car with kayak

Road trip memories! If you don’t have a mix of sweet and sour road trip memories from childhood, you missed out. Did you really have a childhood if your parents didn’t threaten to pull over and head back home at least once? Either way, a road trip with kids is a parenting right of passage, maybe even obligation. And as we are all aching to get back to some level of socially distanced adventuring, road trips are the perfect solution. 

Here in the FivePax fam, we have become quite the road-trippers the past few years and have pulled together our best tips in this article. And of course, we sprinkled in tips from our friends, family, and social media community. Keep reading for a complete guide for all of the road trips with kid hacks that will keep your memories trending toward the sunnier side. 

car on road with kayak
We won’t ever fit in a car this small again…. we now have an SUV with a roof rack and cargo box as well a hitch rack for cooler, etc plus our bike rack, of course. If I could figure out how to get a kayak up there too, I would!

Planning a Low-Budget Family Road Trip

Road trips, in general, are a great way to pursue traveling on a budget, especially when traveling with kids. If your family owns your vehicle, the costs can be quite controlled. Even borrowing or renting a car was cheaper when we were road tripping with kids before buying a car a few years ago!

There are tips throughout each section of this article highlighting ways to save money while road tripping. 

How to build your road trip with kids itinerary

How to decide how long of a road trip to take

If you don’t have a predetermined destination, knowing how much time you have to work with is the best place to start. If you are just starting to road trip with the kids or have an infant, you should plan to stop every 1.5-2 hours for breaks. This pace won’t get you cross-country, that is okay! Typically we can get 5-6 hours of road covered per day but we break up these long days with a 2 or 3 hour day in between. Once the kids are older you can do longer days with 10-11 hours of drive-time.

Oh, if you already know your destination, bounce down to the next section, already!

If you have a 3-day weekend, draw a circle around your city and search for under 4-hour drives. Working with a full week or more? Extend that circle and see what destinations you can hit with some fun cities or stops along the way. 

budget saving tip Budget tip: Visit popular destinations in the “off-season”.  Many national and state parks, and other tourist destinations, offer off-season discounts and you will avoid the crowds.  

Ohio highway view on a road trip
While we lived in NYC we took several road trips to Ohio each year.

Mapping your stops along a road trip with kids

Once you know your destination you can begin to map out the “must-stops” and the “nice-to stops”.  There are locations and destinations where you will have to pre-book tickets, they might be on your bucket list, or you are meeting up with a friend or relative. These become your must-stops. 

Next look at other adventures, parks, and entertainment that would be fun if the timing aligns, but you can pass if needed. These are your “nice to stops”. And sometimes you will end up using Google while on the road, building a plan C adventure.

budget saving tipBudget tip: Pre-plan all of your must-stops but pay attention to cancellation policies. Add in a few back-up options and do a bit of pre-research on discounts and ensure you don’t land somewhere with sneaky extra costs for parking, etc. 

What tools, guides, websites, etc. are most helpful for planning a road trip?

No matter where you are going or your route, we have a few tools that are tried and true! Most make a road trip with kids a bit smoother and almost all help cut down on costs.

Google

We use google maps for our route, a few other map apps have gotten us into some nasty traffic so we are all in on Google maps. We also use the feature to find food and gas on our route since it will tell you exactly how much out of your way the stop will be and you can cost compare gas prices!

Groupon

We try to pick activities and events that are free and outdoors, but especially in really hot or cold weather we find ourselves seeking indoor entertainment and that usually means a cost is involved. Groupon is an awesome space for landing deals. When we headed to EnterTRAINment Junction in Cincinnati we were able to get 30% off the regular ticket price.

Choosing Accommodations and Hotel Rewards

We don’t have one go-to site for overnight accommodations. You can usually book once you are already on the road, this way if you need to shorten or are able to lengthen the day, you aren’t stuck with a pre-set end-point.  We almost always tap into our hotel rewards programs, Marriott and IHG are our current top choices. If you are staying more than one night, check into home-sharing (Airbnb, etc) options as well. If we are doing more than one night at a hotel, a kitchenette is a must. We save a lot of money by limiting how much we eat out on the road.

In addition to a kitchen, free breakfast is another non-negotiable for us, no matter the length of our stay. Our boys are big breakfast eaters and we save a lot of money and time eating at the hotel. If you zip down right when it opens, you can then finish packing and let the food settle in before you hit the road. *Currently most hotels are doing a grab and go breakfast. Some are better quality than others, you can call ahead to ask! 

Google vs Trip Advisor vs Yelp for reviews

We have found Google reviews to be most accurate and inclusive of a broader range of options from food to parks to entertainment and even wild-card stops like urgent cares. For more touristy destinations or activities, we will head over to Trip Advisor.  For reviews of hiking trails, we use All Trails. Yelp rankings controversy aside, it works if you land in a region where it is far more used than Google, we haven’t found ourselves on Yelp in quite a while (goodbye Yelp Elite status).

Finding Outdoor Adventures

The AllTrails app is our go-to for locating parks and family-friendly hikes along the way. The app has great search filters, including ‘kid-friendly’, and reviews and photos are a huge help to narrow your options. 

budget saving tip Budget tip: Sign-up for and use hotel rewards programs! Look for discount codes and deals on Groupon and other discount ticket sites. Spend time outside at playgrounds, parks, and historic sites instead of curated family adventures with a heavy price tag.

Kids in carseats holding hands on a road trip
Spot that red solo cup? We call it a “puke cup” and have a whole separate article on overcoming motion and car sickness during road trips, the link is below!

Car sickness on road trips with kids

Our kids are plagued with my genes and pension for motion and car sickness. It can be totally manageable even if we have taken weeks and months-long road-trip breaks when it seems they are in a particular slump of increased sickness. We have a whole guide on motion sickness treatment for kids with our best tips and tricks.

road trip with kids snack basket
Our snack basket has evolved over time and while for some trips I bake healthy muffins, chop fresh veggies, boil eggs and make mini sandwiches…. more often I zip to the grocery the night before and it looks a lot like this.

Meals for road trips with kids

Best meals for a road trip with kids (aka “Snasket 101”)

For every road-trip, we build a “snasket” with a mix of everyone’s favorite travel-friendly snacks. Some trips I bake and chop and it’s really well organized, some trips I toss whatever is in the cupboard on our way out the door. For a shorter road-trip, bring have a mini cooler for veggies and cheese, and for longer trips bring a larger lunch cooler. Whatever you pack, if you have car sick kiddos, try to keep it mild and tummy-friendly as well as generally healthy. The core elements of a perfect snasket include: 

  • Nuts and Bars (almonds, trail mix, Zbars, homemade protein bars or balls)
  • Cheese and Eggs (mini Babybel cheeses, cheese sticks or hard-boiled eggs) 
  • Crunchy Veggies (cucumber slices or mini sweet peppers)
  • Healthy Carbs (graham crackers/ wheat crackers/ carrot muffins)
  • Fruits (apples, bananas, dried fruit, fruit leathers) 
family eating BBQ meal on road trip break
Clearly no one was feeling photogenic after a full day in the car, but the BBQ pitstop in South Carolina was some of the best we have had!

Eating the local flavor

While we really try not to eat out much on our trips, we also really, really love food and always try some of the “local flavors”. Usually, this looks like one take-out meal each day that doesn’t come from the car. A great chance to get some air and stretch as well as enjoy the local flavor of that stop. Our very favorite all-time BBQ was a stop in South Carolina! And we are still talking about the fish tacos from a tiny taqueria in San Diego 8 years ago.

Quick hotel meals

While I love to cook and don’t mind doing so on vacation, hotel kitchenettes don’t always have the highest quality cooking gear to make it possible. These meals need to be simple. I often pull from my camping go-to’s to make in the hotel. 

Entertainment for road trips with kids

After all the time spent planning the family road trip even this crafty-Pinterest loving mama doesn’t have any steam left to make felt and magnetic educational games specific for each road trip. Also, my kiddos barf whenever they aren’t looking straight ahead and engaged in conversation.

BUT if that is what you came here for and you have read all this time only to be terribly disappointed, never fear. Check out our Pinterest board where we have tagged all of our favorite early-educator approved crafty ideas. I have also dropped the links to several products we own and love for all of the road trip downtimes that isn’t in the car (again, pukers!).

Toys for entertaining the kids during a road trip

Road Trip Toys for Little Kids

Amazing Mazes– A dry erase maze book that is still a house favorite, bring along a small washcloth to erase and have it ready for the next turn.

Melissa and Doug Water Wow! books– these reusable ‘paint’ books are no-mess and tons of fun for toddlers and preschoolers.

Wikki Sticks– We love these for flights, so naturally they could be a great addition to your road trip as well!

Road Trip Toys for Older Kids

Rubik’s cube– My oldest kiddo and I both mastered the Rubik’s cube recently and are both working to cut down our solve time on our respective favorite cubes (nerd alert!). We now keep one in the car, and one in the diaper bag, and one at home.

Travel Bingo We found these recently in my dad’s game closet and he promises they are a big hit among the older grandkids!

Mad Libs– A favorite from my own childhood road trip days. I loved Mad Libs in the car!

Zero-prep road games in the car

As mentioned above we aren’t big pre-planned activity people while on the road. We love open-ended activities, and also have a few go-to games which require little or no preparation or materials.  

Classic road games

  • Alphabet and Counting Games– pull from your own childhood 🙂 If you missed out on this one, it’s pretty easy. Move through the alphabet finding each letter on signs, license plates, billboards, etc. for younger kiddos, search for the letters of their names. If your kids aren’t quite ready to handle the loss of competition, make it teamwork, and see how fast they can work together to finish the alphabet. 
  • iSpy- Great for when you are stuck in traffic, snacking at a rest area, and for little road-trippers while in the car. 
  • Story Telling- A game of improv. Take turns telling stories and passing it to the next passenger, you can set a time or sentence limit before the story is passed. This one has been a great time for our extrovert to shine.
  • 20 questions- We have modified for the little guys to “someone in my family”, we ask 20 questions to narrow in on on which family member they are thinking of. 

Baron family top favorites

  • 5 Facts about Me– One we made up, maybe I heard it somewhere? But for the numbers 1-5 you share a fact about yourself. 1- I have broken one bone, 2- I have been to Mexico two times, etc. You can layer more rules depending on their ages. We have recently added, nothing you physically own or your body (I have two hands wouldn’t count), its so silly and simple and they love it.
  • Would you rather? Or What do you like best?– Around age 5 this can quickly turn gross so a bit of advice–set-up some boundaries first. A quick game saver is to disallow “potty talk”. 
  • “Tell me about it… (for 2 minutes and switch)”, my kids are very eager storytellers so we set the timer and they can say anything they want silly or fact (fiction or non-fiction for our primary school kiddos!) until the timer is up. Sometimes the stories are built upon each other but this is a bit more open-ended for whatever they want to talk about.
child making shadows in sidewalk
Our kids are still in that fun age where they love watching their shadows on the sidewalk, a great pit-stop activity if the sun is in your favor. Regular old sidewalk yoga works great, too!

Stretching and moving

After sitting in a far for a few hours even the most chill kiddo is ready to burn some energy! The sidewalk at a rest stop is a great place to follow the leader, skip, hop, and frog jump in a line back and forth a few times. 

Stretch and do a 5-minute ‘yoga session’, the kids take turns to choose poses. A great way to stretch achy muscles put them in charge, and get out some silliness before you pile back into the car.

Podcasts and music line up!

We have been on an endless quest to find great podcasts that aren’t too fast of a pace and everyone enjoys. Unfortunately, we don’t have any clear favorites, so send us your recommendations! Common Sense Media has a decent list worth checking out. We have tried and had some success getting them interested in Story Pirates and Wild Wonderful World.

Old fashioned music via streaming services is our usual go-to. You can rotate who picks the song or artist to spread the power! Queen, Coldplay and the Beatles are favorites across the board. And if tension is getting high, a little Mellow Folk is usually the antidote!

We hope these tips having you feel inspired to conquer and rock your next road trip journey. We want to hear all of your questions and any other great ideas you have for road tripping with kids!