Busy schedules and moody attitudes might tempt you to avoid road trips with your tween, but this is the perfect time to pack everyone in the car and set off on adventures. Family time benefits kids during adolescence more than nearly any other time of life. And with a little planning, the drive becomes a fun and memorable part of travel. We asked moms about their most successful road trips with tweens and packed all their advice into this post!
This is Post #2 in a three-part series about vacations. Post #1 covered The Bottom Line on Why You Need a Vacation and Post #3 will look at the best family vacation spots.
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There are plenty of things I said I’d never do that came back to bite me:
- I would NEVER let my child throw a tantrum in the aisle of the grocery store while I stand there going about my business. Wrong.
- I would NEVER use TV as a babysitter because I need to get something done. Oops.
- I would NEVER wear the same pair of yoga pants for a day, and then a night, and then another day. In a row. Without taking them off. So guilty.
Funny how you don’t really know what you will or won’t do until life comes at you.
I’ve given up on many of my self-made rules, but so far, I’m doing well on my goal to never stop taking road trips with my kids. We’ve always lived a drive from family -- one hour, two hours, 12 hours. We figured out how to make it work when the kids were babies (leaving at 4 a.m. and bringing loads of snacks), and now we’re exploring road trips with tweens. New challenges for sure. Namely dealing with attitudes, battling over screen time and maneuvering trip schedules around sports and other activities.
Why Road Trips with Tweens Are a Great Idea
How sweet is this photo? The drive wasn't all unicorns and rainbows, but they did pretty darn well. Combining two families also kept sibling fights to a minimum.
Road trips fit any budget and flex to fit all different family and travel styles. Some families log 12-hour drive days and make the ride memorable with in-car activities and music and conversation. (That’s us.) Others find fun stops along the way or split long drives into multiple days with a hotel pool to break things up. Either way, your family spends some serious time together in a tight space when you road trip, and it builds relationships the same way eating meals together does. And I plan to force my tweens - and then teens - to interact with me and the rest of our family throughout all the years they live in my house and ride in my cars. Independence? Yes. Alone time? I hear ya, I need it too. Isolation and withdrawl? Nope. Not if I can help it.
Research agrees that tween years are the perfect time for family time and travel. The Every Kid in a Park initiative gives all 4th graders and their families free admission to all federal lands and waters “to experience the places that are home to our country’s national treasures, rich history, and vibrant culture." They chose this age based on research that kids ages 9-11 are at a unique developmental stage where they’re starting to really understand how the world works around them. They’re receptive to new ideas about nature and the environment, but also about family.
A new day in trip-planning and preparation also dawns during the tween years because they can start contributing. They can pack their own bags...do research on things they want to see and do...help load the car and remember forgotten items. Hallelujah, we’ve turned a corner!
Our last road trip included a 12-year-old family friend. I was in awe of that girl’s Google folder. She had a packing spreadsheet and a Google slideshow of all the major stops on our trip. My 11-year-old son helped pack and carry bags, but certainly didn’t use any of his precious screen time for trip prep.
Making Road Trip Memories
Tweens will remember family road trips, so it’s the perfect time to start traditions that preserve those memories. Several of our readers gave great suggestions on ways to do this:.
Keep a journal while on the road or encourage your tween to write one.
Make notes on where you’ve been and what you’ve done, complete with sarcastic comments. The journal gives you a place to attach ticket stubs, postcards, information sheets and maps so you have a cool keepsake when you get back. The 12-year-old planner on our trip journaled and collected postcards, laptop stickers and other info in a pencil box along the way to complete her masterpiece at home.
Start a collection you continue each time you travel.
I’m not a fan of adding more stuff to our house or spending vacation money on random souvenirs, but I’m a complete sucker for collections. We bought each of our kids a National Parks passport that we keep in the glovebox. The Visitor Centers at National Parks have ink pads and stamps with the date and location to add to the passport. Many also sell stickers to include in the books. It’s a low cost way to document National Park visits -- and it feels like a scavenger hunt across the nation.
There is also a coin book available for purchase at National Park Visitor Centers and tweens can collect coins at different locations to add to the book.
I loved the suggestion from a friend to buy magnets as souvenirs and use a piece of sheet metal and a thrift store frame to display trip memories at home and start fun conversations with guests. We often buy ornaments on our adventures and retell stories at Christmas when we pull them out.
My oldest son also received the Landmass Scratch Off Map of the U.S. so he can scratch off states as we visit them -- it also shows National Parks.
Car Activities That Make the Drive An Adventure
The best road trips make the travel matter as much as the destination. We asked our readers for some of their best car activities for tweens:
- Reinvent the idea of giving small kids a prize each hour for good behavior. For every hour of harmony in the car, each kid picks a number. Each number corresponds to incentives like picking the next DVD or song or earning a dollar to spend at the next gas station stop.
- Load a phone or tablet with audiobooks or podcasts the whole family will enjoy and listen together. See if your local library uses Hoopla or Libby to download books for free.
- Look up quirky roadside attractions along your route. We made a stop at the Idaho Potato Museum for a silly photo before jumping back in the van. I’ve heard good things about the Roadside America App as a way to find random stops (it runs $2.99).
We literally jumped out, snapped a picture with the massive spud and hit the road. The museum wasn't even open for the day.
- Check the GyPSy Guide app to see whether it has narrations for locations you plan to visit. We hooked our phone up to the car speakers and learned all kinds of information about the history and wildlife of Yellowstone as we drove through the park.
- Download and print some car games. I grabbed some free printable travel games for tweens from the Trip Savvy site: a map to color in states for the classic license plate game, Battleship, Big Kid Highway Quest and Find That Car bingo.
- Refresh your playlists. Grab favorite soundtracks and create fun playlists to rotate on the drive.
How to Manage Electronics On The Road
Kudos to familes who go screen-free on road trips. We are not that family. However, we do limit screen time and use it strategically. The kids earn screen time with good behavior, and we set rules up front about amount of screen time allowed (i.e., one movie and one hour of other screens on an eight-hour trip).
It usually works best to hold off on screens as long as possible. Tell kids they get screen access near the end of the trip or during a long stretch with no stops. That’s when my kids feel the most restless and when I feel least like dealing with conflicts from the back seat.
- Get unlimited wireless on your phone, at least temporarily. Then there are no concerns if you’re looking up answers to trivia questions, seeking out interesting stopping points or handing over a phone to a kid whose device ran out of power. It can also be a hotspot for WiFi in a pinch.
Bring a pair of headphones for each person in the car and an audio splitter that allows several people to listen in on one device.
We have this splitter and then three pairs of these Kidz Gear headphones - a different color for each kid.
- A portable DVD player. Do two screens if you have multiple kids and bring at least one 6-foot audio/video auxiliary cord.
- Bring one device per person if possible. This might be Kindles or old phones or even tablets checked out from the library.
The Biggest Key to Road Trips: Food
Not pictured: the very healthy fried cheese curds that became a highlight for the kids as we traveled through Wisconsin.
Long road trips seem to hinge around solid snacks and well-planned meal times. Get input from tweens on snacks and drinks they would love to have on the trip and then get some surprise items as well. Beef jerky, string cheese, trail mix and apple slices with Jif To Go can hold the troops over if you’re trying to make it another hour or two before the next meal stop. FYI - suckers take a long time to eat as you pass the time.
In the middle of some big growth spurt years, tweens become accomplished eaters. Pack lunches at least for Day 1 of the trip for flexibility on when and where you eat. You can eat in the car instead of sitting in a drive-thru and use a stop to wander through a shop or kick a soccer ball at a park instead. On our last trip, we flew and then rented a car for the road trip. We ordered groceries online in advance (including pre-made sandwiches and meat/cheese/cracker packs for lunches) and picked them up on our way out of town the first morning.
Final Note: Road Trips Require Preparation
Nothing wrecks road trip mojo like car trouble, uncomfortable passengers or a giant mess. Some up-front planning and basic supplies can keep this mostly in check. Bring things like maps, neck pillows, paper towels, trash bags and motion sickness meds for likely scenarios. Grab our Road Trip Packing Checklist for a full list.
We also hear good things about the website Ready and Roam, which curates travel advice from other experienced travelers.
Plan to stop every three to five hours so that the gas tank never falls below the halfway mark let kids hop out for the bathroom, drinks, snacks or seat changes. And put the cooler, snacks and soccer balls or other activities for stops within easy reach.
Have some type of organization in place. Maybe each kid has a backpack and all their stuff must be in the backpack before they get out of the car at a stop. Or use a tote for all devices or snacks in a central part of the vehicle and ask that everyone put devices in the tote before getting out at stops to keep clutter and broken items to a minimum.
Give kids a budget up-front. On our recent trip, my kids knew they had $20 from their grandparents to buy a T-shirt and $20 from us to spend as they chose. It drastically cut down the “Can I have…” at every stop. They could have until their $20 ran out and then they were on their own dime.
These tips don't cover every possible scenario, but the unpredictable nature of road trips means you'll likely make some memories you just don't plan and that's ok. My dad still brings up the time I locked the keys in the van on our family road trip to the beach. It's more funny now than it was at the time, but that memory makes us all laugh whenever it comes up. Sorry dad!
Coming up in our next post, we'll share the top destinations for family vacations.