9 Family Road Trip "Must Haves"

Our family has spent the past three months slow traveling around the Western U.S. in our trusty (and jam-packed) Honda Pilot. During that time, I estimate that we've spent well over 100 hours in the car with our children, including several 8-10 hour driving stints. Miraculously, the kids now think of four or five hours in the car as no big deal.


No big deal doesn't mean all happy and skippy, however. Our kids (ages 12, 9, and 4) may be road-trip veterans, but they still moan and complain and ask how much longer we have to drive. Pretty much every trip. Sorry, no miracle cure for that one.

We can talk up the benefits of travel until we're blue in the face, but the truth is that being in the car all day isn't much fun, for kids or adults. Thankfully, we grown-ups have all kinds of deeply philosophical things to ponder while we stare out the window, decades of favorite tunes to jam to, and smartphones for the lucky parent in the passenger seat. But meditating on life and rocking out to their parents' music only lasts a matter of minutes with our kids, and then they need something else. (And they're not getting smartphones anytime soon.)

Here are eight road-trip "musts" that have worked the best for our crew:

1. Electronics

They may not have smartphones, but we have a smattering of iPads, Kindles, iPods, etc. that our kids pass around in the car. Yes, it's a total cop-out. Totally don't care. I know some people get all sanctimonious when it comes to kids and electronics in the car, citing their own childhood road trips with no A/C, no seatbelts, and nothing but AM radio to listen to. That's cool, but my feeling is that when you're stuck in the car all day, sanity trumps sanctimony.

I'm actually a big Scrooge when it comes to screen time on a normal day, but on long road trips, I let the kids use electronics to their hearts' content (or until the batteries die, whichever happens first). Our iPads have been our best travel companions, quickly followed by the DVD player. When the DVD player went kaput, I propped up my laptop between the front seats, and that worked just as well for watching movies. On a 10-hour road trip, electronics are a total sanity-saver.

2. Audiobooks

If you have a kid who loves to read and can read in the car without getting carsick, count your lucky stars and pile up the books. We don't have any of those kids. I can't read for very long in the car, either. Thankfully, before we left on our trip, a friend bought us a subscription to Audible. We get one free audiobook download a month, and can purchase others for reasonable prices. Awesome.

However, for the next stint of long travels we do, I will figure out a way to have each kid listen to his or her own audiobook with headphones. While the idea of listening to a book all together sounds great on paper, the reality is that the road noise is loud enough to make it difficult to hear sometimes, we have three kids of very different ages who enjoy different books, and as soon as someone interrupts the story to ask a question, all hell breaks loose. So audiobooks, definitely yes. Just be aware that you may have to adjust how you use them, depending on your family dynamics.

3. Paper & Pencils

On one of our stops, a friend gave us a bag of car activities, which included some tiny little blank notebooks. I handed one to our 9-year-old, and kept one for myself, and we wrote and passed notes back and forth for a good hour. She's always been a reluctant writer, so it got her writing, we got some bonding in, and the "secret" nature of it kept her interested. Sometimes we wrote questions and answers, and sometimes we wrote a story together, each writing one sentence at a time. Our 4-year-old wanted in on it, too, so I passed him notes with some simple words to read. They loved it. Kids can write notes to each other, too. Nothing but paper and a writing utensil needed. So simple.

(You could save some trees and do the same thing with a dry erase board or something, but half the fun for the kids was unfolding the note. Sorry, trees. I'll plant you a sister to make up for it someday.)

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