Tips for taking a road trip with kids

Think of planning a road trip with kids this summer? Before you go, check out these tips!

(Note from Regan: This post was originally written pre-Covid19. Current day access to hotels, restaurants and stores have obviously changed. I encourage you to be sure to check out the status of each state along your trip before embarking on a road trip with kids this summer.)

If you’ve followed me for anything length of time, you know I love to travel. I’m fortunate that my work calls me away to fun places, but I also get to enjoy pretty frequent trips with my husband and kids. Some of the travel I do with my kids is solo parenting or involves trips with my boys and my dad. On those trips, I find it’s especially important to pack appropriately.

A few summers ago, my dad and I took my boys on a road trip from Georgia to South Dakota. Specifically, we were visiting Mount Rushmore — a site that I think every American needs to enjoy at least once in his or her lifetime. 

While there are plenty of tips I could offer about visiting Mount Rushmore, I’ll leave that to the plentiful supply of guide books and travel apps. Instead, I’m sharing in the post general tips for taking a road trip with kids.

I’ve done both air travel and numerous car trips with my boys. In either case, there are some keys to traveling successfully with kids that you might not think about if you are used to traveling alone or with other adults.

(Note: If you doubt how much I’ve traveled across the US with kids and without, you might be interested to know on this trip to Mount Rushmore, I crossed my 50th state off the list! There’s not a state in the US I haven’t been to. So trust me when I say I know how to take a good road trip!)

tips for taking a road trip with kids: 

Luggage — Make sure everyone can carry/pull a piece of luggage, no matter how young they are. (Obviously, babies and non-walking kiddos are out on this). But if a kid can walk, they can pull or carry a lightweight bag. Notice I didn’t say they had to pull “their own luggage.” When you’re traveling as a family, you may need to rethink everyone carrying their own clothes in their own piece of luggage, especially with heavier suitcases. In other words, think manageability of the luggage, not the identity of who the items belong to. On this trip, I packed both boys’ clothes in 1 rolling duffle (that my oldest pulled) and made my youngest pull a lightweight bag that carried their stuffed animal pillows, toothbrushes, and a first aid kit. 

First aid kits — Pack one and make sure it contains more than band-aids. We had a nasty spill with a little careless horseplay on the steps near Mount Rushmore. It was bad enough that we had to interrupt touring the site to go back to the car for a bandage and clean up. Make sure you have gauze, Band-Aids and antibiotic ointment for those types of injuries, but also remember things like ibuprofen for fever, a thermometer (to know when folks actually have a fever), Zofran (my FAVE prescript anti-vomit/anti-nausea med), and allergy meds like Benadryl and Flonase.

Travel sickness, differences in the local water, irregular eating habits and a little too much treat indulgence can all lead to the need for Zofran (as we found out when we went to Alaska last year) and the differences in what’s blooming in other areas of the country can mean an allergy flare-up. We never go on a trip without these basics.

If you live in an urban or suburban area, it’s easy to feel like there’s a Walgreens on every corner. But road tripping makes you realize how many parts of the country are literally hundreds of miles away from a well-stocked drugstore. Plus, the minute you don’t have something on hand is the minute that you’ll have someone needing medicine in the middle of the night and you can’t get to a store to get it.  

Eating on the road — Where you chose to eat in a city or town, is a matter, of course, of personal preference. I rely pretty heavily on TripAdvisor and the reviews on Google Maps to help me easily discern the best places to go that are also kid-friendly. But more important to me than where to eat, is what to do when there are few options available. That’s why I always pack a picnic basket, but I pack much more than just snacks.

I’ve learned that when traveling with kids you need to be prepared for the eventual cries of “we’re starving!” just as you find yourself in the middle of Nowhere, America with no lunch options insight.”

I always pack at least one makeshift light meal — bread, tuna, peanut butter and jelly, mandarin oranges, pretzels, nuts, and dried fruit — and I replenish this stash when we’re in a city with a supermarket. While I wouldn’t want to eat out of a picnic basket for an entire road trip, I’ve learned that when traveling with kids you need to be prepared for the eventual cries of “we’re starving!” just as you find yourself in the middle of Nowhere, America with no lunch options insight.

This meal-on-hand strategy can also be a lifesaver for those long days when all you want to do is get to your hotel room and crash. Confession — I know microwave popcorn gets a bad rap, but I always pack a few bags. The hotels we stay in on trips like these usually have microwaves, and popcorn eating while watching hotel TV has some sort of magical appeal to kids.    

Choosing a Hotel — I’ve had the pleasure of staying in some amazingly luxurious resorts, but I can say with 100% honesty those are NOT the kind of places I want to go with my kids. Luxury hotels aren’t suited for kids unless it’s a resort that specifically caters to families.

For road trips with kids, I prefer chains like Residence Inn, Courtyards, or even Fairfield and Hampton Inns when I’m traveling with kids, especially for road trips where you’re not staying much more than overnight.

Why these hotels? For one, they typically have free WIFI, a key for my family since both of my boys travel with iPads (and I’m totally okay with that. Their iPads have books + games + Netflix. I enforce screentime limits at home, but during long travel days tablets REALLY help keep kids occupied.) And I hate paying $15 bucks per night for WIFI to make this possible, which always seems to be the case in higher-end hotels.

Another bonus to less expensive hotels is that they typically include free breakfast. While a hotel free breakfast may not be full of fresh berry parfaits, green smoothies, and egg white omelets, they often offer yogurt, granola, oatmeal, and orange juice… more than enough to make a good start for us each day.

Lastly, I’ve found these mid-range hotels now have “stores” on-site where you can stock up on a few necessities if you get caught running low. Sure, you could always head to a local store, but after a day full of sightseeing, that’s usually the last thing I want to do (and I never seem to have dollar bills flat enough to even buy a bottle of water out of a vending machine). Lastly, I often make use of the free breakfast to stock a few daily snacks for the car. You can almost always grab a small tub of peanut butter and an apple for the road. My boys especially appreciate when I snag Cheerios in a to-go coffee cup with a lid and slip it into the side pocket of their backpacks.

Backpacks — Do not leave home without a backpack for every family member. Period. Each one of us always travels with a backpack that has:

  • straps across the front to hold a rolled-up (must-pack) all-weather jacket
  • side pockets for a snack + re-usable water bottle (also a requirement)
  • enough room to fit each person’s iPad + a few toys + a little room for souvenirs.

Our rule of thumb is you can’t purchase more souvenirs on the trip than you can fit in your backpack. We truly do live by the 1 suitcase + 1 carry-on backpack rule for each person, even when we’re not flying. Getting in and out of hotels with kids is half the battle. If everyone can be self-sufficient with their bags, trust me — the trip will be so much more enjoyable! 

Other goodies — Beyond the strategic selection of backpacks and ensuring that every person’s luggage is the right size for them to pull, I also have a few goodies and gadgets I’ve added to my travel must-haves over the years. These may seem totally unnecessary to you, but I use them every time we travel and have found them to be super helpful: 

  • All-purpose camping knife — Obviously, I keep this out of reach of my kids, but this little goodie is great for when you need to cut something since you likely won’t have scissors on hand. I’ve also used it numerous times for cutting up whole pieces of fruit I snagged from breakfast earlier in the day. That may not seem like a big deal, but it’s not expensive, doesn’t take up much room and I use it on every trip.  
  • Immersion Water Boiler Coil and Stainless Steel Cup— Okay, I know what you’re thinking. She’s not camping, so why does she need this? I use this A LOT. Really. I think in-room coffee makers are kinda icky, but I like to start the day with a cup of coffee or hot tea. When I’m traveling alone, I can obviously go downstairs for a fresh cup from the lobby, but if you’re in a hotel with kids (especially if it’s just 1 parent with the kids) you can’t exactly leave little ones while you go in search of hot water or coffee. This little gadget boils water in just a minute or so. I’ve also used it to boil water for cups of oatmeal and to rehydrate noodle/rice cups likes these
  • Lightweight Extension Cord — How many times have you been in a hotel and found that the plug you needed for your computer or to charge an iPad/phone is in the worst place? I have a set of lightweight rayon braided extension cords that I couple with a dual slot USB port charger to solve so many plug problems instantly.  

It’s easy to feel like air-travel is the only way to get anywhere worth visiting, but there’s something special about seeing the country from the road. It can offer an unhurried glimpse into parts of the U.S. you’d never see otherwise. With the right planning and packing, you can enjoy the journey of a road trip with kids just as much as you enjoy the destination when you get there.

Before you go, check out these popular Podcast Episodes:

All images and recipes on this site are the property of Regan Jones, RDN. Please do not use them for commercial or social media use without my permission.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.