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Are We There Yet? A Family Road Trip Planner

This is it—your (sane) family road trip planning guide.


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family road trip planner

Some of my best memories are in the way, way back of my family’s station wagon, singing at the top of my lungs with my sister on our annual road trip to the midwest. Road trips with my own kids, however? Not always as much fun. Which is why this list would have been helpful before the six-and-a-half hour trek with my three kids (all under the age of two) to Cape Cod this year. 

If you are in the same boat, here’s some advice: Set your expectations LOW, savor rare minutes of silence and never, ever agree to fast forward or rewind a scene on the DVD you’re watching. Because then you’ll be doing it for the entirety of your journey.

Before You Go

  • First make sure your transportation is up to snuff. “Surveying your car can be that thing that falls off the checklist during the holidays,” says Cathleen Lewis, director of public affairs for AAA NJ Automobile Club. Lewis suggests travelers take care of any major repairs the car needs, checking on coolant levels and triple checking that the spare tire is A.) there and B.) inflated. Oh, and because you want to feel like the road-trip superhero you are, treat yourself (and your car) to a full cleanout before wheels up.
  • We’re devoting a whole bullet to tires because it’s that important. Do yourself a favor and have a mechanic check your tire pressure, tread and alignment, and ask if the tires should be rotated before takeoff, adds Lewis.
  • If you’ve got car seats in your set up, check in with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (nhtsa.gov) to ensure they are in there correctly (tethers can loosen after repetitive use) and haven’t been recalled or contain any parts that have been recalled, says David Friedman, NHTSA Deputy Administrator. Another option: Head to safecar.gov for a list of car seat check stations in your area—places such as fire and police stations, where certified technicians will ensure your car seat handiwork is still A+ material.
  • Silence is truly golden. To harness this in the best way possible, schedule a nighttime departure, which will buy you (fingers crossed!) a good eight hours of dreaming-kid road time.
  • Two adults on this trip? Designate one person as the driver and one as the social director, doling out snacks, rotating games and digging for that Big Bird doll your daughter absolutely needs this minute. Feel free to switch up the roles, but it’s good for both parties to understand the expectations.
  • Always pack way more food than you need. Traffic happens. Pit stops take four times as long as you’ve allotted. You won’t be sorry for over-packing food in the car, but you will be sorry when you’re traipsing your exhausted, screaming kids into that greasy spoon in the middle of nowhere.
  • There are a lot of packing tips out there—Pack chronologically (what you plan to wear, first day to last) and use the “roll method” (save space and avoid wrinkles by rolling all your clothes)—both of these are smart, and both keep you organized and de-wrinkled, respectively. But the mother of all organized packing tips is to buy a case of gallon-sized Ziploc bags and use them. Moisturizer in one, bug spray in another, toothbrushes, toothpaste, retainers and mouthwash in another. Be sure to label the bags with a Sharpie so you can easily unpack and repack them when you’re on the go. Not only will they hold in any potential leaks (because is there anything worse than baby lotion on your tooth brush?), but they’ll also make you feel hyper-organized. Bring some empty bags too—you’ll need them for the return pack.
  • Non-drinkers, skip to the next section. Drinkers, thank me later! Yes, there will be liquor and wine stores where you’re headed, but when you get to your parents’ house at 9 pm, you’re not going to want to get back in the car on a booze hunt. So make sure to bring some from home, or keep your eyes peeled along the turnpike for something open. Because the first thing you’re going to want to do—once you get those angelic co-passengers off to bed—is pour yourself a stiff drink.  

Keep Them Entertained

  • Nothing calms antsy kids like the autonomy of their own activity bag. Let them pack their favorite stuffed animals, action figures or Nintendo DS games and give them free reign to pull them out whenever the mood strikes.
  • Yes, the iPad is a Godsend. But sometimes they run out of batteries. Or sometimes the kids get “tech headaches” and start going AWOL on your iPad. And each other. For these moments, it’s great to have some good old-fashioned non-tech toys. Think books and plushie animals that won’t hurt when launched into the front seat.
  • Don’t underestimate the allure of something new, whether that thing costs 50 cents or $50. So stock up on new stuff (hit the dollar store before you hit the road) and introduce the new items in small doses throughout the trip—like when they ask you, “Are we there yet?” for the millionth time. “No, son, we’re not there, but check out this awesome plastic dinosaur with wings!”
  • And about those tech headaches­—try a car game: 20 Questions, I Spy, License Plate, I’m Going on a Picnic. Make a list of your favorites and work your way through them when your kiddos get restless.
  • A car craft both kids and parents can get behind? Pipe cleaners! Kids love twisting them into bracelets and rings, parents love that they’re zero mess.
  • My daughter got ahold of my iPhone on our trip and took a good 30 photos—some of which were so, totally amazing. Like the beautiful, askew, close-up shot of her brother sleeping in the car seat next to her, or the one of my husband and me (taken from her backseat perch, remember) chatting and laughing in the front seat. Harness this “mistake” by designating a kid camera (a disposable, cheapy camera works) that the bambinos can take ownership of. Or lend them your iPhone for a few. Bet you some of the trip’s best pics will be on that camera.
  • Remember how we said to savor moments of silence? Well, that sweet, sweet quiet time can be all yours with chips. Or cookies. Or lollipops. Or really any food or treat that is off-limits at home. If ever there were a time to take a vacation from your healthy eating rules, it’s right now, six hours into your 10-hour journey.
  • When the going gets tough—and it will—just envision that family hike and how it’s mere hours away. And try not to yell. And remember there’s booze in the trunk.

road trip planner

No coloring on the windows! Unless, that is, you’re using these totally rad washable window markers from Crayola. Your kids will love how wrong they feel, and you will love the 10 minutes of silence they bring you.

Game Time! Grab some stickers at the dollar store to track their sightings and download our fun bingo game, made just for hitting the road! The kids will be busy looking for out-of-state plates, a yellow car or a plane in the sky while you enjoy a few peaceful minutes to yourself.

Courtney Thompson is an editor and mother of three living in Madison, New Jersey.

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