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Car Ride and Road Trip Survival Guide

Dad with diaper bag reaching out to pick up his toddler son

Whether embarking on a big road trip with your family, or commuting every day with your child, preparing for being on the road with children can be overwhelming. Here are some tips for traveling and commuting with kids. These suggestions will help make your time on the road more relaxed and enjoyable for everyone.

Tips for Road Trips with Kids

Plan Ahead. Talk about what you will do when you get to your destination so your child can visualize the next step. If you’re on the daily commute, talk about the evening activities, for example. On a road trip, talk about the next rest stop, or what you’ll do when you get to your lodging.

Keep It Fresh. If possible, find ways to switch off roles and responsibilities with your spouse or partner, like driving, finding music for the trip, reading the map, sparking conversation, or initiating car-friendly activities 

Pack Snacks. Hungry children (and adults) make lousy traveling companions. Remember to pack plenty of snacks for your road trip, and consider keeping a few nonperishable items in your car so you don't have to remember to pack snacks, especially for your daily commute.

Be Honest. If your child becomes upset during the ride, it usually doesn't make sense to stop. Talk reassuringly to your child and let him or her know approximately when you’ll arrive at your destination. Make your terms as concrete as possible: "We have to pass the water tower and the mall and then we will be there. I will take you out of your car seat as soon as we get there."

Road Trip Activities for Kids

Music: Music provides rich learning opportunities, and is obviously great for the long car ride. Choose some CDs create a playlist of family-friendly tunes for a “singalong” or use your favorite streaming service.

Carpool Karaoke: Singing in the car can be a great shared language experience. You don't have to sing well—just have fun doing it. Made-up, silly songs are often favorites of children.

Audiobooks or Podcasts: Audio of books, stories, and poetry are available on Amazon, YouTube, your local public library, or your favorite podcast app. They don't replace great conversation, but are a great change of pace. You can also record your own audiobook.

The Repeat Button: Expect that repetition will be important to your child. He or she will probably want to hear favorite songs and stories more often than you want to hear them.

Car Ride Games: Pass the time playing games that require nothing more than observation and imagination. Try a game of “I Spy,” Letter Search, or Number Hunt, and together look for colors, shapes, letters, or numbers.

What to Pack for a Road Trip with Kids

  • First Aid Supplies: A first aid kit, sunscreen, self-activating ice pack, insect repellent, thermometer, fever-reducing and pain-reducing medication with correct dosage chart based on child's weight and age.
  • Extra Clothes: Keep extra sets of clothes for each child in tow, and consider keeping these clothes in the car all the time. It's no fun digging through the luggage at the bottom of the trunk to find what you need. Have a sweater or sweatshirt handy, as children on the sunny side of the car get warm and the children in the shade are often cool from the air conditioner. It is much easier to travel with kids when they are comfortable.
  • Comfort Items: Pack blankets, pillows, and stuffed animals. Try to limit one to a child or it can be hard to see out of the back window to drive.
  • Food and Snacks: Whether you allow food in the car or not, pack a cooler of goodies. Freeze a few of the juice boxes or water bottles to keep the other beverages cold and toward the end of the trip the frozen ones will be ready to drink, too. Snacks of choice should include crackers and fruits. A family road trip can be a time to loosen food restrictions and eat out, but it helps to try to limit junk food.
  • Rest Stop Activities: Pick up some bubbles, small balls, or a Frisbee to play with at rest areas or parks to create some fun and beneficial road trip activities involving nature. Children need to run around outside, and parents can benefit from a stretch, too.
  • Car Ride Activities: It's important to have fun family activities ready and prepared to ensure that your road trip goes smoothly. Pack or have each child pack a small bag of handheld goodies: tape, calculators, pipe cleaners, small flashlights, crayons, and paper. Buy some new items such as markers, coloring books, or crossword puzzles. Make a playlist of songs to play on the road.
  • Sanitation Supplies: Your road trip packing list should include paper towels, a box of heavy duty wipes, bags for dirty clothes and garbage, fragrance-free disinfectant spray, antibacterial lotion, toilet paper, and disinfectant wipes for yucky roadside bathrooms. If you have an infant with you, be sure to have extra diapers, wipes, and a portable changing pad or table. For older children, like toddlers and preschoolers, consider if they need extra pull-ups or a travel-friendly “potty” if you are still toilet training.
  • Special Travel Bag: Especially for the daily commute, assemble a special bag reserved exclusively for commuting and road trips, consisting of books, small, one-piece toys, no-mess art materials, and other items like teething toys for infants, and simple materials like large blocks, finger puppets, or rattles (depending on the age if your child). 

How to Manage Car Sickness

For those of us who still experience car sickness as adults, we know what an uncomfortable feeling it can be. Here are a few tips on how to help alleviate the feelings of car sickness:

  • Avoid reading
  • Open a window
  • Chew on peppermint candy
  • Eat ginger snap cookies
  • Use Seabands
  • Focus on a spot far away
  • Sit close to the front
  • Breathe through your mouth
  • Stop the car for a quick walk outside
  • Drink cold water
  • Eat saltine crackers
  • Have a cool face cloth or ice pack

Driving with your child doesn’t have to be an unpleasant experience, and in fact, daily commutes provide opportunities to connect, and longer road trips and vacations can be wonderful experiences for the whole family. Be prepared, plan ahead, and try to incorporate some fun and learning into the trip—it will be a bonding experience that’s more enjoyable for everyone.

Resources Related to Traveling with Children:

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