Taking a road trip is one of our favorite ways to travel. Whether we set out from home, or fly to our destination and rent a car, road tripping is the best way to get an up close, personal feel for the places you are traveling. You can camp, stay in hotels, or some combination of both. Having the flexibility of driving a car around means you get to go where you want and when you want, without relying on tour guides or public transportation.
However, once kids enter the equation, some families give up on the road trip as a viable vacation option. Maybe they’ve seen the Vacation movies too many times, or maybe they just don’t think they, or their kids, will enjoy being cooped up in a car together for hours on end.
Well, we at My Vacation Pants have taken many fun and memorable road trip vacations with our kids, and we’re ready to tell you our secrets to making the most out of your automobile-assisted adventures with the entire family.
We’ll start with the most important one first, and though it may seem to be super obvious, I’m amazed at how few families really get this one right.
First of all, reading books, listening to music or books on tape, and just plain old talking to each other, are all great ways to pass the time on a long drive. I also think portable game systems, tablets, phones, and other electronic devices are great. Although I never had access to them as a kid, I certainly don’t stop our kids from using them. However, these devices are just a small part of the picture.
Playing travel games together as a family will elevate your drive from a boring necessity to a highlight of the trip. When everyone is engaged in some healthy competition, or some collaborative challenges, the ride becomes part of the fun. Also, these aren’t just for families with kids. We played all of these together before we ever had any. There’s no reason adults should be bored on a trip just because they haven’t procreated.
Here are some suggestions for you to try:
- The Alphabet Game– This is a competitive one, in which everyone tries to find the letter of the alphabet, in order, on signs you are driving past. We make it more challenging for the adults (must be the first letter of the word, etc.) and we stick to stationary signs, not words on vehicles or license plates. You can make you own rules to fit your family’s style, but the cool part is that even if you don’t pass any signs for a while, this game can keep running while you’re doing other stuff. We’ve had some great moments where everyone forgets we’re even playing, and then someone spots a sign with a letter we were all stuck on and shouts it out before the rest of us even remembered we were playing.
- The License Plate Game- This one is simple, and great for reinforcing geography knowledge too. See how many plates from other states, countries, provinces, etc., that you and your family can spot on the road. This is a great collaborative one, so everybody tries to keep an eye out for plates together. You can write down the ones you see, or use a pre-made board with a map of the states, or maybe just keep a list in your head, if you are geographically inclined. This is another game that can keep running for our entire trip, even while you’re doing other stuff, you can always keep an eye out for new plates.
- Word Games– There are a ton of these, with infinite variations, but here’s an example of one you can try. It’s called Red Dog. The rules are simple. The first person says a word, and then the next person says a word that starts with the last letter of the previous word (hence the title, Red Dog). This continues on, but the catch is that no words can ever be repeated. It’s much harder than it sounds, as you will quickly start struggling to think of new words that start with common last letters. The great thing about word games is that they require zero materials, and you can easily make up your own.
Another great word game related activity is Mad Libs. These can be found in just about any store, are a lot of fun, and nothing helps teach parts of speech more than the mild bathroom humor that inevitably erupts from this classic activity.4. Travel board games. There are a ton of these on the market, and they can be found for pretty cheap. It helps to do ones that the driver can play along without looking. Some of our favorites are travel Yahtzee and Scrabble.
There are a lot more possibilities, and really there’s no going wrong. If you are engaging with each other rather than passively being entertained, the hours of driving will melt away, and the fun will rule the day.
Follow a Map
I’m about to sound like an old man here, but kids today rarely have any experience in following a map. It’s skill that is being lost as our lives are completely navigated by GPS and Google Maps. Even the more experienced navigators among us have let our directional muscles atrophy, and I’m often found relying on a cell phone to find a destination that I have been familiar with for years. Don’t get me wrong, I love the way this technology has enhanced our travel experience, but there is something missing from the modern road trip that I think should be re-instated: paper maps.Now, hear me out. One of the best ways to get a grasp on geography and to understand our relative place in this world is to navigate with a map, and a road trip provides superfluous opportunities to pass this experience on to our kids (or to geographically challenged adults, for that matter.)
It’s simple to do. Just get a free map of the places you’ll be traveling through from your local AAA office. (If you’re not already a member, you should be!!!) Or, you can buy cheap maps online from Amazon. Once you’re in the car, show your navigator where your starting point is. Then, as you’re driving along, point out intersections, parks, rivers, and other notable landmarks as you pass them. Your navigator can follow along with a finger, or even better, bring along a highlighter pen for them to trace your route as you move along it. This makes it easier to go back and look over your day’s journey together. It’s a great learning opportunity, it’s a lot of fun, and it might help keep you from missing a turn. I mean, Google Maps doesn’t know everything.
Break It Up
When you are going on a road trip, especially with kids, it really helps to keep your drive times to a reasonable amount each day. Consider driving less distance on a trip in exchange for more time to spend at the places you’re visiting.
However, sometimes you just have to do a long drive, and then it really helps to break it up, and not just for emergency bathroom stops and meals. When you are planning your trip, look for fun, active activities to do along the way. I always look for green spots on the map: parks, forests, and other natural areas. These are great places to get out, walk around, and burn off some pent up energy. Make sure you have water, sunscreen, and snacks available so you can take a short hike, or maybe some sandals for a short walk on a beach. If you have to travel four hours in one day, and you get out for a walk at three stops, then you are effectively taking four one-hour drives instead of one super long one. It makes it a lot more bearable for the littles, and if you wear them out with walking and playing, they might just take a nap during one of the stretches. Maybe.
A couple of our many “Break it Up” destinations while road tripping.
It’s essential to do some good planning before you take a road trip, especially with kids. However, we try to plan the essentials of our trips really well, and then leave plenty of room for spontaneous adventures. (While this is related to item number four, it’s important to note that spontaneous activities should be in addition to scheduled stops.)
Have you ever been driving along and passed a unique restaurant, or a weird roadside attraction, or a fun looking playground, and thought, “We should go there sometime.”
Well, that time is now. Who knows? This might be the last time you pass this place, or it might not still be in business the next time you pass. Road trips are a great opportunity to try out the unexpected and unknown. Some of our best and most memorable adventures have happened when we did a last second freeway exit because some random sign caught our eye. Our kids love the surprise aspect, and there’s nothing like the response we get on social media when we post pictures of some weird photo opportunity we stumbled into.
When you’re heading out on a road trip, it’s tempting to want to cover as much ground as possible. That’s fine, but make sure you allow for enough time to enjoy the places you’re traveling to. One big mistake we’ve made in the past is staying for just one night and traveling on to our next destination. Sure, we got to see more places when we kept moving locations each night, but we never really got to enjoy the places we were at, and we spent half of our trip packing or unpacking at each new place. Our new policy is to stay for a minimum of two nights at any one place, and more if at all possible. Two nights allows for at least one full day to enjoy the area. It also gives the kiddos a much needed break from being in the car. In fact, try to avoid driving around on the days in between travel days as much as possible. That way you’ll all be nice and fresh when it’s time to move on to the next exciting destination.
Well, there you have it. No longer should you look forward with dread to road tripping with kids. Getting out on the road can be a fun and relaxing way to see the world, especially if we take the time to get out of the car and find some adventures.
Do you have any other tips for road tripping with kids? Let us know in the comments, and happy driving!
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