZ Pass in my office for trips like this. I can hook it up to a credit card to instant pay tolls and there is no drama digging for money at toll booths. In addition, there is no waiting as we breeze through the tolls with our pass instead of sitting in a line of cars. Do a little research before your trip to see what will work for you.
Our EZ Pass works all along the East Coast from Maine to Florida and as far west as Chicago. Many tolls have also gone cashless and you really don’t want to be dealing with tickets in the mail weeks after your trip.
18. Know Your Kids. Prepare for Puke.
Have I mentioned I have pukers? All 3 of the older kids have defiled a car during a road trip at one time or another. It’s a fact of life that sucks that we now just prepare for. I try to limit their liquids as we’ve found that chugging them can add to the puke factor. I also put several plastic bags in each of their cupholders just in case. As we drove out of the hotel parking lot every morning I’d ask if they could see their puke bags. Better to be prepared than be cleaning vomit on the side of the highway.
19. Carry a small container of “just in case” supplies.
We packed items that I hoped we wouldn’t need but would come in handy if we ran into trouble. This included umbrellas, ponchos, a roll of paper towels, Clorox wipes, duct tape, Fix-a-Flat tire stuff, trash bags, flashlights, bungee cords, a small medical kit, and some other odds and ends. Did you notice above that my kids are pukers? I also packed a container of cleaner just in case and an extra set of clothes for each kid.
I also threw in a few items that were nice to have out like sunscreen, the kids swimsuits and towels so we could work in a quick fun stop without digging.
Road Trip Survival: Conclusion
Repeat to yourself: “I am prepared, I will survive. It will all work out.” If things get tough, look for the emergency chocolate that you hid somewhere in the car. (Don’t skip the chocolate stash step when packing!) You will make it through.
What tips have we missed? What’s the longest road trip you’ve ever taken with kids?