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Whether you’re traveling to see relatives, to explore exciting new places, or to revisit old favorites, road trips are an important part of family life for most families.
My family does several big road trips each year. We’ve always lived several-hours’ drive from relatives – so five- to twelve-hour drives have been part of every family reunion (and we really value getting together with our families). Plus we love to do a big family road trip somewhere new and exciting for spring break each year.
I used to see road trips as a necessary evil. The packing was stressful, and I often ended up bringing too much of some things and too little of others. Then the time in the car was exhausting as I tried to keep babies and toddlers and preschoolers happy with songs and games and snacks (I felt like I was keeping a three-ring circus going for hours on end, and sometimes, despite my best efforts, there was crying and bickering galore).
But as with so many things, “that which we persist in doing becomes easier, not that the task itself has become easier, but that our ability to perform it has improved” (Ralph Waldo Emerson). I’ve persisted. I’ve learned a lot about what to pack and how to pack it. I’ve learned about how to make car time not only bearable, but actually quite wonderful. And the kids have gotten older, which has certainly made many things easier (but adds its own challenges as well). I’m pleased (and somewhat surprised) to be able to report that those once-dreaded car trips are now some of our favorite family experiences.
And because road trips became such good experiences, we decided to do a 3-week road trip all the way across the United States last summer, putting on FIVE Power of Moms Retreats as part of the trip. After that big trip, I have to say we’re pretty much experts on road tripping now!
Of course, different things will work for different families, but here are some hard-won tips that work for my family and that might help make your road trips less stressful and more joyful:
- Less is More: No matter how long our trip is going to be, I’ve learned that it works great to bring just 2-3 pairs of pants/shorts and 3-4 shirts per person (4 for the child I have who tends to spill more and get dirtier) and plan on doing some laundry somewhere (most motels have coin-operated washers and driers and we often stay with people for part of the trip and can use their laundry facilities). The less “stuff” we’re lugging around, the better. I try to pack things that don’t show much dirt (denim, medium-darker colors, plaid and other patterns). And if the kids’ clothes are only a little dirty, I spot clean or
simply ignore non-obvious, non-smelly dirt. Super clean clothes just aren’t worth the bother on vacations.
- Packing Method: I use a big duffle bag to pack all the kids’ clothes together – but I organize the contents by sorting things into smaller bags that fit inside the duffle (plastic grocery store sacks work fine – just loosely tie the handles together to keep things from spilling out). I put all the kids’ underwear (3-4 pairs each) and socks (3-4 pairs each) together in one bag so I can quickly grab underwear for kids in the shower or bath and socks for all the kids as we head out the door each morning. I put all the kids’ pjs together in another (you often need them so kids can put on their pjs in the car before they fall asleep, and then easily transfer when you arrive). I pack all the swim suits together in another little bag (everyone will likely want their swimsuits at the same time). I sometimes pack all the kids’ shirts and pants together in the duffle and sometimes put each child’s pants and shirts in their own plastic bag to keep them separate and easier to find. I use a sharpie to write on the bags – “underwear,” “Ashton’s clothes,” etc.
- Shoes: I pack a separate bag that contains everyone’s hiking/running/closed-toed shoes if we’ll be needing those. I don’t like dirty shoes mixed in with the other clothes in a bag, and most of the time the kids will be wearing flip flops or sandals in the car when we travel in the summer so it’s nice to keep the bulkier shoes separate.
- Sweatshirts/Jackets: I pack a separate bag with just everyone’s sweatshirts and/or rain jackets and keep that bag in the car all the time during our trip. Then, when it gets chilly and everyone wants a sweatshirt, we can easily grab sweatshirts without rifling through everything else.
- Nice Clothes: If we’ll need Sunday/dress-up/nicer clothes, I pack everyone’s nice stuff (shoes, socks and clothes) into one shared garment/hang-up bag. Since we all need that stuff at the same time – and likely just once – it’s great to have it all together–and put it away all together at the bottom of the pile in the car when we’re done with it for the trip.
Overall Baggage Summary: When all seven of us travel, here’s what we bring: a large duffle with all the kids’ clothes (3-4 shirts for each child, 2-3 pairs of pants or shorts each, a good neck pillow for baby, a bag of underwear and socks, a bag of all the kids’ pajamas, a bag of everyone’s swim suits), a small duffle bag for me and one for my husband (I don’t like anyone else messing with what’s in my bag), and a garment bag with everyone’s nice/Sunday clothes (if needed). We often bring sleeping bags for each child as well (we are usually packed as a family into one room at a hotel or a guest room at the home of friends or family so we need those sleeping bags). We can carry all this into a hotel or wherever we’re staying in one load quite easily. Works great. Of course, we used to have a stroller and port-a-crib (or two, thanks to the twins) to bring along and needed to add a couple baby blankets and quite a few diapers in their own plastic bag in the kids’ duffle bag – but still, we traveled relatively light.
- Checklist: I have a checklist of what needs to be packed and done that I use for every trip. This makes it SO much easier and keeps me from forgetting very much. You can make a list and then tweak it after your first road trip. Then every time you’ve got a road trip coming up, you print out your list and follow it and it’s so simple! Here’s my list if you’d like to check it out and create your own version by copying and pasting it into a Word document:
Road Trip Packing and Prep Checklist
- Helpers: I have the kids help me pack. I send one child to get three pair of underwear for each person, another one to get all the socks, someone to get the pj’s, etc. When they come back with each item (and I check to be sure it’s the right stuff and pack it into the bag), I check it off my checklist.
- Where to Pack: I do laundry the day before a trip and put the stuff I’ll be packing into piles as I fold the laundry. Then I usually pack in the laundry room so that I can pack the freshly folded laundry for each person right there in one place rather than having to go room-to-room to gather everything needed.
- Prep for Dirty Clothes: I pack a draw-string laundry bag or trash bag so that I can keep dirty clothes in one place (and I check clothes to see if they are actually very dirty before they go in the bag – I really like to minimize laundry). This bag often fits inside the kids’ duffle (since clothes from the duffle end up in the laundry bag).
Snacks and Meals: We have a small collapsible cooler that we fill with fruits and veggies (baby carrots and grapes are staples) plus a few other healthy snacks like almonds, Kashi crackers and cookies (the Original 7-Grain Crackers are our favorite), Trader Joes honey whole wheat pretzels, etc. I used to pack along sandwiches and other healthy meal food but that ended up being a big hassle. But we decided that since we pretty much ONLY have fast food on road trips and there are somewhat healthy and cheap options at Subway and Taco Bell, we’ll generally just go with restaurant food on road trips. We give out the fruits and veggies from our little cooler to tide people over until a meal break, to be sure they’re getting better nutrition than fast food alone can provide, and to keep them hydrated. We also bring a refillable water bottle full of water for each person – but we like to minimize the drinking that happens in the car in the car because random drinks = random needs for bathroom breaks, and we try to get everyone needing to use the bathroom on close to the same schedule. If we’re thirsty, grapes or carrots help without making the bathroom need imminent! We try to make a point of having everyone drink quite a lot about a half hour before we’ll be stopping for gas or for a meal – then they can use the bathroom during a scheduled stop. For drinks, we only allow water in the car which means no messy spills. I’ve found that the more sugary stuff (drinks, candy, cookies, fruit snacks…) the kids eat in the car, the more on-edge and fidgety they are. Sugar gives quick energy — energy kids don’t really need in the car.
- Screen Time: Back when our kids were little, our road trips were revolutionized when we bought a little portable TV with a built-in VCR and the Wiggles and Veggie Tales and Bob the Builder became very welcome parts of our road trips. Later on we upgraded to a nice built-in DVD player in the car and enjoyed grabbing a DVD or two at a Redbox as a special treat during road trips. But even when the kids were really young, we played lots of games in the car and held off on screen time until we’d done other fun stuff first. Now that the kids are older, we’ve really decreased screen time in the car and increased the individual reading time, family podcast and audio book-listening time, family game time, and discussion of the scenery and history of areas we drove through. Then last year, our in-car DVD player broke and we decided not to bother fixing it. It’s been great to not even have the temptation. The kids enjoy some limited time playing on a smart phone or tablet (check out the points system we came up with that allows kids to earn screen time in the car here), but we really limit screen time in the car these days. We have an absolute “no screen time” rule when we’re passing through an area with interesting scenery or when we’re reading or listening to an audio book or podcast together. There are a lot of specific ideas for non-screen car activities if you read on.
- Car Supplies: Along with snacks, we try to keep the car constantly stocked with these things in easily-accessible places (door pockets, under seats, cup holders, etc.):
- Water bottles – one for each person with their name written on it in permanent marker (we refill at each stop so we have less bottles to lug around, plus it’s the environmentally friendly thing to do)
- Wet wipes (they’re not just for babies!)
- Tissues or paper towels (or all the extra napkins you don’t end up using at a fast-food place)
- First aid kit with band-aids and medicines you might need (stuff for upset stomachs and aches and pains)
- Bug spray and sun screen
- Pillows for kids to sleep in the car more comfortably (We use old throw pillows or 1/2 sized camping pillows – regular-sized pillows take up way too much space. Tip: put the little pillows in whatever old regular pillow cases you have on hand – easier to keep clean that way.)
- Books to read
- Journals to write in
- A tablet or phone for kids to play games on when they’ve earned some screen time (they can earn screen time through reading or writing in their journals – check out details on how we do this here if you like)
- Chargers for phones and electronics
- Car Activities: Here’s a sampling of what we do in the car (and for a whole lot more car time activities, check out this recent post on my blog: A Glimpse Into Our Car Time )
- We play “I Spy” and the alphabet game a lot (where you find each letter of the alphabet on signs or cars)
- We tell stories where each person gets to add a part to a silly story
- We read from chapter books together or listen to audio books (from Audiobooks.com or from the library).
- Sometimes Jared or I sit in the back so that one of us can do story time or a fun game and one of the big kids sits in the front with the driver to enjoy a little one-on-one time up there.
- Thanks to our smart phones, we have the big kids look up information about the area we’re driving through and give a little report to the rest of the family.
- We listen to favorite songs (my big kids love making playlists for road trips or playing their latest favorite songs for us in the car – and certain songs end up becoming theme songs for certain trips which is really fun).
- The kids are extra motivated to read and write in their journals when we let them earn special treats like candy bars or 30 minutes of screen time on a phone or tablet by reading or writing a certain number of pages. My son Ashton explained our whole “car points systems” on my blog here. I have to say it works quite nicely!
- My younger children still LOVE listening to the animated audio story series, Alexander’s Amazing Adventures (they think it’s just fun stories and songs but they’re actually learning about honesty, kindness, courage, and lots more important values/character traits). Sign up for a FREE story here if you want to try it out.
- Getting the Wiggles Out: Whenever we stop for food, gas or a bathroom break, we make a point of doing some active stuff. Sometimes we can find a park right on our route (thank you, GPS). But usually we just find an open area (even an empty part of a parking lot works fine) and do some races, play tag, or simply run around the car 10 times or so (timing kids to see if they can beat their time for 10 laps around the car the last time we stopped can be a good incentive). Kids seem to behave much better in the car if they get a chance to run around every few hours.
- Hotels: On our recent 3-week road trip across the United States, we found that it worked beautifully to book a hotel via Priceline or Hotwire on the day-of rather than booking further in advance. We usually were’t sure exactly how far we’d get each day so it was great to just hop on the mobile Hotwire or Priceline app on my phone towards the end of the day and see which nearby towns had good “Express Deals” on hotels for that evening. With the Express Deals, you get to see the number of stars and what amenities a hotel has and a price but not the hotel name. We liked the 2.5 star hotels because they were generally very nice and always included free breakfast, free internet and free parking (the 3-star hotels seemed about the same as far as how nice they were but didn’t offer free breakfast, internet or parking most of the time). So we’d look for the 2.5 star hotel with the best price and highest reviewer scores (we go for something with at least a 7.5 on reviews – on a scale of 1-10) in Express Deals. We’ve always found a good place to stay using this method and we’ve paid much less than what seemed to be typical had we booked in advance. Including taxes and fees, we paid from $65-110/room per night for a nice 2.5 star hotel.
I hope some of these tips and ideas will help reduce the stress and increase the fun and enjoyment on your next family road trip.
Please add your own tips and ideas in the comment area below and good luck with your own upcoming road trips!
*** MORE RESOURCES ON ROAD TRIPS:
- This 20-minute podcast was recorded DURING a 3-week road trip: Road-Tripping with Kids
- For more ideas on car time, check out Saren’s blog post here: A Glimpse Into Our Car Time
- Check out great ideas from another mom here: Grateful for a Long Road Trip
- There are some great tips from our Power of Moms readers on packing and planning and making family trips more of a vacation and less of a hassle in the comments here: How do you take the stress out of family vacations?
QUESTION: What works for you when it comes to packing and enjoying family road trips?
CHALLENGE: Decide on a few things you’ll do to make your packing experience more effective and less stressful and make your car-time more fun and meaningful.
*** Become a member of The Power of Families (it’s absolutely free) and we’ll set you up with instant access to a sampling of our best materials that are accessible only by members of our site PLUS we’ll send you an email every week full of concrete ideas for purposeful parents.
Images provided by Saren Eyre Loosli.
Heather W. says
Have you posted your packing list on this site already? I’d love a copy.
April Perry says
Coming in about 10 minutes . . . 🙂
How ’bout the Word Doc. one, can’t get it to work?
Amazing how the articles that I need come just at the right time. I was just sitting down to rethink my packing strategy and here this is sitting in my e-mail…amazing.
I can’t get the Word doc to work either. Says the page can’t load. I’d love to have a copy. This is a great article.
Saren Eyre Loosli says
It should be working now!
I like to use clear ziplock bags for packing kids clothes because you can see with a glance what is in it. One per kid for socks and underwear labled with that kids name on it.
Also, we pack a lot of meal type food in a cooler so we don’t have to stop at a fast food place for lunch (this is a big deal for people with allergies or who are trying to eat healthy). Instead we find a school or playground, and have a picnic and much needed chance to stretch and run around.
Thanks for the tips, interesting article.
Perfect timing, as usual! I’m taking my kids on our first extended road trip this weekend. Off to rethink my packing strategy!!
Great tips! I’m posting all month about healthy travel – eating, exercising and relationship building – check it out!
Thanks for this great resource. I only have one baby right now, and taking a road trip already feels daunting to me! 🙂 I know this article will help me in the future!
daisy phillips says
Saren… I LOVEEE this article. We do road trips ALL THE TIME so this is really helpful. I already pack everything separately within the suitcases (think geographic areas within), but my husband never knows where everything is so I always end up grabbing stuff for all of us. This bag concept – is just genius… simply brilliant, I’d probably go as far as to use different colors from grocery store collections so I can say – it’s in the Trader Joe’s or Albertsons bag hahaha! Our biggest problem right now is packing all the baby stuff so I LOVE the concept of clothes that don’t look as dirty hehe, I just realized this with the last trip avoiding whites all together and bringing my bleach pen everywhere (avoid it on plane trips, I’ve had it confiscated unless checked cuz of the bleach). I also like to bring a small ziploc bag of medicine because I HATE buying expensive stuff you didn’t realize you needed and have to buy at a very expensive price! I know you can always use it in the future but it does expire (I just threw away a ton!). Thanks again!!!
Great article! We’re preparing for a 6 week adventure & I love the ideas! For some reason I can’t use the word doc link … just wondering if there’s a way to access that version so I can edit it? Thanks!!
My tips… we carry a small potty in our van – one that has a deep dish to avoid spills and is also well balanced so it doesn’t turn over. We use it all the time – even for longer trips to the park. I’ve also recently started a plastic shoe box for first aid supplies and just throw it in as is, rather than repacking supplies each time.
Marinda Bush says
Great ideas! You just made packing for our road trips so much more simple! Thanks.
Great Tips! Thanks! We have taken several 20 hour road trips to Florida and it can be challenging. I gift wrap small gifts (dollar store finds, coloring books, car games, etc.) and each time we cross a state border my girls get to open one gift. They love opening the presents and are always watching for the “Welcome to …” signs. I also give them each a piggy bank and if there is no fighting and good behavior they are awarded quarters every so often. They can then spend their money when we stop for gas. We also pack sandwiches made on small round dollar buns – easy to pack and eat! Here’s to happy and safe travels!
Saren Eyre Loosli says
Great ideas – thanks for adding what works for your family!
Heather W. says
Thanks for including the printable list, that really helps! Good ideas for car strategies as well.
would love to hear some more toddler specific tips. Travelling for the 4th with a 17 month old. Timing/food suggestions would be helpful – and how much stuff for this age group….toys, books, diapers, wipes, etc.
Saren Eyre Loosli says
When I had toddlers, I found that it worked well to plan to stop every 2 hours to let them run around a bit – it doesn’t need to be a park, just a grassy area anywhere will do. I’d run around with the kids because I needed the exercise as well! It’s great to pack lots of non-messy snacks like baby carrots and grapes – and my kids loved frozen peas in a little baggie as a snack as well. 2-3 year olds often enjoy simple guessing games like “I Spy with my little eye something that is green” – then they guess and guess. And if you read on below, there are lots of fun ideas for toddlers that people have suggested.
I have to say that it’s really OK for most toddlers to have a little screen time in the car on a long trip – it can be a sanity-saver for kids and parents alike. After snacks and games and music and singing, sometimes a little screen time is a nice thing to throw in the mix.
Heather Novak says
We plan to travel through the night with our 1 and 3 yo girls…and will be using your list and many tips THANK YOU!!!!
Love this! We’re doing a major road trip in a week, and I’m so grateful for all these ideas.
Thank you!! I used your ideas for a 2 week trip my family (4 young kids) just took. I also took along 4 plastic dish tubs, and when we arrived at each destination, I emptied each child’s bag of clothes into their ‘tub’, making it easier to find their clothes without too much rummaging. Thanks for the great ideas! It made packing and living on the road SO much easier!
Saren Eyre Loosli says
Such a great idea!
Jenn Taylor says
If we plan on doing any swimming, I take 3 towels & 3 Shammy cloths- for drying a car(available at Target for about $7). These are perfect for the water park! They dry you off quickly and take very little room. One shammy cloth can dry a whole group and they weigh less then a wet towel. When leaving just ring out the excess water and put them in a ziplock bag. Just be sure to wash as soon as you get home and let air dry.
Saren Eyre Loosli says
Thanks so much for the great ideas on the plastic tubs and shammy cloths – I’ll definitely be incorporating these ideas for our next road trip!
Brooke Price says
Love these ideas. I always pack a plastic container with a lid (think large ice cream tub) for that just in case car sick moment. It seems to come in handy with us. Also, my kids are at an age that we are able to pack dry erase markers that they can write on the windows with…think hangman, school, landscape art.
Rebecca Walters says
Love this article! Thanks for passing on your advice! I can see how doing these simple things can dramatically improve my road tripping with my kids! Gracias!
I’d like to know how you cram 7 people into a priceline room as they only guarantee a room for 2 people and most standard rooms have a limit of 4-5 people per room. Did you ever get in trouble with management?
Saren Eyre Loosli says
We sometimes get 2 rooms, sometimes 1. If I’m traveling alone with the kids, I just get one room since hotels don’t allow children under 18 in a room by themselves and adjoining rooms are few and far between. Children under 18 stay free at pretty much every hotel and if kids are fine with sleeping in a sleeping bag on the floor in their parents’ room, there’s no problem. Priceline encourages you to call the hotel and request a king or 2 doubles/queens after booking. We always call and request the two beds and then have some kids in sleeping bags on the floor and it works great.
Great article – not sure my need to be prepared would allow me to pack only the day before!! We usually head to warmer climate, so easy to pack in advance! Loved the “Get the Wiggles out” section!
I love the point system for my 10 & 12 year old. Any ideas on how to make something like that work with a 4 year old?!? Thanks!
You mentioned that you are able to stay in one room with the 5 kids at hotels.
I too have 5 kids and often run into the problem of having to book 2 rooms because they ask how many are traveling. When I say 5 kids they tell me I have to get 2 rooms.
How do you handle this?
We road-trip all the time with 4 little kids this year we’ve added a 5th. We also don’t do screens of any sort. We have recently started buying the older kids (4,6,8) disposable cameras (thought I’m finding it increasingly difficult to find a place to develop them). They love being able to take their own pictures. I also have “car bag” for each of them with toys and coloring supplies in it. The best toy is the cookie sheet with magnetic shapes. We all love playing with it. I pack a hotel/camping bag for the few days drive to our destination, that way we only have to bring in one or two bags instead of everything. I made travel pillows by cutting a normal pillow into two and sewing up the cut side. It worked great. Food is still the toughest part since I find it hard to keep food cold enough. This summer we’re doing a lot of camping so I’m playing around with dehydrated meals.
Roseann Baisley says
Thanks for sharing these great tips! We like to leave early in the morning so the kids are still sleepy and in their pajamas. We can usually get a few hours down the road before they really wake up. At that point we eat our breakfast and they change clothes. They love it!
To keep the cost down on food we pack one meal a day in a cooler. We find groceries stores along our journey to restock the cooler. Shopping at the grocery store keeps us from eating every meal in a restaurant and within our trip budget.
Sarah Bond says
Thank you SO much for sharing your wisdom! Other sites I found wanted my email and to put me on a list. I didn’t need that, just some tried and true tips. You’ve given that and more!
This is absolutely brilliant advice and so practical. I will definitely be referring back to this our next family trip! Thank you:)
You mentioned that you have sleeping bags for hotel rooms or when you’re staying with friends. Do you buy one hotel room and sleep everyone in it, or does the hotel require you to get two rooms since you’re a bigger family? We have a family of 7, so it’s tricky. Some places have suites that are for 6, but it’s hard to find 7 without getting two rooms.