The post originally appeared on The Seasoned Spouse

A road trip with kids can stress out any parent–especially if it’s during a major move!

We have four children, ages 2-8. And we’re a military family who moves every 2-3 years. Over the years, they have been on plenty of road trips. Sometimes I had to drive alone long distances with my babies to visit family during deployments. When we lived in Europe, we took many road trips for a long weekend to visit historic sites.

But by far, our most epic road trip adventure was last summer’s PCS move. Our family was moving across the country, so we packed up the four kids in a minivan and drove for six days from Maryland to California! I was terrified of this trip ahead of time, so I researched and planned everything I could for a road trip with kids, and came up with some strategies that worked out really well!

This is part 2 of my series on traveling across the country on a PCS move with children. To read more about how we prepared for our epic trip, and how we packed the car for a week of camping, read about “That time when I went camping across the country.”

How to entertain children during a road trip with kids:

  • With toddlers, any sensory activity could occupy large portions of a road trip. I make baggies with pipe cleaners, buttons, sticker books, etc. (Look up ‘busy bags’ on Pinterest for inspiration!) When I was driving alone, I could hand a new activity back to the toddlers any time they were bored.
  • Audiobooks. These are great for the whole family! And they will occupy hours of your ride. You can buy books on CD, or use an app like Audible. It has tons of books, from classics to new releases. We like the Redwall series, by Brian Jacques, and the Magic Tree House books too. You can get a free 30-day trial for your next trip, or sign up and get your first few downloads for free. After that it is $15 per month, which gives you a credit for 1 free download. This has been an incredible deal, because we have downloaded collections or series that were worth over $50 using only 1 credit. And then those books occupy hours of car time! Use my affiliate link to get a free trial.
  • Dollar store cache of prizes. I picked up a bunch of little toys and sticker books, and the kids know that resting quietly in the morning will earn them a new surprise in the afternoon when we reach the next state. Having a new activity gets them through the fussy, fidgeting part of the afternoon.
  • Celebrating each state and border crossing. The kids don’t know much about geography, but they like hearing about each state and knowing when we get to the next one. We talk about state names, capitals, and some of the landmarks that make each state special.
  • Pre-packaged snacks. I saved a lot of space and hassle by making little baggies of favorite snacks like pretzels, crackers, baby carrots, trail mix, yogurt raisins, etc. I also pre-filled the baby’s snack containers with Cheerios and goldfish each day. So when the kids are hungry, I can literally throw food at them. Note: You can by pre-made snacks, but make your own bags if your kids are going to pick all the raisins out of the trail mix!
  • Stay on schedule. This is important for a road trip with kids. Not just your travel plans, but their eating schedule too. Be prepared for them to be hungry for morning snack, lunch, afternoon snack, and dinner at predictable times. Telling them that “we will eat snack at 10AM” may help reduce the constant questions. Remember to adjust as you cross time zones.

Packing your car for a road trip with kids

  • Use a ‘No throw’ strapAmazing Hacks for a Road Trip with Kids for the baby’s toys or cup, so things don’t end up all over the car where no one can reach them. Also, buckle baby’s sleeping blanket in the seat. If you are driving alone, get a plastic grabber tool so you can reach things that fall between the seat and the door, without unbuckling your seatbelt or taking your eyes off the road. Here is a great example of one that is compact, and only $6!
  •  Refillable water bottlesAmazing Hacks for a Road Trip with Kids for each kid. These can be refilled for free at most rest stops, or even in a bathroom if needed, so you will save money and reduce trash. Plus you can judge how much everyone is drinking to help you plan rest stops. Keep everyone hydrated!
  • Keep essentials handy. I have a place for everything,  so from my seat I can reach the snacks, the cooler, the surprise toys, my purse, our trip receipt bag, the DVDs, a book, baby wipes, our little trash bag, and the baby’s carseat. I spend a lot of time turning around, so having things comfortably in reach is important. I also have easy access to the diaper bag beneath the baby’s seat to make changes at rest stops. 
  • Backpack of activities for each child. This works well for children in preschool or older. They all have a different selection of books, toys, drawing activities, travel gamesAmazing Hacks for a Road Trip with Kids, and stuffed animals. So far, they have done well sharing and entertaining themselves without many car games.
  • Blankets and pillows for all the kids to get comfortable. If they no longer have a back to their car seat, consider a travel pillow that wraps around the neck so they have something to lean on. This will make it a lot more likely that they will take naps in the afternoon.
  • Seatbelt pillows make it easier and safer!
  • DVDs. Our new car has a DVD player, which is awesome to give 1-2 hours of relative quiet each day. Our kids don’t sleep when a movie is on, so we don’t play one until after nap time. I’m not usually a big fan of screen time, but for long car trips, it is a sanity saver! You can also use portable DVD players if there aren’t any built into your car.

Planning ahead is important for kid-friendly road trips!

  • Car-friendly food. I had to choose snacks and sandwiches that wouldn’t create a lot of crumbs, smears, or stains. So, no Oreos, cheese puffs, or peanut butter on a road trip with kids.
  • Sleeping in different locations. If we have a long day of driving (9 hours), we stay at a hotel or a friend’s house. This is a good chance to do laundry, take showers, and restock food. But then we follow the hotel stay with a shorter drive (6 hours), and camping at a campground. At the end of the day, if the kids can run around for an hour at a playground or swim in a pool, then they sleep pretty well.
  • Packing a lunch. Some stretches of road are fairly empty, and rest stops can be unpredictable. Just having bread and fruit in the car, and lunch meat and cheese in the cooler can make for a cheap and convenient lunch.
  • Our road trips have not always been easy or quiet, but everyone in the family has survived, and we even have fond memories of the long trip! So I hope that some of these tips will help your family too. And you can read additional tips for a road trip with kids from military families here. Let me know your best strategy for long car rides with kids!

the pcs homegirls

Lizann Lightfoot is an experienced writer, editor, and speaker for the military community. After two decades with her Marine—which included seven deployments, six PCS moves, five children, and three years overseas—she specializes in sharing resources and encouragement with families through the many challenges of military life. As an interviewer and storyteller, she helps others share their stories, so their experiences can help fellow service members and spouses throughout their military journey.

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