6 tips for surviving a road trip with a large family
Editor’s note: This is a recurring post, regularly updated with new information and offers.
During the coronavirus pandemic, many families discovered for the first time how road trips are a fantastic way to travel.
As a family of eight, our household has always traveled in ways that are somewhat different from other families. A lot of that difference comes from the fact that even a small cost multiplied by eight turns into a large cost quickly. Consider the relatively small $5.60 tax on your “free” award ticket: For our group on a round-trip itinerary, that’s nearly $100 — and then there are the often astronomical fuel charges, also known as “carrier-imposed surcharges.”
Because of that, our family often skews more toward “drive” in the classic “drive versus fly” debate. The economics of being able to transport eight people in one vehicle make family road trips a staple of our travel plans. That's still the case when gas prices are high. (Here’s a list of the best credit cards for road trips, best credit cards for gas purchases and advice for maximizing points and miles on road trips.)
A family road trip can be a great idea any time of year if you want to go somewhere close or don't want the expense of airline tickets. Over the years, we’ve come up with several family road trip tips and I’d like to share a few with you.
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Agree on screen time
When I asked my 12-year-old daughter what her best road-trip tips were, she thought for a second and then came up with “screens, snacks and space.”
Our family is fairly strict on limiting kids’ screen time, but a road trip is one time where those rules go (mostly) out the window. We do try to mix things up with other forms of entertainment (see below), but it’s true that most of a long road trip consists of kids on various screens.
Our road-trip screen time game has evolved over time. When our kids were younger, our go-to move was a portable DVD player attached on a platform hooked into the headrest posts of the driver and passenger seats. The only problem with that came as the kids got a little older. We found that there isn’t a movie in this world that a 14-year-old boy and a 4-year-old girl can both agree on.
As the kids got older and technology advanced, we moved more toward individual screens. Older kids usually play on their phones, and we have tablets and other devices for the younger kids. On our most recent road trip, each kid had their own Nintendo 2DS system (pictured below), which worked great.
Don’t skimp on snacks
Making sure you have enough snacks for the trip is another of our road-trip tips. We bring cups to pass out “messier” snacks (like Goldfish, pretzels, Cheez-Its or oyster crackers). This way, you have the “snack master” in the front passing out snacks all the way to the back. The more snacks you bring, the more self-sufficient your road trip can be, which means fewer stops. (Check out TPG‘s list of healthy snacks to pack on trips.)
My favorite road-trip snack story comes from when my oldest daughter was about 5 or 6. She was in the back row of the minivan and our other kids were too little to be any help passing out treats. At snack time, our only option was literally to throw options back at her and hope they landed in range so she could reach them without getting out of her car seat.
When we finally got to our destination, we looked in the back of the van and found 20+ sandwich cookies (and parts of cookies) littered throughout the back seat.
Space is the next consideration. Unfortunately, it’s one that you probably don’t have a ton of control over. In most cases, the vehicle you drive is the only vehicle you have.
Also, when your van starts out for a road trip looking like this, you know that space is coming at a premium.
If you’re renting a car instead of using your own, one possible option would be renting two cars instead of one larger car. We covered that in our article on which rental care company is right for you. In addition to being cheaper than renting a minivan (or worse, full-size van or large SUV), having two cars lets you split up kids that can’t seem to get along into entirely different cars. One downside when renting two cars is that both my wife and I have to drive all the time instead of being able to switch off.
Maximize your break time
Depending on how long you’re traveling or the ages of your kids, you’ll likely need to stop one to several times along the way. If this is a route you’ve taken many times (like the way to grandma’s house), you probably have your “favorite” rest stops already picked out. We like to turn those stops for food, gas and bathrooms into mini-exercise breaks.
Rather than just all stumbling to the bathroom, we will stop at a rest area, find a grassy spot and do anything from calisthenics to a quick game of hide-and-seek. The older kids participate grumpily (then again, teenagers seem to do everything grumpily), but the younger kids enjoy getting a chance to run around.
If you have a little extra time in the schedule, take advantage of some free and unique things to do on the way — here are some tips for finding those stops.
Find entertainment where you can get it
As I mentioned earlier, our main source of entertainment on family road trips nowadays tends to be individual screens (phones, tablets and game systems). We do have a few other things that we use to pass the time on our family road trips — here are a few of our favorites:
- Books on CD; the “Harry Potter” series read by Jim Dale are family favorites.
- Of course, there’s always the classic “Alphabet Game.”
- A family game we have titled, “I am something in the world; what am I?” is basically a souped-up 20 questions where one person thinks of anything in the world and everyone else uses yes or no questions to figure it out. I am constantly amazed at how even the most obscure things can be guessed with enough questions.
- When our kids were younger, we printed out sheets with license plates from every state on them and had the kids mark ones that they saw. Bonus points if you live in a state (like Ohio) that also have county-level stickers on its license plates.
Set a realistic driving schedule
My last piece of road-trip advice is to be realistic with your timing. You’ll know your family the best of anyone, but be wise about when you start your trip. Look at your route and when you’ll be traveling through major cities. I have not-so-fond memories of being stuck in rush hour Chicago traffic with a screaming infant, stuck with nowhere to go.
I know some families will drive through the night as a way to maximize vacation time. The one time our family tried that, my toddler daughter screamed her head off for over an hour straight to the point that my wife made me turn around the car and go back home. (Naturally, she finally fell asleep on our way back home, so we turned around the car again and made it to our destination about three hours late.)
Another option that those of us in the miles and points world have is to break up long road trips with a night at a hotel along the way. Be liberal with your breaks — being stuck in the back of a minivan for 10+ hours is no fun.
If you aren’t sure where to start with mapping out your schedule, check out the website roadtrippers.com.
I hope that these family road-trip travel tips will help you plan your next vacation.
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