Whether you’re lugging the troops a visit to grandma’s, or setting out on a vacation to explore the wild unknown (or at least an AirBnB a decent drive away from your home), a road trip is a family rite of passage. But if you’re not careful, it can also be a recipe for disaster, as having a child meltdown on mile 12 of a 300 mile journey will have you questioning your decision to have kids in the first place. No road trip with kids will be bump-free. But fortune, as they say, favors the prepared. That’s why it pays to have a selection of road trip hacks to help with everything from entertainment to comfort on the open road.
But what road trip hacks are the best? We asked a sample of dads who’ve been there to share the road trip hacks for kids they swear by. The answers we received are genuinely helpful. Apply some or all of them, and your next family road trip will be all the better for it. Here’s what they said.
1. Do Some “Training Missions” Beforehand
“I learned this the hard way, as we were forced to take our first 3 hour plus trip with our kids — two and four — before we’d really taken a trip longer than 45 minutes. It was a nightmare. Multiple meltdowns and some very grumpy parents. Before our next trip, we took a more practical approach and really plotted things out with ‘training missions.’ We took gradually longer drives on the weekend. We learned what games and podcasts held their attention for a while. We learned, importantly, how long they can entertain themselves — our younger one is much better at that than our older one. And we thought through what snacks they like. I tell all my friends to do the same. “ Charles, 41, North Carolina
2. Time your trip around naps.
“I’m the father of two girls, aged three and five. We try to get out of town as much as possible. My number one hack for easy traveling with young children is timing your departure right. We often head to a holiday spot four hours away from our home. Both our children will fall asleep if we drive for over an hour which means that if they fall asleep during the afternoon, we’re in for a late-night. So we always make it our aim to leave for a road trip between 9 and 10 in the morning. That way we know they’ll sleep for a decent portion of the trip, while at the same time not ruin their evening routine. Getting kids to sleep during a road trip cuts down on stress for the parents and allows them to relax more. And it means the children don’t get grumpy and are well-rested when you arrive at your destination.” – Dan, 35,
3. Play the Animal Sound Game.
“I have two sons who play competitive golf, and we’ve been traveling for decades. They’re both teenagers now, so my road trip hacks have had to change over time, but I’ve always tried to use the road trips as chances to have fun and keep them off their phones. When they were younger, they loved the animal sounds game. We called it ‘Moo Moo’. Basically, you look for animals during the drive and make the noise the animal makes. If you see a cow, you scream “Moo!” for example. The first one to do it wins a point. We’ve shared plenty of laughs using that game to pass the time, and listening to each other try to sound like birds, horses, and the animals we see along the way.” – Ray, 45, Virginia
4. Stop at a Playground Every Day.
“We live in a remote part of the country, so our family often goes on road trips. Once or twice a year, we travel over 1,000 miles one way to visit family, and at least every month, we take a six-plus hour road trip. We play games and listen to kids’ stories while we drive, but the most important thing we do that makes road trips with our five little ones endurable is stopping at a playground every day. Even though it adds time to our travels, the kids are so much happier for the whole day when they’ve had a chance to run around and burn energy.” – Rick, 42, MT
5. Use Geo Touch
“Geo Touch is an app you can download that let’s your kids ‘track’ their trip along the way. It’s perfect for little kids — ours are four and six — and helps them familiarize themselves with the country as a whole, and the specific destinations you might be visiting. It’s got everything from state pronunciations, to state capitals, and allows kids to guide themselves through basic geography lessons as games. It’s great as an individual game that the kids can play themselves, and it also works as a family game. My wife will open up one of the quizzes or activities, and ask everyone in the car which answer they think is right. It passes time, keeps the kids entertained, and helps them learn. Wins all around.” – Mark, 34, Indiana
6. Switch “Comfort” Items.
“I’m the father of five kids, all under eight years old, so I know the struggles of traveling with children on a road trip. One of the things I like to do before heading off is making sure they have all the items they need to be comfortable. I learned this by forgetting to bring my eldest daughter’s comfort blanket once before. She didn’t become a nuisance, but she became irritated very easily. My other daughter has to have her teddy, or she can’t sleep. Switching the items regularly has helped my kids not to depend too much on a specific item. I always try to keep the items small — teddys are the most popular — and make sure the kids know not to forget them. In fact, I keep a spare teddy in the back of the car, just in case.” – James, 29, UK
7. Pack the Right Snacks
“It’s all about the snacks. On a family travel day it’s important to be properly fueled, vehicle and kids included. This is especially true with little ones. Tensions can get high if anyone in the car is hangry. Having the right assortment of snacks is essential, and we’ve found that snacks high in protein and low in sugar for best results. We usually go with string cheese and mixed nuts, and make sure to have plenty of water to keep everyone hydrated.” – Ian, 34, Maryland
7. Play Count the Van, Jeep, and Bug.
“I’m not sure if this game exists, or if we made it up, but it’s a spin on the classic ‘spotting cars’ game, that’s a lot more intense and complicated. All of the players need to find five of each – five vans, five Jeeps, and five VW Bugs. Once you see one, you call it out and get a point. Yellow cars and police cars are wild, though, so they can count for anything. Our boys are grown now, but they used to love this game when they were kids. We would pass hours in the car waiting for someone to spot the last van, Jeep, or Bug. It got pretty heated sometimes, too, when it wasn’t clear who actually ‘saw’ the car first. But we always had fun, and it always made the trip more smooth.” – Jeremy, 47, New York
8. Use Shower Caddies as Lunch Trays
“We found these cheap shower caddies that became our sort of ‘catch-all’ storage containers inside the car. Then, one of our sons decided to portion out his lunch by using each of the compartments to hold something different. So he had his sandwich in one, his fries in another, his drink in another, and so on. They’re much easier than trying to balance all the food on your lap, especially for little kids. And our kids seem to really enjoy organizing them. They’re almost like little budget bento boxes that we can wipe down or hose out wherever we stop.” – Jameson, 34, Missouri
9. Go Big on Books
“For longer road trips, we’ve found that our girls like doing activity books in the car. But, instead of just packing a stack of random coloring books, we try to choose a variety of book types. One could be a maze book. One might be a sticker book. One might be a learn-to-draw book. One might be a search-and-find book. One might be a color-by-number book. You get the idea. When traveling with our three young daughters, we’ve found that it’s important to intentionally think about the size and purpose of the toys we pack. So books work perfectly.” – Tyler, 35, Pennsylvania
10. Play Physical Games. But Keep the Dice Contained.
“Games are a big part of our road trips, and we’ve found that keeping track of dice, or pieces you need to shake, can be tough. Usually they’re lost in the seats within the first few hours. My wife got the idea to take a small plastic container and put the dice inside. Then, you shake the container and let the dice settle. She got the idea from Boggle, which is one of her favorite games. We tried rolling the dice into a cup and onto a tray, but the kids seem to love the shaking part. Plus, having an off/on lid makes it easy to add in more dice or game pieces without having to worry about them getting lost.” – Kris, 37, South Carolina
11. Draw on the windows.
“I’m a teacher, and I often use my classroom windows as extra whiteboards by writing on them with dry-erase markers. So I got my kids a set of them for road trips, and they go nuts drawing on the windows while we drive. Usually it’s just typical little kid stuff — animals, monsters, scribbles. But sometimes they’ll play with each other and try to guess what each other is drawing. Sometimes they’ll write ‘HONK!’ and try to get other cars or trucks to honk when we drive by. They’re not old enough to write obscene stuff yet, so it’s the perfect road trip distraction for those long drives.” – Reid, 36, Illinois
12. Use Flush.
“It’s an app that tells you where the cleanest bathrooms are. You put in your location, and the nearest restrooms pop up, complete with ratings, distances, and sometimes even reviews. It reminds me of that Seinfeld episode where George can name the best bathrooms anywhere in New York City. That’s the gist of this app. We were skeptical when we first heard about it, but we tried it and it’s been a homerun. It’s great for safety, too, which is important when traveling with little kids. Lower rated bathrooms are either dirty, or creepy, and it’s good to know where they are — and where they’re not — when you’re from out of town.” – Josh, 38, Maryland
13. Pack dryer sheets.
“Spray air fresheners are really strong, and if you’re traveling with a packed car you can’t really spray them without misting someone. A friend of ours told us to start bringing dryer sheets instead. We have three boys, so our car can get pretty funky after a few hours. Usually we’ll wedge a dryer sheet or two into the air vents, and it helps to keep the car smelling fresh. They work better than those vent sticks, and they’re easier to pack, cheaper, and can make great napkins in a pinch. You’ll need a lot of those traveling with three boys, that’s for sure.” – Shaun, 37, Georgia
14. Forget About Screen Time Limits
“Our kids have very regimented screen time limits during normal times. But when we’re in the car on a long trip? Those go out the window. It’s a treat for them, and honestly a treat for us because it keeps them quiet and happy during the ride. Yes, we play games and talk and listen to music. But they can use screens, too. Of course we monitor what they watch and play. But it’s a nice change of pace for them and on hour three when everyone is in that space-out mode, it’s a great rule to have.” — Carlos, 39, Fort Lauderdale
15. If The Kids Are Quiet, Don’t Stop
“Unless you are, like, almost out of gas or your back is seizing up. This is obvious but remembering it has saved me on multiple rides. If the kids are sleeping or zoned out, just keep going.” — Harrison, 43, Baltimore.