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10 Secrets for a Successful Family Road Trip (From a Mom Who Has Traveled 10,490 Miles with Her Kids!)

10 Secrets for a Successful Family Road Trip (from a mom who has traveled 10,490 miles with her kids!)

By Kelcey Kintner

If you’re embarking on a big family road trip, you need tips. Secret, battle-scarred, amazingly helpful tips that will make your trip easier and possibly more fun. Because these adventures are supposed to be fun, right?! Okay, well, let’s at least aim for not-so-painful.

I’ve traveled more than 1,400 miles with my five children just so far this summer (10,490 miles over the past few years) and I’ve learned a few things on the road.  And, I’m going share them with you. And please, after your next road trip, share your best tips with us! Because road trips are not for the weak.

1) Always book a hotel offering free breakfast

If you’re staying at a hotel, you must book one with a free breakfast option. Mostly because every kid loves a waffle maker (and who wants to clean a waffle maker at home?). A free breakfast is such a cost savings. Plus, the early risers can head down to breakfast while the others gets some extra sleep.

But when you check in, ask about breakfast hours because there is nothing sadder than busting down to the lobby to get your waffle on and find that everything just got shut down and the only thing they can offer you is a bruised 3 day old banana.

Also, in addition, some hotels even offer a happy hour! So if you’re staying in town for a day, this is definitely worth finding out about. The Embassy Suites in Alexandria, VA had a happy hour that was the perfect end to a day of sight seeing in DC.

Other good hotel amenities for road-traveling families: I also love a hotel with a gym (because getting 30 minutes of exercise makes it way easier to sit in the car for hours) and a pool (because kids can really get their energy out and most importantly have fun).

2) Register Any Discounts When You Book the Hotel (Not at Check In)

Hotels won’t always honor a discount like AAA unless you make note of it when you’re booking the hotel. Meaning at the time of check in – it can be too late. This recently happened to me in New York City. I thought they would honor my AAA card when I checked in but it had to be done at the time of booking and no amount of begging or crying could change their minds. Okay, I didn’t cry. But I wanted to because I hate losing out on free money!

Important note: I often check travel/hotel discount and other similar sites for the best rates and then book directly on the hotels’ sites so I can use my AAA card. Because discount travel sites don’t always allow you to use these kinds of discounts from their sites. Also, another tip…. don’t think you have to be a senior to take advantage of AARP discounts. Anyone over the age of 18 can join the AARP and take advantage of lots of hotel and other travel discounts.

3) Portable Potties aren’t Just For Kids

Bring a small, fold-up travel portable potty if you have young children who might need to pee and can’t wait for a rest stop. Make sure you have bags that fit the potty. Sometimes you’re stuck in traffic or there is not a rest stop in sight.

I will even admit that I have used one of these toddler potties after drinking a way too big latte in the car. Obviously I’m incredibly proud of this feat and it will hopefully give my kids something to write about for the “What I Did Over Summer Vacation” when they get back-to-school.

Also, it’s important to stay hydrated by drinking water but keep the soda/coffee/anything else drinking to a minimum. This is also not the time to potty train little Susie. She will do great in her diapers until you reach your destination. Rest stops really slow down a trip.

4) Have Pajamas Easily on Hand

If you’re getting in late, have PJs easily available so kids can get comfy in the car and be ready for bed upon arrival. It will save you a lot of digging through suitcases at 1 in the morning. Also, make sure you pack a separate suitcase for the trip. This is REALLY important. You don’t want to be lugging all your stuff in and out of hotels when you’re on the road.

I also pack pillows and blankets so the children can get comfortable in the car and hopefully sleep! Please let them sleep.

5) Clean Out the Car Each Night

You do not want to check out of your hotel in the morning, open up your car and find out someone left a piece of bologna under the seat so that it could bake in the hot sun.  It will smell soooooo badly. So every night, just collect all the trash and clean out the car the best you can. It won’t look like palace – but did it ever?

6) Fun Car Games Before Screen Time

No kid wants to shut off his or her movie to play the license plate game with their parents. So bring out the car games first. Here are some ideas from my good friend Wendi. We did a family Mad Lib every morning of the trip during which I taught my kids the difference between an adverb and an adjective. We also had our 7 year old twins (who just learned how to read) read books out loud to us.

7) Save the Sweets for When You Need to Stop

Pack lots of snacks (especially healthy ones) for the car but save the candy for a special treat. At some point during the day, we would stop at a gas station for a bathroom break (and yes, everyone must pee!). During the stop, the kids would get to pick out any candy they want (as long it wasn’t king size). They really loved this treat and looked forward to it every day.  When it feels like you are driving forever, you need little things like this to look forward to.

8) Stop at Places You Actually Want to Visit

Whenever possible, stop at places you want to visit or have friends.  It lifts everyone’s spirits during a long road trip. I’d rather drive a bit out of the way and enjoy a city I really love than end up staying at some random place on the side of the highway.

So plan the schedule ahead of time. For example, on our drive from Florida to New York, we often stop in Savannah to eat at the super yummy and adorable Sandfly Bar-B-Q.  So don’t rigidly stick to only the fastest route. We’ve hit cities like DC, Virginia Beach, Charlottesville, Chapel Hill and Charleston. They weren’t always exactly on our way but we never regretted the stop. Well, I do sort of regret one Chuck E. Cheese stop in Alabama but I’ve always had a difficult relationship with that kids’ place.

9) You’ll Never Regret Having Wipes

Carry a package of baby/toddler wipes in your purse. I don’t care if your kid is 2 or 15. Wipes come in so handy when traveling… for spills in the car, messy ice cream stops, a quick substitute for toilet paper when you find yourself in a bathroom stall without one square to spare. Carry wipes and you’ll be the most popular person ever (or at least in your car).

10) You Will Now Hate Me for Saying This

Remember it’s a journey, not a destination. Yeah, sorry. On a recent road trip, we stopped in Washington, D.C. and my husband was very anxious to get to the National Air and Space Museum. And our children were very content to run, skip and jump from this stone wall a few blocks from the museum. I finally reminded my husband that this was them having fun. And we would get to the museum. And eventually we did.

Sometimes we are so busy trying to get to our final destination that we forget about the stuff in between. And that goes for road trips too. You need to look for the moments of joy in between tedious hours on the road.

Because at some point (between the sibling fighting and constant bathroom stops), your whole family will be laughing hysterically at something and you will think, “Yes, this is why we did this!” I mean – you also saved a bunch of money on airfare – but you also did it for that moment.

Safe travels.


Have a great family road trip tip? Please share!  (I’ve still got about 1,300 miles more to drive this summer so I’ll take any help I can get.) 

Photo source: Depositphotos/Yaruta

About the Author

Kelcey Kintner

Kelcey Kintner, an award winning journalist and freelance writer, is a fashion critic for US Weekly, created the humor blog 

Kelcey Kintner, an award winning journalist and freelance writer, is a fashion critic for US Weekly, created the humor blog The Mama Bird Diaries and writes for the Huffington Post. You can follow her @mamabirddiaries or on Facebook. She’s still trying to fit 5 kids on a Vespa. 

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