Road trips.

When I was growing up, it was no big deal to drive to my grandparents’ house for the day, or make a day-trip to the beach. It seemed to me that any drive under 2 hours was considered “local”.

Back then we didn’t have Gameboys or DS’s, iPods, or portable DVD players. We listened to whatever cassette tape our parents were playing on the car radio….and figured out ways to entertain ourselves in the compact family sedan.

Fast forward to today. We make sure our kids don’t have to spend their time looking out the window. Or talking to each other. Or playing “I see” games. Or worse, reflecting or sitting in silence. We load up with bags of toys, DS’s and Gameboys, iPods, and DVD players with a vast collection of movies to choose from. We need big SUV’s or minivans and lots of gadgets if we’re going to do any traveling, Right?


Our family drove to Disneyland in 2008. Two kids in the car…ages 5 and 8. We left our full-size SUV at home and rented a compact car. A 2008 Pontiac G6. Disneyland is a sixteen hour drive from here.

Sound scary?

It was a great trip! We spent two days driving down, two days driving back. Eight hours of driving each day.

Over the two days we spent driving down, only ½ of a movie was watched. Gameboy/DS play totaled maybe 4 hours. There was very little bickering or fighting (which if you know Trevor and Riley well, you know they fight constantly!)

How did we do it?

First of all, I think we have a few things to our advantage. We don’t eat at fast food restaurants. Even when we are on road trips for camping, or on our way up to visit Grandma 4 hours away, we just don’t do it. I can think of only 2 times that we’ve stopped and picked up fast food on a roadtrip in the past 5 years.

Secondly, I believe there’s a time and a place for car entertainment. We don’t keep toys, games or movies in our car. If your DVD player is constantly running, it becomes background noise, background scenery. Save the DVD player for when you actually have the time for the kids to watch an entire movie (which means 2+ hours in the car!). Then it becomes a novelty.

Pack some F-U-N.

This is where I got serious. The kids still talk about their “Activity Bags” and I’m excited to pack new bags for our next trip. Here’s how it works:

I picked up four identical canvas bookbags (messenger bag style). A “Riley” bag, a “Trevor” bag, an “Electronics” bag and a “Swap” bag.

The Trevor and Riley bags were filled with new things, some of which the kids had never seen or used before. And the kits were nearly identical so that if Trevor was doing an activity that Riley wanted to do also, she could grab that same item out of her bag. No fighting!

Activity Bag Contents:

a Rose-Art Clip’n’Color plastic case filled with:

  • a package of Crayola Color Wonder Markers (because they don’t stain fabric!)
  • a pad of plain Crayola Color Wonder Paper (the only thing those markers work on!)
  • a Crayola Color Wonder Coloring Book  (we had never used Color Wonder products before)

a Zippered Pouch filled with:

  • a new box of freshly sharpened colored pencils
  • a new pencil sharpener
  • 2 regular pencils

a 6×9 pad of plain white paper for drawing

a pad of grid/graph paper

a small 3×5 spiral notebook

a 9” dry-erase board with marker (the marker clipped to the board)

2 magazines/books

1 travel game


Not all of the bag contents are shown...but here's a few of the components


The kids had full access to these items to use any time in the car. They were so excited that they immediately started drawing and coloring and writing notes to each other and just having fun using their brains! And then they got tired and took a nap. =o)

The “Electronics” bag contained their DS/Gameboys and games, iPods, headphones, car chargers for those items, a choice of 3 DVD’s and two portable DVD players. This sat between them so they could access them whenever they wanted.

When we reached our hotel at the end of the first day, we unloaded the car and I brought in the Swap Bag and started swapping items. The Swap Bag contained duplicates of things like plastic drawing templates, different coloring books, washable stamper pens, puzzle books (word search, crossword, sudoku, mazes), mad-libs, and extra magazines. I only took out a couple of these items and swapped them with things from their personal bag and they weren’t allowed to look at their “new” bags until we got in the car the next day.

The kids didn’t have access to their Activity bags during our main hotel stay. This made them all the more excited for the drive home- because they knew there would be more “new” things inside- and simply because they didn’t get to use their items during the week. And it’s not that we were specifically preventing them from using their Activity Bags, it was mostly that we were busy with Disneyland and swimming and fun family times. There was no need!

Some other tips I’d like to share:

  • We made it a point to stop at every rest area on the way down and back. Every time we stopped someplace, we did a bit of walking (or jumping, skipping, running in circles around the car three times, silly stuff) to loosen up, stretch, and release the penned up energy.
  • If you are driving from Portland and time it right…a great place to stop for lunch/dinner and gas….is the Medford Costco! Cheap eats for the family, and for exercise we walked every aisle.  We also gave the kids each $5.00 to pick out something for the rest of the drive- they chose to pool their money and bought one of those huge bags of mixed candy- suckers, jolly ranchers, smarties, gum, etc. That was the best thing ever in their mind- and yes, we let them eat it. They are already excited to go to the Medford Costco again! I think it’s hilarious.
  • Choose an overnight hotel with a pool- and let the kids swim and have fun.  It adds a little excitement!
  • For lunch or dinner on the road…. sure it’s cheaper to pack sandwiches and water. And it’s faster to go through the drive-thru and eat on the run. But we wanted to make it fun for our kids so we stopped at fast-food places with playgrounds and spent over an hour there eating and playing. Exercise is important- you gotta release the energy!
  • Redbox. This idea came from a friend of mine. Instead of bringing a big selection of movies from home, bring just a couple. Stop at a Redbox, rent a movie, watch it, then stop at another one to exchange it. Easy to do since they are at McDonald’s and most freeway exits have a McDonald’s, right!? The kids are more inclined to actually pay attention to the movie if it’s new…and if they know they can only watch it once (or twice if you are into that!).
  • McDonald’s Happy Meals. How many of us have a bunch of hokey Happy Meal toys sitting around? Kids never really play with them, so I don’t know why we are so eager to get them. A friend of mine does something with them and she swears it works for her kids. Only one Happy Meal toy at a time. The next time you get a Happy Meal, the old toy goes in the trash. On road trips this could be interesting- because it’s not out of the possibility to eat at McDonalds twice in one day! She swears it motivates the kids to actually play with the toy and be entertained by it, because they know it has a very short lifespan!! I haven’t tried this, but it does sound intriguing.

I guess the moral of the story is to switch things up and do things you don’t normally do to make it fun for the kids. If around town you normally watch DVD’s and keep toys in your car and run through the McDonald’s drive through, then I don’t know what advice I can give, other than to stop doing it a couple months before your road-trip. Make those things a treat, a novelty.