Road trips are an ever-popular way for American families to take vacations. In fact, a 2019 study by OnePoll on behalf of Ford found that 73 percent of Americans prefer road tripping to flying. It's oftentimes cheaper to drive, not to mention easier than navigating chaotic airports, especially when traveling with kids.
However, although a long summer road trip can be a great bonding experience, too much time cooped up in a car together definitely has its challenges. Younger children can get bored and restless sitting through long stretches of dull scenery and eating a snack-filled diet for too long can make anyone feel lethargic and cranky. Here are several tried-and-tested tips parents swear by to make their road trips less stressful and more fun for the whole family.
Use Mobile Apps for Planning and Entertainment
Having the right apps on hand can take a family vacation from "meh" to marvelous. For parents, there's DealNews for coupons and Foodspotting to help you find new restaurants that local guidebooks and "top 10" lists might not have picked up yet (think: fewer crowds). Hotels.com is essential for sifting through accommodation options with attractions for kids. You can reserve your stays easily right through the free app. For music, Spotify and YouTube offer thousands of songs and playlists for kids.
The backseat crew can be kept busy with mobile games like the familiar favorites: Minecraft, Animal Crossing, Super Mario Run, and more. Road trip-specific mobile games include Smule, a karaoke app, Road Trip Bingo, Geo Touch (a fun-but-educational app centered around geography), and Road Trip Travel Games, a collection of kid-friendly road trip classics like Slug a Bug and Cloud Shapes.
Play Offline Car Games
People were taking road trips long before the advent of cell phones or iPads and you can bet that parents were minimizing backseat squabbling with variations of the same classic car games still being played today.
I Spy is a road trip staple. The first player says "I spy with my little eye something..." then gives a clue to something they can see that other participants must look for. Another popular pastime is the Alphabet Game, where players must find objects that begin with each letter of the alphabet. For cross-country trips, playing the State License Plate Game is a great way to pass the time and help school-aged kids learn the names of states. To play, make a list of all 50 states, then have your kids try to spot a car with a license plate from each state, like a backseat version of a scavenger hunt.
Gather Toys and Tools for Kid-Friendly Travel
Although fighting off backseat boredom can be a big issue when road tripping with children, finding ways to avoid messes and excessive noise can also be challenging. Fortunately, there are a few car toys and organizational gadgets that can make it a little more manageable.
For little artists on board, Crayola's Color Wonder Art Kit is a mess-free alternative to standard markers and crayons. Its coloring pages come with stampers and special markers that will only show up on actual paper—not skin, clothes, or your car. Travel Bingo boards feature slide-able squares for trains, police cars, and airplanes. No stamps or chips are needed. There are road trip-specific Mad Libs and magnetic checkers on the market, too.
In terms of organization, you can get seat-back bags, trash bins, and collapsible dishes at Target to help keep things tidy. Otherwise, some resort to using shower caddies for meals on the go, or putting cupcake liners in cup holders to keep them clean.
Manage Car Sickness
Speaking of messes: Many kids are prone to car sickness, which can pose yet another challenge. If you anticipate that someone in the vehicle will be motion sick, then it's a good idea to travel with some disposable bags (medical-grade, if possible). But before resorting to using them, try to keep sickness at bay with ginger or peppermint food products, clinically proven to help prevent nausea, and by putting the queasy passenger in the front seat in order to see the horizon. The reason drivers don't get motion sick as easily is because the act of driving itself engages motor skills. The front seat also has less movement than the back of the car. Although some foods may help with nausea, consuming less, in general, helps to prevent getting sick. Spicy foods, for instance, can irritate the feeling even further.
Find Alternatives to Fast Food
Quick-casual restaurant chains are relatively cheap and abundant, so it's easy to fall into a fast-food rut when you're away on vacation. However, with just a little planning, you can track down healthier, just-as-inexpensive options that are sure to please kids all the same. When your family is on the go, look for supermarkets that might have deli counters or salad bars (like Whole Foods and Kroger stores), local farmers markets, or food trucks, which you can find on the TruxMap app.
Alternatively, keep a cooler packed with picnic provisions, healthy snacks, and low-sugar beverages so that you won't always be at the mercy of roadside food stops. Pick a great scenic pull-off at which to stop and enjoy a pick-me-up while stretching your legs.
Stop to Cool Off
Remember that it isn't just about the destination. Stop off regularly at the quirky roadside attractions, whether it be Amarillo's Cadillac Ranch, Utah's dinosaur footprints, or the alien artifacts in Roswell, New Mexico. These little breaks may add time to the trip, but they're always memorable and offer opportunities for bouts of exercise, which is essential for kids.
You could even take it a step further and seek out theme parks along your route. Maine is home to Wild Blueberry Land, Virginia to Dinosaur Land, and Minnesota to Paul Bunyan Land, for example. Pack your swim gear and cool off at a water park along the way—there's one in almost every state.
Visit National Parks
The best family road trip will introduce your children to the natural beauty and diversity of the U.S., whether it be the barren deserts of the Southwest, the lush pine forests of the Pacific Northwest, the beaches of the East Coast, or the mountains of Colorado. Find which national parks may be near your road trip route and make the effort to stop and explore them. The historian Wallace Stegner once called the national park system "America's best idea." There are more than 400 spread throughout the country, with more than half of the states boasting at least one.