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Tips For Loving Your Next Family Road Trip

Updated on October 12, 2013


Trapped in a car with the whole family for days on end, if it’s not a Chevy Chase movie, is most people’s personal hell. Road trips can be fun. The best vacation our family ever took was a two-week, seven-state, road trip of the Western United States. The difference between trips your kids will tell their kids about and trips your kids will tell their therapists about largely comes down to two factors, preparation and flexibility. Here are seven tips to turn your next family road trip into the vacation of a lifetime.

The Road to Adventure
The Road to Adventure | Source

Let Everyone Help Plan

Everyone, especially children, like to feel in control. A family car trip must have the “buy-in” of everyone in the family because a lone holdout can make the experience miserable for everyone. Sit down and have a family meeting or two, about what is going to happen on the trip. Let the children help decide where to stay, where to stop, and even what to eat. Their choices should be guided. You could show two hotels that are both in budget and ask the children to decide which one they want to stay at. Even committing to eat at least once at a child’s favorite burger joint during the trip will help everyone feel involved.

The other advantage to getting input from everyone is everyone feels they know what the plan is. Young children often do better with structure. Having been a part of creating the plan gives parents a way to remind the children that there is a plan and remind them what is happening next.

Be Flexible

We have a saying in our family, "Be flexible like a palm tree". Have you ever seen pictures of a palm tree during a hurricane? Sometimes the trees are bending so far that their tops are touching the ground. however, they don't break, instead when the wind shifts they bend right back into place. Have you ever seen an oak tree in a bad wind storm? What happens to the oak tree? If the wind is too strong it snaps. Be flexible like a palm tree and bend a little, otherwise you might just snap.

TWO: But Be Flexible

Winston Churchill once remarked that World War II was won by planning and not by a plan. What he meant was that plans go wrong. You will need backup plans, and backup plans to your backup plans. Sometimes, maybe a lot of the time, you are going to have to wing it. Kids get car sick, attractions close, the government occasionally shuts down, unexpected things will happen.

Be flexible about your plan. You may need to stop more often than you had planned. A meal or two may take longer. Maybe a planned stop turns into something everyone really likes and you want to stay longer, or maybe the stop is awful and everyone just wants to move as fast as possible. Be ready to adjust your plans to fit the needs of your family. Remember you are on vacation. You should relax.

Like a Palm Tree

Don't Snap When the Storms Arrive
Don't Snap When the Storms Arrive | Source

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FOUR: Bring Good Food

By good food I mean two different things. Food that is good for you, or high quality and food that tastes good and is enjoyable to eat. A lot of the drama on family road trips revolves around hunger. Kids need snacks. This helps regulate blood sugar and keeps moods high. Eating is also a great distraction. Bring too much junk food though, and you may set yourself up for a monster sugar crash and a meltdown of epic proportions.

Part of the problem with food is that it can be difficult to distribute. Think about preparing several portion sized baggies of different snacks. A few things that work well are: sandwiches cut into quarters, trail mix, fruit, crackers, and vegetable spears. Whatever you pack make sure it is stuff the kids actually like. Depending on your family preferences, a few sugary treats are also a good idea. When trapped in a car for along time a little cookie bribe can go a long way.

FIVE: Give Everyone Their Space

In our family, claustrophobia usually sets in about ten minutes into the trip. The car is packed with stuff and the kids are confined for what seems to them an indefinite sentence. Make sure no matter how cramped the car is; everyone has a small amount of space. They should be able to wiggle around and move their feet a little.

Everyone should also have his or her own psychological space. We let our kids pack their own small entertainment bags. Our younger kids bring a few small toys and some comfort items, like a stuffed animal or blanket. Our older kids bring a book or two and their iPods and headphones. When kids feel they can do their own thing it helps keep the trip peaceful and minimizes fighting.

Everyone Needs Space

Everyone from 18 months to 81 years old needs his or her own space
Everyone from 18 months to 81 years old needs his or her own space | Source

SIX: Make Time Together and Time Apart

Family trips are supposed to be about growing closer together as a family. Take time to do things together. Even when in the car some of the time can pleasantly be spent together by playing car games like “I Spy” and “20 Questions”. Some families like to take turns telling stories or singing. Being together for long periods of time often leads family members to gain new insights into the personalities of the people they live with. We spend so much of our modern lives going places and being apart, being together in a car is time to learn about each other.

However, the old saying, “absence makes the heart grow fonder” is also true. Not every moment in the car should be spent having together time. Tweens and teens especially need their private time, where they can listen to their music, or otherwise tune out their family. Too much together time leads to frustration and thoughts of running for the hills at the next rest stop. During the course of the trip children of all ages need time to run or walk around and do their own thing with age appropriate supervision. The time spent apart will make the time together more pleasant, or at least easier to endure.

How Much Do You Need?

Less Stuff Means More Room
Less Stuff Means More Room | Source

Tips for an Organized Car

SEVEN: Less is More, Much Less is Best

Our lives are so full of activities and obligations that we don’t know how to relax. There is a strong temptation to plan too much into a family vacation. Too many activities and too tight a schedule cause stress and anxiety. Having time to do nothing and little or no time pressure will help everyone enjoy each other more. You do not need to cram something into every hour of the day.

Less is more also applies to packing. Packing fewer clothes and budgeting to do some laundry at some point on the trip actually makes for a more pleasant vacation. There is more room in the car and the few hours at a Laundromat actually can allow time for everyone to do some relaxing. Parents can take turns napping, some of the family can go to a park and run around, or everyone could read or stare lazily at their smart phones.

Family car trips should be experiences looked back on with fondness, and not trigger Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Having a great road trip requires a lot of up front preparation and lot of patience and flexibility during the trip. But the memories you create are totally worth the effort.

© 2013 Jason McBride


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    • Jason McBride profile imageAUTHOR

      Jason McBride 

      8 years ago from Salem, Oregon

      Thanks. Even just an hour with a child in a foul mood can seem like forever.

    • CraftytotheCore profile image


      8 years ago

      Great advice here! I haven't been on a family road trip other than a drive an hour or so away. Even then we always bring snacks and hand-held video games for my son. I like what you say about be like a palm tree. I hadn't heard that one before. Good job!


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