How to Survive a Cross-Country Road Trip With Kids

Every year, I take my children on a cross-country road trip.  By myself.  Together we cross an international border, and five states.

One of those states is Texas.  All of Texas.

(But–thank God–we do just drive it north to south.  Those who traverse that whole state from east to west are way more hard-core than me!  Just sayin’.)

How do we survive this cross-country road trip–with three kids?  Read on!

How to Survive a Cross-Country Road Trip with kids
backseat shenanagins on a cross-country road trip with kids

Both before and after our trip, many people asked me (rather incredulously) how I did it.  There’s no magic formula.  Was it always easy?  No.

Oh, and I’m extra nutty, so we don’t own an ipad–or any such gadget.  Therefore, my kids were “unplugged” the entire time.  Whining was involved.  But not to an unbearable extent.

This wasn’t our first massive road trip, so I’ve learned some tricks and tips along the way.

Go Slow

If I could just push on, drive through the night, and arrive safely the next day, I’d consider it.

However, I am one driver in a car with three kids.  Pushing it really isn’t a good idea.  (And while I really want to avoid injuring myself and my kids while driving, I REALLY don’t want to hurt any other drivers and passengers.  For everyone’s safety–don’t drive tired!  It’s statistically as bad as driving drunk.)

Both for my sanity and the kids’–not to mention our physical safety–I stop after 6 to 8 hours of driving.  We have dinner (sometimes ordering pizza delivered to the hotel so we don’t have to get back in the car) and try to get in the pool before bed AT LEAST every other day on a long road trip.

relaxing after a long day in the car while driving cross-country

Trust me, the time in the pool is worth a slightly later bedtime.  It’s the carrot at the end of the string that the kids have been hanging on to all day.

If they will not get to swim that night, let them know LONG before you stop that there will be no swimming.

Otherwise, that’s just cruel and unusual punishment.

Furthermore, as we spend 4 days on the road, I do tend to stop for the better part of an entire day somewhere along the way.  Two years ago, it was Hot Springs, Arkansas.  This year, we went to Heifer Ranch in Arkansas on the way north and Mammoth Caves, KY on the way south.  That extra day energizes everyone, making us ready to push on (reasonably) and finish our multi-state marathon.

Pack Strategically

As it’s just me and 3 children, I hate making multiple trips to the car to bring our stuff into the hotel.  We’ve hauled a pack-and-play, suitcases, a swim bag, diaper bag, purse, computer bag, and the kids’ own backpacks with books and stuffed animals.

Every. Single. Night.

To make life easier this past year, I packed one backpack with one change of clothes for each of us, for each night of the road trip.  I also had an overnight bag that contained everyone’s pajamas, toothbrushes, diapers, and shower equipment.

packing strategically for a cross-country road trip with kids
The Monday bag, Tuesday bag, Wednesday bag . . .

One kid carried in the overnight bag.  One kid carried the change-of-clothes bag.  I grabbed the pack-and-play and my computer bag, and we were set.

One trip.  Each night.

It was a beautiful system.

Create a Barrier

This might seem like terrible advice, but in my family’s case, it works:

Play your music really loud.

Not loud enough to hurt anyone’s ears, of course.  Not loud enough to distract you as the driver.  But loud enough that small people in the back seat will realize that “Mommy–he told me stupid-face!” will not be heard.

If they’re not heard, they will not get a reaction.

If they don’t get a reaction, they will cease to complain altogether.

At least, that’s how it usually works for my kids.

However–let’s face it–if the baby gets on a crying jag, it is torture for everyone to play music while the baby is crying himself to sleep.  The baby will win.  Please let him and turn off the music.  He’ll fall asleep soon enough anyway.

Other than that, it’s totally OK to imagine that you’ve got one of those barriers between the front seat and the back seat that taxis have.  If I could install one, I would.

Like this, but solid. And soundproof.  And disclosure:  this is an amazon.com link.  If you buy this through my link, thanks!

Choose Your Attitude

Multiple-day road trips are hard on all of us.  All kinds of great things can come out of them.  They’re gold mines for personal growth, family endurance, and education.

But they’re also really, really hard.

Keep in mind that sitting still for hours on end is even harder on your kids.  They can do it–even without electronics.  (But go ahead and plug them in if it saves everyone’s sanity.)

So be patient.

And let them know that it’s hard on you, too.  They’ll be more patient with you.

Whether you’re grumpy the entire time or whether you make the best of it, imagining the trip as a chain of never-ending slushie stops, you’ll get there either way.  It will be a much better experience for everyone if you choose a good attitude.

Because you, as the parent, set the tone for the rest of the car.  Make it as pleasant as possible.

The Mississippi River!  A much-needed rest stop on our cross-country Epic Road Trip.
It is absolutely worth stopping to take a picture of the Mississippi River.  If anything, simply to document the fact that you’ve made it that far!  Thanks, Memphis!

Understand Your Kids’ Rhythms

Mid-morning and mid-afternoon, The Dudes wind themselves up enough that I have to threaten them with bodily harm if they don’t settle down.  As the whirlwind of hysterical giggles and goofy teasing winds itself up into a frenzy, I know it will end in one of two ways:  1)  someone will start sobbing or 2) everyone falls asleep.

It’s impossible to tell which scenario will end the daily energy buildup.

But there is that energy buildup.  Every day.  Sometimes multiple times a day.

So don’t lose your cool when it happens.  It’s part of the cycle.

Buying some time on the cross-country road trip with kids--let them have the camera!

This, too, shall pass.

Embrace it.  Then keep moving on.  Especially when the kids fall asleep.

That’s why you MUST fill up the gas tank every time you stop for a meal, leave a hotel, or take a bathroom break.  Because accidentally waking up napping children because the tank was getting low is awful.

Because you know that kid won’t sleep again until bedtime.

Therefore, it won’t be quiet again.  Until bedtime.

Plan ahead, y’all.

Bring a Tub Plug

Unless you stay at fancy-pants hotels, half of all Super8s and Motel 6s do not have a way to fill up a bathtub.

No tub plug!  One of the biggest bummers on a cross-country road trip with kids.
When in most need of a relaxing soak, there’s NEVER any plug!

Now, most Mexicans don’t have bathtubs, so my kids (even the little ones) are used to showers.

But that’s the thing–we LOVE going to hotels in the US because we know we’ll get a bathtub with the room!  And I can’t explain how disappointing it is to look forward to a good, long soak in the tub after the kids are tucked into bed, and then find out that there isn’t a way to fill the tub!

So bring a tub plug.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

Do you have tricks for surviving cross-country road trips with kids that I didn’t share here?  I’d love to hear them!  Share your tips in the comment section!

Where have we stopped on this road trip?

Click through for our take on the best of the midwest!  (And Texas . . . and mid-south . . . like I’ve said, it’s a long trip!)

San Antonio, TX

Austin, TX

Heifer Ranch, Arkansas

Kayaking in Ft. Wayne, Indiana

Need More Cross-Country Road Trip Survival Strategies (aimed at kids)?

These other bloggers have some pretty good ideas, too!

How to Vacation With Kids (and not hate your life) by Tear-Free Travel

Tips for a Road Trip with a Toddler by Penlights to Pacifiers

16 Tips for Road Trips with Toddlers and Preschoolers by Creating Really Awesome Fun Things

Best Kid Road Trip Hacks by It’s Always Autumn

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How To Survivea Long Road Trip

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Vivian says:

    You are a super trooper! We do a 10hr drive from FL to NC & we do it in a day. It is just me and 7 kids, oldest is 17 and the youngest is 4. I do use the iPad for movies for the little ones and it is a life saver. I make them wait 3-4 hours before I will put it on and then it is loaded with old movies- Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Shirley Temple moves etc.
    Definitely watch the rhythms. We start around 5:30am the little ones will usually sleep for an hour or so, then I try to wait on breakfast until 7 or 8 it helps to break things up. We eat breakfast in the car- breakfast bars, and then by 9am I have to have a potty break (mom of 9 so I need more potty breaks than the kids). I like stopping and eating at a rest stop picnic area but my older kids just want to push on (we pack the our food, remember there are 8 of us in the car, lol)
    I don’t know what we will do this coming year, I’m expecting baby #10 and I am not a fan of driving with infants- mine do a lot of screaming. So, I expect we will start breaking up the trip and staying somewhere over night.

    1. Jill says:

      Oh, my–you’re a She-Ra of Travel, too! Isn’t it true that we need to stop for the bathroom more than the kids? I’m always asking if they need to go, “nah–we’re good.” And then we always stop anyway, because I have to go, of course! Take it easy with yourself the baby! (Although, after 10, I bet you’ve got quite a system in place by now.)

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