The Key to Road Trip Survival with Kids


Let me throw out some numbers from our last family road trip to see if you think my husband and I survived.

1 three-month-old
1 two year old
1 set of parents
1 midsize SUV
1 car top carrier
hotel stops
34 hours total in the car
2,200 miles

Do the math. Do you think we survived? The answer is YES. Let me tell you how. 

When given a choice to have a long peaceful car ride by yourself or one with a toddler, infant, and husband, which would you choose? Of course, you’d rather ride independently with the music blaring words that toddlers shouldn’t hear and your hair flowing as the windows are rolled down on a beautiful, hot summer night. But what if I told you that you could have a little peace while driving 34 hours (Yes, I said that right. 34 hours!) with your kids and hubby in the car with you on your next summer road trip without wanting to bang your head on the car window. It is possible without adding numerous amounts of gray hair. 

A long time ago, when I was a kid, my mom made road trips an absolute blast.  My mom started this tradition when we were very young, and kept it going up through our final family road trips together. Yeah, it took a whole lot of behind the scenes work for her, but it paid off in the long run since she didn’t have to hear my sister and I fight over the latest N’SYNC CD or the fact that I was on her side of the van. My mom came up with the best solution: Surprise Packages.  

Surprise packages were these little items, usually a toy, game, or snack that would help us get through a lag in the trip.  Maybe we hadn’t made a pit stop in a few hours, my mom would let us unwrap a “surprise,” and it usually was something that would hold our entertainment for more than 5 minutes. When we were little, they may have been a little doll or a simple game. As we grew older, they were CDs or VHS tapes to entertain us during the road trip. And of course, MadLibs. There wasn’t a dry eye from hysterical laughing when this was given as a surprise. 

I tried this parent-hack for the first time with my 2-year-old and three month old during our road trip to Massachusetts and Maine last summer. Sounds torturous, right? Not going to lie, at times it wasn’t easy, but having little prizes for my 2-year-old to open, while my 3-month-old napped gave me a few minutes of sanity and even the occasional NAP.  I would do the same thing as my mom, and based on his mood (i.e., his level of “Hanger”) would be the type of surprise I would let him unwrap. I would let him open one every so often, depending on the timing of our road trip. I planned ten prizes to Maine and then ten prizes on the way home.  This averaged out to one surprise every 1-2 hours.

Want to give it a try?  Here’s how it works:

  1. Go to the dollar store, Target Dollar Spot, or any store you know you can find inexpensive items that your kids will love. I tried to stay clear of complete junk, preferably things that I know my kid would play with after the trip, if possible. Items are going to depend on what your child is into and, of course, their age. Don’t forget to include fun snacks, too! (See ideas at the bottom of the post)
  2. Divide the items out for each kid (making sure you have the same amount for each child) and decide how many they get to open on the way there and then the way home.
  3. Wrap them in random wrapping paper you have laying around the house. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy! Just don’t break out the wrapping paper you only use for Santa Claus. Pro tip: Put a star on the ones that are food. Then you’ll know which ones to grab when you know they are in need of a snack! Make two bags: one for the way there and one for the way home.
  4. Decide if you’re letting them pick the package they want to open or if you’re choosing for them. My kid was two, so I just chose the package based on what I felt he needed at that moment. Pack one of the bags in the front seat with you, pack the other in the back and hit the road.
  5. Enjoy the moments and take a mental picture of their faces of excitement when they open each of the packages.  

Whether you are nervous about the 3-hour long road trip to see your in-laws or you’re traveling across the country, try this simple trick to make the trip more enjoyable and memorable for all. Happy Traveling (& shopping)! 

Activity Ideas:

  • Animal/Dinosaur figurines
  • Window stickers/Ninja Sticky toys
  • Metal cookie sheet & magnets (letters, numbers, characters, etc.)
  • Legos
  • Beach ball (great for an activity at rest stops)
  • Character Figurines (Paw Patrol, etc.)
  • MagnaDoodle
  • Picture books/Look-n-Seek (if your little ones can’t read, try non-fiction books they can look at independently)
  • Card games
  • Puzzles (with magnets on the back to stick to the cookie sheet)
  • Wiki Sticks
  • Markers/Crayons
  • Coloring Book
  • Word Search/Crossword/Workbooks
  • Cars/Trucks
  • Non-messy crafts
  • Stickers
  • Whiteboard/Expo Markers
  • MadLibs
  • Silly Puddy 
  • Jewelry making kit

Snack Ideas: 

  • Fruit/veggie pouches
  • Small individual snack bags (chips, cookies, pretzels, veggie straws, etc.)
  • Candy/Suckers
  • Granola bars
  • Cracker packs
  • Juice box
  • Chex Mix/Trail mix
  • Rice Krispy Treats/Little Debbie treats
  • Jerky/Slim Jims
  • Chips/Popcorn 
  • Homemade treats
  • Cereal boxes/bags
  • Animal Cookies
  • Dried fruit

*Remember to get things that won’t make a mess/melt in the car.  Refrigerated items could work, although I just kept it simple with non-refrigerated items. 

I know older kids may enjoy a new set of earbuds, DVDs for movies, or even an iTunes gift card to purchase more music for their device. A journal and a fun new pen may be a great idea as well.