how to plan a road trip that isn’t awful

how to travel with a teenager, family travel tips

A road trip is usually a cheaper way for a family to vacation. When you add up plane or train tickets and transfers for a family of four or more, it can get expensive. If you have the luxury of time for slow travel and the desire for an adventure, a road trip is for you.

I never thought I’d enjoy a road trip. The thought of hours in a car with two kids and a dog sounded like a disaster. But after completing a couple of month-long road trips through most of Europe in the last year, I am an enthusiastic veteran road tripper.

Whether you’re single or traveling with a large family in tow, here’s my advice on how to plan a road trip that will be fun and memorable for everyone.

how to plan a road trip through Europe – where to start

I’m sharing my experience road tripping through Europe or Africa but these tips work everywhere.

Planning a road trip requires flexibility. While you need an idea of where you’ll be going and what stops you’ll make along the way, don’t overschedule yourself. Advance book the trip sections which may be busier because of popularity or special dates and let the rest flow. Add an extra day or two more than you think you’ll need to get to the destination. Skip prepaying for lodging for the rest of your days.

On our first major road trip from Spain to Denmark, I was tempted to prebook everything. While I’m glad we booked an apartment in busy Paris in advance, half of our most memorable (and favorite) places were not even on our original list of intended stops! By the time we got to our destination of Denmark, we decided to cut back on how many days we spent there to go somewhere we unexpectedly liked more.

Our secret to success was discovering each country’s roadside chain hotels to fill the gaps between distances to major destinations. The US has Motel 6 or Embassy Suites and each country has their own roadside-hotel version. They’re easily found near the highway, inexpensive, nice and clean and almost always have last minute vacancies.

If you need a little more planning, then book your next destination from the previous location using your smart phone and wi-fi. Look for lodging that’s easy to cancel without penalties or fees. is great as a source of hotels that accept bookings that can be canceled without penalties.

If you want to save money and the weather is great, pack a tent and some blankets and choose camping sites instead of hotels or motels.

get your vehicle road trip ready

A tune-up before a road trip could save you from breaking down in the middle of nowhere. Make sure your spare tire is in good shape and you have a kit with basic tools like:

-flashlight and fresh batteries
-jumper cables
-motor oil
-tire inflator
-duct tape
-a large jug of water
-old rags

If you’re driving an older model vehicle, consider renting a car. It’s likely the rental will be more reliable or at the very least will be replaced quickly if your rental should break down. Newer cars are far more gas efficient and will save you money on gas and future wear and tear on your personal vehicle, potentially offsetting the cost of the rental car.

avoid road trip burnout

Meltdowns and arguments happen when you’re tired and have been driving too long. And it’s only human that we all need space from each other, especially if there are teenagers on board.

Our family road trip rule of thumb is no more than 5 hours of driving per day.

This may sound like a lot for you but remember – we’re seasoned road trippers at this point. Adjust to what works for you. We’ve done 7-8 hour marathons through the mountains of Morocco, so 5 hours isn’t bad. On longer road trip days, we stay a minimum of one or two nights at the destination to have a break.

A great tool for planning distances and drive times is ViaMichelin. It’s a great tool because you can plot as many places in it as you’d like, down to vehicle and driving style. It not only gives you driving directions, but also offers distances, drive times and even cost of fuel and any tolls.

Be sure to make stops every couple of hours to allow everyone a stretch, some bathroom time and fresh air. I try to schedule a cool visit to a historical area, botanical garden, park or an interesting place to have a nice lunch or dinner before driving further.

If you’re trying to plan a family road trip, think about when your kids do best in a car. Our kids don’t sleep well in the car, so we prefer to drive early in the mornings when everyone’s fresh and serene.

the inevitable road trip electronics

We all need some distraction and entertainment on a road trip. I pack an electronics bag which holds unimaginable amounts of chargers, cables, headsets, electronics and adaptors. It’s basically a tote bag and no matter how hard I try, everthing gets tangled. Five of the key items in the electronics bag includes:

1. Apple Store Collection

iPad and iPhones plus charger cables and earbuds. The kids enjoy movies, take photos and create collages, listen to music and play apps. I use my iPhone as our navigation tool and camera. What would we do without Apple?

2. BMK Mobile Car Charger and Power Outlet

Plug it in to a lighter and you can charge anything that uses a standard wall plug.

3. Schosche Dual iPhone/iPad Car Charger

Two slots enable you to charge two iPhones, two iPads or a combo quickly. Keep one in the front and one in the back for the kids. A longer iPhone cable or two are a lifesaver so everyone can keep using their devices while they charge.

4. Sennheiser Headphones

Excellent sound quality, padded for comfort, wireless and noise cancelling. They’re more comfortable than earbuds.

5. Belkin Headphone Splitter

My daughters will sometimes want to watch a movie together on the iPad. Having a headset splitter is essential. They can each listen to the movie while the adults talk or listen to music.

road trip games

I try to limit electronics time in the car, but sometimes, the Apple-induced silence is golden. I also make sure to pack road trip games and activities to alternate.

Being an organized mom, I make sure to neatly pack the following items in the back seat pockets and in a small tote. Our kids love rushing to the car that first road trip day and discovering what I have packed for them.

I also like to keep a secret stash of road trip games and craft supplies to rotate their activities and keep them interesting. Their favorite road trip games include:

the backseat tent

-two rectangular bolster pillows
-a flat sheet
-one soft, microfiber throw per kid
-wood clothing pins

The kids will creatively create a secret backseat world by building a makeshift tent. They use the clothespins to join the sheet with blankets and hang things. It’s great entertainment for them and keeps them busy for a while.

The best part of having these supplies in the backseat is that they can use them to nap comfortably or shade the windows when it gets too sunny on one side.

arts and crafts

I stuff the seat pouches with easy activities like coloring and sticker books, a roll of color pencils organized in a pencil roll and a blank travel journal book for each to journal about their road trip highlights. A hanging shoe caddy with clear plastic pockets hung from the seat also works well to keep all the crafts organized.

I introduced my daughters to crochet last Christmas and had a bag of plastic crochet hooks and yarn in the car for our road trip. We knit scarves for each other by the time we arrived in Scotland.

road trip bingo

This is a favorite game when a distraction is needed. Everyone can play, with help for the driver, of course. The stakes are high – the winner gets to choose where we lunch or dine.

road trip snacks

We love to snack in the car. My husband finds it strange and fascinating and believes it’s an American thing. Besides packing the essential breakfast travel kit, I keep a snack tote with:

-milk and juice boxes
-water bottles
-everyone’s favorite turkey jerky

Keep the snacks as mess-free as possible and pack plenty. Something about covering hundreds of miles on wheels gives us a craving for grazing.

what to pack for a road trip

Besides the car cabin essentials mentioned so far including snacks, entertainment and comfort items, have these five quick clean up items handy:

1. baby wipes

Multipurpose and perfect for a quick wipe down or handwash. Baby wipes are also great for cleaning food spills off clothes. If your wipes start to dry out, add some water to rehydrate. Purchase the wipes in the plastic pouch instead of the box. The pouch can be crammed easier under the passenger seat.

2. box of tissues

Good for everything from sneezes to orange peel collector.

3. hand wash

A small bottle of antibacterial hand wash is an easy way to prep little hands right before snack time.

4. small roll of paper towels

Buy a thin roll of paper towels that can be wedged in the car door or under the seat. Paper towels are the perfect clean up tool for a spill.

5. plastic t-shirt bags

Keep a few supermarket plastic bags handy. You can use them to collect trash and dump at the next rest stop.

what clothes to pack for a road trip

Packing clothing is an individual decision that depends on the time of year and what your destinations are.

The key to road trip success is packing light.

Plan on washing items at stops or reusing pieces to keep your luggage light. Have minimal, duffel-like baggage that can be smashed down.

Traveling with minimal luggage will make a road trip more comfortable if the bags aren’t hovering over the back seat passenger’s heads. Less baggage makes it easier to make stops and explore without worrying about items packed on the roof of the car.

Think of all the packing and unpacking during stays at hotels and how often you’ll be loading and unloading the car.

how to plan a road trip – the takeaways

Stay open-minded and flexible when road tripping. Part of the fun is getting lost and discovering new places you did not know about. Pack minimally but thoughtfully, take into account your fellow road trippers’ needs and remember the importance of having entertainment and snacks for all.

Embrace slow travel and remember that the joy is in the journey, not in the destination.

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