Planning a road trip with kids? Whether you’re heading to the beach or on a cross-country trek, it’s always important to be prepared, so we’ve compiled a list of the essentials for your journey. Let’s make sure you and your family have everything you need!
Family adventure awaits!
We know it can be tough to come up with fun things to do with the family, so our guides have put together an interactive book full of 50+ activity suggestions for your crew. Adventures From Scratch is packed with page after page of ideas, but each hidden challenge must be uncovered before you can proceed. You won’t know what you’ll be asked to do until you scratch off the coating! Combine this with postcards, journal space, and other interactive elements, and it’s a book you need for your family library.
Must-Haves for a Road Trip with Kids
We’ve talked about road trip essentials before, but when traveling with the whole family, you’ll have to bring along a few items that you might not consider for an adults-only excursion. We’ve put together a list of the must-haves so you can check these off as you prepare for your family trip. You may not need everything on the list, but at least you’ll be able to make an informed decision before you hit the road!
Safety is the number one priority. Each car seat has a different weight and height limit, so you’ll want to make sure you are utilizing your seats correctly to keep your children safe. Even once they reach elementary school age, it’s recommended that kids are in booster seats and remain in the backseat. Booster seats can be effective until children reach the age of 12 or a height of 4 feet 9 inches. The reason it’s safer is it allows the seat belt to sit exactly where it’s meant to on the child.
If you aren’t sure what the safest car seat is for your child, or you were thinking about getting a new one, you can use the safety information from the US Department of Transportation and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. You can also talk to your pediatrician to see what they recommend for your child.
When traveling, it’s easy to find yourself loading up on sodas and juice at the gas station, but water is always the most important drink to keep on hand. Most of us are probably a bit on the dehydrated side.
One simple way to make sure you’re staying healthy and hydrated while on the road is to pack a water bottle for each member of the family. You can fill a giant jug with water from home and then you’ll be able to refill water bottles while on the road. Retailers, like REI and Amazon, sell filters as well where you can actually fill up on water anywhere and filter out anything that is unhealthy.
By planning ahead, you’ll be able to avoid having to buy bottled water at each stop. Sugary drinks and ice cream shakes are a fun treat, but they should definitely not be the norm on a road trip or you’ll have a car full of irritable kids coming down from a sugar rush.
Crafts are a perfect way to help keep kids busy while on long car rides. For the younger children, you can stock up on crayons and coloring books. Another great option that absolutely won’t leave any mess is window clings, like the kind you use at home to decorate on glass for holidays. Those are easy to put up and take down on car windows so kids have something to play with.
Markers are another great option, but if you’re worried about a mess, there are sticker books now where kids can place stickers onto a coloring book page. Another craft kit that is fun for the car is a jewelry-making kit for friendship bracelets or beaded necklaces. It’s easy to work with your hands and do something to keep them busy without requiring too much space or a crazy amount of supplies.
Music is a necessary part of a road trip. Whether your family loves a singalong or just likes to cruise while listening to some classics, music just adds something special to a road trip. It ignites memories for years to come as well and it will be so special for kids to be able to instantly be transported back to family vacations when hearing a specific song.
Put together a playlist ahead of time. Ask each person in the family to submit a few songs or pick a few that you know are their favorites. Set the playlist to shuffle and everyone will have fun guessing who picked each song and waiting for their favorites to come on. You can even get creative and see if there are any songs that correlate with the places you’re visiting. Almost every US State has at least one song written about it and you can make that part of the soundtrack to your road trip.
Road Trip Games
Some of the best road trip activities are simple games that don’t require much to play, but they will be fun for the whole family. The license plate game is popular, especially when you are driving to multiple states. You can use free printables available online, or just keep a list in your phone. All you have to do is check off states when you see their license plate.
The Alphabet Game is another fun option. Watch billboards and signs looking for all the letters of the alphabet. You can change the rules a little to make it easier or harder. Some people say that you have to find words that start with each letter and others just require you to spot them anywhere on a sign. Another version of this is to repeat a phrase over and over and fill in the last word. For example, you would say “I’m going on a road trip and I packed…” It’s a fun memory game because each person after you has to remember what you said and then add their own words in alphabetical order.
I Spy is another popular car game that riders of all ages can engage in. Whoever goes first just spots something, then answers yes or no questions about it. If it’s hard to see out the windows, you can play 20 Questions instead. It doesn’t involve viewing anything in particular out the window, as the object of the game is for passengers to use a maximum of 20 yes or no questions to try to guess what someone is thinking.
Find more details and additional ideas on our “Ultimate List of Road Trip Games for Families“!
Long car rides are a great time to get some reading in, but not everyone can read while riding in a car—especially the driver. Check your local library before you head out of town and see if they carry audiobooks that you can check out. You can also download them from websites like Audible.
One popular choice that works for many ages is the Harry Potter series. The books are entertaining and they will eat up hours of your trip. Plus, it allows everyone to still look out the window and watch the surroundings change while staying entertained. You can find most books available in this format now, so choose a couple to bring along. If you start one and the family isn’t into it, you can change it up.
Podcasts are another great tool for road trips with kids. Search the podcast listings for fun, educational podcasts about the places you’re driving through. There are storytellers, trivia facts, and even options to practice languages. Try Wow in the World from NPR or Storynory to get you started.
First Aid Kit
All kinds of things can happen on a road trip and the more people you have with you, the higher the chances are. We recommend packing a small first aid kit with some essentials. If car sickness is an issue for anyone in your family, bring some Dramamine or some of the bracelets that help with nausea. Allergic to anything? Make sure to bring your EpiPen and a backup or some Benadryl depending on what you’re facing.
In addition to the specific items to address the individuals in your family, we also recommend basics like bandages, cleaning wipes, pain relievers, instant ice packs, and anything else you might need on your trip. It’s also a good idea to know where all your insurance information is so you can access it if there’s an emergency while on the road.
Sunscreen and bug spray are good items to keep on hand for a road trip. You never know if you’re going to find a perfect lake for an afternoon swim or picnic and you want to make sure you’re prepared and have what you need to keep everyone safe and comfortable.
DVD Player or iPads
Screen time can help fight off boredom, especially on those stretches of highway where there isn’t much to look at other than endless rows of corn and other crops. If you have an iPad or a tablet, you can load movies and games on the tablet. There are multiple holders you can get that will help mount the tablet on the back of the chairs in your car so more than one child can watch at the same time.
DVD players can also be hooked up to watch movies. Stock up on a few favorites and let the kids pick which movie they want to put on when you’re ready for a little quiet time. A movie will help get everybody to settle down and might even help some of the younger kids fall asleep and enjoy a little care nap.
Road Trip Snacks
Snacks are one of the best parts of a road trip. Pack a cooler with some sandwiches, veggies, cut-up fruit, and drinks. You can also stock up on chips, crackers, granola bars, and other easy finger foods. Keep things simple and grabbable so you don’t have to pull over and prep anything to satisfy a snack craving.
Don’t sleep on local flavors while you’re traveling either. Stock up on fresh fruits and vegetables from farm stands as you drive and treat everyone to snacks from any of the popular stops along the way. You can’t just miss a stand that calls itself the “world’s best” anything. Desserts are a fun treat while on the road especially if they are special.
Tackle boxes and bento boxes are both great for snacks on the go. Each compartment can be filled with different items, and the kids can have some fun picking which one to eat next. Keep some napkins or wet wipes on hand just in case the snacks get spilled or make a little mess. Even with the least messy foods, things can happen in a moving vehicle and you should be prepared.
Plans for Pit Stops
Maps and atlases are becoming less and less necessary on road trips with our phones containing all the information you need, but they can help provide some insight on fun and unique places to stop. Grab a travel book that features the region you’re road tripping in. They are filled with fun trivia and stories.
It can be a good experience for kids to follow along on the map and learn how to read them. It will help them learn about geography and it’s so much easier to learn while you’re living it. Have fun making pit stops at historical markers and scenic views. It’s always good to take a stretch break. You can have the kids pick out some stops that look interesting to them and help them get invested in the planning and execution of the road trip.
You never know which strange little detour is going to be the thing that the entire family remembers for years to come.
Books and Magazines
Older kids have an easier time reading and occupying their time in the car with little assistance from the adults. Make sure to stop at the library before hitting the road so they can stock up on books and magazines for the car. This will give them something to do if the little kids watch a movie or take a nap.
Reading in the car can be tricky, but many people aren’t bothered by it. Just make sure to let them know to stop if they feel dizzy or nauseated while reading. The same thing can happen with screens, so it’s best to hold them up and not look down at them while moving.
We’ve all been in rest stops and gas station bathrooms that feel a little gross and worn down. It’s always best to have a small kit of items to help you in those situations. Hand sanitizer is a must and you can find all kinds of scents that spray on which is very easy for young children. You can also carry soap, wet wipes, and extra toilet paper so you never have a situation that you can’t handle.
If your suitcase is perfectly packed to the brim, you probably don’t want to have to try and dig anything out of it on the side of the road. Pack an extra change of clothes for everyone in an easily accessible place in case there are any major spills or accidents while traveling. It’s better to be safe than sorry. Plus, if the weather changes, you’ll be able to layer up with your extra clothes so it’s good for more than just accidents.
Slip On Shoes and Comfortable Clothes
Riding in the car doesn’t have to be uncomfortable. Choose the clothes you are going to ride in carefully and make sure that they are comfy to lounge in for the length of your drive. This is important for the kids as well. It should be easy to adjust for temperatures and not feel too tight anywhere.
Shoes are another important consideration. Unless you are stopping to do a lot of hiking along the route, slip-on shoes are a great option for the car. It’s nice to be able to ride without shoes on, but you want to be able to easily grab them when you make a pit stop. Crocs and sandals are both easy options that are comfortable and convenient.
Capture those moments on your family vacation. Phones have come a long way with photo technology, but sometimes it’s nice to have an actual camera on a vacation. That way, you can leave your phone in the hotel room and not be bothered by notifications and emails.
You can make it even more fun and bring along a polaroid camera that prints out the photos on the spot. Let the kids snap some of the things they find interesting and make a photo album of them when you get home.
When traveling in the summer especially, you have to worry about the sun. Air conditioning can help cool down the car, but it can get really hot when you’re riding in the direct light of the sun. Sun shades can be temporarily put up on car windows and the driver can still see through for safety, but they help block some of the sun’s rays so it isn’t so hot.
If you’ve got young kids in the back trying to nap, these help keep the temperature comfortable. Another item to consider is the shades that block the windshield when you’re parked. The afternoon sun can heat up your car making it comfortable to get back into after exploring a town or stopping for lunch. By reflecting the sun, you can keep your car at a decent temperature and reduce the time it takes to cool down when you’re ready to hit the road.
Both of these are definitely comfort items, but it can be dangerous to be in a hot car even for a short time. These will allow everyone in the family to stay a little more comfortable on those summer family vacations.
The Best Types of Family Road Trips
Planning the best road trip for your family should be part of the fun. Consider the ages of your kids and how many days you are able to be traveling. Older kids can usually make it a bit longer in the car in one stretch. Once you have an idea of how long you are going to travel, you can check the map and see what fun spots fall within that distance. We’ve pulled together a few fun ideas for family road trips that you can use as inspiration when planning your getaway.
Camping in State Parks
State parks are often very underrated and overlooked. You can find activities like kayaking, rock climbing, camping, and hiking. Plan a route that takes you to a few state parks that you haven’t visited yet. Take advantage of the free ranger activities and exhibits that will teach you about the history of the park and some of the flora and fauna that live there.
Each state has a park system set up, and some states even offer free admission to the parks. If you plan to visit more than one, check and see if there’s an annual pass you can buy. You can take advantage of parks throughout the year that way.
Touring Small Towns
If your family lives in a big city, it might be a nice change of pace to escape the hustle and bustle and spend your vacation exploring some smaller towns in your region. Find a bed and breakfast or even rent an RV and take your time exploring small Main Streets and meeting new people.
There are so many regions around the United States that have the most picturesque towns. Parts of New England feel like you’ve dove into a Norman Rockwell painting. The Southwest and Rocky Mountains have all kinds of fun western towns and gorgeous mountain views in every direction. You can find activities that the whole family will enjoy.
Visiting a Theme Park
A popular family travel destination is one of the famous theme parks in the United States. Disneyland is just outside of Los Angeles, California, and Disney World is on the opposite coast near Orlando. Those are two of the largest, but there are many Six Flags and other large amusement parks scattered throughout the country between them.
Kids love these theme parks because there are adrenaline-pumping rides, fun entertainment and shows, and arcades and games to keep them busy. You can also find places like these along the coast with famous boardwalks like Santa Monica and Atlantic City.
Water parks are another great itinerary stop, especially in the hot months of summer. It may seem like each water slide is the same, but for young children, each new water park is filled with new things to explore. It’s the perfect way to wear out the whole family. Just make sure you pack plenty of sunscreen because no one wants a nasty sunburn on vacation.
Learning About Historical Sites
There is no better way to learn about the country’s history than to see some of the places where history took place. Take a road trip to Washington DC and explore the museums and sites of the capital city. You can also visit the Northeast and walk the Freedom Trail in Boston or check out the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall in Philadelphia.
Each region has a unique history and plenty of places to take kids to learn and experience together. Adults will come away with new information as well. Talk to your kids and see what parts of history they’ve enjoyed the most so far in school. See if you can visit any of the places they’ve learned about to help give them even more insight.
Doing a National Park Tour
The National Park System includes 63 parks and hundreds of monuments, wildlife refuges, and protected public land to be enjoyed. It’s one of the most popular road trips for American families. You’ll get wildlife, beautiful views, tons of fresh air, and an educational experience in geology, biology, and history.
Northern California is a popular spot to road-trip for national parks because you can visit the Redwoods north of San Francisco and then head to Yosemite, Sequoia, and Kings Canyon. There are a few in Arizona that can be easily grouped together. Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons are also nearby one another and make a gorgeous road trip through the mountains.
If you have any children in 4th grade, grab your Every Kid Outdoors pass from the National Park Service. It’s an initiative to help make the parks more accessible to families and you will be able to visit for free for the year. Kids can grab a Junior Ranger book too and complete activities at each park to earn badges.
Getting Away to the Big City
Large cities can be a really fun destination as well for a road trip. You can put together a whole theme like a pizza tour of New York City or a movie tour of Los Angeles. Add in some fun stops on the way there and the way home to make the journey just as fun as the destination.
When visiting a big city, you have a variety of museums, restaurants, and attractions so you can enjoy a jam-packed itinerary if you want or you can spend your days just exploring. Some places are harder to drive your own car to and find parking, so keep them in mind when planning your road trip. For example, if you visit New York City, it might be easier to leave your car at the ferry station in New Jersey for a night or two while you’re in the Big Apple.
Get ready to hit the road!
Family vacations should be fun for everyone. You’re getting to experience new places and sites together and making lifelong memories. As long as you stock up on these must-haves you should be ready for those long road trips.
Let us know where you end up taking your gang this year! The comment section is waiting for your feedback.
Frequently Asked Questions
Taking road trips with kids should be simple and fun! Make sure you have a selection of snacks, drinks, and games for the journey. Tablets are great for movies when there isn’t much to see out the window.
One of the best vacations for families is a classic road trip. Road trips with kids allow you to explore various parts of the country, like national parks and new cities, while being flexible with your plans as needed.