Last Updated on September 20, 2021 by Travels with Kids
Having done our fair share of road trips with kids since becoming parents, I’m pleased to share this practical road trip plan so you can have the most successful road trip possible! The idea is that it can be used as the basis for a road trip packing list for families. (Rather than as a list of road trip essentials for couples without kids.)
These tips have been put together after doing long car rides with 3 children – from babies right up to double figures in age. It’s fair to say that we’ve now perfected several strategies to make the trip as peaceful – and pain-free – as possible. These are, therefore, our top travel hacks for kids on the road.
This comprehensive guide to road trip ideas for kids covers all the family road trip essentials that really work. We cover how to plan the logistics of your trip, some road trip hacks for kids, and all the road trip essentials for kids you could ever need.
For each age range, we’ve detailed not only essential items (think lifesavers like motion sick bags or potties, for instance) but also kid’s road trip activities that have worked for us. From road trip essentials for toddlers to road trip essentials for tweens and teens. To help you plan, we’ve covered the following:
- Family (as a whole – so what to take in the car for all ages)
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Travel Hacks and Road Trip Essentials for Kids
Why Take a Road Trip with Kids?
Life has changed. In all likelihood, we’ll never go back to the same way of life that was the norm before the pandemic. Booking a flight is currently less reliable, and if you do make it onto the plane you may potentially expose yourself to viruses and the like. Hence this road trip with kids packing list.
Long car trips across the country are growing in popularity, as we all think of the world – and travel, differently. Plus. as I’ll mention a few times through this post, attitude is everything. Taking road trips as a family can be a lot of fun, as long as you approach it in the right way. There are fun things to do on a road trip with your family. Honestly!
Our Own Road Trips with Kids Experience
We live in Australia, so I think it’s fair to say ‘nuff said. The distances we need to cover are huge. So from the very first time the children are driven home from the hospital they had to get used to spending a lot of time in the car. This is why we need a road trip with kids checklist!
During most school holidays, we’ll take a road trip lasting between 3 and 8 hours just to get to our destination. Plus the same when we return home. In fact, I’d go as far as to say we are experts on road tripping with kids. Better still, every road trip we take means learning new things or changing the plan – and isn’t that what parenting is all about?
Top Tips for Road Trip Essentials with Kids
Car Trips Can Mean Spending Quality Time with Kids
Discovering the idea that car trips could be fun was a game-changer for me. Instead of seeing road trips as an endless waste of time – or test of endurance – I now view it as a special period of time dedicated to spending precious time with the children.
This is especially true once they get a little older. You can converse with them, ponder different points, and generally explore those topics that we don’t ever see to have time for at home. Guys – when it comes to road trips with kids, attitude is everything! Before you tick off that road trip packing list for kids, try to get into the right mindset. Here are some tips for doing just that.
Planning your Road Trip is Crucial
Having a plan for your family road trip is vital. As a rule of thumb, we stop every two hours for toilets breaks, as well as for the sake of the kids’ attention spans. If I know the route in advance, or I’ve driven it before, I plan the ideal stops. If I’m not familiar with the route, I use Google to find playgrounds and picnic areas. Speaking of playgrounds, if your road trip goes thru Perth, make sure you check out our Perth Playgrounds And Parks In Perth post. Here you can find the best playgrounds in Perth for your kiddos.
The younger the children are, the more frequent the stops must be. A road trip with young children thus takes longer. Toddlers do really need a break every two hours, while for children aged 4 plus you can increase the time between stops to three hours.
Plan for Daytime Naps
If you have children who still sleep during the day, make sure your road trip plan takes that into account. There’s nothing worse than stopping for a break and having to wake up a peacefully sleeping child!
When planning for their daytime sleep in the car make sure you take the familiar things they use at home, as well as perhaps a neck pillow.
- Their favorite cuddly toy
- Their comfort blanket
- A bottle of milk, pacifier, or dummy
- Soothing music. I also play some lullabies via the car’s sound system and ask the other kids to close their eyes – or at least stay quiet – until the toddler goes to sleep!
- A neck pillow. These can make the child more comfortable, and therefore more likely to sleep soundly for a while.
Be Willing to Throw the Plan Out
Having a plan is crucial. But it’s just as important to be open-minded. Try to achieve a flexible mindset, so that if you see the plan is not working you can switch things up.
Let the Plan Go, and Have Fun
Road trips with kids are fun – I promise! If you spot an awesome playground from the road, then why not pull over, and let the children have a bit of fun?
If we plan ahead OR allow a whole day for the trip – then there’s no reason not to stop. You can all enjoy a bit of outdoor recreation along the way, even though it will take longer to get to your destination.
This is precisely why we include a whole list of possible activities for those roadside stops. If the kids are fighting in the back, and won’t stop the bickering, then why not get them out so they can throw a ball around? In my experience, this really works, because you need two people to throw and catch. Usually, this will therefore get them talking and on good terms once again. If not, the driver (aka Mumma) will at least get a good wake-up and break from the endless hours of driving!
Expect the Unexpected
Vomiting, spilled drinks, or even those ad hoc stops because we spotted a great playground. We look at the expected driving time from point A to point B and then allow an extra 30 minutes per break as a minimum. Or at least an extra hour, maybe two.
Trust me, road trips with kids are so much more successful when the parents are not stressed. So do include fun things to do on a road trip on your list – and you will get there – eventually!
Are We There Yet?
If there’s one question designed to drive a parent mad on a road trip, it’s the classic “are we there yet”? For older, more literate kids, we teach them to spot the road markers for the next town so that they’re looking out of the window. Keeping their mind occupied while looking for the next road marker teaches them to answer the question for themselves. For preliterate children, we set them the task of looking for landmarks instead.
For example: “When we see the bridge, it’s going to be half an hour more”, “When we see the tower, it’s going to be 20 minutes more” and “When we see the funny tree that’s leaning over the road, it’s going to be five kilometers more”. The success of this approach will, of course, depend on the age of the child.
Car Sickness in Kids (Motion Sickness)
If you have a child who tends to suffer from motion sickness during road trips, then you will need to do even more planning. You can try a Sea-Band in a kids’ size – it does work for us. For dealing with motion sickness in kids, Sea-Bands are always on our road trip list of essentials. Here are some more ideas of how to avoid motion sickness when travelling.
Other great items to have to hand include a change of clothes and a sick bucket (we use an old ice cream container or a bucket). You can also buy disposable vomit bags. I personally prefer the bucket as you can throw out the contents as it happens, whereas with vomit bags you need to carry them until you can find a bin!
Two of my other hints for avoiding motion sickness in kids are:
- Drive really slowly
- Stop very frequently
In-Car First Aid
A travel first aid kit is ideal for packing in the car – you may well need one at some point during your vacation, as well as the journey itself. Most families need plasters, at least, on a fairly regular basis!
Solo Road Trips
There is a big difference between taking solo road trips versus having – or being – a co-pilot. The main difference is that when you are in sole charge, you need to be super organized.
For example, keep snack and lunch boxes close to the kids, opt for easy-open containers, and offer a range of activities within their reach. If there is another driver, you can get away with being a little less organized, and it can be much easier to manage.
Sometimes when you are driving solo, you will just have to stop when any problems need sorting out. You may also need to consider what to bring on a road trip for kids even more carefully, so they can get on with things more independently.
Some solo parents report that nighttime driving works best. They head off close to the children’s usual bedtime, then drive into the night. I rarely do this, though, because I tend to get sleepy myself. In Australia there is also a lot of wildlife on the roads, meaning you have to go slower than during the day.
How about Technology when Road Tripping with Kids?
We’ve made a conscious effort to reduce screen use, as we described in Can We Go Screen Free On A 3 Hour Flight? Yes – screens are pretty much a guaranteed way of keeping the kids quiet on a road trip – yet it seems like a lost opportunity for connection, sharing stories, and taking part in other enjoyable activities! That’s right: road tripping with kids can be fun.
But yes, if all else fails an iPad will work. Believe me, if you hit a traffic jam at the end of a 7-hour road trip, you will be glad you kept the tech for an ‘emergency’. In general, I, therefore, keep the technology in reserve for later use, when it might be ‘really’ needed.
As a solo mum of 3 kids of different ages, each of my children does have their own iPad. However, I do still encourage them to watch at least one movie together, using the headphone splitter. Sometimes I even have the volume go through the car’s Bluetooth system, so I can listen in too.
Philosophically, I do often wonder about our children and their lack of ability to share or compromise. While it would often be easier to let them do their own thing on an iPad, I still try to encourage some collaboration!
Nowadays, it’s rare for kids to use a whole iPad battery, but during a long day of driving (like 12 hours), it can happen. We do keep one charger in the car, but another useful option is a battery pack.
Activity Road Trip Tips for Families
These tips can work for toddlers, pre-schoolers… and even picky tweens! In terms of road trip activities for kids of all ages, the following have always worked for us.
Nothing beats a good old-fashioned sing-along to pass the time on a family road trip! That doesn’t have to mean ‘Bananas in Pajamas’ the whole way. It can be Abba, the Beatles, or anything I like to pelt out at the top of my lungs. I’ve decided that road trips are about educating my children in classical music. By classical music, I mean the likes of Abba, the Beatles, and Elvis Presley. Or – what about the 1984 “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”!
Songs that have clear words, a good beat, and can get everybody moving work best. With singalongs and music, you can take turns choosing, so everybody gets to pick a song. With older kids, you also put a child in charge of the music, so that the driver doesn’t need to be distracted.
Anything with a catchy tune works for road trip singalongs. Unfortunately, my kids voted for Barbie Girl, consistently, for a whole trip ☹ “I’m a Barbie girl, in a Barbie world”
Another time it was Gangnam Style – go figure how they sung to that!
Storytelling is an excellent way to develop kids’ language and writing skills. It is also another way to enjoy road tripping with kids, and pass the time.
When planning a road trip for kids, there is so much great information and a lot of books out there on the art of storytelling. One book, in particular, that we love and found totally inspiring is Getting Children Writing Story Ideas For Children 3-11 by Simon Brownhill. Highly recommended!
The thing I found particularly inspiring about this book was that the author is great at explaining the art of storytelling, as well as how to teach and pass that on to your children. This book is definitely worth a read, providing endless inspiration when brainstorming road tripping with kids’ ideas. Or even Screen-Free Airplane Activities for kids which we cover in this post.
When children start school, a pre-writing phase is the ability to tell a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. If you can teach this structure during your travel storytelling, it will give them a head start in the classroom.
Some parents like to trade with their kids when it comes to reading versus technology. For example, you could make them read for a set period of time before allowing them to use an iPad. Just be aware that reading can make travel sickness worse, so you might want to make sure they’re wearing those Sea-Bands before they begin. Or, you could try audiobooks instead.
In our experience, a talking or audiobook is good for children aged 4 and over. Any younger than that, you’ll need a book with pictures, so they’ll want to turn the pages themselves. Otherwise, it’s hard for them to visualize and follow the story. Here are more ideas for audiobooks for family road trips.
Kids’ Road Trip Activity Packs
If you are driving solo, it’s best to pack individual activity bags that are easily accessible for the child. Here are some fun things to pack for a road trip with kids. Taking their own backpack each is ideal for this purpose, as you can pack it with all the things they’ll need. It also gives children a sense of responsibility. You can also read our dedicated post on The Best Kids’ Travel Backpacks here.
- Stickers, stickers and more stickers. From age two and up, stickers are the best thing for keeping kids busy. There are great age-appropriate sticker books that you can buy: the main thing is to make sure they can get the stickers off the page by themselves. We really rate the range of Melissa and Doug sticker books. These window stickers are also good fun – and don’t worry, they do come off easily!
- Colouring and drawing books are also good, but not so great on rough roads. Again, you need to think about your trip, and how to manage the children. Pencils and crayons get lost, so those magnetic boards with pens attached can be a better choice.
- Pipe cleaners are cheap and easy to play with, and can use up some time!
- If, like me, you have a Lego fanatic, pack a deep baking tray (or similar large flat tray) that can contain the Lego pieces during the long drive. Listed below are some of our favorite Lego sets, which are ideal when you’re wondering how to entertain a child on a long car ride. Lego is definitely a favorite among road trip hacks for kids!
- Lego Classic Medium Creative Brick Box. This one has 484 pieces, and best of all it comes with a brick-shaped yellow storage box. This is ideal for keeping on the kids’ laps, so they can get creative while you drive.
- Lego Classic Large Creative Brick Box. Like the one above, but with 790 pieces and an even deeper box! This is our favorite, as more bricks equal more entertainment. Plus the depth makes it easier to contain the pieces within the included box.
- Lego Classic Creative Brick Box. This is the smallest of the three, with 221 pieces and a square-shaped storage box.
- Lego Classic Creative Suitcase. With 213 pieces, this set comes in a handy suitcase with a carry handle. Again, ideal for kids’ laps, and the handle makes it really easy for them to grab.
- Lego Classic 1500 Piece Brick Set. Just as it says on the box, this one contains 1500 bricks in all colors and sizes.
- Lego Duplo Classic Brick Box. These chunkier bricks are designed for smaller hands, so they’re ideal for kids aged 18 months or over. This one comes with a green storage box and contains 65 pieces.
- Lego Duplo Deluxe Brick Box. This one has 85 pieces and a deeper storage box and is again ideal for younger kids.
Food for your Road Trip Packing List with Kids
I do know parents who are against letting their kids eat in the car because they make a mess. This is true – but it also passes the time on a road trip brilliantly. For me, it’s definitely on the family road trip essentials list. Hence our separate post, which you can read here.
Before departing, do have your snack bags organized, as they need to be packed ahead of time. Take into account what little fingers can open by themselves, and what might end up spilled all over the floor. Divided bento boxes that can be placed on little laps are ideal.
When the road trip is over, it is always a mission to spend time cleaning up and vacuuming the car, so think about what’s the easiest and least messy food to eat in the car. If you are on a solo road trip, a well-thought-out snack bag is a particularly vital part of your family road trip checklist.
You will also need water bottles, which can be re-filled when you stop for those rest breaks.
A Road Trip Packing List for Families by Age
We all go on vacation to have a good time, right? So here are the things to bring on a road trip for fun, sorted by the age of your child or children. Do check all the quick-reference lists for ideas, as many are interchangeable between age groups! These are the top road trip essentials for kids by age group.
What to Take on a Road Trip for Toddlers
A packing list for road trips with toddlers must bear in mind their short attention span and what they can do by themselves. You may also need to factor napping into the equation! As mentioned above, essentials for road trips with little kids include their usual comforts like a pacifier or dummy, comfort blanket, cuddly toy, and perhaps lullabies too.
Things to pack for your trip include toys and activities for little hands. You can see some more ideas on our post in Brilliant Toddler Plane Activities, but here are a few to get you started.
- Magnet Sets. These are ideal for keeping little hands busy – and as they stick together, they don’t easily escape out of reach or roll all over the car!
- Wikki Stix. These clever, colourful wax craft sticks are ideal for keeping young crafters occupied.
- Lego Duplo. With bigger bricks, Lego Duplo provides perfect in-car entertainment for small fingers.
- As detailed above, you can choose between window stickers and sticker books for kids. Or why not include both in your road trip pack?
- 3D pin art board. These inexpensive toys are great fun for little ones to get stuck into!
Road Trip Activities for Kids
A kids’ road trip for children around school age has its own challenges. Their active, enquiring minds need lots to keep them occupied. Getting ready for a road trip with kids who can do things for themselves means having lots that they can do independently.
A mix of activities should be included on your list of road trip essentials with kids. Such as paper or audiobooks, Lego, and drawing boards.
- Lego. See the list above, under ‘kids’ road trip activity packs’, for a list of our favourite family sets.
- Magnetic drawing boards. These allow kids to draw in the car, without pencils rolling around or worrying about making mistakes due to movement.
- A portable DVD player. This allows kids, toddlers, and tweens to watch a movie together.
- Headphone splitter. They’ll need this if watching a movie together on one screen!
- Fire for Kids. Amazon’s own kids’ tablet is much cheaper than an iPad, and thus ideal for kids to get started with. They also come complete with a chunky, rubbery protective case.
Things to Bring on a Road Trip for Tweens
What to bring for a road trip with older kids who aren’t yet teens? Here are a few age-appropriate suggestions, as well as those above aimed at kids in general.
- Travel journal. While the car may not be the best place to write in it, they could make rough notes or glue in little keepsakes. The younger kids could maybe decorate a page with stickers, keeping them busy for a while too. If the tween will let them, that is!
- National Parks passport. These are ideal to include on a road trip with kids in the US, instead of or as well as a journal.
- Travel games. There are travel versions of lots of popular kids’ games to keep them busy while on the road. Uno, Connect 4, or Battleship are classic examples.
Fun Road Trip Essentials for Teens
So what to pack for a road trip with teens? While they are old enough to make their own minds up, they may also need some prompting from you if you want to keep them happy for the whole journey. Tech like an iPad or smartphone is a given, but what else can you provide?
If it’s tech they’re into, how about a Kindle so they can read books on a device, for example? When they have younger siblings, it’s also a good idea to make them responsible for keeping the younger kids entertained for some of the time, by reading to them, singing with them, making sticker pictures together, telling them stories, or constructing Lego. Their reward could always be a stint on the iPad they’re so keen to get their hands on!
- iPad. You know they can’t live without it – you can always action screen time or use it as a reward.
- Kindle. As savvy parents know, it’s a cool way to read books while traveling.
- Car games. Teens are old enough to lead the family in an in-car road trip game like ‘Radical Road Trip’ or ‘Our Moments’, which can result in some in-depth discussions!
What to Pack on a Trip for Stops
Don’t forget about what to do when you do stop for a rest break at the play park – or wherever you can. Here are some ideas about what to keep the kids amused while you all stretch your legs.
- Aerobie. We do love these flying discs. A modern take on the traditional frisbee but so much better!
- Bubbles. Cheap, easy and compact to carry, and lots of fun. What’s not to love? Keep them out of reach during the actual journey, though!
- Skipping rope. You never know, enough jumping around and the kids might just get very sleepy for the next leg of the journey.
- Toss and catch. These sets comprise two velcro-covered discs and a tennis-type ball and are great to play with during quick pitstops en route.
Looking for gifts for road trippers? We’ve got a full post on it in our 20 Great Gifts for a Road Tripper.
Which Road Trip Essentials for Kids will Make your List?
Headed on a road trip? What to pack should hopefully be made easier by this list. Keeping the family entertained is essential for any road trip – a successful one, at least! When you pack for a road trip, try to include backup for eventualities like car sickness, plenty of snacks and drinks, and lots for the children to do.
The Verdict – Road Trip Essentials for Kids
I’ve got a friend who drives 36 hours across Australia twice a year in 3-day stints with 3 children by HERSELF. Talk about experience with travel hacks for kids. She is amazing, and if she reads this she knows I am talking about her. Next year she is going to do the trip 4 times. Yes, you read that – one perfectly sane, though superwoman-like, woman is going to voluntarily drive 144 hours with children in some mega road trips. I asked her the other day for her road trip hacks for kids and her suggestions are the same as mine!
Contrary to popular rumors, a road trip with kids can be a lot of fun. We suggest using this tried and tested list of road trip planning tips. Get out there on the road and enjoy a great family road trip. However, make sure you pack all the road trip essentials for kids to have a successful trip.
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