Do Family Road Trips Have To Be Horrible?

Once upon a time, road trips were awesome. How to recapture that spirit when caravanning with kids.

Children on roadtrip.

Family road trips don’t have to be boring.

Photo by Fuse/iStockphoto.

More of us will be traveling this summer, and travelers are increasingly seeking vacations with “substance.” For families, this can mean trading mouse ears for yoga mats, taking history tours, and spotting northern pintails in state and national parks.

There’s another advantage to such vacations with substance, of course: They can be money-savers. With airfares climbing, some airlines charging fees for families to sit together, and gas prices going down, more and more of us will be embarking on these soul-enriching outings in our cars. Unfortunately, for kids, there’s almost nothing meaningful about being strapped into the back of the family van while Missouri and Kansas whiz past. Not only are road trips boring, but they also require kids to sit still for hours on end, half-stoned on the same movies that are used to pacify them at home.

That’s a shame when you consider that most of us remember our pre-kid road trips so fondly. Part of the appeal of piling into a car with a group of buddies was that you’d inevitably get to know your fellow travelers in new, often surprising ways. From the minute you pulled into traffic, everyone tacitly agreed that for the course of the trip, the everyday rules of life would not apply. You’d eat differently, sleep differently, and have different kinds of conversations and experiences. In this liminal state, grown-ups often start to act more like kids: A bag of Twizzlers transforms into a perfectly acceptable breakfast, and acting out scenes from Life of Brian suddenly becomes a completely rational way to get through a two-hour stretch of freeway.

So now that you have actual kids in the mix, why not include them in road-trip planning and decision-making? That’s what we did when we each asked our own kids—ranging in age from 6 to 14—to help us find a more fun and meaningful way to get from here to there and back. Here’s what they helped us figure out.

Plan together. Not knowing what to expect on a road trip can be stressful for a kid. Have your entire family sit down together with a map (digital or paper) and plot out your route. There are lots of these services available online. AAA’s free Internet TripTik Travel Planner is a solid choice, and members can get a physical TripTik, a detailed flip chart that takes you through every step of your journey. Let each family member decide at least one thing to do along the way. Once you’re on the road, let your kids track your progress with travel and map apps.

Stop. Stop. Stop. And then stop. Nothing ruins a road trip like grown-ups who drive like they’re training for the Dakar Rally. So instead of treating your vacation like it’s a way to blast from point A to point B, make getting there part of the experience, and schedule plenty of time to take breaks and see the sights.

For trips where you are driving a long distance to a place where you’ll spend several days, a good rule of thumb is to split drive time and out-of-car activities 60/40, not counting sleeping or eating breakfast. We’ve found that this ratio allows for plenty of time to take in experiences that are more meaningful than a bathroom stop at the 7-Eleven but also get us where we need to go. (Keep in mind that a GPS won’t factor in time-sucks like Friday afternoon rush hour in Chicago, or even Cleveland.) If you’re going on a classic road trip in which the journey is the destination, then you need to lower that ratio to 50/50—or further—to give your family enough time to check out the places you’ve planned to see and the sites that unexpectedly call to you, from a diner in Pittsburgh to a snorkeling excursion in Key Largo.

Say yes to the Jolly Green Giant. Historic buildings and scenic vistas are terrific, and we rely on Moon travel guides to point us to these attractions. But don’t skip quirky roadside oddities, like the shell-shaped gas station in Winston-Salem, N.C., or the Hat Museum in Portland, Ore., or the Jolly Green Giant statue in Blue Earth, Minn. Roadside America has an great app packed with goofy stops and the local lore that goes with them. Weird U.S. and its companion volumes might lead you down some interesting paths as well.

Tour factories. Some kids don’t get the concept that a lot of the things we use every day are made here and not in China. Factory tours of companies that manufacture anything from candy to cars are often free; some even include museums dedicated to the history of the company or industry. At the Anheuser-Busch factory in St. Louis, you can see the Clydesdales’ stables; at Harley-Davidson you can check out the assembly line. Our favorite resource is the book Watch It Made in the U.S.A. by Karen Axelrod and Bruce Brumberg. A word of advice: Some “factory” tours are nothing more than a boring spin around a warehouse, so call ahead to ask whether you’ll truly be allowed to peek behind the scenes. (We’re talking about you, Jelly Belly Center in Pleasant Prairie, Wis.!)

In fact, call first every time you plan to get off the interstate. Reading about Liberace’s birthplace in a guidebook, driving 20 miles off course, and finding out it’s closed is a surefire way to torpedo family harmony. Restaurants, museums, and other attractions change their hours and even go out of business, so it’s always best to confirm.

Eat beyond the interstate. Driving even a few miles into the center of a town will not only introduce your family to a place you’ve never seen (and one that might have other attractions) but also to weird, delectable regional foods. How about a shredded turkey sandwich at the White Turkey Drive-In in Conneaut, Ohio? Or hoppel poppel (scrambled eggs mixed up with potatoes and fried salami) at Benjy’s in Milwaukee? Jane and Michael Stern’s Roadfood books are the classic references, and their website includes Roadfood Insider, a fee-based premium service that includes maps, reviews, and a mobile-phone version.

When you stop at convenience stores and gas stations, look carefully in the snack aisles: America isn’t as homogenous as you think, at least not in its preferences for regional candies, chips, and sodas. If you are driving through Minnesota, be sure to try a Pearson’s Salted Nut Roll—creamy nougat surrounded by caramel and roasted peanuts. In northern New England, treat yourself to an orange can of Moxie—a strangely musty “tonic,” as New Englanders call soda pop, that was one of the first mass-produced soft drinks. Canadian stores stock all kinds of British candy classics, including Maynard’s wine gums and Maltesers.

Take nature breaks. Even if it’s just a game of Frisbee in a local park, make sure that at least one of your stops each day gives you time to run around outside. Check out natural attractions, from state and national parks to scenic overlooks. And if you have a little extra time, try geocaching to discover hidden treasures. Go to, enter a ZIP code, and you’ll be given the latitude and longitude of nearby caches—containers (often quite small) that are hidden from sight and contain a visitors’ log that you sign. The fun is in the hunt, although some also contain trinkets. Your kids can take one, but remember that it’s customary to bring new trinkets to leave in caches that are large enough to hold them. There are geocaching apps (both free and for sale) for all models of smartphones.

Make car time more interesting. Play car games, listen to audiobooks and music mixes, and talk to each other. Kids care passionately about fairness and are therefore surprisingly open to talking about almost any social-justice issue—especially when they’ve got nothing else to do. Take your cues from what you see out the window. An Army base, run-down neighborhood, chain store, corporate farm—all are entrees to hours of conversations that you don’t have when you’re rushing past the same old sights on the way to soccer practice.

Let them navigate. Seeing each other in new ways is one of the primary benefits of a road trip. So try to say yes to your kids’ unexpected requests. Recently Elizabeth was with her kids in the Everglades when a thunderstorm blew in. Her 10-year-old son grabbed her phone, found a museum of World War II planes just 23 minutes away, and volunteered to work the GPS from the back seat. That she said yes to this sudden change in plans made him realize she’s not just a no factory. That he actually got them there made her think differently about his abilities, realizing he’s not as young as she thought he was. Now that was a journey well worth taking.