How to Road-Trip with Kids

Step one: Hide the iPad.

Photograph courtesy of MNStudio/

Many parents are intimidated by long road trips with kids, and for good reason: It’s hard enough to psych yourself up for long hours crammed in a car on Midwestern highways without adding crabby kids to the mix. But it’s very possible to have a great family trip; you just need a little thoughtful planning and patience.

Here are a few friendly tips from one veteran road-tripping parent to another:

1. As I said: Hide that iPad, and hide it well. You will probably want it later, but only as a last resort. The kids are going to want it like 10 minutes in. But don’t do it! Because here’s the thing about screens in the car: They are perfect as short-term distractions or fixes, but terrible for keeping kids happy long-term. After too much time on a screen (any more than, say, one feature-length film), and kids start to get moody, their necks get sore, their eyes get dry, and they get bored. They can’t look away, but they’re kinda mad about it. Screens can also inhibit sleep, which is the last thing you want to do on a car ride. And once a kid is kind of bored of watching shows or playing games, and tired but not sleepy, then you’re really on the clock. Because that’s when the real whining and fighting begins.

2. Which brings me to the second most challenging multi-kid road trip issue: fighting. They’ll fight about everything: snacks, books, toys, seatbelts, legroom, headroom, breathing, unwanted eye contact. Anything. After all, road trips can get really dull, and fighting is anything but. Go into your family road trip with this reality in mind, and you’ll be less exasperated when it eventually happens. And there are solutions:

3. Audiobooks! They have all the immersive entertainment of screens with very few of the aforementioned disadvantages. Your kids might actually look out the window! Technically, audiobooks count as reading, which is especially great for ages 3-5, who can appreciate long-form stories but can’t quite read independently yet. Or for those who get motion sickness. Download a few in advance and listen together—or hand over some headphones and enjoy the sweet, sweet silence.

4. Consider your snacks. This is not the time to be pumping your kids full of candy and pop. It might seem fun at first, but you will pay for it later on when they crash and are irritable, over-sugared, and in need of protein but not actually hungry. Start with whole foods (personal favorites include almonds, apples, bananas, berries, cut-up carrots, and broccoli florets) and go from there. Add plain yogurt, sour cream, or peanut butter for dipping. And stick to water or milk. For at least one meal, pack ready-made sandwiches (lunch meat, PB&J) to help you survive the gauntlet of highway fast-food, which will only make you feel gross and your car smell bad. In short: Try to mimic a “normal” food routine—three main, sorta balanced meals and two snack times—with maybe a couple well-timed treats.

Finally, don’t forget to pack a few important car-snacking accessories: a garbage bag, individual cups and bowls, and napkins and/or baby wipes. You will need all of these. At each gas stop, do a mini trash purge.

5. Take time to get out of the car every couple hours or so. Shoo the kids out at pit stops, and get them to stretch, run in place, and breathe some fresh air. It’s good for morale and necessary for healthy circulation.

Boredom is OK. Boredom is actually good. Kids think and get creative when they’re bored. Road trips are great practice for managing boredom, detoxing from screens, and absorbing the world around you. And that was the point of the trip, right?

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