Nervous about taking a family vacation with kids this summer? Traveling with kids really is doable–even fun–when you’re prepared with these essential road trip activities and tips.
NOTE: THIS POST INCLUDES AFFILIATE LINKS TO PRODUCTS I HAVE USED AND LOVED, BUT AS ALWAYS FEEL FREE TO SHOP AROUND FOR THE BEST DEALS. SEE MY DISCLOSURE TO LEARN MORE.
Some people say you can’t travel with kids…I say you just have to travel differently. As many of you know, my little family lives in Utah, but we have traveled all over the USA together: Oregon, Florida, Maine, Georgia, San Francisco, and–most recently–San Diego. We’ve done short, two-hour road trips as well as thirteen-hour marathons.
Road trips certainly aren’t as relaxing as they were before kids, but they are still totally doable–even fun! It just requires a bit of planning and preparation.
(This picture is of us after seven hours of driving…taking selfies to pass the time. You gotta do what you gotta do!)
Any good road trip needs a handful of essential ingredients to make it enjoyable:
When it comes to snacks for the car, think outside the box of granola bars and goldfish crackers (although I usually do pack those). A lot of people think of road trip food as junk food, but I’ve found that my kids get pretty irritable if they don’t get at least some fruits and veggies, too.
But how can you pack healthy food for a road trip? Isn’t it messy?
Not if you choose the right foods. Here are some of our favorites:
- baby carrots
- sliced cucumbers
- apples (either sliced, or give a kid the WHOLE apple…which is a treat for my boys because I never let them have an entire apple to themselves. Bonus: it takes a while to eat, so it keeps them occupied)
- string cheese
- peanut butter sandwich
- roasted almonds
- squeezable fruit/veggie pouches
- dried fruit
- toddler trail mix
It’s also nice to have some of this healthy food on hand to supplement the meals we stop for along the way. I can only eat a hamburger and fries so many times before my body starts craving something wholesome. Most restaurant food is lacking in the fruits and veggies department, so I like to bring a bag of carrots or something in with us to snack on alongside our meal.
Awesome mom tip: If you want to kill two birds with one stone, have your kids make a cereal necklace before you go, and let them much on it in the car. It keeps them occupied while you pack AND during the car ride. WIN! A little crumby, but worth the time it will occupy them!
2. SOME ROCKIN’ TUNES
Do not underestimate the power of music to restore sanity to your circus of a car. My kids all LOVE music, and it’s a great distraction from the hours and hours we spend in the car.
Load up your phone with your kids’ favorite tunes, grab some CDs, or just stream from Pandora or YouTube if you’ve got reception and don’t have to worry about data usage.
Here are a few ways to make music fun in the car:
- Have a sing-a-long
- In-your-seat dance party (my kids think it’s funny to see mommy rockin’ out)
- Play “name that tune”…either play the beginning of a song until someone guesses right, or even just take turns humming your favorite tunes
- Take turns letting kids choose what song to play
Here are some more fun car games to play using music.
We also use quiet, classical music to calm our kids down when we want them to rest and nap.
Related: Five beautiful lullabies you probably don’t know…but you’ll love
3. STUFF TO DO
Let me just start by saying that thirteen hours in a car is a LOOOONG time to occupy a child who typically has a five-minute attention span. There’s no way around that. Still, it really is possible!
We just got back from a trip to San Diego where we drove ALL. DAY. LONG. We left San Diego at 8:00 in the morning and finally pulled into our own driveway at 9:30 at night, with only few short breaks for food, potty, and gas. I was exhausted by the end of the trip, but we managed to get through the entire day without any major meltdowns (even from the nine-month-old baby…blessings). HOORAY!
Yes, we have two tablets that the two older boys used, but we only actually pulled them out twice, for about three hours total. They are a great tool, but we don’t use them for the entire drive.
So what did we do for the other NINE hours???
Here are our favorite road trip activities to keep the kids occupied.
A few notes about how we make road trips work:
I let each of my boys pack their own small backpack with a few toys, books, and stuffed animals that they want to bring. I always try to inspect their choices and hold veto power in case they want to bring something that I am afraid might cause a mess or get lost (unless it’s something that I would LOVE to have get lost…you know those toys).
I also pack my own “mommy bag of tricks” filled with activities to keep them busy. It kind of makes me feel like Mary Poppins. 🙂 I keep these activities up in the front with me, then I pull them out whenever I feel like the boys are getting antsy and need something new to do.
I also have cheap clip boards (similar to these) that I give to each of the kids for holding coloring pages, scavenger hunts, and other printable road trip activities (see below for ideas).
Mom tip: Do NOT pack crayons for the car. Hot cars + wax crayons = bad news. Instead, we use colored pencils. They work great…and they don’t result in rainbow melted wax on my car upholstery. If your kids are older, you could pack markers, but they are more likely to stain. Trust me, just stick with the pencils.
Okay, now onto our fave activities!
Cheap or Free Road Trip Activities For Kids
The key to road trip activities is NOVELTY. Try to find a few new toys or activities that your kids have never seen before. Here are a few that are around $5 or less.
Water Wow paint books
These Melissa and Doug activity books are fabulous! Fill the brush with water, and your child can paint away on the pages, revealing bright, colorful pictures. My boys love these, and I don’t have to worry about the mess. We have had a few small spills from over-eager kids who thought it was a good idea to unscrew the brush, but since it’s just water they dried out and all was well.
Invisible ink books
This is another great no-mess activity book perfect for the car. The clear marker only writes on the special paper in the book, so there is no danger of stray ink ending up on car seats (and who-knows-where-else). I’ve used the ones pictured, and my boys loved them. Sometimes I’ve been able to score cheaper ones from the dollar spot at Target for $3, but it’s hit and miss as to whether they have them. When I find them, I just buy a couple and keep them hidden until our next road trip.
Travel Felt Board
Before a cross-country plane ride we took a couple of years ago, I created a travel felt board for my boys. It’s cheap, quick to make, and super portable. We still use it regularly on trips, during church, and sometimes I pull it out as a quiet time activity. If you’re traveling with kids, this travel felt board is a super quick DIY craft that makes a great activity for kids stuck on a plane or in a car.
You can learn how to make your own travel felt board in under an hour and for less than five dollars by clicking the image below:
Here are some of the add-on sets I’ve created (all free printable templates) if you’re interested…
- Travel felt board: Under the Sea play set
- Travel Felt Board: Birthday Wishes cupcake play set
- Travel felt board: Silly Jack-o-lantern play set
My boys LOVE tying and untying knots, so the strings that come with lacing cards are super exciting to them. Their favorite game is to have their dad tie a knot in a piece of string and then they have to untangle it. Super simple, but effective.
They also like making “necklaces” by stringing the cards together and putting it around their neck. Obviously, this is an activity you need to supervise to prevent any choking dangers, but we have found it to be a great activity. We got both of our lacing card sets from Target (again, the dollar spot is awesome!), but you can buy nicer ones on Amazon, too, if target is out of stock.
Stickers kept Little Brother (3) occupied for the entire last hour of our drive to San Diego. True, he put them all over himself, his water bottle, ME, and only occasionally in the book, but I had no objections. He was content, and he didn’t put them on anything they couldn’t be removed from. WIN!
These National Geographic sticker books are fabulous. I bought them for my boys as a “congrats on your new baby brother” present when they came to visit their baby brother at the hospital for the first time last August. I love that they have real pictures of animals for my kids to learn about along with interesting facts, puzzles, mazes, etc. They are high quality, and they’re pretty cheap as sticker books go.
If you’re going to be driving after the sun goes down, buy a few glow sticks at the dollar store. My kids LOVE to wave them around in the dark and turn them into necklaces. One dollar, and so much fun!
The Dollar Tree and Michael’s both have coloring books with popular characters (Paw Patrol, Finding Nemo, Frozen, Mickey Mouse, etc.) that only cost a dollar! Even if you have coloring books at home, having a special one for the trip makes it so much more desirable for kids. Just remember to pack colored pencils, too (not crayons).
Things to Spot Books
I LOVE these books from Usborne because kids can look at them practically for-EVER without you actually needing to sit next to them to read to them. A lot of look-and-find books just list the items you’re supposed to hunt for, which doesn’t work well for toddlers and preschoolers who can’t read yet. The Usborne books have pictures around the edge of the page to show you what you’re looking for. So helpful! This is a my three-year-old’s favorite activity.
FREE PRINTABLE ACTIVITIES
There are SO many free printables online that are perfect for road trips. You can print them and use as is, or you can put the printed pages in plastic sheets and use with dry erase markers so they are reusable. I’ve already explained how I feel about small children and markers, so we just use them once, and then recycle the paper at the end of the trip.
These are some of the printable road trip activities we have used and loved in the past:
- The Great Road Race + more road trip games to play
- Road sign BINGO
- Road trip scavenger hunt
- Road trip activity pack (we love the “Alphabet I-spy Race Game” and “Car Color Graphing”)
- Travel pack printables (we love the “license plate game”)
- Lines & Dots game (this site has several other great printables, too)
- “Count on it” (a customizable graphing scavenger hunt…awesome!)
- Truck spotting
- Traffic Jam
OTHER FREE ACTIVITIES
Before we had kids, my husband and I love listening to audio books on the road. We listened to the entire Black Cauldron trilogy on a trip to Banff back in the day. This trip to San Diego, however, is the first time we tried an audio book with our kids.
I wasn’t sure how interested my boys (ages 6 and 3) would be, but I am happy to report…THEY LOVED IT! We got Charlie and the Chocolate Factory from the library and it kept us all happy for four hours! Now, we actually didn’t listen to it all at once. We broke it up into several sessions, but by the time we made it home, we had read the whole book.
Here is a great list of audio books perfect for kids (sorted by age).
Or, try one of our favorite podcasts: 6 fabulous story podcasts for kids
This activity from The Dating Divas (aimed at couples, but could totally be used for families) is a great way to avoid the dreaded “Are we there yet????” question…and corresponding whiny voice. I simplified it by writing numbers on sticky notes and pulling down each number as we got an hour closer to our destination. Simple is good.
We have a dinner tradition these days of asking a “question of the day” that everyone can answer. Conversation starters make a great road trip activity, too! Get 48 free printable conversation starter cards here I created for my own kiddos to get you started. And here are 100 “Would you rather…?” questions from The Measured Mom to keep the fun going even longer.
There you go…plenty of activities to keep your kiddos happy and yourself (mostly) sane on your next road trip as a family. Hopefully, you found something new and useful!
Now, it’s your turn…
What are YOUR best tips for taking a road trip with young kids? Favorite activities for the car? Genius mom hacks? Do tell in the comments!
My sister in law just showed me those water marker books! so cool. great tips and advice 🙂
I agree with the novelty items – they’ll be more excited and (hopefully) be entertained by it longer. Great tips!
Thanks, Jennifer! The Dollar Store is great for finding activities to keep their attention.
Long haul travel with kids can be very daunting but you have some great suggestions here. We have a couple of the Melissa and Doug Water Wows and my boys love them!
Thanks, Rebecca. Melissa and Doug have so many great products…for road trips and otherwise.
Such great tips and ideas!!! We road trip with kids a lot and this is helpful… especially love the idea of the cereal necklace and felt board!!!
THIs came at the perfect time- were leaving on a 6 hour car trip tomorrow! Thank you for the tip about using pencils and not crayons- brilliant!
Good luck of your trip! I hope it goes smoothly!
Pinning this for later! We will be going on 2 road trips next year with our little one.