Road trips. One of the most cost-effective and flexible ways for a family to travel, they can also create enough memories to fill volumes of scrapbooks. But, if there’s anything we learned from the Grizwold family in the movie National Lampoon’s Vacation, is a little advance planning can avoid a few bumps along the way. Over countless hours and miles on the road, here are ten items we have learned to never travel without on a road trip with kids.
1. Sports Equipment
If you resonate with the expression, “the journey is the destination,” your road trip style may be to take the back roads, stop at roadside attractions, and take the occasional detour. Slow, explorative travel is fantastic for families, as adults and kids need regular breaks to stay alert and interested in the local scenery.
Rest stops and parks present an excellent opportunity to do just that while tossing a Frisbee, kicking a soccer ball, or shooting some hoops. At a minimum, we always carry a tennis ball, so the dog can join us in an impromptu game of fetch.
2. Trivia Questions/Cards
When your last nerve can’t handle another “Are we there yet?,” break out a pack of Beat the Parents trivia cards. As the name implies, kids ask parents more challenging questions while they receive elementary-age questions of a similar nature. The team with the most number of correct answers wins the game.
We like trivia cards (vs. trivia games) because they eliminate the risk of miniature game pieces falling into air vents and door jams. However, you can always extract the box of questions from, say, the game of Trivial Pursuit and return it to the game at the end of your trip.
3. Travel Pillows
When it comes to a cross-country adventure, travel pillows are a necessity for staying comfortable and power-napping as a passenger. We recently discovered this adjustable travel pillow with a belt strap that secures around your neck or back for sleeping and lumbar support (also good for driving).
As a bonus, the removable pillowcase can be removed and tossed into the washing machine. Tip: In colder months and climates, we also bring a few comfortable blankets and pass them around the car as needed.
4. Car Window Shades
If the mid-day sun is making travel hot and uncomfortable for passengers, a blanket or beach towel can be rolled up into a window to help create shade. However, when our kids were young enough to nap in the car, we used car window shades specifically designed to prevent sun glare and help block harmful UV rays. There’s no reason the family with older kids (or no kids at all) can’t take advantage of the same helpful products–especially when they lend better visibility than the old beach towel!
5. Paper Map/ Road Atlas
As the saying goes, Ain’t no school like the old school! Call me a fuddy-duddy, but believe there is merit in teaching kids to navigate with a paper map as a companion to using technology like Google Maps or a vehicle’s built-in automobile navigation system (and certainly as a backup when technology fails).
Not only does reading map help passengers orient themselves to the topography, it fosters curiosity about possible trip excursions and detours. Most US states offer free state maps at official welcome stations. We love the Rand McNally Best of the Road Atlas & Guide for the city insets and themed itineraries at the front of the book.
6. Ample Supply of Snacks
One of the biggest vacation expenses is feeding your family on the go. We’ve found a bit of advance planning and expert packing can help avoid impulse purchases from convenience stores and fast food drive through windows.
If heading out for more than a long weekend, we make a run to Costco or Sam’s Club a few days before the start of a trip (tip: travel with your membership card(s) and replenish on the road). Shop for non-perishable items you know your kids will eat, splurging for some special treats. If you’re short on shopping time, you can have Amazon deliver a healthy snack bundle (as shown).
And when it comes to washing down said snacks, traveling with a reusable water bottle also cuts down on bottled water purchases and helps foster a mindset of environmental responsibility. We invested in a set of Klean Kanteen stainless steel water bottles years ago and they’re still going strong.
7. Books on CD or Audio Books
This suggestion is for anyone who has ever traveled on long stretches of the open road with two or fewer radio stations. Available to check out or download from most public libraries, audio books can both save your sanity and increase your overall family literacy.
Subscription-based services like Audible.com and Kindle Audio Books are popular alternatives to the public library. Popular with commuters, podcast downloads can fill several hours of empty airtime on your next mega trip.
8. Gallon Size Ice Cream Pail with Lid
From the emergency potty to motion sickness receptacle, never underestimate the utility of the common gallon ice cream pail. And, when it comes to pail selection, a sturdy, locking lid will be the most important design consideration.
Beyond collecting bodily fluids, we’ve used ice cream buckets for spontaneous sand castle building and to carry home shell souvenirs. As a bonus, you first need to consume a gallon of ice cream! You may even want one bucket for every passenger in your car (stacked together for easy storage). Click here for a ready-to-go set of 5.
9. First Aid Kit
From legitimate emergencies to the occasional skinned knee, we feel every family should stock a first aid kit in their vehicle’s trunk or glove box. The most commonly used items in our family are crushable ice packs, tweezers, and scissors, but we like a kit with rubber gloves and mouth guards to protect everyone during CPR.
If you regularly camp or hike, consider an Emergency Preparedness and First Aid Kit (like this one) containing items like an emergency radio and flashlight, safety whistle, and thermal blanket.
10. A Battery Powered Jump Starter
Jumper cables are a must for anyone living in, or traveling through, a cold climate. A battery powered jump starter, however, is an excellent choice for anyone traveling to a remote location where they may not have access to a hot battery.
When we lived in Minnesota, a battery powered jump starter came to our rescue more than once in our own garage. A variety of choices are available in different price ranges, charging capacity, and durability. This is one purchase where you may want to read the customer reviews and consult your trusted auto mechanic. Click here to see several options with customer reviews at Amazon.
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An earlier version of this post first appeared June 8, 2017.