Family Road Trip

My sleepy eyes stare ahead at the black dash board; broken white lines methodically stream by in my peripheral.  My ears pick up dim whispers of my husbands voice matching the murmur escaping the speakers; a soft drum of his fingers taps the steering wheel.  My legs sense the dull vibration of wheels spinning below me; a light draft circulates from the air vents.  The backseat, still as a patient fisherman’s reel.

And then, a skewer of light pierces the doldrum of the hour. Unsure of the stinging glow’s source, I realize it’s coming from the side mirror and whip my head around searching.  My eyes settle on the most beautiful site.

“Kids!!! Turn around!”, I exclaim wildly.

“What?!” “What is it, mom?!”, they worry jolting upright in their seats.

“Look!”, I say pointing to the back window.

“What are we looking for?!”, they respond dubiously craning their necks over their shoulders.

“The SUNSET!  Look at the sunset!  It’s beautiful!  See it setting over the mountain peaks? And the way the clouds are wisping around the sky? And the iridescent colors and how big the sky is out here and the how far those mountains go on in the distance, and…and..!”

I go on for a bit while slowly each one turns back around with a ‘cool, mom’ or ‘yeah, pretty’ eye-roll followed by a sigh as they plug back into their virtual zones.

Deflated, I glance over to my husband who sympathetically shrugs his shoulders.

“Well, they set their eyes on something beautiful whether they appreciated it or not.  And that’s what matters.” I concede proudly as we continue our drive to tonight’s stopping point.

The family road trip.  Love it or hate it, it’s a tradition every family should take at least once, and better yet, much more often than that.

I’m not talking the standard drive an hour or two to see cousins, or even the occasional short weekend trip. I’m talking full on pack the car to the rim, load up the movies, and get ready for hours and hours of driving over multiple days.

There so many reasons to road trip: 

 1. Family bonding time

You, your spouse, and your kids will learn to work together.   Together, you can plan the route, choose which sites to visit, or figure out how to get to the top of a cool boulder next to the rest station.

You’ll create shared moments. Something unexpected is bound to happen on your trip. You’ll bond over that moment and reminisce about that frustrating/ scary/ hilarious/ surprising moment for years to come.

You’ll see a different dynamic with your kids. The kids will have an enormous amount of time together in the car, not to mention in the hotel room/tent, during meals, and during activities. Despite so much time together, something just feels different when on a road trip. Maybe being forced to sit so close to each other with no place to go gives them a better mind set to work things out. I was pleasantly surprised at how little my four kids bickered with each other on our last road trip, both in the car and once outside, despite seemingly being at each others throats constantly at home.

2.  Experience the journey, not just the destination

With the increasingly “right-now” mind-set in today’s world, it’s refreshing to take time to get from point A to point B.  Today we have on-demand tv, urgent text messages, instantaneous search results, and immediate feedback on social media; even airplanes create a seemingly “here one minute, there the next” situation.  When traveling far distances by car, you literally see that the world is huge and that things don’t happen with the snap of one’s fingers.  Take it a step further and imagine (or in reality) biking from place to place, taking a horse-drawn wagon, or–heaven forbid–walking to get somewhere!  Slow down and experience the journey.  See the things in between that too often get glossed over in our fast paced world.

3. Save money

When you start talking about three, four, five, six, or more plane tickets, versus one car tank for gas, money starts adding up real quick.  Many times it ends up cheaper to drive.  You won’t need to rent a car once there, you don’t need to pay extra baggage fees, and it’s rare to find a decent airline fare for the week your family wants to travel since, most likely, other families are trying to fly out that same time.

I also find that, in general, for our family, we end up spending less on hotels during the car journey than our final destination “splurge”, so that lowers the average price per night.  Conversely, we’ve done some trips where the destination lodging was more rustic (tent camping, basic cabins, or “motel” camping) and so we didn’t mind spending a little more for some cushy pillows/room on the way back home.

Another way to save money is to load up a cooler with reusable water bottles, sandwiches, fruit, and snacks from home rather than relying on expensive treats at rest areas or restaurants.  We also brought a few bottles of wine from home that we could price better than paying the huge mark up at a hotel or restaurant once we got to our destination.

You’ve decided to take that big family road trip.  Here are a few tips to make it go as smooth as possible.

Tip #1:  Technology Rules!

Whether you have a TV in your car, iPads or iPhones loaded up with games, movies, and tv shows, portable game consoles, or something else, technology can be both a friend and a foe.

For one, it does help to have the kids entertained on their own for large blocks of time allowing some peace and quiet not just for the driver but for everyone.  During our kids screen time, my husband and I could talk and sort through issues, goals, to-dos, random thoughts and more.

On the other hand, they miss the scenery outside, conversations with mom and dad, and a chance to play games with their siblings.

To take advantage of both sides of the coin, we establish technology rules for our family road trips.

  • Rule 1 – Headphones!  Before we leave the house, I fill a reusable grocery bag with headphones and other technology accessories.  I leave it in the center of the car for all to see and use.
    • Headphones  No one uses technology in the car with out wearing these
    • Converter for the new iPhones that don’t match the old fashion “normal” jacks
    • Splitter so siblings can watch a movie together and each have a headphone
    • Charger  Cord, plug to use at destination, car adaptor, whatever you need to charge your devices in the car and at the hotel
    • Car headphones  If you have a car media system, you probably have wireless headphones. Don’t forget those too.
    • Extra batteries for your wireless headphones and/or portable game system

  • Rule 2 – One movie or 2 hours of technology = One hour NO technology!We make a strict rule that if you watch a movie/TV or spend two hours on your device playing games, you have to spend an hour without your device.
    • You can sleep, read a book, play a game with a sibling, look out the window, do a crossword puzzle, draw, talk to mom/dad, or anything else (quietly) during that hour as long as it doesn’t involve a device.
    • If mom/dad enforce the rule (“Ok kids! Time for an hour without technology!”) and the kids don’t comply, technology gets taken away until–add in your own consequence here.  For us, the device will get taken away for TWO hours, or maybe until the next stop, depending on how many times we have to ask.  In reality, there’s some wiggle room here enforcing this rule depending on how things are going.  But it’s good to set up the rule in advance and be ready to enforce when necessary.
  • Rule 3 – Turn off technology arriving at destinationEveryone in our car needs to experience driving into the town of our final destination, no exceptions.  They need to see the town, the trees, the buildings, the people, and get excited about arriving!
    • This also allows a smoother exit from the car.  If kids aren’t on technology when you arrive, they can actually HELP pick up trash, get their stuff together, get out of the car and carry things in!
    • If it’s late and the kids are sleeping, I’ll wake the older ones up and let the little ones sleep.

Tip # 2 – Rewards!

Nothing says parenting like bribing your kids.

I discovered a great tool on the internet years ago* that works brilliantly for my kids, both older and younger:  Tickets.

A few weeks before our trip, I made colored paper tickets and organized them into sandwich bags with each child’s name.

  • One yellow ticket = One hour of driving.
  • Green tickets = Earned tickets for good behavior.   

In each zip lock bag, I added yellow tickets equal to total hours of driving time.  Then in a separate bag for me, I stuck all the green tickets and some extra paper in case I needed to make more for the ride home.

Once in the car, after each hour of driving (excluding food/gas/bathroom stops), I would collect one yellow ticket from each child.

After three hours driving, I would give out green earned tickets for good behavior.  If someone complied with at least one hour of no technology during that period, he or she got a green ticket.  They could also earn green tickets for being helpful or behaving especially good in the car, such as helping a sibling into/out of car seat, passing an item, helping a sibling find something, being quiet/not arguing during that whole time, etc.

Conversely, if there was a big argument or otherwise misbehaved, an earned ticket could be taken away.

Whenever we stopped for gas, the kids could trade in their earned tickets for a small treat.

The benefits of this ticket system proved three-fold:

  1. Passes time.   The hours tick by as they turn in tickets and they can visually gauge how much driving is left by looking at the remaining pile of tickets in their bag.  This greatly reduces the “are we there yet?” syndrome.
  2. Encourages good behavior.  They will learn real quick when reward tickets are earned or forfeited.  I tend to focus on giving tickets out and keep the forfeiture for the most egregious behavior.
  3. Keeps them looking forward.  They’ll be more excited and willing to get out of the car to stretch and use the toilets when they have tickets to exchange for treats at the next stop.

Once at our destination, I collect all the bags and re-sort for the car ride home.

* My apologies and thanks to whoever created this awesome tool.  I found it at least 10 years ago on another family travel website and have been using it ever since.  If you know where it started, please let me know so I can give due credit.  I may have modified it a bit to suit my family’s needs.

Tip #3 – Games and other activities!

To encourage non-technology time in the car, I always load up a bag full of goodies for the kids to play with.  Here is what I bring:

  1. Travel guides:  I try to get ones with lots of photos, not as much reading, so they can flip through and preview what we’ll be seeing on the way or at our destination.  You can check out my beach-themed travel guide for young kids on my website:
  2. Wildlife field guides:  You can pick these up at nature centers, park stations, gift shops, etc.  My kids loved picking these up as we drove through national/state parks or just whenever they were bored in the car.  I bring ones relevant to where we are going such as:  Florida snakes and reptiles, Dragonflies of Florida, Native plants of Florida, Birds of Florida, Flowers of Florida.  These field guides include photos and names of things you may see in nature on your trip.  Even if you don’t see everything, they will learn what they are, be entertained while they are in the car, and engaged when they are outside exploring.
  3. Maps: Maps of the state or park we are visiting.  At some point along the trip, I have the kids pick it up and show me where we are and where we are going.  It also helps to have these handy when we are navigating in the front seat.
  4. Travel Journal:  My husband and I used to always write a journal on our trips together.  It’s a great way to focus on the moment, record something you may want to recall later, a way to look back and reminisce.  For young kids, I’ve created a simple easy-to-use travel journal where they simply circle how they feel, what the weather is, who they are with and few special things that happened that day.  Sitting in the car is great time for my kids to reflect on what they’ve seen and done for the day and also doodle and draw a picture of a memorable moment.  You can find my travel journal for young kids on my website at
  5. Games:  Here are a few games the kids can play together in the car
    • Go Fish (don’t forget deck of cards or pick one up at a rest stop)
    • ABC game (find billboards/signs with next letter of alphabet)
    • I Spy (colors, shapes, numbers, letters)
    • Hangman (bring pad of paper and markers/pen)
    • Win, Lose or Draw (draw something and other person has to guess what it is)
    • 21 Questions (perhaps use your wildlife field guides as inspiration.  Pick something on the field guide and the other person has to guess what it is with only 21 Yes/No questions)

As your family enjoys the journey, remember the important thing is to get traveling, explore and be together.  Together, you can keep watch for storms in the distance, while searching for rainbows and sunshine ahead.