December 29, 2021

Although admittedly not the most travel ambitious person, there is a desire and love for a classic family vacation. This post is ideas for car rides to help them go smoothly and even be special. I love the memories, bonding, and different versions of restfulness vacations bring, not often captured in the same way by anything else. Flying is a treat, but sometimes the car ride can be better in its own nostalgic way.

And also not having to rent a vehicle when you get there!

Before I even start, also consider an iphone tripod to get your great family snaps. I don’t bother to bring a DSLR even on big vacations anymore because I’m so satisfied with what you can get on a phone.


I like to put together a bin of activities that kids can “check out” items from – the activities library. I usually announce everyone can pick something from the library and then that is each person’s thing for a while, usually like one to two hours. (Although that time is for a really long trip, so the increments would be relative. Like, I would do maybe only 30 minutes for an eight hour journey.) It’s roughly a one in and one out system. It helps people play with things more deeply and for longer. They trade and play together so it’s a little dynamic, but it puts some structure around requests and entertainment questions.

These are some of my favorite activities library items. Some in theory good ones, like melissa and doug’s reusable sticker books, I don’t really like for this (although honestly don’t love at home either) because there’s too many tiny pieces. So I skew toward favoring not having lots of little parts.

  1. wikisticks
  2. trivia fan decks
  3. paper atlas
  4. gel pens and black paper notebook
  5. water activity pad
  6. clipboard with graph paper
  7. bubble poppers
  8. cube-bot

Side note, a super power I wish I had is reading in the car without getting sick, so straight up books are sadly kind of absent from my car life list! If you have said super power, go forth on behalf of all of us.


I also allow a choice from the snack bin at intermittent times. This and the activity library goes with my overall observation for car rides that self imposed structure and little milestones (for adults or children) help the time go well and not blow through options. For the fun of personal agency, I sometimes at a check point will let them choose between either a snack OR activity.


Good old fashioned boredom, it’s good for them. We rightly cushion ourselves from some discomfort in life. (Everything else in this post is kind of all about that.) And, still we like our kids to experience the toughness. It goes back to the concept – out of difficulty comes innovation. And when the kids are bored if you let them find their way through it they end up creatively relating with each other and coming up with imaginative things to do.

One thing you may notice or deduce is that we don’t really do movies and shows during car rides. It’s just our preference for how the trip feels; we certainly watch movies together other times. Maybe it’s harder in a sense, but we have observed we feel more connected (to each other) and engaged (in the surroundings) which we like. Sometimes we prefer to not shield our kids from tedious situations with electronics.


It whittles at the trip length from both ends because the stops are shorter and eating is an activity to do to help time pass inside of the car that is progressing, in motion down the road instead of parked while we eat! If we do eat at a stop it’s likely somewhere special that we want to stop slowly, for enjoyment – not utilitarian eating. I mostly do different types of sandwiches, pre-made at home maybe to save money but also for higher quality than road food. If I feel strong, I’ll consider doing a pasta salad but that includes dealing with bowls and forks.


While the gas is filling, since we are not eating, what we are doing is bathrooms and dad runs some exercise drills that are fun, feel good for everyone, and help with behavior. Do you know about these family exercise idea cards that use just body weight?


I bring a little white board and write messages or draw pictures and hold them up from time to time for the kids. They are so excited to notice when a new one is up. And it just adds playfulness to the spirit of the car. This is partly born out of that I so dislike shouting to the back of the van to struggle communicate. Examples of messages on the board are things like: “10 minutes until pb and strawberry jelly lunch” or just pep things, like the order of the next states we are passing through or a little drawing of the city we are in.


If the trip is long enough that it is multi-day and we stop at a standard hotel before getting to our main destination, we definitely try to swim in the pool for a while. It feels like a quintessential vacation thing to swim in hotel pools and it burns off some energy so well.


As above, if there are multiple short overnight stops on the way to continuing on, we like having a more quick essentials bag packed that we can easily grab and take in for everyone instead of unpacking the full lineup of bags from the car.


These little japanese rubber animal figurines are one of mom’s other intermittent tricks to pass out to people. Sometimes I hand a few out at a new state line, or just when we need another infusion of something. Children like collecting, playing with, and trading them.


In the time when it’s dark before we move into “car bedtime” I pass out a glow stick to everyone. Sometimes we put on a playlist and have a dance party with them, but even when we don’t do that, glow sticks have that way of captivating a child just on their own.


I am not a health nut in normal life, but I have come to be pretty faithful to healthy snacks for long car rides. After being in the car for so long, you feel gross in general. So though still a lifelong sweets lover, I only eat light stuff on a long road trip and it is much better for already feeling so extreme-sedentary. It improves mood by a lot and I think it makes a difference in kid behavior too. Some of our favorites are: cucumbers, carrots, grapes, apples, rice cakes, dried fruit, clif bars, popcorners, and goldfish.


Some people seem to really like for young children bringing a potty-training potty for inside the van (this is our not ugly one we use at home because I’m allergic to garish kid things) and putting in a liner (plastic grocery bag or a diaper as the liner) so people can go in the car. I find just limiting drinks makes bathroom breaks pretty much fine and about equal with needing to fill the car with gas. So, I skip this. But JUST INFORMING OF AN OPTION!


Kind of like how many planes have an electronic version of this for international flights now, stretch a piece of painters’ tape across the roof of the van and write cities or states you’re traveling through. Move a taped object (or picture of your car) along the line as you progress.


Everyone sleeps more easily when they’re comfortable. I think children fall asleep better in the car when their feet aren’t dangling. This usually works out easily because the van is packed and suitcases et cetera are the foot rests. I still can’t sleep in the car, BUT this has become my favorite thing to be much more comfortable. I have a plastic tub I put at my feet that is level with the passenger seat which makes you feel cozy. And inside the tub is where I store all my mom supplies mentioned throughout this post and other things I like to have available (ex: wipes, trash bags, paper towel, tissues).


A little indulgent (and is counter acting the mostly health snacking point above) but with these cookie cutters you can make a cookie for everyone in the shape of each state, to be passed out at each state line. Wait I’m realizing to be less sugar you could do cheese slices which I actually like way better in several ways.


And as a continuation of the previous, celebrate each state line! Honk and cheer and it adds to the festive-ness of the whole big, magnificent, memorable endeavor.

My New Cookbook


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  • Rebecca

    Great article Rachel! I’m a firm believer of having the kids looking out the windows finding objects. Love the idea of having a white board to share what’s coming up. Good ideas!

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