How to road trip across the US with kids

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Taking a long road trip through the US is something I always wanted to do. Our family loves traveling, and how lucky are we to live in a country that offers so many different places to explore?

Over the summer we had the opportunity to take a family road trip out West before a big move and career change. While we had the time we decided to jump at the opportunity. We packed our car and headed out West. Along the way we stopped in Dallas, Albuquerque, Sedona, Vegas, Salt Lake City, Denver, St. Louis, Nashville, and a few other places in between.

Now let me start by saying that traveling with your kids is so important. It teaches them to be flexible, adaptable, curious, it introduces multilingualism and multiculturalism, and it builds confidence and social skills. But with that said, “long” road trips aren’t for everyone. It can be a good amount of time in a small space and let’s face it- that can be tough for kids. Although I STRONGLY encourage traveling with kids, I recommend considering if your child is “old” enough or can handle the crazy schedule of a long road trip. Based on my experience, I wouldn’t recommend our 5-week trip for any child under age 3.

The following tips are solely based on my own experience and perspectives. Maybe they will help you if you are planning a long US road trip with your kids:

  1. Plan the route

Before we started out, we mapped a general idea of what we wanted to see and where we wanted to stay. For us, the ultimate goal was to see the Grand Canyon. Thus, our route was established by heading to the Grand Canyon and stopping at other cities we were interested in exploring, like Dallas and Lake Tahoe. We also knew we didn’t want to drive the same route back, so we made our drive into a circle. With Vegas and Denver being a couple of our favorite cities, we added those to the list. Other cities were added out of convenience (but ended out being some of our favorite stops!). Knowing our route helped in explaining to our daughter where we would be going and what we would be seeing. We also bought a book on the US states, so she could “see” where we were going.

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On that note, however, you don’t want to be too “stringent” with your time. Build in flexibility to your schedule. While you should know your general route, realize you may want to spend a little more time here or a little less there. Plus, you never know when you need to build in a “pause” day for your kid (or you!).

  1. Space out “road” days

When you are road tripping with kids, it is impractical to think you can simply drive all day every day. Instead, space out “road” days and travel time. Try not to drive more than 6 hours in 1 day, and try to place at least 2-3 days in between drives. We enjoyed staying at our favorite places for 3-5 consecutive days before hopping back into the car. This makes driving bearable for the kids (and you) and you don’t feel like you’re “living in a car”.

  1. Stay at places with pools

One of the key pieces of advice I can pass on to you is to stay at hotels with pools. This is easy (and cost saving) entertainment, and it can help get a lot of energy out after a drive. Pools can also be relaxing, after a long day at a park!

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  1. Stop at playground rest stops

We were amazed at how many rest areas have fun play areas for kids, particularly out West. At every chance you get, stop! Even for 20 minutes, running, jumping, screaming, and playing tag is probably very much needed and part of the road trip experience.

  1. Plan to do laundry

Because we were staying at hotels for 2-5 day stints, it is silly to bring very large suitcases for each of us (even though our total trip was pretty long- 5-6 weeks). Rather, pack “carry on” size luggage for each person and just plan to do laundry. It’s so much easier to spend 2 hours doing laundry every so often rather than lugging large suitcases in and out of the car. I’d also recommend a laundry hamper (filled with 1 towel/person and detergent) so that when the time comes, you have what you need in the car.

  1. Prepare “car” activities and games

This seems like a no brainer. Road trip? Bring on the car games. There are a ton out there. Check out that dollar section at Target- I found some pretty cool “car bingo” that would be a lot of fun with multiple kids. One of my best friends help me create a bottle of sand and mystery items with a key that we loved. In fact we actually just keep the game in the car and play it all the time! I also recommend dry erase books and games for younger kids (4-8) that can double as learning activities.

     7. Invest in a good cooler

One of the best decisions we made was investing in a good Yeti cooler before our trip. It basically stayed in the car, and kept our drinks and food fresh. This saved us so much money and helped us not eat out for every meal. We made a lot of sandwiches, salads, and kept fruits for any on the go snacking or picnics.

  1. Stop for hikes and views!

There are so many parks, hiking spots, and lookout points if you keep your eye out, particularly out west! Take advantage of every opportunity to pull off, take a break from behind the wheel, and enjoy being outside. The reason for a road trip is seeing a new place, get out and see it!

  1. Look for aquariums, gardens, and parks!

We were fortunate to have the opportunity to go to so many aquariums, zoos, botanical gardens, parks, and other amazing spots on our trip. In fact, while my husband had work to do, I would take our daughter out and explore. This was so much fun and added so many memories to our road trip. Take some time to google “what to do with kids” in the city you stop in…. you may be surprised at the things you find or what is going on while you’re visiting!

  1. Have family fun

Road trips can be stressful, but they shouldn’t be. Remember that even though you may be driving (and driving and driving), it is vacation and it’s supposed to be fun. Build in times to “have fun” with your kids, just like you would at home. Build a blanket palette on the floor, roast marshmallows around a campfire, take a hike, or have a cannonball pool competition. Play car games and talk about your favorite memories as you go. These are the things that they will remember!

Remember, it’s not all about the destination- it’s about the drive! We loved seeing the Grand Canyon, but that was only a small part of our trip.

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