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Traveling With Children: Are You Having Fun Yet?

by Laurel Smith

Laurel Smith

Laurel Smith writes about traveling with kids on her website, Read more »

Sorry, Laurel Smith is no longer taking questions.

When I travel with my three children, I often get unsolicited observations from strangers such as "You must really have your hands full" or "You are so brave."  They sometimes give me a look of pity as if I am embarking on some form of self-inflicted torture.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  My children are happy travelers -- mostly because of the many positive and fun experiences we have had together. Your children can also be great travelers.  In fact, traveling with children can even be fun for you too!

Plan Ahead

Have several activities in mind that you can introduce as you need them. The good news is that traditional travel games are still as much fun now as they were when you played them as a child.  Brush up the old favorites so you can teach them to your kids:  Counting Cows, license plate games, Twenty Questions, I Spy, Rock Paper Scissors, Slug Bug, and any others you can remember.  

Next, gather materials for additional activities that will engage your crew such as travel-sized board games, music, and books. Many items can also be printed from your computer such as scavenger-hunt lists, car bingo, tic tac toe, hangman, coloring pages, and battleship.  Toddlers in particular tend to do better with actual materials they can manipulate. Try aluminum foil modeling, drawing boards, sewing cards, and magnetized activity sets or felt boards.   

Consider going "unplugged" by not relying on electronics as the main source entertainment.  Not only will you be missing opportunities to create some special memories, but these activities become old and tired just like anything else that is overdone.  Do keep in mind, however, that these items do have their place especially when downtime is needed.  Kids can't be expected to be fully engaged in playful or educational activities for 8 hours straight. 


Keep in mind the old adage, "Getting there is half the fun."  Cop a new attitude that the adventure starts in the driveway as you begin your trip -- not once you arrive at your destination.  Traveling together provides you an opportunity for hours of uninterrupted time to spend with each other.  How will you use it?  Take advantage of this gift of precious time, and use it to really get to know each other.  

A great way to start is by playing a simple game.  My family particularly enjoys a game we call "Playing Favorites".  Ask each person their favorite color. Then take turns and have everyone think of a different "favorite" question for the group --  What's your favorite... movie, flavor of ice cream, song, game, toy, place to visit, restaurant, book, animal, fish, website, or teacher...?  Be creative with your questions. You are going to learn things about each other, surprising things, that you didn't know before.   

Be Flexible

Remember to give yourself a break. It's not all going to be sing-alongs, happiness and giggles. You are not a failure if the kids start whining, or your toddler has a screaming meltdown in his car seat.  Give yourself permission to go "off road" and change your plans or to switch the activity if things aren't working out.  Keep the bigger picture in mind: having fun and getting to your destination safely. 

How about some tips for keeping kids happy on long trips? 

  • Familiarize yourself with several new activities for each trip.This way you can introduce them on your journey to head off boredom before any whining has a chance to begin.
  • Book it -- chapter books, song books and joke books. 
  • Snacks - bring old favorites and try a few new items. And yes, why not try some of the "forbidden" snacks? In context, the trip is special so the snacks can be too.
  • Get the kids involved - Give them a map and teach them how to use it along with road signs. Let them keep track of the journey so they'll know exactly "how much farther" it is and feel in charge. Have older children help navigate you through airports. Challenge them to lead your family to the appropriate gate. 
  • Find fun new uses for common objects - aluminum foil can be molded into jewelry and shapes. Kids love to use tape to make funny faces or sculpt fast food drinking straws into instant art.  Create your own drama, or comedy, by using air sickness bags and performing a puppet show.

As we enter the busy summer travel season, what are your plans for making it fun?

Laurel Smith is no longer taking questions. But please share your own experiences and ideas by leaving a comment.

Sorry, Laurel Smith is no longer taking questions. Feel free to comment on the article and let us know what you think about the topic.


katherine writes...

great info, I will use on my summer road trip to Yellowstone.

Susan writes...

Hi Laurel,
Do you have any suggesions for entertaining a pre-talking toddler on a long road trip? Every summer my husband and I drive up to Maine to visit my in-laws. It's a 14-hour trip, a long time to keep an antsy toddler entertained. We do it in two days, seven hours each day, which helps. But even 7 hours is an eternity with a toddler! Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated! Thanks!

Laurel? writes...

Hi Susan, Most parents agree that the toddler age is definitely the most challenging for a long road trip! Being trapped in a car seat can be frustrating and uncomfortable, but you might be surprised at how well your little one will do. It really helps if one parent can sit in the back with your child so he (she) won't feel lonely and desperate for attention. With mom or dad as the entertainment director, there are lots of things you can do to keep busy.

Bring a couple of puppets with you and perform a show or use them to playfully "bite" or kiss his ears and toes. If you don't have any puppets, you can make some with a paper bag or an old sock and a marker. Perform familiar stories like Red Riding Hood or the Three Pigs. Have your child hold one puppet and use them to "talk" to each other (or just roar and make animal noises!) He might also love to use a cookie sheet with some large magnets (appropriately sized for children under 3) or a felt board with cut out shapes. Play along with him and make different pictures and let him "mess it up" for fun.

Hit the library before you go and get a big stack of picture books or books with an accompanying tape or CD. Don't feel you have to stick to simple board books for toddlers. Get some that have more meat to them and spend some time reading out loud. Your child will love to hear your voice and will appreciate the attention. It definitely wouldn't hurt to invest in a couple of new toys such as one of my kids' favorites at this age: Crocodile Dentist. You might like to do a swap with a friend and borrow some toys that are only to be used on the road and returned after the trip is over. A common mistake is to be well prepared for the drive there, but not plan for the return trip. Keep that in mind and be sure to save something for the drive home that will be new as well.

Finally, definitely take advantage of nap time and schedule drive time around it. And forget about trying to "make good time" and be prepared to stop frequently to stretch those little legs and keep that diaper dry and comfortable. Good luck and have a great trip!

Antoinette writes...

This article is extremely helpful. I also really loved your website

Dorothy writes...

Absolutly wonderful ideas.

Jason writes...

Thanks so much for your travel advice - I know it is tough for me to make sure the kids are entertained during summer travel. Your Mom's Mini Van is a great website!

Darcelia writes...

The alluminum foil reminded me of something my children love to do is grab a couple of the twisty-ties from the kitchen drawer and mold them into some crazy (or not) creature. That is on my list of things to purchase before our big move to another state. Thanks for the great advice I don't feel so alone now.

Laurel? writes...

Hi Darcelia, The first time I gave my children a roll of foil and told them to go crazy, they weren't exactly sure what to do. But, once I showed them a few different things, they realized they could turn their imaginations loose. They enjoyed making little sets of animals, necklaces, bracelets, rings, jeweled crowns, and even hats. My son made a shark-fin to wear on top of his head like a helmet! At one point, we even had a tiny football that was being flicked through little goal posts they'd made. Some colored markers added even more detail to some of their creations. This is such an easy actvitiy to prepare, and it's easy clean up when you're done. I would love to hear what other fun ideas kids create for aluminum foil fun.

Dina writes...

Of course traveling is fun but how do you deal with restaurants. I have a 3.5 year old and a 17 month old and restaurants are totally exhausting, esp. when traveling. Any suggestions?

Laurel? writes...

Hi Dina, I understand your feelings about in restaurants with very young children! I do have a few suggestions that can help. First, try to eat out during or just before their regular meal times before they become famished and unmanageable.

Next, cut down the time you normally would spend without food in front of you in a restaurant. By this I mean, try to pick familiar restaurants or check out their menus before you get there so that you can order your food on the waiter's very first visit to your table. Don't let them leave with only your drink order on their first trip! The same goes for payment -- by the time the food comes, ask for the check or hand them your credit card so that when the kids are finished or when they start getting antsy, you are free to get up and leave.

Don't worry about trying to manage or clean up the mess of crumbs all over the floor that a 3.5 year old and 17 month old will no doubt make. Give the wait staff a really good tip and let them take care of it.

Finally, and most importantly: forget about everyday mealtime issues that a lot of parents get into with their children trying to "make them eat" so they "won't be grumpy" later. Leave those "rules" at home when you go on vacation. There is no need to exhaust yourself trying to get them to eat restaurant food or nagging them to "just taste it!". You are not a bad parent and your children will not be malnourished if they don't eat it. Enjoy the meal yourself, give them a good snack afterwards, and let it go.

Laurel? writes...

Dear Readers,
Tell us about your family's road trip traditions. My family always does "the wave" when we cross state lines. In a minivan it's easy to send the wave from the front of the car to the back and up to the front again, cheering wildly of course. A friend of mine says her family members like to burp when they cross state lines! Some families like to lift their feet off the floor when they cross over railroad tracks, hold their breath when they pass cemeteries, or always buy blue bubblegum when they are on a long trip.

Do you have special traditions or rituals for your road trips?

Heather writes...

Hey Laurel!
I've enjoyed reading the posts on road trips...wish I would have seen them before! We just returned from a 10 day road trip from Minnesota to Williamsburg, VA (19 hours!) in our minivan with our 18 mo old daughter, AND another couple and their two kids (ages 5 & 3). Yep, 7 people all in the same van. Most people thought we were crazy (I call it "character building"!), but all the kids travel beautifully. We did the same thing in Feb on vacation with them to Edisto Beach, SC...another 19 hour trip. We found the key was to leave in the evening right after supper and drive through the night (switching off drivers). That way the kids sleep for a good chunk of the time. And believe it or not, they slept relatively well and their schedules were not disrupted! DVD movies, books, healthy snacks like grapes & crackers, and puppets also make the "awake time" fun. We also packed a ball to kick around at rest-stop breaks. We allowed the kids time to run around and burn off some energy.
I found your advice for dining out on vacation very helpful. I tend to get stressed about mealtime meltdowns in restaurants (because I'm afraid of disturbing others or looking like a bad mommy!)
As far as traditions, we stop at the first rest stop in every state (usually the nicest facilities and lots of info) and take our photo at the state's welcome sign there. We show the kids on a map where we are. We also let out a collective "woo-hoo" when crossing the state line. :)

Laurel? writes...

Hi Heather, I love your description of your trip being "character building". Most of my father's advice when I was growing up included the phrase, "It's good for you. It builds character!" And it sounds like your driving through the night schedule worked well for you. I always hear different plans that work for different people (driving early morning, driving at night, etc.) Sometimes these plans involve a little trial and error to figure out what works best for each family. Your tradition of stopping at the first state rest stop is wonderful, and with the snacks, puppets and the ball, it sounds like you did a great job. Keep up the good work!

nicole writes...

Hi Laurel. Your tips were posted just in time. My husband and I will be taking our 2 and 4 year olds on vacation for the first time next week. I must admit that I’m a bit overwhelmed by the prospect. The packing alone is enough to make me dizzy. :)

Anyway, at least I now know how to keep them entertained en route. Thanks!

Laurel? writes...

Hi Nicole, I'm glad I could help! It seems overwhelming, but you can do it! Give yourself a break and don't expect it to all be perfect. Be prepared with lots of activities, and you'll all have a great time. Your kids are a great age for telling jokes. See if you can find a good kids joke book from the library to bring with you. At this age, they really laugh at the jokes. They will even love making up their own jokes. 2 and 4 year old jokes are always funny, usually because they make no sense at all! Have a great trip.

Mary writes...

When we go on family road trips we always bring along a couple of pads of Madlibs. A few rounds of Madlibs always liven up the car when kids start getting antsy. We also will play word games such as the one where one person says a word and the next person has to think of a word that begins with the last letter in the previous word. Can you suggest some other fun word games?

Laurel? writes...

Hi Mary! Madlibs are definitely a winner in the car! Your word game is also commonly played like a geography game by naming places such as cities, states and countries that start with the same letter as the previous one ended. For some more word game ideas, try the two all time favorites -- I Spy and Twenty Questions. These never go out of style.

You might also like to try a favorite of ours that we call "Fortunately-Unfortunately". This one can help kids to look at the bright side of things in a funny way. Basically, you will tell a collective story with your family alternating between fortunate and unfortunate sentences. Start off with the "unfortunate" event. For example, one person says, "Unfortunately, the pool has an alligator in it," and the next person might say, "Fortunately, he's not very fast on land." Then, "Unfortunately, we are in the pool!" but wait, "Fortunately, we are all wearing our alligator-proof-under-armor"... and so on! Put a silly spin on it, and you can keep a story going a long time.

Ang writes...

We've taken our daughter, now 3.5, on many long car trips since she was a year, in addition to shorter ones. It's definitely work, and I always come armed with a selection of toys, sticker and coloring books, library books (ones that we've read a couple of times so she knows the story), and a couple of small new toys that she can be excited about. We also try to pack a picnic lunch to break up the drive, and our own snacks, so we can minimize eating in restaurants. Singing songs can be good, and one thing she's recently become really interested in is story telling. My husband and I will tell stories of things that happened to us when we were kids, but you can go anywhere your memory or imagination takes you. Then she tries to make up her own. We've also found that our experience varies; our daughter is *usually* a good traveler, but sometimes she'll have a bad day and be cranky or impatient. You just have to try to take it in stride, and be prepared to stop if need be just to get out of the car.

Laurel? writes...

Sounds like you're doing a great job Ang! As she gets older there will be more things she'll be able to play and do on her travels. She might be just about ready to start a travel journal. Get her a blank book and some crayons. Even at her age, she can draw a picture of her favorite thing she did that day. Then you can ask her about the picture and write down what she says for her. Save the journal and only use it on trips. It will become a keepsake treasure! My kids love looking back at their old entires, especially the ones before they learned to write very well. Keep up the good work!

Barb writes...

There were and are so many ways to entertain my kiddos on road trips.
One trip we took an electric keyboard with headphones for my youngest one because it kept her busy for hours. She had a blast making music and entertaining herself.
A roll of quarters was always a hit for those trips across the tollroads. The kids would take them in the rest areas and be able to purchase things with the money. They also could lose a quarter when they were touching each other or hitting. This gave them less quarters to spend so they did not lose many.
I traveled a lot alone with all 3 kids and would have a selection of songs they should know--RESPECT, Joy to the World, American pie, and a few others. We sang those very often on the road!
Now as they are older they tend to read, do directions and many other things when we drive.
We do not have a DVD player so they usually read when we are driving.

Laurel? writes...

Barb wrote: "One trip we took an electric keyboard with headphones for my youngest one because it kept her busy for hours. She had a blast making music and entertaining herself."

Great idea Barb! I may have to try this one with my youngest daughter who has been taking piano lessons all year and loves experimenting on the keyboard. Plugging it in may be a little tricky though, but I'm sure there are adaptors available.

Here's another tip - when traveling with several children, it sometimes helps to have everyone change seats once in a while . They get a different view out of the car for some new scenery, and a different person to sit near. Some families prefer to give each child their own permanent space though.

Eija writes...

I loved your article. Great tips even for our seasoned traveling family (our extended families are in Europe). Now I know what to do with those air sickness bags. Happy traveling.

Laurel? writes...

Hi Eija, I'm so glad you found some useful tips. I love to use puppets to tell my kids things when they didn't want to listen to me. For some reason, they are all ears when a puppet tells them not to kick the seat in front of them. And those air sickness bags are more than just entertainment since my girls are both prone to motion sickness. They have been known to actually use the bags for their intended purpose on a bumpy flight, and then to need one again when we get in the car after we land. When we've had a rough flight, we often take a bag or two with us on the road just in case!

Cynde writes...

Love your website and all the great ideas. I was wondering if you had any special suggestions for single parent traveling. I have a 16 month old and 3 year old and will be traveling 1000 miles without my husband.

Laurel? writes...

Hi Cynde, Most of the road trips I have taken have been with me as the only adult in the car, so I can definitely relate. The most important tip is to have as much as possible within your reach, and to have backups for things that get dropped on the floor. Put a big bag full of all your surpises and activities in the seat right next to you (passenger's front seat), then you'll be able to reach in and grab things and hand them back to the kids as needed. Have more than one of each item in case they get dropped on the floor, especially drinks and snacks. You might even try a tether that is made for bottles and juice cups to keep them from falling. Do not try to retrieve dropped items while you are driving since this is very dangerous. It won't take long for your kids to get used to the idea that once an item hits the floor, that it's going to stay there until the next roadstop.

Have plenty of snacks in small baggies ready to hand back as well. Kids love snacks in baggies, especially a special trail mix that has more than one item in it like Cheerios, pretzels, fish crackers and a few M&M's in the mix.

A car seat travel tray could be just what you need for both of your kids. It will keep them from dropping as many of their things and give them a play space. There are many of these on the market. In addition, a back seat organizer might be just the ticket for your 3 year old to keep items within reach.

Stop frequently to stretch tired carseat-trapped legs at places with play areas. Give yourself plenty of time to get where you are going so you don't feel rushed. Play some word games with your kids, tell jokes and sing! Point out things you see along the road. Keep a dialogue going when you can. Have a great trip.

Gina writes...

Your tip regarding attitude is our dharma for the annual road trips I take alone with my 3 boys. It's all about "the journey, not the destination". On a typical yearly 2-week trek, I drive about 4,000 miles across the country in search of history, natural wonders, or magical moments. Most of what we encounter are memories and many lasting stories. My boys pass down the positions of map reader and alternative route finder and off the beaten path quests which create day-long enjoyment for all of us. I began these annual trips about 5 years ago when my youngest learned to potty-train across the interstate system. Now, with a teen and elementary age children, it is so much more fun to investigate our country together. Perhaps soon, we'll change jobs: they will drive and I will ask to pull over for potty stops!!

Anne writes...

Great conversations here! I like the twisty-tie sculpture idea and taking a ball to kick around at rest stops. Any other suggestions for traveling with one child? My 8-year-old son is a voracious reader and artist, so will certainly stay busy with those, but I'd like him to look out the window once in a while.
The 'competitive' counting of cows and VWs wouldn't really work; I could play but from the front seat would see everything first, before he would from the back seat. I'll certainly try some word games, but don't imagine him being interested in those for long...

Laurel? writes...

Hi Anne, I can see where traveling with only one child might be a different type of challenge. You don't have to worry about him bugging brothers or sisters, but you'll have to be the one to play along in competitive type games - not easy if you're driving. Ok, I would start with giving him a map of where you are going and have him help navigate, or at least mark off the map as you cover the territory. He might really enjoy playing with a string to make some string figures, like a cat's cradle. If he's never done these before, you should probably teach him a couple of easy ones when you are stopped, and then give him a printed sheet with instructions for more complicated ones. I'm sure he would love to tell you jokes from the backseat if you got him a few joke books from the library! And singing together is definitely something everyone can do at every age (bring some lyrics!). To encourage him to look out the window, try printing some travel scavenger hunt checklists and car bingo games to bring along.

Maria writes...

Great ideas as usual Laurel! Love your blog too!

Era Louie writes...

We have a 17 month old and will be traveling by air over 11 hours. How do we keep her entertained for such a long flight? What do you recommend since bringing alot of her favorites is out of the question because of overpacked luggage and overpacked carry ons.

Marie @ Make and Takes writes...

This is great information. I too have just written about traveling with my kids on a recent vacation. We made it through pretty good. It helps to plan ahead. Here's the post from my blog:

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In many cases I had traveled with my family and that was a wonderful auctions

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Thanks for your recommendation. I always feel a little leery when visiting a new city. It's great to have reference to someone others have dealt with.
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Alana D writes...

When we go on family road trips we always bring along a couple of pads of Madlibs. A few rounds of Madlibs always liven up the car transport when kids start getting antsy. We also will play word games such as the one where one person says a word and the next person has to think of a word that begins with the last letter in the previous word. Can you suggest some other fun word games?

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