Road trips with kids are already a challenge. But when they get to the tween and teen stage, family road trips become a whole new experience: How do you keep them from being buried in electronics for hours at a time? Is it a good idea to let the driving teens take the wheel for a while? How do you keep them involved and happy throughout the trip? Read on as a veteran family road tripper shares her tips for making your next road trip with teens and tweens a fun one.
Family Road Trip Tips
Because we are a family of five, our vacations almost always involve driving rather than flying. My husband and I both grew up driving from Michigan to Florida multiple times throughout the years. Our honeymoon was also a road trip to Florida. Since our kids came along, we’ve made that long drive several times as a family. I also take the kids to visit friends and family across the state several times each year. Whether you’re driving to a national park or amusement park, a long road trip can be a lot of fun with older kids, tweens, and teens.
As the kids have gotten older, our drives have changed a lot. Our girls have moved from car seats and boosters to becoming big enough to ride shotgun or even help drive. We’ve gone from listening to CDs of toddler tunes to KidzBop to popular radio songs. The kids can ride for longer stretches without rest stops. We no longer need to pack crayons and markers to keep them busy. The challenge lately has been to keep our road trips a family experience without having the tweens and teens buried in their electronics for hours at a time.
In all that time on the road, I’ve developed a great strategy for making road trips with teens and tweens fun bonding experiences for the entire family. And that’s the whole point, right? Here are some of my road-tested tips for making your next trip with the big kids a memorable one:
1. Research and Planning
Kids of just about any age in today’s world are computer and electronics savvy. Put this to good use and give them research assignments to help plan the route for your trip. Of course, they can help search out fun places to stop along the way. But they can also be put in charge of determining how often you’ll need to stop for gas or finding the best price on a hotel along your way.
On the other hand, my 13-year-old still prefers me to help her pack. I wouldn’t trust her to remember everything for herself anyway. The kids all help load their own things into the car and carry them inside when we arrive.
2. Seating and Navigation
Many of our road trips do not include my husband, who dislikes travel. When the kids were small, the front passenger seat was off-limits since they were all in car seats or boosters. Now that my girls are older, we rotate who rides shotgun on long trips. There’s a price for sitting up front: helping navigate. They all have phones with GPS, so it works out great.
Letting the kids take turns sitting up front also allows them to change up who sits where in back as well. We have a minivan, so nobody is ever stuck in a middle seat, but a change of scenery can help break up a long drive no matter what.
Ah yes, the blessing and curse of personal electronic devices. Every family makes its own rules about screen time on the road. For our family, road trips are generally a free-for-all, with some limitations. We’re all stuck in a small, enclosed space with each other for hours on end with few breaks. For me, anything that helps keep the peace – and sanity – is helpful.
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Electronics can still play a big part in a family road trip, even if you don’t want each kid staring at individual screens the whole time. There are plenty of apps that provide road trip games that even tweens and teens can enjoy. My oldest still loves searching out license plates from all the different states and tracks them all on an iPhone app. We all help by watching for and pointing out states that she might not have yet.
Personal phones, iPads or tablets also let kids individualize their entertainment. For a family with kids of varying ages, this might be tricky. After all, teens and preschoolers might not want to watch the same movie over an in-vehicle DVD player. But with their own devices, your teen can watch a downloaded movie of choice while younger kids watch age-appropriate choices. In my case, even though they are all now teens, my kids can rarely agree on any one show or movie to watch together. Having the option to each watch separately is a huge plus on long trips.
TravelingMom Tip: Don’t forget the electronic accessories! Everybody should have their own charging cords and headphones or earbuds. Bring extras – even teens and tweens can lose or break fragile cords. It’s cheaper and easier to stock up before you leave than to have to make an unanticipated stop along the way and pay a premium at a roadside convenience store or gas station.
4. Photography and Social Media
Almost every electronic device these days includes a camera. And kids of all ages love taking pictures. By the time they are tweens and teens, they are usually skilled at taking good quality photographs and helping preserve memories of your trip. My kids love taking pictures of each welcome sign as we cross over state borders. Driving through rain or thunderstorms provides the opportunity for fun weather shots. Or give them scavenger hunt assignments of things to photograph.
Depending on your kids’ ages and your personal family policies, your teens may be on social media. Mine love to chronicle our journeys via Instagram and Snapchat stories. It doesn’t work for every family, but I love to see our trips through their eyes and words.
If your tweens or young teens don’t have their own social media accounts, consider letting them post to your accounts. It’s a good way to introduce them to social sharing in a controlled fashion. And it’s a good way to save precious family memories of your trip together.
5. Teen Drivers
By their mid to late teens, most kids are in the process of getting their driver’s permit or license. Depending on your state’s rules, you may choose to let them practice driving while on your road trip. There are some helpful benefits to this. Obviously, you get a break from being behind the wheel, although it’s not necessarily a stress-free environment. Your teen gets plenty of freeway driving time and you can help them learn things like merging and passing traffic. They can build up a lot of driving hours at once.
Read More: Best Road Trip Snacks for Tweens and Teens
Things to consider before letting your teen drive on a road trip:
- Make sure your insurance covers the teen driver.
- Check driver permit restrictions in your state AND other states you’ll be driving through to see what’s allowed.
- Know your route well so you can avoid congested areas, construction or potentially dangerous driving conditions.
- Decide whether you’re comfortable with your teen driving through large cities or in the dark.
- Watch the weather to see if you’ll be driving into any rain, snow or other challenges.
My 16-year-old is in the process of getting her driver’s license. I’ve let her drive several times on one- and two-hour trips within our state. The first time was nerve-wracking for sure. But I am now much more comfortable with the idea of her driving alone on the freeway when she gets her full license because I’ve seen her navigate highways and freeways with increasing ease over these past several months.
6. Family and Kid Time
Family road trips are always a good opportunity to spend time together and reconnect. As my kids grow older, I’m realizing how few chances there will be left for us to travel as an entire family. My oldest is a high school senior who will be off to college next year. The others won’t be far behind.
This means planning family travel and finding ways to get your kids excited and involved. Does your teen love theater and drama? Maybe plan a trip to see a play or musical together in a city you’ve never been to and can explore together. Or take your sports-loving teen to see a professional game. Even on a trip to a destination like Disney, you can plan activities that interest and involve your whole family.
Last summer, my family took a road trip from Michigan to Florida to Walt Disney World. We enjoyed the drive, taking turns choosing the music for us all to listen to, rather than everyone riding with earbuds in. This may very well have been our last full family road trip, and I’m thrilled that we have great memories of our teens and (then) tween to hold onto from it.
7. Choose the Right Hotel
Teens require food. Lots of food. To keep their bellies full without breaking the bank, we always try to book a hotel that offers free breakfast (a huge money saver when you travel with ravenous teens) and a way to cook at least a few meals in the room. And we want free wifi to keep the teens connected to their friends.
With this criteria in mind, we suggest the following hotel brands.
Residence Inns offer studio, one- and two-bedroom suites so the kids can have their own space, which is always nice (for the parents as well as the teens). There’s also free breakfast and wifi and full kitchens and grocery service. That means we can order groceries ahead and arrive with everything we need to feed the kids.
Element Hotels are eco-friendly hotels that offer electric vehicle charging stations and a free Bikes to Borrow program, which is great for getting kids (and parents) moving after a long day in the car. There’s a free breakfast and a full kitchen in the room. And Element Hotels feature those super comfy Westin Heavenly Beds. Sweet dreams!
TownePlace Suites have patios complete with Weber Grills, grilling tools, and seasoning so it’s easy to make dinner after a long day of driving. Then borrow a board game and see if you can interest the teens in a family game night.
TravelingMom Tip: The best way to get the best rate on your room: Book directly with Marriott International. If you find a better rate for the same hotel, dates and room type somewhere else, submit a Best Rate Guarantee claim. If Marriott International approves the claim, the company will match the lower rate and give you an extra 25 percent discount or 5,000 Marriott Bonvoy™ points.