How to plan a family road trip with kids: essential tips for planning a family road-tripping vacation.
Family road trips are my favorite type of vacation however, they are also the most time consuming to plan.
I love creating itineraries so the many evenings spent checking maps, roads, stops and roadside attractions feel like a big game for me, however, it sure is not as easy as a one click booking!
Over the course of the years, I feel I have perfected my road trip planning skills and our latest driving trips have been the best we have ever had.
These are my top tips for planning a family road trip with kids.
Planning a family road trip: our step by step method!
This guide to plan a family road trip is rather long, if you want, you can use this image to save it on Pinterest and come back to it at different times.
Make sure your destination is car-friendly – how to pick a destination when planning a family road trip
This first point may seem obvious but not all destinations are suitable for a road trip.
This may be down to several reasons: the difficulty of parking at your destination (Italy’s Cinque Terre), roads to a standstill for excessive traffic (Italy’s Amalfi Coast), driving so different from home you don’t feel safe driving or even excessive distances can really ruin your plans of a relaxing trip.
When hitting the road with kids, winding roads can also be a problem for motion sickness so getting a good idea of what the road is really like is paramount.
My way to check about road trip destinations Is travel forum and train connections.
When researching a destination, I check what people have said about the roads on Tripadvisor.
Then I also check if there is a train option, to balance all options before committing.
Top Tip for planning a road trip with children! When looking for detailed information about a road trip or stretch of road, I put on google very long questions such as: is the road between A and B ok if you are afraid of heights/suffer from motion sickness? Are there kid-friendly attractions on the road between A and B? I find that asking these types of questions brings up conversations that are thorough and informative and weeds out all articles that are just listicles or wider guides not relevant to the specific question you are trying to answer.
Check driving rules
The next thing is to check driving rules are your destinations.
Do you need an international driving license?
Is there a minimum age to drive different than home, maximum age for renting a car?
On which side of the road do they drive? Do they use manual or automatic cars?
Do you need car seats, what type, can you rent them on arrival or can you bring your own?
It is worth checking all these things well in advance to give yourself time to get the right document are gear should you need to.
Another good thing to check is what rental car insurance covers and what doesn’t.
For instance, when we visited Monument Valley, we knew off-road stretched would put us outside car rental insurance coverage so for that visit, we opted for a day tour instead.
It is always worth checking this type of rule should you not be in your own vehicle.
How to create an itinerary when planning your family road trip
Identify your main stops
When it comes to planning out itinerary, I always first start with what we want to see, and then check the best way to do it.
This way, I can check several solutions and itineraries and still make sure we can get to all our main points or, should it simply be impossible in the time we have, make a plan that makes sense.
Use google maps to check times – how to use google maps to plan a family road trip
To check how feasible a certain stretch of road is, I use google maps. I put in my departure point and my first possible stop and check how long the map tells me driving is going to take.
You can find an example of my google map itinerary here: I made it when planning our family road trip in the South West.
However, I take this with a pinch of salt!
The map is very useful to get a rough idea of the distance however, I find in most cases I need to add a good bit of driving to the theoretical one, up to over half.
If I see that a certain journey is given as a driving time of 4 hours, I usually consider it may take up to 6, especially if it is not on freeways and goes on mountains and country roads.
Top tip for planning a family road trip on google maps! Always make sure you check all the info available on the map. Look at the kilometers/ mileage but also the expected time, the traffic and the speed limit if available. For instance, if you are road tripping in national parks in the US, you will have speed limits that are much lower than on freeways or interstates and if you look at mileage alone, you may get a false impression of the driving time needed.
The biggest time consuming task when planning a road trip with kids for me is to check for alternatives when driving time seems too long.
My rule of thumb is that if it requires 4h or driving or more, it is a stop worth rethinking: is there any way to have a shorter drive?
Especially if you have more than one day with long driving or you are road tripping with young kids, driving fewer hour can make the day much better
Alternate long drives with rest days
If you need to cover a lot of terrain fast it may be tempting to have several days with long hours on the road however, this is very dangerous as you will get tired.
Even if you feel you are able to drive for 8 hours one day, this doesn’t mean you can do it safely for days on hand.
I feel on holidays, it is worth taking an extra day and alternate a day in the car with one outdoor stretching your legs and getting a bit of fresh air.
If this is not possible, try and share the driving but be aware that even the passenger can get tired so even if sharing, says with no driving are good!
Breaking up days of driving is also good for the kids.
As comfortable as they may be on their car seat, they will get tired and antsy so getting some fresh air and stretching legs is important also for them.
Good activities when taking a break from driving are:
Walks on the beach, forests, parks, lakeside paths etc – these can be easily added to a picnic stop and don’t have to bring you too far off course
Visit to national monuments or other areas of interest/natural beauty
Stroll around a new city – we try to avoid entering big cities on road trips if we are short on time but sometimes, it is lovely to drive in, leave the car in a city center parking spot or a park and ride and then explore.
It can be a fun way to have a meal in a cool new place or to see one special attraction your kids may want to see, even if you don’t have time to fully explore the place.
Just relax at your accommodation – I find that getting to your accommodation a little earlier can go a long way to rest and relax.
I usually favor hotels with pools just to have an easy way to relax and have the kids be active after a long day in the car (see also below)
Cycling tour – another fun way to break up long driving distances is to take a cycling tour.
This is usually fun for the kids and will get all of you active.
It can also be a fun way to discover places a little off the beaten track and have a full immersion in nature – this can be rather soothing after hours on a busy road!
Take lots of stops
A corollary of the point above is that you want to take lots of stops while driving.
This is to minimize tiredness but also to make the vacation more enjoyable: when road tripping, you need to journey to be fun and not just the destination.
Pit stops can be anything and they don’t have to be fancy or super special but it is worth checking for roadside attractions.
In California, we found a super fun stop just outside of Palm Springs (the had dinosaurs you can see from the road, it is a very short detour) and in Nevada we were able to stop at the 7 magic mountains.
It was a short but perfect pit stop, very scenic and unique!
Check accommodation options + my top tip for planning a successful road trip with kids
Before committing to a certain stop, I always look at the accommodation available to make sure there is something for us. I usually go as far as booking what I found, with free cancellation on booking.com
This is a great way to also budget for your trip as you can note down exactly what the trip budget will be.
Once I have my stops and provisional bookings, I don’t have to guess how much the family road trip is going to cost as I have all my big expenses prices in front of me and set!
Get the right accommodation
We try and select hotels with a pool so that the kids can play and be active during our stop and we mix and match hotel stays with rentals so we can sometimes cook our own meals.
Eating out all the time can be hard on the budget and digestion so even just having the occasional day when we can have something familiar and home made is a good thing
When we don’t want to cook, I usually make sure that the hotel has either a restaurant on site of family friendly restaurans at walking distance, so we don’t have to hop in the car again for dinner.
Get the right car
The ‘right car’ is not a one size fit all and what you need depends on how many children you have in the car, what type of terrain you will encounter, how much stuff you need to carry etc.
Things you may want to consider when picking the best car for a family road trip are:
- Safety and road worthiness (obvious point but you it’s the main thing!)
- Suitability to the terrain
- Space in the trunk and in the backseat
- Usb ports etc if planning on using screens as pastimes
- Air conditioning/heating
- Assistance / spare parts if renting
- Correct lights / accessories for the weather on the road
Check your car is road worthy
The only reliable way to check if a car is road worthy is to go to a professional.
We always make sure we get a car assessment and repair appointment booked with good notice and make sure they know they are checking for a long trip.
A non exhaustive list of things you want checked are
- Brakes and brake pads
- Lights (always bring spare bulbs)
- Tires – check their conditions and when they were changed last/are due to be changed
- Spare tire – make sure it is in top working conditions
- Fill up water, coolant, brake fluid
- Check/change wipers
- Check you have car insurance, car tax, an international driving permit and all necessary document to have your car roadworthy
- Get roadside assistance and check local emergency services and numbers
- Pack anything you may need for specific road conditions such as snow chains, extra covers for cold climates, extra water etc
Have an emergency kit for the car and for you. You can read what we have in our family first aid kit here.
Get the right car seat
Getting the right car seat for your kids is paramount when planning a family road trip for safety and comfort.
Different countries have different rules so check exactly what it is required and make sure you have the right seat for where you are going.
You can find child booster seats that worked for us here.
Make it comfortable for the kids
Comfort is crucial for everyone on long car rides with kids.
Make sure the car seat for them is comfy and in good condition and consider a kids’ travel pillow (neck or legs) and a car seat organizer if they are at an age where they may want to play with toys.
Make it comfortable for you
It is important for the driver to feel well and alert so comfort is paramount for you too.
Make sure you have all you may need to feel ok: comfortable clothes to drive, proper shoes for driving safely, water, coffee, road trip snacks, music.
I find the best shoes for long drives are sneakers or sandals with good rubber sole and ankle strap (no heels, walking sandals work best).
In terms of clothing, I find the best clothing for road tripping is breathable items that doesn’t cling too much to you and pants/trousers made of soft fabrics that are not irritating when sitting on them for hours are a must
Download all useful apps
We are very app light when we travel, but apps we find useful are:
- Google maps – for directions
- Waze – for traffic
- Booking.com – for our accommodation bookings
- Get your guide – for our tour bookings
Set weather alerts on your phone
Your phone may already be set up for weather alerts and it is worth double checking as it really is good to know if some risky weather event is on your way.
On our way from the Grand Canyon to Phoenix, we got alerts for a sand storm and we got to stop at a hotel just in time!
Get gps and paper maps
I always have both gps and paper maps as you never know how reception is going to be like.
Pack your car sensibly
One of the great things about getting around in a car is that you can bring lots of stuff however, packing it properly is a must if you want to have easy access to necessities and not run out of space.
My tips for trunk packing are:
Have a grab and go bag with essentials for the day/night, changing bag and toys. Put this in LAST so you can take it easily any time you need it
Opt for bags you can stack on top of each other and use smaller bags to fill in gaps in the car trunk
Do not plan on storing bags on the back seat or the car floor as this may be dangerous when stopping and attract the wrong type of attention or even cause a break in.
Tips for parking
When parking, especially in a big city, consider paying for a covered parking lot and park with the trunk of the car towards the wall, so that it cannot easily be opened
If the case of side street parking, try not to open the trunk and reveal what is inside, to prevent the wrong type of attention.
Planning family meals on a road trip
We like to be casual about lunch stops on road trip as stopping at a place that picks our fancy is part of the adventure.
However, when we road trip with the kids the only work if we have plenty of water and snacks!
As well as that, we also make sure the kids know we cannot always stop at fast foods.
While we can do that occasionally, even when road tripping we find important to eat healthy so mixing different restaurants and the occasional packed lunch works best for us.
Consider that while on the road with kids you may move less than other times so having some light meals will go a long way to keep you feel light and alerts.
Our top 10 road trip games for kids
I spy – an old one but a good one, this is especially good in unfamiliar surroundings as it forces everyone to focus on the moment and not the destination
The animal game – the animal game is another spotting game, based on your seat in the car. Different animals/ landscape features get different points (the rarer is it, the more points it gets) and you get those points if you spot them first on your side of the car.
Car plate bingo – Depending where you are, you can do this with State plates or, in Europe, with country ones, very exciting!
The Alphabet game – each player needs to say 5 words starting with each letter of the alphabet
20 questions – quintessential road trip guessing game
Yes / no game – another guessing game where you can only answer yes/no
Who am I game – guessing game
Travel version of board games – this is perfect if you have more than one kid or if you can occasionally move to the back seat to play with them
Audio books – these can be good entertainment and less painful than children music which is soothing for them but often hard for the parents
Movies – withing reason, screen time can be a life saver on long road trips with kids!
How to budget for a family road trip
A family road trip can be cheaper than a plane ticket however, it has a good few costs to consider. When budgeting for a family road trip, take into account:
- Car rental cost / Car fixing cost
- Car insurance
- Gas / Petrol
- Necessary car accessories (car seats, pillows etc)
- Road tolls if applicable
- Entry fees to attractions / national parks
- Tours / activities on the road
- Extras – there are always some!
Additional tips for planning a road trip with toddlers: sanity-saving tips for long car rides with toddlers
When planning a road trip with toddlers, all the tips above apply but I feel like adding a few more!
Long car rides with toddlers can be hard on children and parents and what worked for us was:
- Double up on snacks and water – go for healthy snacks like fruit and rice cakes and avoid anything too sweet or salty. Makse sure you have a sippy cup to avoid spillages
- Load up on wipes!
- Consider a small portable hoover for the car (toddlers are crumbs creating machines!)
- Provide shade (car window blinds are great in sunny climates)
- Consider kids headphones for entertainment
- Sit beside them at least part of the trip
- Consider a car seat cozy for cold climates
- Consider a car seat organizer or playing tray however, make sure they match all safety regulations
- Take bathroom breaks/diaper change breaks. Consider that sitting on a diaper, even if clean, may be uncomfortable if done for hours on end so breaks are a must.
I hope you fond our way to plan a family road trip with kids useful and it helped you plan your own. Safe family travels!