We’ve been taking car trips with our kids since birth. Mostly, that makes people question our sanity. Trust me, when we were in hour 36 of last summer’s vacation from Texas to California and back, I thought the same thing. Sometimes we have banner days and sometimes we swear off ever doing another road trip again.

All those hours on the highway have taught us a few life lessons, though. Our pain. Your gain. Here’s your road warrior 10 commandments, y’all.

Taking a family roadtrip this summer for vacation? If you're worried about it being the worst idea ever, I'm here to change your mind. And lend you my earplugs.

1. Lower your expectations. I’m serious. When you travel with kids, it’s a trip. When you travel as a couple, it’s a vacation. You have to know that traveling as a family is a teeny bit more like National Lampoons than some postcard picture. As we drove through Flagstaff last summer, we joked we should pick up grandma and strap her to the top of the minivan. The kids did not appreciate our humor. In the early years, we had such romantic thoughts of how a family road trip should be. After all, social media kept showing us these filtered images of smiling families happy to be traveling around the country. When our first vacation fell flat, the honeymoon was over. Now, we lower the bar wayyyy down. No road trip is perfect, but they can be – dare I say fun – if you walk into them with the right attitude.

Vacation

Trip

2. You’re not the flight attendant. If you are the keeper of the snacks, you become a slave to the, “Mom, I’m hungry” barrage of comments. That’s called death by snacks. Don’t do it to yourself. Instead, give each row of kids (or each kid), their own snack bag. Depending upon how long you’re in the car, maybe it’s for the morning/afternoon or the whole day. They get to decide when they eat and YOU get to decide what and how much they eat. But that’s all they get. Refrain from packing the kitchen sink. You’re not hibernating for the winter and neither are your kids. I can’t tell you how many arguments this has cancelled out. Also, bypass packing things that melt. Don’t ask me how I know. We tend to stop every 2-3 hours for potty breaks (the Rest Stops app is great for locating good ones on the interstate) and we always pack a lunch. It’s in the back of the van so sticky fingers don’t eat all the food and we bring our own washable tablecloth so we don’t have to eat on those nasty rest stop tables. A quick run of the wipes over it after we’re done and it’s ready for the next meal. We also ration the water they drink in the car so we aren’t stopping every half hour.

3. Make it memorable. Stop at places that have meaning or significance to your family or your faith. We always seek out beautiful churches when we vacation. Yes, I had to chase down one kid at Jackson Square so he didn’t set off the Cathedral alarm (embarrassing), but no one has gotten arrested, yet. The beautiful part of traveling by car is you get to decide how long or short to stay somewhere. We’ve done some really cool stuff these past 16 years with kids. You can’t see any of that from an airplane!

Jackson Square (and beignets!) | New Orleans, LA

San Jacinto Monument | Harris County, TX (on the 4th!)

Garvin Woodland Gardens | Hot Springs, AR

The Alamo | San Antonio, TX

Lower Antelope Canyon | Arizona

Dog Beach | Del Mar, CA

4. Visit people you love. Let’s face it, vacations aren’t cheap, especially when you have a big family. Driving makes them affordable, staying with friends and family makes it fun, and even more doable. Yes, the bed is free, but it’s the hospitality and time with people we adore that’s meaningful. Instead of our kids just seeing these people in the Christmas card pile every December, they reflect on actual time they’ve spent with them. What a tremendous gift that is. We also try, very hard, to meet folks en route to our destination. We’ve had lunches in parks, tea at roadside restaurants and ice cream and four-wheeling on the farm with people we adore. I promise, that will be the thing your kids talk about years from now.

My uncle, showing the kids how he makes custom jewelry at his store | El Paso, TX

Having breakfast with my 90yo grandfather | Amarillo, TX
(this was just 8 months before he died unexpectedly)

Meeting college friends | Texarkana, TX

4-Wheeling with friends | Oklahoma

5. Don’t break the bank. Or you may never do it again. There are lots of free or less expensive ways to travel by car. Maybe you travel in the off season, stay with friends/family, brown bag it, stay in a VRBO and cook your own meals or travel close to home. Whatever you do, set your budget and know your attitude dictates your happiness level, not your destination. As much as I would love to load the family up and trek around Europe for a month, it’s just in the budget right now. We do the best with what we’re given and we have really flourished as a family. When our Italian friends flew to Indiana, we drove to see them, spend time with several Godparents and see a lot of America along the way.

6. Have some dadgum fun. Crank the radio. Do something not “on the agenda.” Go parasailing. Paint some pottery. Go fishing. Tour that random national park. Drink bourbon at Makers Mark (definitely do that). Eat sour patch kids. Play putt-putt. These fun moments will carry you through the not-so-fun ones later on in your trip. Trust me.

7. Don’t rely on electronics or they will come back to bite you in the a**. If all you do is load the DVD player with movies or hand your kids the iPad, they will turn into monsters. I know, we’ve tried it. Let’s be realistic. As much as I want my kids to stare out the window and be amazed at God’s handiwork, they’re kids. It’s likely they’ll be fighting with their siblings too much to even notice that majestic mountain or breathtaking waterfall. So, we compromise. The first 90-minutes of any day in the van is screen-free and we don’t watch more than two movies a day. They have to earn it. We read, crank the radio, play games like car bingo, the alphabet game or the license plate game, sleep or {gasp} talk to one another. Sometimes I want to poke out my eyeballs and stuff my ears with cotton. Eek. But, that rule has been a game changer.

8. Don’t fear the trip. Maybe you’re not quite ready for a 2,600 mile excursion around the state (well, in Texas we can go that far without leaving!), but maybe you’re up for a few hours or a half day. It’s a bit like going to the gym. Build up your endurance. Head to a border state, or just down the road, then work up to a cross-country marathon. And, knowing that you have fun things to do along the way, or at your final destination, can power you through. And, don’t fear packing the vehicle, either. I let the kids choose their clothes and then I pack everyone in the same suitcase, packing it by day for the whole family. Then, I pack another with just pajamas and toiletries and our “day bag” that has that day clothes in it so when we unload, I only remove two small bags and a pack ‘n play. We pack three coolers (one large one for all our food, a small one for the back row and a medium one for the middle row and the drivers). Add in a camera bag and a stroller and that’s all we take. Nothing towed on the back or put on the top {see photo at the top}.

Our 2014 trek around the state of Texas, done in 7 days with 6 kids,
one of which was a 6-weeker. Because we’re crazy.

9. Take photos, even of the bad stuff. Document the trip, the good, bad and ugly. These are the photos that will be the highlight at the rehearsal dinner years from now. It usually takes me 35 photos, or more, to get one good one. PhotoShop and the headswap can be your friend.

10. Don’t wait until your kids are old enough, or the ship will have already sailed. If you wait until your kids are sleeping through the night, potty-trained, can talk, can get dressed independently, {fill in your own blank here}, then you’ll look up someday and the kids will be grown and on their way out of the house. Today, these memories, are the ones you’re making that matter. No vacation is perfect and some days of them can be downright miserable. I can assure you, you’ll never regret taking the trip. When our preemie was a few months old, we decided to get out of town and head to New Mexico. At that point he was screaming for two hours every night, like clockwork, whether we held or didn’t hold him. It was likely the most brutal two years of our life from birth to two. We figured we could stay at home and let him scream, or find our adventurous spirit and let him scream in Ruidoso. So we did. I knocked out the entire Harry Potter series during that trip, as I sat in the hallway listening to him cry. Yet, as I look at this photo, I just remember what a life-giving trip it was for our entire family.

17 Comments

  1. Kimberly (Hicks) Hill on July 19, 2017 at 7:52 am

    Thanks Kathryn! Such a timely post for us – we’re taking our first road trip with the 4 kids to Colorado soon and I may be a wee bit anxious! Time to lower expectations, chill out, and take it all in. Any tips on non-electronics that worked to occupy the kids would be much appreciated (ages 6-10)! We also found an app called Roadtrippers which can help identify random cool spots to stop and I’m adding the potty app now! Take care!

    • Kathryn on July 21, 2017 at 4:00 pm

      BrainQuest books from Costco, regular books, cards, bingo games, coloring books, audio books for the whole car can be fun, too. Y’all will have a great time. Love me some Colorado!

  2. Nicole on July 19, 2017 at 9:11 am

    The only thing lacking in this post is how to pack the vehicle so you don’t bring your entire house, still have space to move, get in and out, and not have everything tumble out on top of you when you open up the back! Love these commandments. We aren’t too adventurous with road trips (3-5 hours is generally our limit), but next summer is our year to hit an 8 hour drive – I think (hope?). Will definitely use your tips.

    • Kathryn on July 21, 2017 at 3:59 pm

      Gah! I meant to put that in there. Updating now!

      • Nicole on August 1, 2017 at 9:06 am

        Thanks for adding that in there! Hope your road tripping has been a blast!

  3. Viki on July 19, 2017 at 11:54 pm

    Loved this. I grew up road-tripping – mostly up the East Coast and in the State of FL (being from Miami it’s a good 8-9 hour drive just to get out of the State!). The best was when my dad would get tired of the expressways and take back roads (which my brother and I would find on those fold out map things we used back in the day 😉 to, “See how America lives.” I still love taking back roads. I loved your thought about not waiting for the right time. We have traveled with small kids also and while it’s exhausting (and family members lectured us on how crazy we were), it’s also fun to see them enjoy new places and adventures. Hope you all have fun road tripping this summer! Happy Trails!

    • Kathryn on July 21, 2017 at 3:58 pm

      It’s always great – with a few really painful moments in between. Ha! We do pop off the highway from time to time and it’s our favorite part!

  4. Cat W. on July 20, 2017 at 9:12 am

    I grew up on road trips visiting family up and down the East Coast. It then evolved in to longer cross-country adventures with just my mom and I in college –we tent-camped at KOA’s to keep the cost down. Last year, to get to a family wedding from IN to CT, I took my husband and 2 young girls (then ages 4 and 1) on a week-long adventure through Canada and the Northeast. We don’t own anything bigger than a Chevy Malibu (had to cram a stroller and pack n play in there), didn’t use portable DVD players or tablets (can’t use ’em if you don’t own ’em!), but we made it work with lots of books, naps, kids’ music from the library, and Violet/Scout dolls (they love those things). A cousin at the wedding just had to remark, “Y’all love a damn road trip.” He’s right. 🙂 We’ve already got one planned for Spring Break 2018, just to see family back in my home state of GA and make some memories. I also have a running list on Evernote of every state that each of my kids have visited.

    Great tips! The snack one is genius.

    • Kathryn on July 21, 2017 at 3:57 pm

      These are great! The snack idea is from a friend and it IS genius!

  5. Kraft on July 29, 2017 at 12:14 pm

    One thing that we do that has saved a ton of headache is either pick out or have the kids pick out the outfits in advance for each day, and then *put each outfit into a plastic bag by itself and labeled*. This was great for our Austin-El Paso-Colorado-South Dakota-Kansas-Austin road trip a few years back (and the “shorter” trips only to El Paso or South Dakota at separate times). When time to open up the suitcase, everything is organized and there is zero discussion about wanting to wear something else that day. You just grab *your* bag and done.

    • Kathryn on August 7, 2017 at 9:49 am

      Good tip! We do that at summer camp and it works beautifully. For family vacay, they choose their outfits for the entire trip and then I pack them by day. Because we pack in one big suitcase, I’m the master unpacker/packer so they have no say – ha!

  6. Lauren on August 12, 2017 at 9:36 am

    Looking at your packed van (we have the same one) how did that stroller pictured on the side fit in?

    • Kathryn on August 14, 2017 at 1:45 pm

      It folds in half and we just set it on the top of the cooler, a bit sideways. Wasn’t perfect, but it fit!

  7. Amy on June 27, 2018 at 10:14 am

    We have found that as the kids get older they need control of their own luggage – we also found that you can easily fit 7 carryon size suitcases in a minivan and still have plenty of room and everyone can roll their own bag and they all know that they have to fit everything they need in n that suitcase and one backpack that stays with them in their seat. Everyone has a water and we drive out entire gas tanks – I am usually the one who needs to stop first because I have to drink my tea to stay awake to drive. We have traveled with 5 kids and two dogs from Texas to Michigan, California, DC, Florida, Colorado, Grand Canyon and the car trip was some of the best part of the trip

    • Kathryn on June 27, 2018 at 11:49 am

      As much as I would love to do that, the minivan does not have that kind of room, plus kids and coolers. My teenage boys keep getting taller and taller! For every other trip the kids take, they are responsible for packing/managing their luggage. But for the big family roadtrip, mama is in charge. Sounds like you have a good system!

  8. Mary W on July 1, 2020 at 1:23 pm

    This advice is golden! We did a road trip from TX to Ohio 2 years ago with our son and daughter (3 and 1.5 at the time). We also drove straight through the night with only gas breaks! Not sure how we did that and now with baby 3 who doesn’t like car seats, I don’t think that’s possible! I’m hoping for next year though, with a hotel break on the way! 😉 the snack bag idea would be a game changer for sure.

    • Kathryn on July 14, 2020 at 8:59 am

      That snack advice is FOR SURE a game changer. Happy travels (next summer!)

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