7 tips for a drama-free family road trip with your kids

Nothing disrupts the freedom of the open road like a chorus of “Are we there yet?”

But that doesn’t stop families from attempting ambitious road trips. Now, with the holidays fast approaching — and despite the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urging against it in order to stop the spread of the coronavirus, 50 million people are still expected to travel — parents are likely to wonder how they can safely hit the road with pint-size passengers.

Bronwyn Charlton, a developmental psychologist, says a little preparation — beyond avoiding crowded rest stops, being tested for COVID-19 and a plan for quarantining once you arrive at your destination — goes a long way.

“It boils down to putting in a little bit of work beforehand to be as organized as you can be,” said the Brooklyn-based mother of three, who drives seven hours with her kids to Canada every summer. “That makes things go so much more smoothly, and allows for maybe some moments of connection and happiness and joy — you know, authentic fun.”

She also said adults shouldn’t feel guilty about letting little ones indulge in some extra screen time to make the trip go faster: “If you have kids in the car who are old enough to enjoy an iPad without getting sick, there’s nothing wrong with it.”

Below, seven tips for enjoying a road trip with kids, from parents who have survived to tell the tale.

Invite back-seat driving

Rachel Lipson and kids Maxwell and Henry, getting ready for a road trip by car.
Rachel Lipson and kids Maxwell and Henry, getting ready for a road trip by car.Stefano Giovannini

Charlton, who is also a co-founder of the parenting resource group Seedlings, said that including kids — even preschoolers — in the planning beforehand can help reduce anxiety once they’re stuck in the car. She recommends making a visual schedule, complete with colorful doodles that depict things such as snacks and stops, to give them a sense of ownership. “It’s helpful for them to even be able to mark things off, to show how their day is progressing toward the ultimate goal of being at Grandma’s house or wherever you’re going,” she said.

Micromanage meals

Park Slope mom and former pre-K teacher Rachel Lipson said that packing a cooler full of food that she knew her sons Max, 6, and Henry, 4, would love worked great when she and her husband drove 9 ½ hours with them to suburban Detroit this May. “We didn’t want to have to stop for crappy, side-of-the-road food,” said the founder of the Blue Balloon Songwriting School. She said her stash of pre-made turkey and cheese sandwiches, chips, fig bars and cold seltzers made the trip easier by avoiding stops, and cut down on squabbles with her picky eaters.

Parents might think that extra treats, such as lollipops and popcorn, appease cranky kids, but according to Charlton, it’s actually protein-packed snacks that help maintain good moods: “Clif bars, protein bars, string cheese, apples and peanut butter … will really help [kids] manage the annoyance and big feelings that they have from being cooped up.”

Level up screen time

Bagpipe LCD Writing Tablet 8.5-Inch Colorful Doodle Board Drawing Tablet
Bagpipe LCD Writing Tablet 8.5-Inch Colorful Doodle Board Drawing TabletCourtesy of the brand

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Lipson said she’s normally “strict” about screen time, but she’s more lax for long drives. To prevent back-seat brawls, she sets each kid up with his own iPad — with an easy-to-grip, protective case ($17.95 at Amazon) — and pre-loads them with age-appropriate movies, shows and games (her 6-year-old loves popular world-building game Minecraft). She also gives them child-size headphones ($18.59 on Amazon), which means no headaches from dueling cartoon soundtracks. To ensure the foursome isn’t fighting for power, she makes sure to have cigarette-lighter chargers ($10.99 on Amazon) and compatible extra-long cords ($11.99 for 2) within reach.

Bring the bathroom

Stefano Giovannini

Lipson said that she packed a Potette — an $18 portable mini toilet used for potty training — even though her boys are past that stage. “We didn’t want the kids to go in any rest stops,” she said, due to concerns about picking up the coronavirus and infecting her aging parents. Armed with plastic bags, wipes and hand sanitizer, “the kids literally peed on the side of the road,” she said.

Distract and delight

Madison and Cees Hofman travel everywhere with kids Theo, 3, and Sol, 2 months.
Madison and Cees Hofman travel everywhere with kids Theo, 3, and Sol, 2 months.Madison Hofman/ourvie.com

Seasoned family road trippers Madison and Cees Hofman travel everywhere with kids Theo, 3, and Sol, 2 months, and document their trips on Instagram (@ourvieadventures) for their 46,000 followers. The Utah-based college sweethearts said they love using the scenery to play “goofy games” with their older son, including I Spy, Pictionary — passing an inexpensive drawing tablet (try Bagpipe’s bird-shaped one, $15.99 on Amazon) back and forth — and other kinds of “learning games.” Simple verbal activities, “like ‘Who can find the red car’ [or] ‘Let’s count the semi trucks,’” can “help with numbers or colors or shapes,” said Madison. Cees added that listening to kid-friendly podcasts — his favorites are science-y “Ear Snacks” and tales on “What If World” and “Story Time” — helps the whole crew (parents, too!) stay engaged.

Feed your head

In case tempers flare — among kids, parents or both — Charlton said it’s good to have a few de-escalating tricks on hand. She suggests “easy, mindful exercises, like tapping into the senses. Like naming five things you can see, four things you can hear, three things that you can smell, two things that you can taste … It’s really lovely to do as a family.” She also said that encouraging grumpy, on-the-verge tots to take four or five “hot cocoa breaths” — deep diaphragmatic breaths, where they imagine they can “smell the hot cocoa so deeply” — can steer a carload of hotheads in the right direction.

When in doubt, tire them out

Charlton said that because hours-long car travel already asks a lot of children, adults should make sure any pre-planned stops are extremely kid-friendly. Instead of pulling over for a quick museum trip or a meal at a celebrated restaurant, “it may be a way better option to find some beautiful nature by a creek where the children can run and move their bodies,” she said.

For Lipson, these brief forays into nature are an opportunity to encourage slumber once the boys are back in the car. “We do things like have the kids run to that tree, five hops to the next tree, circle that sign, and then run back,” she said. “Little things like that can keep them occupied for 20 minutes and get them really tired.”