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Planning a Cross-Country Road Trip with Kids

road trip 2013

It’s been an exciting summer for our family! We’re moving to California (new job for Mike), and after looking at the expense of flying a family of six AND shipping a minivan we decided to drive. We done a couple short road trips, including a mini test drive to Atlantic City for a business trip Mike had last week. This will be our first big road trip with kids! We’ll be taking a roughly-3500 mile route across the country, with lots of stops at children’s museums thanks to an ASTC museum membership. I have always want to see Niagara Falls, so I’m thrilled that we have that planned as one of our stops!

Our family road trip survival plan

In the kids backpacks (each child will have their backpack by their seat):

Note that their backpacks start off quite empty. I’m sure they will find things to add as we travel.

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Snacks for the car:

We keep a trash can in the back of the car to prevent the minivan from getting trashed.

In the front of the car:

  • Fruit snacks (emergency rations)
  • Small plastic animals and new books to give out as surprises
  • Audio books (see links below for recommendations from fellow bloggers – that’s where I’ll be turning for inspiration!)

Car games:

  • See if we can find a license plate for every state (plus Washington, D.C.)
  • Find the letters of the alphabet on street signs
  • Who can find the next mile marker first? (Frequently much more competitive than you might think)

For hotel rooms and our stay in Utah (the kids and I will remain in Utah until we find housing in CA – haven’t been very lucky in that department so far):

  • Workbooks (at grade level, from Costco)
  • Legos – in plastic shoebox sized bins for easy storage
  • ALEX Giant Art Jar*

I drove across the country several times with my family as a kid, but this is my first time doing a trip like this with my own family! So I looked to my fellow kid bloggers for advice. Here are a few posts I’ll be using as a resource as we prepare for our trip – and I’ll be collecting even more ideas on my Traveling with Kids Pinterest Board!

What do you recommend we bring or plan? What are your favorite car games?

MaryAnne is a craft loving educator, musician, photographer, and writer who lives in Silicon Valley with her husband Mike and their four children.

38 thoughts on “Planning a Cross-Country Road Trip with Kids”

  1. I just googled cross country trips with toddlers because I am contemplating driving from Oregon to New Brunswick, Canada this summer with my teen daughter, my 20 month old and my 4 month old. (they’ll be a couple of months older when we go). I stumbled across your blog and I wondered, how did that trip your family made in 2013 go? How old were the youngest kids when you went? How did you divide up your driving? I was thinking of doing in in 6 days …. but that makes for some long days.

    I would love to hear about the trip and hear any tips or tricks that you can share.

    Thank you so much!

    1. The trip went well! We did it in six days, which definitely made for long driving days. I wrote about the trip in this post – including tips for a successful trip:


      If you can take more time to drive, I would recommend that – we were all pretty tired by the end of six long days of driving. I know we would do it again, though – it was overall a very positive experience for my family. Good luck with your trip!

  2. We are huge fans of road trips, primarily because it is cheaper than flying with 6 of us:). We drive 3-4 times a year Houston-Chicago, which means 20 hours in the car with 4 kids and 2 dogs. It is CRAZY!!! :) We kind-of have it down to a science now, and have gone many other places as well. I personally think it is such an incredible bonding experience for the family, and you get to see so much more (especially when you plan your trip carefully). I had never heard of the museum membership- how cool!!!! Thanks for sharing!

    1. Your family will LOVE the museum memberships – you can see so many wonderful museums for free or at a discount! It’s my favorite road trip tip!

  3. I have personally traveled cross country 5 times over the course of the past twenty years, and two of those times were with kids. So, I have some tips to offer as well.

    First, God bless you for deciding to drive cross country with your children. There is a condo in heaven waiting for you :)

    The first three times I made the trek I did so with two dogs, and I thought they were a hassle day in and day out. Children add a whole new dimension to the experience, and I learned how to best deal with it.

    1. Set up your trip in chunks. You have the big chunk of how far you will get each day, then you have little chunks set up for breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks and breaks. Make sure that everyone knows the schedule. I printed ours up and laminated it, sticking it to the back of the front seats of the mini van. This way the kids can be referred back to the schedule.

    2. Bring every DVD in your house, child appropriate. And make sure your DVD player works.

    3. Spend time on creating your healthy snack and beverage containers. We are not vegans or organic, Whole Foods kind of people, but we certainly don’t want to rely on gas station and truck stop food if we can help it. Stock plenty of water, 100% juice, and non sugary, non salty snacks as much as possible. Fruit is good. The sugar is not conducive to a calm child.

    4. Do not drive for more than two or three hours without getting out, walking around and stretching your body for about 15 minutes each time. Allow the children to also get out and take a quick break.

    5. Select your hotel each night with your kids in mind. Perhaps there is a “Giant Ball of Twine” nearby or some other sort of attraction you can get the kids excited to see the next morning after a nice warm bath and a continental breakfast.

    6. The absolute maximum amount of driving per day should be no more than 12 hours.

    Sticking to the 5 tips above, my last two trips were not just stress free, they were memories we will never forget. I work for a company that specializes in finding hotel rooms at the cheapest rate possible, you can bet that I used the site for my trip!

      1. David,
        My husband and I plan on taking a cross country trip this summer. We will be leaving from Michigan and going to California. We will be traveling with an eleven year old and a nine year old and a 1 year old dog. You have some great tips. Did you set up your own trip? this can be very overwhelming and I want this trip to be a memory that will be with us forever. Any suggestion would be helpful as far as setting up the trip and things to go see.

        1. Thanks to both MaryAnne and Jo for the compliments.

          Jo, I made the trip plans with my family. With the kids in mind, I listed some of their interests in school and in play. So, for instance my son was in his dinosaur phase, so I made sure to search online for some dinosaur exhibits along the way. My daughter loves horseback riding, so I added a horse ranch to my search that allowed riding and camping.

          Then of course there’s Disneyland and Six Flags ;) Remember, to leave openings for last minute ideas. You don’t want to be so scheduled that your trip becomes a chore.

  4. By the time you get this comment, you’ll all be seasoned family road warriors! I hope it’s going really really well.

  5. When are you leaving? Will you be homeschooling or just enrolling the kids in a school late? This is such a great adventure for all of you!

    1. Hi Christy! We left last Thursday. I may put the kids in school in my grandma’s town for a couple weeks; have to decide in the next day or two! Otherwise we will be homeschooling.

  6. Kim @ The Educators' Spin On It

    What an adventure this will be for your family! Can’t wait to read all your side adventures on the way there. We’ve only traveled to DC from Florida quite a bit with the kids and truthfully they usually do a whole lot better than you think. I’ve shared a few ideas on my travel board is you need more ideas too. We always plan a little party for every boarder you cross, the kids really get into it and it’s such a fun geography lesson. Plus it wakes up the driver LOL. Here’s my pinterest board if you need any more ideas. http://pinterest.com/educatorsspinon/traveling-with-kids/

  7. We have found it fun to keep a US map in the car, and use it to demonstrate the progress we’ve made a couple of times each day. We also pick up a state map at the visitors centers each time we cross a state line, and ask the workers for hints about their state. We have found all kinds of hidden gems along the way!

  8. Suki was a big fan of the Roald Dahl audio books when we drove to Acadia. James & the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, etc. The reading of them was very good. Tom & I weren’t big fans of the Ramona series on audio. Stockard Channing was a really annoying narrator.

    1. Thanks for the recommendations! I’ve heard from at least one other person that the Ramona series on audio isn’t very fun to listen to.

  9. Wow! Hope you have fun. If you make lots of stops, which it sounds like you are, it will be an awesome adventure you will never forget.

    You could always play “yellow car”. You get one point for every yellow car you find, 5 points for a yellow mustang and an automatic win when you find a yellow Hummer.

    here is a blog post I wrote last year with 5 games to play in the car with no equipment needed – http://growingplay.blogspot.com/2012/04/games-for-car-rides-and-kids-no.html.

    The personal favorite in our family with five kids is “Would you rather?” Love that game!

  10. We’ve taken a lot of long road trips with our young children and it sounds like you’ve got a great plan. On our last trip I tried a new snack box that worked well. I found the idea on Pinterest but here is the original link http://pmkcrafts.blogspot.com/2010/07/travel-treat-boxes.html

    I create a road trip binder for each trip, with maps, knock-knock jokes, trivia questions etc. I also include our Road Trip Activity printables that I laminated. http://pmkcrafts.blogspot.com/2010/07/travel-treat-boxes.html

    Best of luck!

  11. I can’t wait to hear how it goes, and where you stop. I wish you were driving through somewhere remotely closer to where I am, so I could get to meet you in real life.

    Oh, one other thing I thought of. Okay, 2 or 3…… Magnetic boards (my magnetic paper dolls were a huge hit), felt boards, and sticker books. I just remembered the past couple of trips recently I’ve gotten the kids sticker books and Doodle books to play with, and those have been big hits.

  12. I remember taking a lot of road trips growing up, and most of what I remember is reading books. Well, that and my 1yo sister screaming her head off. (Sorry!) On my more recent trips solo with R&P I did find audio books and kids CDs to be great. We took audio books and also found the picture books, so they could look at them too. But that adds bulk. I’d also say to take a very minimal travel journal and a map, and if they have their own camera that is pretty great too. If you are super ambitious you could even stop at a drug store and print out some highlight pics for them to stick in their journals as you go.

    I really like the Usborne Travel Activity Book, we took that on our last trip, and it has more ideas for car games, and we spent some time using it as a source for ‘learning to draw’ ice cream treats and buildings into our sketch books. But frankly, the biggest time sink at this point has turned into hanging/sharing a tablet with an audio splitter & headphones and watching movies. I do also like to take little tiny dolls, like gnomes or polly pocket size, because Penelope likes to use them to tell stories, and they don’t take up much space. Yarn is another great travel activity, I have trouble finding the concentration to draw or be actively creative with the car humming along, but there is always mental space for corking or finger knitting or some other really repetitive craft. If they like gimp or other friendship bracelets you could take that.

  13. Kristi@Creative Connections for Kids

    You all are well prepared! Wishing you all safe and fun travels. Thanks for sharing our post! Kristi

  14. I love the post it notes art gallery idea – that is brilliant! Are you going to wrap up the new books and animals? The anticipation and unwrapping should make the novelty last a little longer. I’ll be thinking of you!!

  15. Sounds like you’re all set! I hope you all have a fabulous time and make so many memories! Niagara Falls will be fantastic. Can’t wait to hear all about your road trip!

  16. I am so excited for you guys! I think it will work out just fine. All of the stops and sightseeing will be so fun.

    We’ve never driven more than 5 hours with Abby, so I have no tips. My brother-in-law and his wife and twin 1 year old’s just drove from LA to Savannah, GA and they are still alive. That’s the only tip I have. LOL!

    I’ve always loved road trips and I hope we can go on some as Dave builds up more vacation time. Right now he has 14 days and doesn’t want to use them all just driving, so we take several short vacations during the year.

    Good luck!

  17. We have had good luck on our 12 hour car rides with Wikisticks and movies on our tablet. Of course, we only have one child right now. We tried to do a car safari on our way home from Oregon last month. Though we had fun seeing animals close-up, I wouldn’t recommend an activity where you have to stay in the car an hour more, though they had a mini zoo and a nice playground. After that adventure, J asked that we minimize stops. Good thing too since all of S. Oregon and most of N. CA was smokey, which reminds me that you should check out information on wildfires for you journey. My first year in grad school I did the I-80 to Iowa and then headed N for an internship in MN. We had a random potty break at Fort Bridger in Wyoming, and it turned out to have very interesting history. Wyoming was my favorite state to drive through in terms of scenery.

    1. jeannine: waddlee-ah-chaa

      We’ve also used wikki stix! The kids love them and they’re not too messy.

      We make a yearly 13 hour pilgrimage to the beach. Now that the kiddos are getting older they like playing games as a family – The ABC game, categories, etc.

      Hope California is wonderful for your family! We absolutely love San Diego and had some amazing (FREE) outdoor adventures!.

  18. Yogurt melts and fruit pouches are favorite car snacks for my kids. Good luck with this trip, it’ll be memorable and deeply exhausting I’m sure!

  19. I hope your trip will go well and you will be able to share your adventures with us! Our longest trips so far were 7-8 hours to San Diego and we spent a lot of time listening to the Story of the World. My husband also designed a Travel Scavenger Hunt to find various things on the way and check them off in mini-books. Good luck, and I hope that you will find a place to live soon :)

  20. Oh my Goodness best of luck to you. Road trips with little ones are tough, but it looks like you have a good plan. So do you have family in Utah? I know housing is expensive in the Bay Area so best of luck in that department. I can’t wait to hear all about your adventures.

  21. First off, you are very prepared and I am sure will survive it! Thanks for including my road trip activities. They have helped us stay sane and productive during our military-related moves and long distance trips once a year to visit family. Since we will be moving next Summer, I am keeping this whole list handy since I will need it traveling with four kids. Great resource! Thank you!

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