Road Trip, Party of Five: Survival Tips

When my husband and I were seniors in high school, he took me down to Texas to meet his family.  It only took about two days for me to fall in love with all of them, and to feel at home in their homes.  I knew then that we would be back, and that someday we would be visiting them with our own children.


And now, those days have come.  When our first son arrived seven years ago, we couldn’t wait for him to meet his Texas family, and we made the trip when he was just four months old.  He slept the entire drive.  Fourteen hours!  When our second son arrived, we again made the trip, and it went pretty well.  And then came number three.  Or should I say, pregnancy number three.  That year, we drove down just two days after I had announced the pregnancy (I was around 7 weeks along), and I will tell you this: I should have bought myself a plane ticket and met everyone there.  We were traveling with my in-laws (who I love) and due to knee surgeries and blood clots, they both have to get out of the car at least every hour.  This does not bode well for sleepy toddlers and a newly-pregnant mama (who also gets carsick, by the way).  Those may have been some of the longest fourteen hours (one way) of my life.

Today, as you read this blog post, I will be packing up the minivan for our annual drive.  We are all so excited to see our family, but I’ll admit I never look forward to the drive.  We are now a family of five, and our youngest is newly potty-trained, so more adventures surely await us.  But, after nearly three years as a mom of three, I feel like I’ve learned a few things to help our family survive the preparations, the trip itself, and the aftermath when we get back home.  I’ve put together a list of “survival tips” here for you today, but as you read them, please remember that while I am “giving advice”, I am more than anything asking for advice as well. So please comment with your road-trip tips and tricks, too!


1. Plan Ahead. 

This one seems obvious, but I’m talking plan ahead.  My husband makes fun of me for the amount of days it takes me to prepare for the trip, but in the end, we have everything we need and everyone is (more or less) happy!

  • weather:  with the magic of the internet, it is possible to check the weather forecast well in advance, to get an idea of what type of clothes to pack for everyone.  This is where I begin my planning.
  • laundry after I know the average temperatures for our stay, I start doing laundry.  I make sure to pack all of their favorite clothes, none of the things that I would have to fight with them to get them to wear it (because who wants to do that on vacation??).  Once I have the clothes that they need, I put them somewhere where the kids can’t get them, because they are likely to grab those favorites to wear to school the next day!
  • activities:  thank goodness for Pinterest!  I don’t even have to use my brain anymore!  I got these little plastic caddies at the Dollar Tree and filled them up with stickers/stencils/notepads/crayons/books.  There’s also a perfect-size slot for a drink and a snack.  And the best part?  They had three different colors!
  • snacks:  speaking of snacks, this is a part I take very seriously, and not just for the kids.  As someone who gets carsick, my necessities are crackers, Ginger Ale, and any kind of hard candy to suck on (Jolly Ranchers are my personal fave).  For my husband, I get his favorites (Twizzlers, Sour Patch Kids, etc.) to keep him awake for the long drive.  And of course, the kids. The bags of snacks in our van are seriously no joke; we get lots of laughs when we arrive.  But, it’s much cheaper (and less time-consuming) to have snacks already in the van than to drag all three of them into a random gas station and let them pick out an overly-priced treat.  Plus, the snacks they don’t eat in the van we now have for the week ahead!

2. Take the Red-Eye. 

In other words, drive through the night if possible.  With three little ones (and one who has just learned to wear underwear), we really wouldn’t do it any other way.  Fourteen hours is too long to listen to Curious George, Pokémon, and incessant fighting from the back seat.  We usually leave around 7pm, which gets us there around 10/11am the next morning.

  • fill their bellies:  we will eat a BIG dinner before we head out, preferably one filled with carbs that will stick to their bellies and help them sleep.
  • movies:  although fourteen hours is too long for Pokémon in my ears, I can handle it for a few.  We will pack some special movies/shows for them to watch for the first couple hours of the trip.  When they wake up in the morning, they can watch some more for the last stretch of the trip.
  • restroom break:  after about 2 hours on the road, we’ll stop and let them have one last restroom break before “bedtime”.  Side note: fill your gas tank to over-flowing at this point, because once they are asleep you do NOT want to stop until you have to!

3. Expect the Unexpected. 

This may as well be every mom’s mantra, right?  Even with all of the afore-mentioned planning, there will always be some hiccups on the trip.  The best thing you can do is to relax and remember that parenting little ones is never fully predictable and we just have to “go with the flow” sometimes.

  • feature presentation:  one kid’s idea of the best movie is probably not the same as his brother’s/sister’s.  Let the littler ones pick the first show/movie, because they will most likely fall asleep first.  Our oldest can many times be caught at 2am watching his show in the backseat. #vacation
  • better snacks no matter how many bags stuffed full of snacks I surround them with, they will always want that one thing I didn’t throw in the cart at Walmart.  Oh well.
  • GPS is not perfect:  more than once, we have pulled off the interstate to a gas station that was listed on the GPS, but it was nowhere to be found.  It happens.  Roll with it.  And then roll into a gas station quick, before you run out of gas.
  • are we there yet? without a doubt, the trip will take longer than EVERYONE plans it.  Especially the kids.  I always prepare myself mentally for 2 hours longer than “normal”; it usually works out pretty well. 🙂

4. Have fun. 

This goes without saying for being on vacation, but try to enjoy the actual drive/flight/etc. as well, as much as you can.  These are memories that you are making with your kids, that they (and you) will remember for the rest of their lives.  The mishaps, the arguments, the stops on the side of the room to go potty, or vomit, or both, are all going to go so fast.  Try to cherish every moment (besides the actual vomiting, of course).

  • people, not tasks:  while we are on vacation, I try to keep this mantra in my head.  People, not tasks.  I could check my email before bed, but I could also play an extra hand of cards with our family.  I could spend the day washing the kids’ clothes, but I could also just throw them in a bag and worry about that when I get home.  I could make a fancy recipe for the whole family and slave in the kitchen all day, but I could also just take my tried-and-true, quick-and-easy recipes and then head outside to play with my kids and their cousins.  People, not tasks.
  • everyone’s “fun” is different:  some people’s idea of a vacation is laying on the beach for 12 hours a day.  Others prefer hiking mountains and white-water rafting.  I would consider myself somewhere in between the two extremes.  The point is, everyone has a different definition of “fun” and “vacation”.  Try to remember that, and try to make it possible for everyone in the family to enjoy their time away from school/work/routine.

5. Make a happy place to come home to.

I know not everyone will agree with me on this last point.  Or maybe you agree, but you just don’t have the time.  I totally understand.  But for me, it’s a big one.

  • avoid a stink-bomb welcome:  there is absolutely nothing worse than coming home from vacation to find a mysterious smell.  Did we leave something in the fridge to spoil?  Did I forget to wash the load of towels before we left?  Did you forget to take out the trash?  The worst.  So, on my to-do list for this week was laundry (especially wet towels), clean out the fridge, and take out the trash.  Seems simple, but after a week of sitting, all of the above can cause your home to smell like a landfill when you open the door.
  • stock up the pantry/freezer:  while you’re throwing out trash and old leftovers from the fridge, try to think ahead for your return.  Are there some simple recipes you can make when you get home?  Because we ALL know how exhausting vacation with kids can be (no matter how much you enjoy it!!).  I myself am not a big freezer-meal maker (although I wish I was), but I do try to stock up on the non-perishables for our go-to recipes.  That way, when you get home you can just shop the perimeter of the grocery store (produce, meat, dairy) and have everything else ready in the pantry.
  • get that project done:  this one is a new addition to my list, but I am LOVING it, and I have to give a big shout out to my Dad for helping make it happen.  Do you have a home project that you’ve been wanting to do, but seems nearly impossible with your little ones running around? If you are lucky enough to live near family/close friends, consider asking for some help in this area.  Last year when we went to Texas, I bought the paint for our living room and my dad gave it a fresh coat while we were gone. Ah-mazing to come home to.  This time, he’s completing the slow process of changing our bedroom from brown & green to gray & yellow, by painting it two shades of delicious, beautiful gray.  I am so excited to see it when we get back!  (on a larger scale, my mother-in-law is having friends finish her basement while we are gone; she is going home to LOTS of changes!)
last year's trip: cousins!
last year’s trip: cousins!

…and that’s about all I have to offer.  I hope some of this can help you remember the most important part of a family road trip:  spending time together.  It’s certainly not easy, and you will always need “a vacation to get over the vacation”, but it is so worth it.  I am so thankful that we are able to go, that we have family anxiously awaiting our arrival, and that our kids will get to spend a whole week with nothing on the schedule but fun, food, and family. That is the BEST.

Now, fellow road-trippers…what are some tips that you would add to the list?


Sara and her husband Matt (sweethearts since they were just 16) got married in 2007, and since then have welcomed four beautiful children (Sam in 2008, Cooper in 2010, Nora in 2012, and Adam James in December 2015). A born-and-raised Iowan, Sara received both her Bachelor's and Master's Degrees (in Spanish Literature) from the University of Iowa. She's still teaching Spanish wherever and whenever she can, but her true passion is owning Iowa City Moms and building this community alongside her amazing team. Sara is also the Community Engagement Coordinator for City Mom Collective, and the owner of Cowork Collective downtown Iowa City. Common denominator in all of these jobs: community, community, community.


  1. My family roadtrips from Iowa to Michigan several times a year. I have two boys almost 4 and a one year old. Since they were babies, I’ve sat in the back seat with them. A cooler with pre-made bottles sits in the front passanger seat. It’s easier to feed on the go! Now my oldest watches shows on the ipad, my husband got him cordless headphones to wear! Now we don’t have to hear the show for the whole trip! We have a BIG bag packed with snacks too! Our suit cases are in the back of the truck, so for the kids, I always have a couple changes of clothes in my bag inside the truck that are easier to get to. And sometimes we stay overnight at my parents on the way to Michigan, so we pack seperate overnight bags, so that we don’t have to unpack the whole truck.
    Lots of planning-like you said! I am usually running around like crazy getting the bags together and making sure we don’t forget anything, while my husband works on the puzzle of fitting EveryThing in the truck! Good times! Enjoy your trip Sara!


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