Long Car Ride Survival Guide for Big Families

Tips and tricks for surviving your next long car ride

Taking a vacation is supposed to be fun, relaxing, rejuvenating, and inspiring, right? But if you’re trying to plan a trip that accommodates more than seven people, the cost alone will make you think twice about your next adventure. 

When you start adding up airline tickets, baggage fees, drivers to and from the airport (remember the price is per person) or an oversized rental van, it makes sense that many big families are looking for ways to turn their daily driver into a makeshift travel mobile.

And while some might argue that taking a long car ride with your kids is the same whether you have one child in a compact car, or a full-size van full of toddlers, adolescents, and teens, most of us can agree that extended trips with kids can test every last nerve we have.

That said, if you have five or more kids, it's safe to say you definitely need a more comprehensive survival guide before hitting the road. Here are 15 tips to help you survive your next long car ride. 

Make a Schedule

A long road trip with multiple kids is not the time to try driving through the night. Yes, it may cost more if you stay in a hotel or campsite, but powering through a road trip can ruin the entire experience for everyone if you’re not realistic with your timing. Choose a start time that allows enough sleep the night before and plan for extra time to reach your destination. That way you can include several stops and mini-trips that not only help break up the long hours in the car but also give the kids (and you!) a chance to see more attractions along the way.

Bring a Backpack 

A small backpack or zipper-pack pouch full of age-appropriate activities can help turn long stretches of time into hours of fun. Depending on the number of people traveling and the size of the car, you may have to group like ages together and pack one backpack for each group.

For example, toddlers and young elementary-aged kids can share one bag. Older elementary and middle school, another, and high school age kids get their own. One month before your departure, ask your kids to make a list of the items they want to bring. To save money, try to limit them to things you already have.

One week out, have them gather the items to pack. Two days before you leave, divide the groups, and let the kids pack their own bags. Younger kids might enjoy activity books, picture books, sticker books, mess-free color pencils (avoid ones with pencil sharpeners), plain notebook, pens, a deck of cards, and a favorite stuffed animal or blanket.

The older kids can pack books, magazines, a journal for writing about the trip, card games, crossword puzzles, and doodle pads for drawing. You may need to adjust this list if you have kids with motion sickness. In that case, audiobooks will become your go-to source for passing the time.

Choose an Audiobook (for All)

Bonnie Way knows a thing or two about surviving a long road trip with kids, especially since she is the mother of five children, ages 11 to one. With that in mind, her number one tip for road trips with big families is to listen to audiobooks while you drive.

Drop by your local library to pick out audiobooks or stock up on favorite series before your trip. "Audiobooks let everyone in the vehicle listen to the story, which can lead to great discussions later," she explains. Plus, they also keep kids from staring at screens or books, which Way says can lead to motion sickness.

Don’t Skimp on Snacks

Kids love snacks. Period. Not only do they stop hunger in their tracks, but they’re also a genius way to pass the time. And because your mouth is full, the noise level changes from loud chatter and arguing to crunching and a whole lot of happy sighs. To keep this tip affordable, Way says she stocks up on snacks about a month before their departure date, watching for sales at the grocery store. “I try to look for healthy snacks, while also getting food that will survive hours in a hot vehicle,” she says.

Some of her top picks include baby carrots, grapes, oranges, bananas, granola bars, trail mix, applesauce, and fruit puree pouches. For convenience and ease of clean-up, Way stashes all the snacks in a plastic bin or cooler bag beside the driver’s seat. That way, she can easily toss snacks back to the kids.

She also packs a few small garbage bags for wrappers and peels and empties them at each stop. And while we’re on the topic of snacks, make sure to pack a few adult-flavored treats as well. Otherwise, you’ll be full of fish and carrots by the time you hit your destination.

One thing to keep in mind when it comes to food is liquids. Stay hydrated of course, but if everyone is drinking all the time you'll be stopping at every rest stop along the way. If it’s warm outside and everyone needs a quick way to get rid of dry mouth, try eating grapes. For little mouths, make sure to cut them up into sections before serving. 

Find Screen-Time Solutions

If you have strict rules around screen-time, this may be the time to consider being more flexible. While you don't have to make it a free-for-all, you can use electronics in small doses to help pass the time. To make it easier and more affordable, group the kids by age and have them share an electronic.

For example, allow your preschool and elementary-aged children to watch a 90-minute movie together. Depending on the number of electronics you have (phones, tablets, hand-held games, etc.), the older kids — middle school and up — can each have their own device.

If individual screens are not an option, create a schedule that gives each of the older kids their own time with a screen. And whatever you do, don’t forget the chargers. Gather all devices and chargers before leaving and check to make sure they are compatible. Then, double and triple check your bag for at least two chargers that work for multiple devices.

Pack a Change of Clothes

Someone is inevitably going to spill, vomit, get too hot, or simply want to change clothes while in the car. Rather than digging through piles of suitcases, have each child pack one outfit. Then, place each set of clothes in a freezer-size zipper bag, label with their name, and stash in a larger bag that’s easy to reach.

Invest In a Hotspot 

When hurricane Irma hit, Celeste Cruz, a mom of five (including twins!) packed up the family in a van and traveled from Florida to Colorado (and back). To help make the trip smoother, one thing they did was to invest in a hot spot. “Our phone company offers a hotspot add-on for $10 per month, and we bought a hotspot device for another $10. Kids without phones can latch onto this for screen breaks.”

Consider a Seating Chart

In order to keep the peace, or at least attempt to retain some order, you may want to consider a seating chart. Obviously, preference goes to any kid that has motion sickness, since they need to be close to a window or at least be able to see out the window. Once these spots are filled, the next step is to pair kids that get along or are the least likely to argue. Anything you can do to keep the peace will help make the trip more enjoyable.

Break It Up With Breaks

A little preparation goes a long way when you have a big family, says Cruz, and scheduling fun breaks into the trip will be a lifesaver. Sure, you can stop at a rest area, but with a little research and a short driving detour, you can probably find a state park or similar attraction. “We stopped at a canyon park in New Mexico and a war memorial in Alabama, and only spent $30 between both stops with parking, and small souvenirs,” she explains.

Stop Every 2 to 3 Hours

Travel experts like AAA recommend frequent breaks, with every 100 miles or two hours being the standard stop time, especially to help the driver avoid drowsiness. If possible, map out your stops with fun destinations such as picnic areas, beaches, playgrounds, or public parks.

Clean Up Quick

If you have family members with motion sickness, then a clean-up bag is essential. While prevention is the best defense, sometimes the window seat is not enough to deter an angry belly. Items to pack include anti-bacterial wipes or wet wipes, a small bucket (you can keep everything in the bucket), juice box or small bottle of water to wash away the awful taste, heavy-duty bags if the bucket is not available, and an extra garbage bag to put the bucket in until the next stop. 

Trade Places During the Ride

If one of your kids is old enough or fits the size requirement for the front seat, Cruz says to consider swapping seats for a few hours. “One parent can get some sleep, while the driver still has someone to talk to and help keep them awake.”

Clear the Clutter

While your kids may not mind a messy van, you’ll be surprised how keeping the areas around the seats will help you keep your cool. One easy way for organizing small spaces in the car, says Way, is to use a fabric box, backpack, or plastic bin for organizing the vehicle during the trip. “For example, I often pack a Tupperware bin in the front of the van with snacks for everyone, which makes it easy to pass snacks back as kids need them,” she says. 

“On our last road trip, I got each of the girls a fabric-zippered pouch from our dollar store, along with a few new coloring, sticker, and activity books to go in the pouches. Each time we stopped, everyone did a super quick clean-up of their area in the van,” explains Way. Having a place to put all the extra stuff a family takes along on the road trip helps keep things from getting lost or damaged along the way.

Go to the Bathroom

“When you stop for a break, EVERYONE goes potty whether they need to or not,” exclaims Way. If there's space to do so safely, let the kids run circles around the van or have them do jumping jacks or stretch while they are out of the vehicle and waiting for everyone to finish in the bathroom.

If you have toddlers, you can even pack a portable potty. This can be a huge time (and sanity) saver when your toddler has to go to the bathroom, but either refuses to go on the big potty during a pit stop, or the next potty break is hours away. 

Don’t Leave Home Without These Printables

No survival guide would be complete without printables. These awesome checklists from Sharon Rowley, creator of the site MomOf6 and mom to 6 children between the ages of 13 and 18, are definitely worth checking out.

A Word from Verywell

Planning and going on a road trip is an exciting time for families. However, it can also be stressful. Communicating with your spouse or partner and including your children in some of the discussions can help lighten your load and make them feel part of the process. While packing up a car and heading out on an adventure requires a ton of time and planning, it can save a lot of money and allow you to create memories that last a lifetime.

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