Road Trip Hacks and Snacks: On the Road With Kids

mom and child playing in rear seat of car

So you’re thinking of taking a road trip, eh? It’s a great idea, because whether you’re taking in the sights of Canada over a week or two or just taking a few hours to go and visit grandma, road trips can be cheaper than flying, especially when gas prices are low.

In 2015, the Globe and Mail noted that you’d save about $225 in gas making the trip from Vancouver to Toronto from what you would have paid during the previous year -- thanks to the drop in oil prices. That’s the cost of a dinner and a night in a motel.

But a road trip with your kids tagging along? We know what you’re thinking. Fighting over who kicked whom. Crying that their favourite DVD has been forgotten. Getting homesick or maybe just plain sick.

Still, there’s a way you can travel with children and still keep your sanity. You just have to get a bit creative, that’s all.

So what car trip hacks can you use to keep kids happy? Try a few of these suggestions, and see if they work out for you.

1. Keep Toddlers and Preschoolers Happy

If you have really small kids, there are a few crafty things they can do to get through the day’s drive:

  • Buy some new toys. Younger children love it when they have something new to occupy their time. You don’t even have to make this expensive -- they can be quite happy with dollar store stickers and dolls. Try wrapping them beforehand in paper as this will bring a level of surprise. Kids love unwrapping stuff. 
  • Make a map. Get the kids involved with making a map of their journey. You can make a “treasure map” of sights to see along with way, which rewards the kids with a treat or a toy when they spot a particular landmark. You can print a map from Google Maps and put it in a plastic sleeve that the kids then can use a marker on to trace the journey. 
  • Create a small white board. Using wipeable crayons that won’t stain your car or clothes, you can take a CD jewel case and replace the cover with white paper, a dried-out diaper wipe or tissue. It’s an instant white board that kids can doodle on. 
  • Read to your children. Better than playing a book that’s been downloaded to your phone, you can read a book or two to your children on the journey. If they’re old enough to read simple words on their own (or just enjoy the pictures), you can also take a ribbon and tie it through a book with a slip knot and safety pin the ribbon to the back of your car seat. Switch books at each rest stop. By having the books pinned to the seat, you can avoid complaints by the small fry from dropping the book and being unable to reach it. 
  • Buy a cheap over-the-door shoe organizer. You can find these at the dollar store and flip it over your seat so that kids have easy reach to the things they want to eat or play with. 
  • Have some car trip snacks. Make sure the snacks are easy to eat and won’t make a mess. That means you should say no to food that requires a fork or spoon, makes crumbs (such as crackers) or messes fingers (such as cheese puffs or chocolate). You can, however, put a straw through a yogurt or applesauce cup and have the kids eat that mess-free. Trail mix, fruit and cheese sticks work, too.

2. Prevent Older Kids From Being Bored

If your kids are a bit older, well into their tweens, there are also a few car trip games and hacks you can try:

  • Play cards. There are plenty of old standbys that can pass the time: Go Fish, Crazy Eights and Rummy. If your kids are sick of these games, borrow a book on card games from your local library before the trip and learn some new ones. 
  • Play road trip games. Again, there are tested and true games for road trips such as 20 Questions and I Spy. You can try the Alphabet Game, where you pick a topic (such as animals) and then have everyone name animals that begin with a particular letter. Your kids can get involved by picking a topic that interests them.
  • Have the kids journal. Buy empty notebooks and let your kids write about what they see during the journey. They can glue rest stop trinkets or something small, such as a seashell or flower, that describes each landmark that they’ve passed. You can also bring old magazines and have kids cut and paste pictures to illustrate what they’ve seen.
  • Sing a song. This one might annoy some parents, but you can sing songs or make a CD or iPod playlist of songs that are family favourites and offer a chance at participating. While “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” might work if you have a six-year-old, something family friendly from the Top 40 may work better with older children. 
  • Create a story. If you have budding fiction writers in your midst, you can ask everyone in the car to create a line of a story. Someone starts with one line, and then it goes to someone else to come up with the next line. Keep it going until someone gets stumped. If you really want to jazz things up, try to keep going as fast as you can and create rhymes as you go.
  • Play with words. Have your kids write down words that they see along the way from billboards, bumper stickers, license plates and so on. Ask them to write a story, poem or song from all the words they’ve seen together.
  • Keep them silent. If you’re worn out from singing and storytelling, and just want some time to yourself, offer rewards to the person who can stay quiet the longest. That can be anything from a snack to an extra few minutes in the hotel pool at the end of that day’s driving. This might work best after a few hours of singing or doing crafts in the car, when the little ones could be in the mood for something quite a bit less strenuous. 
  • Bring small pillows. Regular bed pillows can take up a lot of space in a car, so avoid those, but be sure to have a small pillow or two on hand in case they want to sleep -- especially during a long trip. 
  • Bring snacks. Older children should be able to handle messier stuff, such as chips and pretzels, without leaving a trail of crumbs all over the place.

3. Keep Teenagers Engaged on Road Trips

If your children are in the age range where they’re almost old enough to drive (or are there already), there are few things they can do to avoid becoming listless.

  • Tell them to bring their smartphone or iPod. They can find new music and movies to load up on their phone to enjoy on the road trip. 
  • Have them draw. If your teens have a creative flair for drawing, have them bring along a sketch book and come up with a comic strip or cartoon. Make sure you have pencils and markers on hand for them.
  • Have them read. If your teen isn’t interested in art, have them check out a new book from the library or buy a new one, and have them read on a long journey. Magazines are great for longer car rides, too. 
  • Let them play video games. If your kid doesn’t have a handheld video game device, they can hook up an Xbox or Playstation to the car’s DVD player. You’ll need an A/C adapter for this so you can use normal plugs in the car’s electrical plugs. If they bring a laptop, though, they can avoid monopolizing the DVD player and even download games on the fly. (They can also use it for less passive activities, such as writing a short story based on the trip or journaling.) 
  • Have healthy snacks at the ready. Cut carrot sticks and apples, and have nuts at the helm for a teenaged snack attack, along with the regular candies and chips.

4. Stop Car Sickness Before it Happens

Car sickness doesn’t happen in most infants and toddlers, but children between the ages of two and 12 are at an increased likelihood of getting it.

If your child develops car sickness on the trip, you should stop the car and let them walk around, if possible. They can also lie down on their back for a few minutes with their eyes closed. A cool cloth placed on their forehead may help, too.

Prevention, however, is the best medicine. You can actually prevent car sickness by:

  • Encouraging your child to nap or at least look at things outside the car window. 
  • Avoiding greasy or spicy foods, or a large meal, right before and during car travel. If your child absolutely needs to eat, give him or her a small, boring snack such as dry crackers and a small drink before getting in the car. 
  • Opening the car windows. Adequate ventilation could prevent car sickness. Keep the air clear of strong odours., too 
  • Coming up with distractions. Talk, listen to music or sing songs to prevent car sickness.
  • Using medication. If your child is older than two, you can talk to your family doctor about using over-the-counter medication to prevent car sickness. Certain medicines can be used at certain ages, but it’s best to talk to your doctor about proper doses and side effects, such as drowsiness.

If none of these suggestions work, talk to your doctor about other options that may be available.

5. Help with Homesickness

A child at any age can get homesick, but it's more common for younger children or children who have never been away from home for very long. It’s normal, and doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with your child.

There are a few steps that you can take to ease your child’s anxiety about being away from home for an extended period of time:

  • Plan in advance. Give enough advanced notice that your kid will be away from home for a bit, but no so much notice that they’ll have time to worry about it. When should they find out they’re going on a trip? It depends. You have to factor in how old they are and how long they’ll be away from home. Generally speaking, giving your child some time to get used to the idea of being away from home is a good idea. 
  • Let your child get proper rest and have them eat healthy before and while on the trip. Your kid is less likely to enjoy the trip if they’re, pardon the pun, running on empty. 
  • Talk about the fun things they’ll get to do while they’re away. Offer encouragement such as “You can do it!” to them.
  • Teach your child to reassure themselves that where they’re going will be fun and they will be back before they even know it. 
  • Talk to your child about any concerns they may have about being away from home.
  • Bring along something that reminds them of being at home, such as a favourite stuffed animal or pillow.
  • Have your kid speak to family and friends back home during a trip with a phone call. It’ll help prevent them from feeling forgotten about while they’re away.

6. Get Your Car Tuned Up

Now that you know how to survive a road trip with kids, there’s one other thing you should attend to: getting your car tuned-up. It’s great that you have an emergency car kit, but, of course, you want to minimize the chances of actually needing to use it.

If you don’t want to suffer a breakdown (and not of the nervous kind from having to deal with those kids), you really should get your car serviced before the trip. Making sure your car is in working order will make sure that the memories you have on your trip will be memorable, and for all the right reasons!

View all blogs