Making miles on a family vacation? Parents, try these road trip hacks with your school-age kids
Whether spring break, summer vacation, or a weekend getaway, hitting the highway as a family can bring lots of fun. It can also be stressful. A few road trip tips with school-age kids can keep the stress at home, and instead have your family road trip be a catalyst for fond family memories.
Our family of four has logged over 20,000 miles of road trips, camping trips, and RV journeys all over the USA. From packing essentials to managing screen time, the seven practical hacks below help us turn every road trip into a family fun, good time.
1. Pack right (and remember: you can get it on the way)
Over-packing your bag or your car sucks. You can’t find what you need. Repacking is a pain. Once home, you wonder why you packed stuff that you never use. We’ve been there too. Road trip tips with school-age kids means finding a balance between over-packing and packing light. Or, as we say, we pack right.
We simply aim to keep it simple: Pack what we need, some of what we want, and remember that we can get things along the way. With every road trip, we’ve always identified something we didn’t need and could have left at home.
Plus, from local pharmacies to national stores like Target or Walgreens, if we need it, we can get it. That’s been a new water bottle when Connor’s broke, or a new pair of leggings to replace a pair of Aster’s that ripped.
Decluttering and packing for the trip, not for your worst nightmare, is a road to a smooth, hassle-free journey.
2. The right essentials and comfort items help the drive go smoothly
When we talk about road trip packing, we’re not talking about the clothes or items you need away from the car. The following road trip tips are about the stuff you bring for the drive itself.
Packing for a road trip isn’t about fear packing (you know, over-packing hypothetical what-if items). It’s not even about packing light, but packing right. If you parachuted into our car’s back seat and looked around, here are a few things you would find:
Front driver and passenger seats
In our family, Anthony typically drives, and Jodie typically handles navigation. Whether in our Subaru Outback or our RV, here’s what you’ll find in the cab:
- Driver-side phone mount for easily checking navigation on one of our phones
- Charging cords for parent phones
- His and her flip-top stainless steel water bottles that fit the cup holders
- A small plastic bag for trash
- Small squeeze bottle of hand sanitizer
- Pack of tissues
- Baggie of wet wipes (seriously: diaper changes are long behind us, but wet wipes never stop coming in handy)
Easy-to-reach snack container
In the Outback, we clipped carabiners to the handles of a cloth shopping and hung it between the front seats. In our RV, a sturdy rope basket sits behind the passenger seat, across from the table where the kids buckle in. Either way, we keep a supply of low-mess, ready-to-munch snacks on hand, such as
- Fresh and dried fruits (apples, fruit leather, banana chips, etc.)
- Veggie chips
- Peanut butter pretzels
We set up the kid zone so both Connor (11yo) and Aster (8yo) have what they need. Our kids each have a tablet from their school, so part of our road trip time might include them using their tablets for school work. They also use apps such as Freeform, Keynote, and Minecraft to make art, and Duolingo for daily language learning.
Each child has their own refillable water bottle and e-reader. While we focused more on print books when they were younger, ever since each kid progressed to chapter books, we switched to ebooks. On road trips, we still might bring a couple of print books. We pack a basket with other activity options, such as
- Decks of cards
- Simple board or card games
- Writing books for schoolwork
- Activity books such as word searches or dot-to-dots
Each child also brings a cozy friend, partially for comfort and play, and because they make good pillows.
3. Carry a car-friendly first aid kit
First aid can be one of those areas where it’s easy to overdo it, but fear not: Your vehicle doesn’t have to double as a mobile trauma unit.
Our vehicle always has a regular, off-the-shelf, lunchbox-sized car first aid kit. It contains the essentials for minor injuries and maladies, such as antiseptic wipes, and small, medium, and large bandages. We also maintain a stock of adult and child ibuprofen for headaches.
It’s helpful for your first aid kit to reflect your family’s typical medical needs. For example, bug bites are our biggest travel nuisance. We carry a few insect bite items, such as a marker-like tube of After-Bite, for soothing insect bites or stings. Our “bug bite sucker” uses suction to mitigate the itchiness of mosquito bites.
We figure that basic first aid supplies can take care of about eighty to ninety percent of our medical needs on the road. Beyond that, odds are it’s best to head to the doctor.
4. Break up driving time with movement breaks
Road trips inherently entail so much sitting, they make classrooms and offices look like triathlons. Some of our family’s longest drives have been from Eugene, Oregon, to Bozeman, Montana, in 2013—otherwise known as 16 hours in the car with a toddler. There was also our 2022 drive from San Diego to Big Sur, California, which took about 11 hours. Our kids now consider anything under two hours a short drive.
However, drive days need more than driving. Besides essential toilet or refueling stops, we take movement breaks throughout the day.
Every couple of hours, we build in a longer stop at a viewpoint, rest stop, gas station, or even nearby park. Brief stops not only break up the drive, they refresh our spirits and give us a chance to move around. We’re traveling with two energetic, rambunctious school-age children. Lunching at a riverside picnic table or walking in a park gives us activity that brightens up a long drive.
5. Download maps, music, and other media for offline use
On our road trips, we’ve listened to everything from podcast series (such as Eleanor Amplified and Wow in the World), to audiobooks (The Hobbit, and David Tennant reading the How to Train Your Dragon series). The kids now pull down music for their own burgeoning tastes (Connor and Aster both currently jam to an extensive Phineas and Ferb playlist).
Jodie and Anthony have long-running curated playlists of road trip music—along with a list of “our” songs, to add a dash of romance to the drive.
Whatever the media, it’s downloaded. Cell service can be finicky. From digital maps to movies and shows on Disney+, each of our devices has downloaded, offline-ready versions of everything we want for the road.
As much as we rely on Google Maps and Apple Maps, the ultimate in offline navigation remains a recent paper atlas behind the driver’s seat.
6. Libraries are the ultimate free Wi-Fi, climate controlled, top-up-the-water-bottles pit stops
This is one of our favorite road trip tips. We love libraries. Some of our best friends we met at libraries (human friends, not just beloved books). On the road, libraries have become one of our favorite ways to enjoy an extended stop. Most communities have a library, and a typical modern American library is usually home to:
- Free Wi-Fi
- Clean, safe bathrooms
- Water fountains (and more and more, water bottle fillers)
- Heat/air conditioning
- Comfy seating
- Books, games, puzzles, events, and other activities
- Quiet space after all that road noise
When we adults need online time for business, the kids have to log onto Wi-Fi for a school project, or we simply want downtime on a budget, we seek a local library. It gives us exactly what we need, in a safe space that is naturally family friendly.
7. Balance screen time and off-screen time
In our family, recreational screen time typically can only start after 1:30 p.m. (and completed daily lists). Our kids also use screens for anytime learning and making.
The right balance between screen time and off-screen activities is crucial for a rewarding road trip experience with kids, but it doesn’t have to be rigid. During driving days, we typically keep our 1:30 start time for screen-based recreation. Not always, but usually. The kids take regular breaks too, such as an hour on screen, at least half an hour off.
We don’t keep a hard and fast rule around screen time. Instead, we maintain a general understanding: The kids know when they can use screens for recreation. They know that there will be breaks. They can read pretty much anytime, and other materials and activities are always at hand. Our driving days might also have family discussions—not to mention quiet times where we all watch the world go by.
Use these family road trip tips for fun, memorable, and stress-free vacations
Epic family road trips can have some long driving days. (In fact, we’re writing this from Colorado, during a cross-country RV trip from Washington State to Florida.) Whether we were a family of one, two, three, or four, we have all road tripped extensively. Our experience has taught us to pack light, move our bodies, and balance screen and off-screen time. Above all, we know to download our nav and media for offline use.
Will your road trip have its stresses? Probably. Often trips go smoothly, but not always. In our experience, the tips above have helped us declutter and de-stress our road trips. Will problems come our way? Sure. But by taking care of the prep, organization, and balance we talked about above, we are more able to handle the challenges that come our way.
Planning, organization, simplicity, and fun come together on a family road trip to build memories and foster connection. As any road tripping parent knows in their heart, the destination is only part of the family road trip. The journey itself embodies an opportunity for bonding, exploration, and shared discovery. That’s why we take these road trips with our kids, while they’re kids. And it’s why we hope that, with the road trip tips above, you’ll have even better driving vacations with your kids.