How to Plan a Road Trip with Kids (and keep your sanity)

We are big fans of taking road trips, they are our favorite way to travel, especially when traveling with kids and grandparents around the USA.

How to plan a road trips with kids
Ready to go on a road trip to Tennessee

We rate doing a road trip with kids as highly enjoyable and memorable travel experience. But we understand the thought of being in a confined space with your kids, especially toddlers, is frightening!

Don’t worry, in this road trips planning guide we are here to show you how to plan a road trip with kids so you preserve your sanity and have an amazing adventure!

We get it. When we left for our 18 month road trip around Australia in 2013, Kalyra was six and Savannah – our highly energetic child- was two.

15 minutes into that trip she started throwing vegemite sandwiches at my head while trying to escape the car seat and screaming at us.

It wasn’t long before we could drive 6 hours straight and have her enjoy it.

We’ve been doing full-time family travel ever since, and we recently finished a 12 month road trip of the United States. Plus, we’re always taking short family road trips so we know what we are talking about!

Listen to our tips on podcast

We recorded a podcast with our road trip with tips, including stories of mishaps and fun times on the road!

Press play to listen below. You can also subscribe on Spotify and iTunes so you never miss an episode. All podcast episodes are here.

Benefits of a Road Trip with Kids

How to plan a road trip with kids

We have taken many road trips over the years in locations such as Australia, Europe, California, South Africa, and of course more of the USA.

Here’s why they are our preferred way of traveling.

Road trips are practical and cost effective!

We love the freedom of hitting the open road, being able to SLOW travel and have the flexibility to do what we want, when we want.

You can set your own travel hours and destinations, you don’t have to carry around your luggage by hand, and instead of flying from point A to point B and missing everything in between, the journey becomes just as memorable as the destination.

You are more likely to discover spectacular scenic drives and legendary trips like Route 66, the Blue Ridge Parkway, in California or the Great Ocean Road in Australia.

Avenue of the Giants, Northern California
Avenue of the Giants, Northern California

In a car the kids have a place to rest so travel doesn’t overwhelm them too much. And, especially if you are taking a family road trip for an extended period of time, we find it helps kids feel more secure.

They can have their own space in the car and be surrounded by familiar items. As travel changes so much, the can be a very valuable security anchor for them.

Here are our best tips on how to plan a road trip with kids.

Questions to Ask When Planning a Road Trip with Kids

Here are the initial questions to ask yourself when planning a road trip with kids:

  • What sort of road trip experience are you looking for?
  • Who is going on the road trip?
  • What type of car are you driving?
  • Are you wanting a warm climate or a wintry destination for a change?
  • When are you available to go and for how long?
  • What kind of activities do you want to do?
  • How much stuff do you need to travel with?

How to Plan a Budget for Your Family Road Trip

A New England road trip in the fall
A New England road trip in the fall

Figuring out how much money you have to spend on your family road trip is vital in determining where you are going to go and for how long.

Think about what your total budget might be, and then break it down into the major segments of the trip. How much are you willing and able to spend on these necessities:

  • Accommodation
  • Fuel
  • Food
  • Activities
  • Shopping / Entertainment
  • Travel Insurance

Once you know what you are comfortable spending on a daily basis, divide that dollar amount into your total budget available and that will give you a rough idea of the amount of days you can travel for.

Research the costs for the following.

Accommodation

We like to start by using sites such as Booking.com and AirBnB. Remember when traveling by car you have more flexible options.

You can book accommodation a little further out of the most expensive areas. You can easily drive in and out.

Fuel

You will need to work out mileage getting there and back and also factor in driving when at your travel destination. If you do decide to book accommodation further out, factor in costs of fuel to drive to major destinations as well as parking.

Sometimes, it may be cheaper to stay in accommodation closer to town for these reasons.

Food

Will you be cooking in an apartment or campsite? Will you be eating out? You will need to factor in costs for every meal including snacks.

If you are cooking at home think in terms of your usual shopping budget, if eating out factor in $10-$20 per person per meal. $5-$10 for kids.

With road trips you can carry more grocery items, and transport in coolers, which can save you a lot of money on eating out.

Activities

Decide what you want to do and what the cost will be for each activity at your chosen destination. Try to fit in as many free things as you can. Cater to all interests.

Equipment

Consider any extra costs you may have in providing equipment for your trip. You may have to buy camping equipment, clothes etc. Factor in the cost of a vehicle service and possible maintenance.

Now you have your rough costs you are in a better position on deciding where to go and for how long.

You can then answer these questions:

  • How much money will you need for your desired road trip destination?
  • How much do you have in savings now?
  • How much do you need to put away each week?
  • Where is that money going to come from?

Choosing the Perfect Road Trip Destinations

A New England road trip in the fall
A New England road trip in the fall

Okay, so you don’t have to choose the perfect road trip destination as perfect is not real!

But here’s how you can find road trip places that best suit you and your family.

Depending on your budget and the type of experiences you want to have, consider this:

  • Make a list of places you want to go and why?
  • What type of holiday/ vacation will it provide?
  • What activities can you do?
  • Types of accommodation options?

Go through the list with whoever you are road tripping with, discuss pros and cons of each destination and vote.

Number them in preference. Don’t completely cancel a destination out because you may have to change when you consider factors such as budget and availability,

Read this handy guide on how to choose your travel destination

Do Thorough Road Trip Research

The best road trip is an organized one, but leave some wiggle room for flexibility.

You will be so grateful you took the time to plan and research before leaving home so when you are on your family vacation you can relax and enjoy it.

Planning on the go takes a lot of time and can be such a headache. In the past when traveling full-time, planning on the go everyday becomes a nightmare, especially figuring out where to eat!

I love going on a family trip with everything planned out.

However, we do recommend leaving room in your road trip itinerary for spontaneous adventure and quirky roadside attractions, like this one we found in New England (America’s Stonehenge)

Use your favorite trip planning websites to figure out the best things to see and do in your road trip destination, including places to stop along the way.

We like to think our website is a great choice for finding expert advice on destinations from a family who walks the talk!!! Especially if you are road tripping in the USA or Australia.

There’s soooo much content, videos and podcast episodes and we are currently adding to the US travel tips frequently. We’re still road tripping the USA, just not full-time but in and out from our home in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Our next tip will show you our favorite tool for mapping out your road trip.

How to Plan a Road Trip on Google Maps

Plan a road trip on Google Maps - cool trip planning tool

My favorite road trip planning tool is My Places on Google maps. All you need is a Google account.

I prepare it on my computer and it syncs with the Google maps app. You can also share it with anyone else traveling with you. (tips for surviving a road trip with kids and parents right here).

I love how you can plan your routes and road trip places to visit, including accommodation, places to eat, points of interest, gas stations, rest stops and anything else to help with effortless road trip planning.

It’s easy to do, super colorful and will get your excited and inspired for your trip and keep you organized while on it.

The more organized you are before you go on your road trip with kids, the better your trip will be.

Note: It’s slightly different to the typical Google Maps, so I created a video to show how you can plan a road trip this way:

How to Prepare Your Car for Your Road Trip

how to plan a road trip and prepare your car
Death Valley, California

Safety, like travel insurance, is probably one of the most boring travel topics. But, it is truly one the most important.

Unless our car is brand new, we always make sure we have put it in for a service before we go on a road trip. It’s a hassle and may cost some money, but it is better to pay for the prevention rather than the cure.

Here are some pre-road trip safety tips if you want to perform them yourself:

  • Check brake pads, break lights, headlights and blinkers.
  • Check car tires (check the tread and tire pressure to be safe and improve gas mileage).
  • Check your windscreen wiper blades.
  • Top up the water level.
  • Check your engine coolant level and top up.
  • Fill the windscreen washer fluid.
  • Check your oil level and change if needed.
  • Get some sort of roadside assistance (In the USA, there is AAA, and in Australia we used NRMA). I cannot tell you how many times we have used them in the past. It’s good peace of mind. Your car make may have their own roadside assistance plan – we have one with our Ford F250 in the US.
  • Check that your insurance and registration is up to date, as well as your drivers license.

Emergency Kit

Always good to have in the car for peace of mind:

  • A spare tire and tools to change it with
  • A torch
  • Warm blankets
  • Water
  • A fully charged phone
  • Hazard triangle

We have had to use these several times with flat tires. It can be super scary, if you are changing a tire on a busy motorway or highway with cars whizzing by.

Protect yourself as much as possible and keep the kids in the car and safe.

Pre-Departure Road Trip Tips

Zion National Park, Utah
Zion National Park, Utah

It’s a good idea to have your basic route planned on maps / navigation system. It’s fun for everyone to follow along and have a general understanding of the places you’ll be visiting.

Helpful tips:

  • Plan for your stops along the way and organize any accommodation.
  • Book any accommodation.
  • Have your vehicle serviced and check for safety.
  • Buy all needed equipment.
  • Create road trip rules to ensure everyone gets along (You can access our free family planning toolkit that helps you do this!)
  • Have your toll road e-tickets / coins ready.
  • Have a last minute checklist of things that need to be done the day before or day of departure (this has saved me many times from forgetting important things).
  • Double check your maps or navigation system is ready to go. Download a copy of your maps just in case. You will lose internet more than you realize.

Preparing Your Home

Road trip tips for preparing your home
Keep your home safe while on your road trip

There are obvious and not so obvious things to take care of before leaving your home.

  • Schedule automatic payment of all your bills.
  • Stop your mail or have a trusted source collect it for you.
  • Clean out your fridge and cupboard of anything that may go off.
  • Arrange for the care of any pets and your lawn/garden.
  • Leave a set of keys with someone trusted. You just never know what might happen while you are gone and who might need to access your house to help you. You may also need them to water your plants!
  • Let your bank know that you will be on a road trip and for how long. This may help prevent them from freezing your credit card if they see charges coming through from unusual places.

What to Pack for a Road Trip with Kids

I think the number one question people have is what to bring on a road trip?

Try not to stress too much in regards to packing. Remember, you can almost certainly buy anything later on the road.

Once packed go through it again and cut it down by a third. Keep doing that until you really do have just the essentials. Take less and wash more.

Other Tips:

  • Know the weather of the destination you are visiting as this will help reduce over-packing. Planning your travel through one season or climate always works best.
  • Know the activities you will be doing so you can pack appropriately. You don’t want to turn up to your abseiling adventure without your sneakers.
  • Know the types of accommodation you will be staying at. If you are camping you are going to need to pack a lot more equipment. If you are staying in hotels you won’t need to take things like towels, hair dryers or linen.
  • Pack smart so that any essential items you may need are easily accessible while on the road (not in your trunk).

Read More: How to pack a suitcase efficiently

Things to Bring on a Road Trip

Things to bring on a road trip
Less is more

The most important things we recommend you take with you on a road trip are:

  • Open Mind
  • Positive attitude
  • Good conversation
  • Patience
  • Laughter
  • Adventurous spirit

With all of these, you are guaranteed to have the best family road ever! Here is a road trip packing list for you:

Pack Children’s Entertainment and Security items

  • Favourite toys
  • Favourite teddy for sleeping
  • Games
  • Colouring books / pencils / markers
  • Reading books
  • iPods / iPads / other elctronics

Parental Entertainment

  • Movies (for passenger)
  • Music
  • DVD player/iPad/iPod/laptop
  • Headphones
  • Spare batteries
  • Camera
  • Chargers for all electronics

Food and Drink Supplies

  • Have separate containers for cold food, dry food
  • Water bottles
  • Non-gooey, non-sticky snacks
  • Trail mix, fruit, crackers, sandwiches in zip lock bags
  • Spare containers / zip lock bags for leftover food

Smart Clothing Choices

Baby Supplies at the Ready

  • Nappy bag full of nappies (diapers), formula, prepared bottles, food.
  • Baby wipes
  • Blankets
  • Toys
  • Plenty of dummies (pacifier) close at hand (they’ll throw them).

Incidentals

  • Paper towels
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Garbage bags
  • Vomit bag
  • Spare toilet paper

First Aid Kit

A list of items to consider:

  • adhesive dressings
  • sterile gauze bandages
  • tape
  • topical antiseptic
  • wound cleanser
  • a thermometer
  • eye drops
  • insect repellent
  • insect bite treatment
  • scissors
  • tweezers
  • safety pins
  • basic painkillers
  • sunscreen
  • antibiotics
  • disinfectant
  • calamine lotion
  • antihistamine tablets
  • band aids
  • cotton swabs
  • latex gloves
  • Any other personal medications
  • rehydration solutions
  • sunscreen

If you are travelling overseas you may also want to include:

  • syringes
  • water purification tablet
  • doctor’s letter / certificate for personal medication

Check out this handy first aid checklist.

How to Save Money on a Road Trip with Children

How to save money on a road trip
Road trip picnics help save a lot of money + scenery magic!

Improve the Efficiency of Your Car

An easy way to save costs of fuel on your road trip is to ensure your car is fully serviced and is optimised for efficiency.

  • Drive at the correct speed
  • Check the pressure of your car tires
  • Use the right oil to increase mile usage
  • Watch your luggage – the heavier the car the more fuel you’ll use
  • Pack inside your car not on top
  • Use Google maps / in-car GPS to stay out of traffic jams

Spend More Time in Fewer Places

Don’t try to go too crazy and see everything. That’s a sure recipe for burnout and budget blowout.

Choose to spend more time in fewer places so you can save on fuel and snatch more accommodation bargains, like stay 5 nights get one free.

Look for Accommodation Deals

Accommodation is one of your biggest holiday expenses. Be wise about where you choose to stay – essentially it is only a bed to sleep in as you will be so busy exploring.

  • Consider apartments, guest houses, vacation rentals or even hostel stays.
  • Camping will always be your cheapest option.
  • Staying longer in one place usually means cheaper price.
  • Search for accommodation deals that offer perks like free nights, free breakfast, free wireless or even tours.

Supply and Cook Your Own Food

We love staying in apartments and holiday homes
Grilling on the deck of our apartment in Tasmania

Constantly eating out can kill your budget and leave less for you to spend on the real memory making activities.

The best way to do this is:

  • Take a packed / picnic lunch out with you for the day
  • Have pre-filled bottles of water.
  • Buy all your snacks at the grocery store..
  • Camp and cook over the campfire.
  • Rent apartments and suites with kitchenettes.

Do the FREE or Cheap Stuff – Make Nature Your Friend

Do as many activities as you can outdoors, most of which will be free or cheap and will give you happy, carefree memories.

  • Pack your own equipment to use like tennis rackets, snorkels, surf boards, beach games, bikes
  • Enjoy coastal path walks
  • Go hiking in national parks
  • Spend the day at beaches
  • Do self-guided city walks and tours
  • Relax around your campsite
  • Get a national parks pass
  • Attend museums or tourist sites on free days or when they are discounted.
  • Walk as much as you can. Stay in accommodation that allows for this to save on driving.
  • Explore local markets
  • Walking around town taking photos
  • Bike ride
  • Climb a local mountain with views of a city or coastline

Things to Do in the Car With Kids

what to pack for a road trip to entertain kids
Keeping the kids entertained on a road trip

What do you mean you don’t know what things to do in the car when you road trip with kids?

Just throw them on the tablets. That’s how we find our sanity, am I right?!

Haha. I don’t suggest you do that for 6 hours, but I do recommend it for some of the trip. The kids will love it and it will help them embrace driving as this really cool thing to do as a family where Mum and Dad ease up on the rules a bit and let them take care of themselves.

We used to love having an entertainment system in the car so the kids can watch movies. We had one on our entire trip around Australia and it was a lifesaver, particularly with Savannah being so young.

Now our girls have their own devices so not as needed.

We recommend you have your children each pack an entertainment bag for the road trip. If they forget, then they suffer with boredom. Let them feel the consequence of that. They’ll remember next time if you do, and you’ll no longer have to do anything for them.

Our kids are also responsible for packing their own snacks for the trip.

Here are some other ideas for things to do in the car:

  • Board games – we like the miniature magnetic versions you can get of games like snakes and ladders, checkers, and clue. They’re easy to store and use in a car.
  • Interactive games – you know those common ones like, Eye Spy.
  • Coloring and reading books
  • Journal writing
  • Tablet games and movies

Don’t forget to talk to the kids. Ask them to look out the window and talk about what you can see. I once played a game with the girls in the car that went for hours.

It was called, “Guess Mummy’s new name.” It was created after Savannah’s 10th whines over how bored she was and had nothing to do. I told her that I changed my name. It was no longer Mummy. And I could not answer her until she guessed my new name.

She was no longer bored.

Allow spontaneous games like that to pop up. Your children will love it and it creates a whole new family vacation memory.

Hitting the Road: Last minute tips

Now you know how to plan a road trip with kids, all that is left for you to do is pack the car and drive away.

Put your hands in the air and give a celebratory cheer. The hard yards are over and you can relax and enjoy your road trip.

Some last minute tips:

  • Get a good night’s sleep the evening before departure.
  • Fill the car up with gas and your purse with cash. You don’t want to get caught in the middle of nowhere with neither.
  • Charge all electronics and pack your spare batteries
  • Share the driving with someone
  • Take frequent breaks. Get out and stretch the legs, grab some lunch, and have a coffee every two hours. Remember this slogan…Stop – Revive – Survive.
  • Stick to the road rules and don’t drink and drive EVER!
  • If it is wet or low light put your headlights on.
  • If you are driving in rural areas be very careful of wildlife. Drive slowly if you see any around, honk your horn and flash your lights.
  • Don’t let your fuel level get down into the red zone, always keep it topped up.
  • Let the navigator (your co-pilot) take control of directions, DJ’ing and any phone stuff!

More Family Road Trip Tips

Watch the video below for more tips on how to plan a road trip with kids:

Ideas for Road Trip Destinations

Here are a few ideas for Australia and the USA

More Family Travel Tips

Where is your favorite road trip destination?

21 thoughts on “How to Plan a Road Trip with Kids (and keep your sanity)”

  1. Great post! I wasn’t nearly as organized for packing for our Australia road trip, but we did take advantage of all the natural parks and free activities that your country offers and had a great time

  2. What an incredibly thorough guide! We don’t take a lot of extended road trips because we usually have two weeks or less for traveling. What we often do is fly to a destination and then do some driving from there. My favourite road trip has always been driving the Atlantic coast of Canada.

    1. Thanks Lisa. Yeah, I’m a fan of fly/drive vacations too. Have done them in New Zealand, USA and South Africa. Hope you get on the road again soon 🙂

  3. Impressive – and I am sure very useful – list. But don’t let that scare you: being spontaneous and getting some of that wrong is totally OK too. If you like planning try our free road trip planner – Furkot (http://furkot.com) – you can figure out the timing and book hotels on the website you mention in your post.

  4. These are basic simple things to think about. Your camping equipment needs will vary depending on where you will be camping. Camping on the beach has different needs then camping in the mountains. You should always start your foray into camping small. Take a day trip somewhere close to your home. Check out the surroundings and the camp sites. Get an understanding of what the equipment needs will be.-

    Most current brief article on our personal blog page
    <",http://www.caramoanpackage.com/caramoan-beach-resort/

  5. Hello Makepeaces! I’ve been following your blog for some time now and I’ve never taken the opportunity to thank you both for the incredible amount of inspiration you’ve given me. I have recently graduated college and decided to take the plunge and embark on a road trip across the US and back again. Up until now, I’ve always wanted to do it, but always find a reason not to. Now with your inspiration I feel confident enough to take a leap and let the universe work out the rest. As I’m entering my preliminary planning phase I came across this post which is the perfect stepping stone to get me started! I am also planning to do the trip slow-travel style which is another thing I’m excited for. Would you say that slow travel means more expensive travel or not necessarily? Either way, thank you both again for all the time you spend sharing your travels and may you and your family continue to have a blessed trip around Australia!

    1. That’s so awesome Adrianna!! Good for you. I tend to think slow travel works out cheaper. When you rush time you tend to pay more for it. Slowing down means less in transport costs and you can get better deals for accommodation. It also gives you time to explore on your own, rather than do expensive tours AND gives you a better insight into local culture, which means you’ll find better local deals. It’s a great strategy to stretch your money further

  6. This is a really useful and detailed post! I’d love to take a road trip, but I’m kind of scared to get behind the wheel as I haven’t driven since the day I passed my test 8 years ago!!

  7. Love the info. Plan on retiring in the next two years, so budget will definitely be a consideration, but I will finally have time to travel. Thank you.

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