For more than a decade we lived over 1,500 miles from most of our extended family. Every summer, we made an annual pilgrimage from the Midwest to the Western United States to go visit grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins. As our family grew, it became more cost-effective to drive and so began my efforts to make the journey part of the destination.
This doesn’t mean it was always pleasant! I’ll never forget when our air conditioning went out driving through Nebraska. The youngest of our five kids was only six weeks old. Just imagine a new mom with four hot, sweaty kids, plus a newborn, and young dad trying to keep everyone sane while navigating traffic. Not a pretty sight. We’ll forever be indebted to the Honda dealership in Omaha, Nebraska who immediately got our van into the shop for repairs and got us back on the road!
These kinds of experiences bind families together.
In our digital era, we often want to avoid boredom, discomfort, and dealing with the hard stuff. I know many families who allow free-reign with electronic devices on road trips for this reason. It’s much easier to hand everyone a device and just let everyone zone out, but if we do this, we miss out on unique opportunities to connect with one another.
Being confined to the same space for hours on end allows families to have a shared experience and promotes family unity—bickering and all!
Easy isn’t always best.
Here are some strategies we’ve used over the years to enjoy the journey and keep our family tight:
Create a Vision and Prepare
- Communicate with a spouse and kids about what you’d like your road trip to look like. If your kids are used to spending every minute of travel time on a device, you’ll need to first have a conversation with your spouse about what changes you would like to make. Will you continue to bring devices along or not? If so, what limits will there be? Then have the conversation with your kids about why you’d like to make some changes and have them help decide if and when devices will be used.
- Focus on the fun. Forget about screens and decide what you will do instead. What will make the road trip memorable for you and the kids?
- Get everyone involved in the planning the trip. We always ask the kids what they really want to do when we are on our trip. Even when we are visiting family, we get our kids input on favorite activities.
- Have your kids help prepare for the trip. A few weeks ago, two of our teenage nieces were visiting and went on the road trip with us. Tyler had all of the kids, including our nieces, wash and clean the van. There were seven kids/teens cleaning and helping out. A few benefits: everyone is more likely to try to keep the vehicle clean during the trip and it helps kids to not feel entitled. They understand that there is work involved in getting ready for a trip! Our older kids also did some baking for the trip so they would have some special treats to eat on the road. Then we had everyone pack their own lunch the night before so sack lunches were ready to go! Budget-friendly and everyone gets to pick what they want.
Keep a Tradition Alive (or Start a New One!)
Is there a game that played in the car growing up or a phrase that your parents always said when you were riding in the car? Keep it alive! Share it with your kids. My mom and I played name-that-tune more times than I can count. (As a result, I can tell you the names of many musical artists from the 60’s and 70’s!) It was so simple, and yet it was a shared experience that helped my mom and I feel connected. On our last road trip just last week, my teen had made a Spotify playlist (highly recommend this!) and included music for all ages. We played name-that-tune off and on during the whole ten-hour drive. So fun.
Add an Element of Surprise
Who doesn’t love surprises? Years ago, I started a new tradition of wrapping surprises for each of my kids to open up along the way. I always reserve part of our trip money for this. I never wrap anything fancy. I usually use tissue paper or paper grocery bags. Then I number each surprise on the outside and create a bag for each child. With five kids, this takes some time and some space in our van, but it well worth it!
You can find great things in the dollar section at Target, the Dollar Store, Cracker Barrel (Usually lots of fun travel options in their store!), Amazon, and don’t forget your local shops. We have an amazing local bookstore, toy store, and stationary store that all carry fun, and unique games and books.
This year I ordered two road trip boxes from Craft and Boogie for my younger kids for one of our road trips. She has everything set to go in one box. I think my kids prefer the wrapped version, but if you are short on time, this is a good option.
I usually just handed the surprises out every few hours, but on our last trip we tried out Meck Mom’s tip and made mile markers with post-it notes and put them on the window. Each time we passed 100 miles, we opened up a new surprise or initiated a fun “together” activity such as a movie or a game.
Here are some of our favorite surprises:
- Pack of gum or Ice Breakers (lots of flavors to choose from).
- A special treat (I try to pick something special and unique for each kid. Find small inexpensive items to give in between bigger items.)
Sticker books. They aren’t cheap, but the stickers are reusable and it’s one of those great activities that kids can return to again and again while driving!
Paint By Sticker books. We’ve loved this one for our younger kids.
Mad Libs are the best! We have this Road Trip version.
Comic books. We have several volumes of these Garfield comic books. The kids love them and pass them around.
Geography/Map books for your map lovers. Our son has loved all of these and all of our kids love this flip the states license plate game. We always bring it along!
Travel Games. These are a few we love! Mini lego sets are great. Just bring along a small plastic bin that can slide under a seat. Legos are the gift that keep on giving.
Non-messy Activities. These are some we’ve purchased and loved! The window crayons are a blast for older kids and teens.
Keep the brain busy. Again, we’ve purchased and liked all of these!
For the Teens. If they don’t have a phone consider bringing a camera along. Many teens like taking photos along the way! The trick here is to find something that YOUR teen is into. Our daughter loves art. What does your teen like?
For the little ones. These are all things our little people loved!
Things each kid takes along:
- A book.
- A clipboard.
- Markers or colored pencils. (Everyone shares these.)
- Reading light.
- Travel pillow. (Our kids all have the one below. Easy to wash in the washing machine.)
Prepare Activities for the Whole Family to Enjoy Together
Car time is conversation time, but is also time to learn, to connect, to rest, and let your mind wander. If we are always connected to a device, we miss out on all of those things!
I try to avoid hopping on my phone for mindless activities and instead focus on talking to Tyler or the kids. When our kids were all little, I spent a lot of time just keeping everyone happy.
Now that we have a teenager with a device, I do my best to have a conversation ahead of time of our purpose of our trip and keep her busy and happy with other distractions so her focus isn’t on a phone. I like to give her the benefit of the doubt and let her learn to use it as a tool, and only intervening if it becomes too much of a distraction from our family’s road trip experience.
In order to create a family experience I plan a few activities that the family can do together ahead of time! Here are of our favorites:
- Podcasts. Some of my kids love them and some detest them. 🙂 Our younger kids love Circle Round. We’ve even printed off coloring pages that go with the story on their website here. If you have older kids, How I Built This is a fun podcast.
- Audio books. Download the free Libby App and connect it to your library card for free audiobooks! If you’re looking for a popular one, but sure to put it on hold early! We have also used Audible as there are so many options for immediate download. (Here is a link for two free audio books if you want to try out Audible!) We’ve often referenced these lists at Read Aloud Revival and Modern Mrs. Darcy for audiobook recommendations. So good! And we always love Harry Potter with Jim Dale.
- Playlists. We have our older kids/teens create a playlist on Spotify and then download it so we don’t have to use data in the car. We passed a lot of time playing name-that-tune on our last road trip with three teenagers in the van.
- Conversation Games. The Alphabet Game, Disney Character Guessing Game (like 20 Questions), make up a story (our younger kids love to pick the character and the setting and then we make something up), Would You Rather?
- Occasional movie. Download a few movies from your favorite video streaming service (Disney+, Netflix, Amazon). Let all the kids pick something they’d like. Limit the number you download so it’s not something you’ll use much. (We used to pick up two movies from Redbox the night before our trip (or sometimes on the way) and then return them when we arrive at our destination! Still an option if you have an old-fashioned DVD player!) We prefer this type of screen time over individual screen time because it’s a shared experience. Everyone can laugh together.
- Plan fun stops along the way. We’ve stopped at bigger locations such as Mt. Rushmore and lesser known places such as fossil digging in Wyoming! Consider your kids’ interests and do something they’ll love. Our kids loved digging for fossils. You can use Roadside America to find random stops along your route!
All of this planning requires more effort than just cramming everyone into the car, handing over a device, and hitting the road, but it’s worth it!
I’m determined to keep our family road trip traditions alive—teenagers and all. Because after all, easy isn’t always best.
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This is a very thoughtful post! Thanks for sharing your ideas!
I’m so glad this was helpful for you, Theresa! Thanks for taking the time to say so! 🙂
We are avid road trippers (for similar reasons: no family close by), and as the kids get older we’ve definitely resorted to throwing back their devices and letting them zone out just to get some peace and quiet. But this post has slapped some sense back into me and inspired me to go back to more present, shared experiences for our future road trips. The ideas and resources you’ve shared here are absolute gold! Thank you so much for taking the time to put this together!
Hi Sarah! I’m so glad! Yes, it’s easy to default to tech now days, and I feel like especially when kids get older. But we can fight to keep old traditions alive and stay connected as a family! 🙂 So glad you’re here.