Think of the scene that comes to mind when you think of an old-school road trip–everyone piled into the family car, kids squished together in the backseat, windows down, radio on. Sure, there was probably some bickering, some wilted bologna sandwiches on Wonder bread, and a good amount of asking the proverbial road trip question, “When are we gonna be there?” It was messy and it was noisy, but that’s the stuff of memories. And it was probably a lot of fun.
Think of the scene of road trips today–kids in the backseat staring at a handheld device, parents plugging GPS information into smartphone apps, windows up to seal in the climate-controlled bliss. Sure, there’s likely still some bickering, but family road trips today are a lot quieter as we tune into our technology and out from one another and the world sliding by outside.
But this kind of family road trip leaves something to be desired. Gone are the days of counting billboards, tallying cars by color, or searching for the letters of the alphabet on license plates. More often than not, when I drive down the highway and peek into neighboring vehicles, there’s a screen folded down for the kiddos in the backseat. It’s far too easy to depend on our electronics to distract us, yet doing so teaches us to rely on tech rather than on our imaginations or one another for entertainment. On your next family road trip, consider going old-school, hitting the road without the pull of electronics and revisiting old-fashioned ways to pass the time. Here are five steps to the perfect unplugged road trip.
1. Prep the Family
The first, and possibly most important, step in planning for an unplugged road trip is to get everyone on board. For many families, my own included, those glowing rectangles have become an almost constant presence in our lives and homes. We turn to our phones to learn the weather, to find the answer to a question, to tell us how to get places, and to communicate with others. We also tend to turn to them whenever we have a moment of downtime—in line at the grocery store or waiting at the dentist.
Because of this device dependence, people often experience feelings of discomfort or anxiety when they’re away from their tech for any length of time, making a digital detox all the more important. Still, going cold turkey can be tough, which is why a bit of advance preparation can help. Before you hit the road, be sure everyone understands the plan to take a break from the electronics. Talk as a family about the benefits of an old-school style road trip, then brainstorm some creative ideas for screen-free fun together.
2. Do Some Research
A family brainstorming session is a great start, but do some online sleuthing for tech-free road trip suggestions, too. While the goal is to unplug on the road, tapping into the infinite resources of the Internet will help build up an arsenal of good ideas. Do a Google search for ‘screen-free road trip ideas’ and you’ll find a ton of resources. Check out Pinterest for road trip printables—you can find highway bingo boards, old-fashioned car games, scavenger hunts, you name it and someone’s got it!
3. Stock up!
There are so many inexpensive materials you can pack to engage the kids and yourselves during a road trip and having a stash of fun activities packed and handy will help to make smartphones and tablets a distant memory. Here’s a list of my favorite items to include on a screen-free trip:
- Travel Board Games – We have travel size Trouble, a great Melissa and Doug wooden hangman and license plate game, a miniature Etch-a-Sketch, travel bingo, a deck of UNO cards, and a tin of conversation starters. The choices in this genre are endless.
- Travel Books – Visit your local library or bookstore and grab some books about your route and your destination. Both National Geographic Kids and Lonely Planet Kids have some great travel titles beginning with younger readers all the way through teen years.
- Books and Audiobooks – Hit up your local library before your trip. We love listening to audiobooks as a family and our library has a great selection. Another option is Overdrive—an app that enables you to download audio books from whichever library you link to your account. If your kids can read in the car without getting sick, losing oneself in a book is a great way to while away a few hours on the road. For little ones, a canvas bag or basket of board books can provide a nice distraction. For older kids, despite this being a tech-free road trip, e-readers are fantastic and are certainly easier than schlepping a pile of actual books.
- Music – Another place where tech comes in handy is with music apps. We love using Spotify and Pandora when we travel, but don’t love the data they use. On our recent Orlando drive, our road trip wheels, a 2016 Ford Edge, came equipped with Sirius XM radio, which was a huge treat for all of us. We cycled between current pop hits, a bit of big band swing, and my favorite, best of the 80s!
- Maps and Atlases – Kid-friendly road maps and road atlases are a fun way for families to chart their route in advance. Think of it as a little geography lesson. Along the way, kids can follow your travels and help to navigate. Maps area also great for helping to plan your pit stops.
4. Plan Your Stops
On that note, bathroom breaks and food stops are inevitable on a road trip. We managed to make it from New York to Jacksonville, Florida in about fourteen hours with four stops; we were on a mission and packed our breakfast and lunch to save time. That said, sometimes the best part of a road trip is the kitsch you’ll find along the way and this is another place where a bit of research can go a long way. For a drive along the I-95 corridor, I absolutely love the book Drive I-95 by Stan and Sandra Posner. We’re also big Cracker Barrel fans—they’re always nice and bright. A big plus when I’m traveling solo with my three girls – there’s always a clean bathroom, and the shop is fun for browsing.
5. Everything in Moderation
Parents and kids alike are often so focused on their screens that everyone tends to disconnect from one another, falling into a screen-induced trance that limits meaningful, human interaction. An unplugged road trip is a way to engage more fully with one another and the world around us while discovering creative ways to pass the time during long hours in the car. That being said, balance is important. After hours of sing-alongs, alphabet games, and listening to Surviving the Applewhites, we got some dinner and I set my girls up with a movie on my laptop. With the audio channeled through the Edge’s speakers, my girls watched their favorite Diary of a Wimpy Kid movie snuggled in the backseat as though in a mini-movie theater. Plenty of analog fun during those long hours the road meant that plugging in and chilling out was a nice way to end the day.