As places and attractions reopen, more people get vaccinated, and everyone starts traveling again, this summer is poised to be all about the great American road trip. Whether you’re taking the fam to the beaches of Florida, exploring the Windy City, or even just venturing a few hours away to Virginia Beach or Philadelphia, you’ll want to make the trip as painless—dare we say fun?—as possible, for both kids and adults. Kristy Alpert is the author of the brand-new book Road Trip Activities and Travel Journal for Kids, which includes more than 50 car games, puzzles, writing prompts, questionnaires, interview ideas, scavenger hunts, brainteasers, and more. She’s a firm believer that road trips help shape a child’s future, and that using all five senses can help create longer-lasting memories. Alpert has some tips for when you get on the road again.
What are your best strategies for keeping kids of different ages content on road trips?
Road trips are about creating experiences and having fun and less about trying to arrive somewhere on time. I’m always armed with silly games like Rap Star or Hey Cow, prompts that guide kids to daydream, boredom busters like Car Logo Bingo or Brain Teasers, interview questions that help everyone get to know each other better, and games or puzzles that help challenge or teach kids something new (like Learn to Write in Code). I also plan in extra time so we have the freedom to be spontaneous, which is one of the biggest secrets I can share about pulling off a memorable road trip. See a field of flowers? Pull over for a family frolic. Pass by a tall hill? Stop the car and yell, “First one to the top gets to pick the restaurant tonight!”
How can parents balance screen time in the car with other activities?
I fully believe screens have a time and a place. My favorite trick is to set limits, like saying, “You can watch one hour of TV, but then you need to spend one hour in your activity book.” Another strategy is to go with the radio by saying, “You can watch a show for five songs, but when the song ends, the screen goes down,” and you’ll notice the kids start listening to the songs. When possible, I’d limit screen time to shows set in the destination you’re heading—that way, when the show is over, kids have something they can relate to as they’re seeing similar backdrops out their windows.
What are some good snack ideas for road trips?
I’m a huge fan of homemade trail mix on a road trip—everyone gets to pick a few favorite ingredients (just no chocolate, though!), and the final product is something everyone can enjoy. I’m also a fan of fresh food when possible. Eating processed foods on travel days always ends up making me feel lethargic, so I always travel with carrot sticks or celery for healthy snacking.
How can families incorporate the drive and what they see on the road into a learning (and fun) activity for kids?
Sometimes all we need is a distraction or goal to take our minds off monotonous sections of the road. Even just having everyone guess how many stop signs they think they’ll see before having to turn a corner can be a fun distraction. Some of my favorite games in the book range from car bingo to a photo scavenger hunt. For learning activities, I love any game that gets the senses involved, since our senses are what help us create lasting memories. Simple ideas include rolling down the window and writing down all the different smells in the air and then waiting 10 minutes and doing the same thing to see if anything changed, or closing your eyes and picking a color and then opening them and spotting only things out the window in that color. These little games help kids to look past the pavement and roadways and actually see what they’re passing by. I also love daydreaming prompts, like imagining what the world would look like if it were made of candy or thinking about what is going on behind the windows they pass along the way.
What are a few things families absolutely shouldn’t be without on a road trip?
Snacks, a good playlist, and books. Music is one of the most important aspects of a road trip, and often a silly pop song can become the anthem of the entire road trip. Years later when that song comes on, memories of the trip come rushing back in. I remember one road trip where my parents blasted Celine Dion while driving through the mountains of Colorado; to this day, I can almost smell pine needles and see the wildflowers covering the mountain fields when the song “Declaration of Love” plays.
Think you’ve packed everything you need for your weekend foray into the forest? Up your camping getaway with these clever items that make time spent in the tent or by the fire way more fun.
Lend evenings under the stars more ambience with TikiTunes, an indoor/outdoor Bluetooth speaker whose design is reminiscent of a tiki torch, complete with a flickering flame. A full charge provides six hours of continuous audio playtime, and you can enjoy true stereo sound by connecting two speakers. $40, amazon.com
Made from 37 recycled plastic bottles by a company that plants four trees for every one sold, the Nakie portable hammock is ready for post-hike naps and lazy afternoons. It’s ultra-light and sets up in minutes between two trees with easy-to-use straps and carabiners. Triple-stitching and polyester end straps provide strength and durability—it can accommodate two people with a combined weight of 500 pounds. $103, nakie.us
Wearable Sleeping Bags
Created by a dad, Morrison Outdoors Wearable Sleeping Bags are warm yet lightweight. Rated at either 20° and 40° and available in down or synthetic in two sizes for kids up to four years old, the bags pack easily, weigh less than a pound, zip from the bottom for easy diaper and clothing changes, are water-resistant, and meet AAP sleep-safe guidelines. Starting at $85, morrisonoutdoors.com
More portable than cornhole or quoits but just as addictive, OnTop Ball Toss involves throwing squishy balls overhand or underhand into towers. Using the built-in scoring system, play continues until 15 points are reached, with the winner decided on the very last toss. It’s quick to set up, doesn’t take up much space, and has 20 variations for endless amusement. $100, ontopballtoss.com
Three podcasts the whole fam can enjoy.
You keep turning the dial to classic rock. The kids sneak it back to Radio Disney. Repeat. If you can’t compromise on music, or need a break from it, tune in to one of these podcasts that listeners of all ages will get into. Hey—you might actually learn something together.
The Past and the Curious
Aimed at both kids and their parents, this history podcast brings to life amazing and inspiring tales from the past, often read by comedians and accompanied by lively little songs. Episode 52 (“Food Fight”) has a local angle: Oyster pirates of the Chesapeake Bay battle the Toe Nail Governor, who wants to protect oysters from extinction.
The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel
This 2016 British serial mystery scooped up the prestigious Peabody Award along with some Webby nominations. It’s a scripted show for middle-schoolers, performed by kids in that age group, but has legions of adult fans, too. If your gang liked Stranger Things—or you were a Goonies fan back in the day—give this adventure a try.
Wow in the World
Can you guess somebody’s age just by looking at his teeth and toenails? What’s the slowest animal on Earth? Are dogs really friendlier than cats? These questions and more are answered on NPR’s first podcast for kids and their adults. The stories of science and innovation are told in such a way that they’ll make you say, “Wow!”