How to Travel with Your Kids and Not Lose Your Mind

We took our first road trip with our kids when our oldest child was three months old.  We were first time parents so we packed everything we owned to make the drive from South Carolina to Sanibel Island, Florida. We enjoyed that trip and two weeks later drove with that same tiny baby 800 miles to Missouri. Two years later, our second daughter made her first road trip to Missouri at barely four months old and we’ve been been road tripping it ever since!  I counted it up the other day and our seven year old has made over 15 trips that were 800+ miles one way.

The John Deere Pavilion in Moline, Illinois

Now don’t get me wrong, it hasn’t always been easy or pleasant.  There have been moments were we wished we hadn’t even left home.  When our oldest was about 9 months old we drove to Missouri during Christmas vacation we ended up singing Christmas carols to her for the last 45 minutes because it was the ONLY thing that would keep her screaming to a minimum.  We’ve definitely had our fair share of screaming, crying, and the occasional carsick child.

That moment at Disney where I knew the stroller rental was quite possibly the best idea I’ve ever had!

While it does have its moments, traveling with our kids by car is something we’ve committed to continue.  My husband and I want our daughters to see as many states as we can before they leave our home.  Let me issue this disclaimer though- it’s not for everybody.  I have friends who travel by plane consistently with their kids and truthfully that sounds absolutely painful to me.  Different strokes for different folks, friends.  My hat is off to you plane traveling people.  Call me, I’ll pick you up at the airport anytime.  In.My.Car.

But if you are traveling by car for long distances with your kids, there are some things you can do to maintain your sanity and have fun along the way.

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Pack the right stuff

What I pack and how I pack it makes a huge difference in the success of our trip.  For most of our trips we stop for the night after driving 500-600 miles so I need luggage to be organized and be able to get my wild kiddos in a hotel as soon as possible (especially if the hotel has a pool!)  For me, that means I pack a “hotel bag” so I don’t lug every piece of luggage in for one night in a hotel.

We’re also big fans of Drury hotels when we travel.  Their rates are competitive and they have evening food along with a great breakfast so it’s a frugal way for us to stop for a night.  The food that’s included saves us at least $40-50 dollars/night.  It’s also nice to get the hotel and not have to leave for dinner.  (I promise this isn’t a sponsored post- I just really love Drury that much!)

Drury food- free and kid friendly!

What we take inside the car is just as important.  I see all these cute DIY road trip games and frankly, I tried some of those once.  And they ended up doing nothing but taking up valuable real estate in the car.

I opt to pack your typical coloring books, books to read, colored pencils, small dolls, and the DVD player.  Now that our girls are old enough, they each pack a small backpack with any small toys and books they want to keep in the car.  I also discovered the Boogie Board on our last trip to Missouri.  And y’all…they’re AH-MAZING! Theyre an e-writer with an LCD screen that kids can write or doodle on and then erase with a touch of a button. Saves me so much paper! And if you lose the stylus- just use your finger! They’re small enough to stick in my purse if we have a long wait at a restaurant  or anywhere else they may need to be still for more than a few minutes.

Like I mentioned above, we do use a DVD player for the girls to watch movies but I try to rotate movies with another non-digital activity.  Most of the time.  And then sometimes we get a few hours from home and just watch Moana and Frozen over and over. 🙂 #reallife

Be willing to stop

When the girls were babies, we stopped every 2-3 hours to feed them.  While that certainly slowed us down, we started realizing that it was actually kind of nice to stop every few hours and stretch our legs.  7 years later, we can drive more than just 2 hours without stopping but we still are always looking for a fun exit off the interstate.

Fort Defiance near Cairo, Illinois where the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers meet.

Two years ago, we traveled through South Dakota and my husband wanted to stop at the Corn Palace in Mitchell, SD.  I didn’t have any desire to see it, but everything there was free and the kids wanted to see it too, so we went to the Corn Palace.  You know what?  We had a great time and spent several hours there.  It was a random stop off the highway but was so worth it.

Use it as a chance to learn something

First of all, you need to realize that my children have two teachers for parents and one of them is a history teacher and one is a former elementary school teacher.  They pretty much HAVE to experience a decent amount of nerdiness on their vacations.  As parents, we believe that there are lessons our kids can learn from traveling.  We also really enjoy national parks and the occasional historical road marker along with the tourist traps and amusement parks. (Don’t judge 🙂 )

Before our trip to South Dakota, a friend told me about the national park passports. (Thanks Meghan!) Each national park site has a free stamp that can you add to a small passport booklet and collect as a reminder of where you’ve visited.  We bought the girls their passports at our first stop and have had tons of fun with it.  It’s even given us a reason to visit more local sites that we might not have visited otherwise.  The junior ranger programs are also age appropriate ways for them to see the parks.

LA making sure she gets her stamp for Big Springs, MO.
Badlands National Park
Gateway Arch in St. Louis

Beyond the random history knowledge they’ve picked up and my 7 year’s ability to read a road atlas (because my husband doesn’t trust the GPS) 🙂 , our kids also have plenty of opportunities of learn things like patience and responsibility when we travel.  Because it’s pretty much guaranteed that you’re going to have to wait somewhere you don’t want to, get along with your sister who’s driving you bananas, and lug your own stuff into a hotel.  And none of those are bad things.

Keep trying even when it’s miserable

It’s not always going to be fun.  Kids are going to be whiny, you’re going to be grumpy, and somebody’s going to get carsick at some point.  But no matter how hard it might be for a few miles or how grumpy I’m going to be on Interstate 40 in a Tennessee traffic jam, I’m still going to look back in 20 years and appreciate the times we traveled together.  It’s broadened their horizons, they already have great stories and memories, and most of all, it gives us a chance to connect as a family.

What are you favorite travel “hacks” for road trips?