9 tips to stay sane on a family road trip

Dad loading suitcase onto the roof ahead of a road trip

Not all breakdowns on the great American summer road trip are mechanical. Whining kids, frustrated adults, and overstuffed itineraries can throw a wrench in your vacation just as surely as a flat tire. We've put together 9 family road trip tips to help keep the good memories coming and the meltdowns to a minimum.

1. Use screen time judiciously

Road trips are a great way to introduce younger travelers to the pleasures of watching the scenery go by. But not all scenery is equally beautiful, and even the most stunning vistas won't entertain kids for hours. Whipping out the smartphone or tablet is a perfectly acceptable way to deal with a long drive, especially while traveling more mundane stretches of road.

2. Allow for some spontaneity

It's tempting to fill your itinerary to the brim, trying to hit this many attractions, that many scenic wonders. But loosening up the timetable a bit allows for sudden inspirations (or those inevitable breakdowns). If somebody wants to stop at a roadside attraction—or simply because they've been in the car too long—don’t automatically fight it. Not only can a detour be therapeutic, you might just discover a memory-making sight, meal, or other family-bonding experience.

3. Play road-tripping games

There’s a decent chance you remember 1 or 2 (or 6) road trip games from your childhood, from notching certain kinds of cars passed on the highway to counting water towers or town welcome signs. These are timeless activities, and even in the era of video games and social media, there’s an appeal to looking out the window and paying attention to what’s flashing by. If you can regale your youngsters with stories about playing such games as a little one yourself, all the better.

RELATED STORY: 6 screen-free games to play with kids on road trips

4. Pack plenty of snacks

Hunger—and the associated grouchiness known as “being hangry”—can completely derail a road trip. Set off with a goodly stockpile of snacks to keep those hunger/hanger demons at bay. It’s amazing how far a tasty morsel can go to calm restlessness or seatbelt-strapped rage, and not just for children.

An audio aux in cable plugged into a car radio

5. Give everybody some control over the speakers

A good soundtrack keeps a road trip humming along smoothly. You may not all agree on the musical playlist or the podcast lineup, but giving everybody a chance at the controls will probably keep the vibe of the family road trip that much more amiable. It can also become an activity in itself as each traveler curates what they'll submit next time it's their turn. (And you might just discover a brand-new favorite musician, podcast, or author in the process.)

Why not start with AAA's very own Traveling With AAA? It's available for free on Apple Podcasts and Spotify. Each episode features local experiences and travel options to help you feel like you’re actually there. 

6. Engineer a lot of stops

Long periods of driving will wear on anybody, especially the younger crowd. Whatever the excuse–a historical monument, a scenic vista, or maybe just a well-timed rest stop—orchestrate frequent pull-offs (at least every 2 hours) to ward off claustrophobia, boredom, and other stuck-in-the-car annoyances.

7. Establish a clear end goal

If your road trip has a destination in sight—a national park, an amusement park, a relative’s house with fast Wi-Fi, whatever—that can help keep the family focused on how much progress you're making (instead of how long it's taking).

Niagara Falls with a sightseeing boat

8. Seek out undeniable natural wonders

A towering waterfall, a soaring peak, a valley grazed by bison—weaving in at least 1 or 2 world-class spectacles along the route is a good way to break through distractions and make the journey feel special and worthwhile. It's hard to go wrong with the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls, Yellowstone's geysers, or Yosemite's granite monoliths putting an exclamation mark on your trip.

9. Challenge young tech savants to document the trip

Need a way to amp up interest in your road trip among plugged-in, hard-to-engage kids? Encourage them to document the trip with images, videos, and diary entries you'll weave into social media posts or a slideshow to share with family and friends. This can help channel screen-focused energy into something constructive without having to take devices away. Plus, you get a sweet summary of your getaway.

RELATED: Prepare for your family adventure with these 10 road trip safety tips.

A stuffed monkey on top of mini maps and crayons
Keep young minds busy with AAA's free Mini Maps1

They've got fun facts, lively illustrations, and of course games and coloring exercises centered around themes:

  • National Parks
  • Bugs
  • Route 66
  • Space Exploration
  • Under the Sea
  • Dinosaurs

Find a branch to get your maps


Let AAA help you plan your road trip

Members can visit a AAA branch for free maps and TourBooks1, or go online to find maps in the AAA Map Gallery and check gas prices and road conditions, plus much more. 

Road trip planning resources

AAA Travel alert: Many travel destinations have implemented COVID-19–related restrictions. Before making travel plans, check to see if hotels, attractions, cruise lines, tour operators, restaurants, and local authorities have issued health and safety-related restrictions or entry requirements. The local tourism board is a good resource for updated information.

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