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The Ultimate Road Trip Guide for Families — Packing Tips & Why Getting There is Half the Fun

Great ideas for packing the car, side trips and road trip activities with kids!

When we got married, my husband and I moved half-way across the country and away from every relative we had.  It was hard the first few years to not have all those family dinners and be there for all the holidays. 

Then we had kids and realized that if we wanted to spend more time with our extended families, road trips were going to be a necessity.


20 Tips for Road Trips with Kids

On our first big drive through 6 states, we packed the two of us, a four-month old baby, our very well-behaved dog and all that baby equipment (car seat, stroller, play gym, portable crib, bouncy seat, etc) into a tiny Toyota.

(This was the point in our marriage when my husband declared me a packing genius! Thank goodness the baby & the dog slept most of the way 🙂

From that point forward, we have been road tripping for the last 17 years — to family reunions, ‘home’ for the holidays, on vacations far and near — and it’s no longer a big deal to pack up the car and head out on a trip. 

The biggest miracle is finishing all the laundry once we return!

So I thought I would share some of the things that we’ve learned along with a few ‘Fisher family secrets’ to planning and executing an awesome road trip for the family! 

This post is Part 1 of a two part series – today we’ll share all about packing & what to see on the way. 

In Part 2, we share how to keep the kids entertained, must-have items for your trip & secrets of travel-saavy parents!


Planning Tips & Tools for Car Trips

You can use this Trip Planning & Packing list to see how I begin to list everything we might need.  I usually start a list a few weeks ahead of time based on what we’ll be doing throughout the trip. 

Then a week before we leave, I put all the suitcases in the upstairs hallway and have everyone pull aside the clothes they want to bring so I don’t have to do laundry the night before we pack 😉 


Getting Ready

The first big secret that I’ll share is that I don’t have one packing list. 

If you’re leaving for a week-long trip, one list is just too overwhelming for me.  So I break down our packing into 3 lists:

List 1: Items for the Car

List 2: On the Road Adventures & Overnight Stays

List 3: Once We Get There


List 1:  Items We Need in the Car

Think about things like phone chargers, maps, snacks, books for the non-drivers, pillows, etc.  I’ve found that the easiest way to pack these items is to assign each person the the trip a backpack or bag. 

If the kids are old enough, they can pack their own bag with what they’ll want to use in the car (my kids started doing this at age 3 and it works really well!) 

First, they don’t blame you for leaving anything behind. 

Second, the mantra in our family is “If you pack it, you carry it” – so they learn to pack light.

In addition to individual bags/backpacks, I also make sure to include items such as portable DVD players, maps and travel books, specific food items, etc. on the list.  This list gives me a good idea of what will need to fit in the ‘liveable’ area in the car.

Want to see how we get the car ready? 

Visit 10 Things to do Before your Next Road Trip for a free printable list!


List 2:  On the Road Adventures & Stays

As you’ll see below, we make lots of stops along the way! 

Usually short stops to stretch our legs, eat or see the sights.  Sometimes we also need to spend the night on the road because it’s a 2-day trip. 

On my second list, I think about everything we might need at those stops or for our overnight stays.  And then I pack it all in one suitcase. 

So anytime we stop along the way, I know what I need is in that ONE suitcase — and best of all, when we get to the hotel for that one night stay, we don’t need to drag all 3 suitcases up to the room.

Again, my husband dubs me a packing genius because he would be the one to have to lug all the bags into the hotel and I like to make his life a little easier since he’s the one doing most of the driving.

Things that would be included on this list —

• all bathroom & personal items (because you’ll need them the first night),

• sleep clothes,

• at least one change of clothes (for younger kids, include extras),

• any membership cards, coupons or discounts you need for stops you plan to make,

• swimsuits in case there’s a pool or a stop along the way like a beach and

• plug-in chargers for any electronics that you want to recharge in the hotel room that night.


List 3: Once We Get There

Everything else you think you’ll need for the trip goes on this list – but you’re probably half-packed by this point!


Packing the Car for a Road Trip

A few tips for packing the car

• Try to pack most of the items the night before you leave and then you’ll be more likely to leave on time (or close to on time if you travel with my family 🙂

• Always make sure the suitcase that holds the items for your On the Road Adventures & Stays (List 2) is accessible. I tuck it in last at the back of the car so I can get to it easily.

• Institute a travel motto:  If you’re old enough to walk and talk, you’re old enough to help pack — seriously, it’s a FAMILY vacation so have the kids help pack the car.  Plus, you’ll be teaching them valuable skills for when they’re old enough to go on their own trips!

• Make sure to pack a table cloth or Beach/Outdoor Blanket for the trip (I’ll have more on why in Part 2).

 Road Trip Fun for Families

How Getting There Can Be Half the Fun

We never just ‘drive thru’ to get to a destination. 

It took a few years to convince my husband that this was a good thing (he’s overly efficient and always likes to brag about how we made such good time — to many Chevy Chase Vacation movies I guess 🙂 

And here’s the reason — if you drive straight thru, you miss out on everything along the way!

There is always an interesting place to stop and see, and sometimes you may never be in the area again so take advantage of it while you’re there.

If you’re looking for short, interesting stops along your route, try Roadside America

This site lists all the kitschy, cultural and unique places that exist around the world.  You can search by city or state and also call up a map to see what fun places might be along your route.

Other attractions we look for along our route include National Parks & Historic Sites, any large universities (they always have excellent museums!) and children’s museums.  We look for places that are approximately 15 minues or less off our route.

Most of our ‘on the way there’ stops are under an hour. 

Just enough time to get out of the car, stretch your legs, let the kids (and dog) run around and see something fun. 

Here are a few of the places we’ve visited ‘on the way’ to our destination:


Road Trip Stops Lasting Less than an Hour


Great Roadside Stops for Families

Ice Cream in Iowa

We stopped at Wilton Candy Kitchen, a wonderful old soda fountain while traveling through Iowa one year.  It’s been open for 150 years and the current family has been serving up ice cream since 1910! 

The owners were so nice and it was our kids first experience with a ‘real’ ice cream soda — the old, original kind that you just can’t find anywhere. 

This was a great treat on a very hot afternoon!


Fun Road Trip Ideas for Families

Basilica at Notre Dame Campus

We love to stop at different university campuses if they are on our route.  We also like to introduce the kids to different types of buildings and architecture. 

In this case, we were able to do both during a tour of Notre Dame and the Basillica of the Sacred Heart on campus.  Back in my pre-kids travel days, I would frequently stop at local catherdrals when I was on a trip; they are such beautiful structures.


Road Trip Fun for Families

Our Alma Mater

If I could make a ‘places to take your kids’ list, it would include the location where your parents first met.  For us, it was at college — so we made sure to tour the campus and share a few (innocent) stories with the kids!


Fun Places to Stop on Road Trips

Wall Drug & Other Quirky Side Trips

Some travel lists have Wall Drug ranked as the #1 Roadside Attraction in America, so we knew this would be a pit stop for us along the way. 

This is another family-owned establishment that grew to be a huge attraction.  It’s very kitschy with tons to see (you could easily spend more than an hour if you wanted to shop and browse). 

They have great old-fashion donuts (and I’m a health nut so you know they must be good if I recommend them 🙂 tons of knick-knacks to shop for at the stores and some fun photo ops for the kids. 

Yep, a photo on the jackalope is a must!


Road Trips Activities for Families

Monument Rock

Another great place to stop are any natural monuments along the route.  Monument Rock (also referred to as the Chalk Pyramids) is one that was actually a little more out of the way than we first thought but it was definately worth the stop! 

It’s a set of amazing limestone structures smack dab in the middle of the prairie! 

The rocks were originally on the ocean floor when the middle of the country was covered by water millions of years ago — very cool place to walk around!


Side Trips Lasting 1 – 2 Hours

Sometimes we feel that it’s worth a longer stop to see something special.  On these stops, we always include a meal during our stay so we can make up some travel time once we’re back on the road.


Great Roadside Stops for Families

Michigan Lake Shore

This is a perfect example of why you should always pack a change of clothes for the trip – sand! 

We stopped at the Sleeping Bear Dunes, a National Park on Lake Michigan and ran through the dunes. 


Wonderful time! 

Had sand in the car for the next week 🙂 and the change of clothes was a must since we also waded in the water.



Butterfly Gardens

Another outstanding stop at a university – University of Iowa Reiman Butterfly Gardens!  This was our first experience at a butterfly house — we were able to see the science of butterflies and then experience the indoor gardens where thousands of butterflies would land on you for a visit.  There was also a nice outdoor garden area where we stopped for lunch before heading back on the road. 


Road Trip Fun for Families

Indy Children’s Museum

Being one of the top 5 kids museums in the country, we planned ahead and stopped at the Indianapolis Children’s Museum on our trip home one year.  TONS of amazing rooms to see here! 

We allowed ourselves a little more than 2 hours and even though it made for a long day, the kids did burn off a lot of energy as we played on a number of the exhibits.


Fun Places to Visit on Road Trips

The Badlands of South Dakota

This was another National Park that we so wanted to see and our original plans to visit during our trip were rained out.  So we drove through the park on our way home (made for a really long day but we knew we probably wouldn’t be back in the area with the kids and really wanted to tour the park). 

There are some amazing views in the Badlands along with some great hiking trails — a few nice short ones too so we were able to get in a quick hike.  And the ranger station is a must-see if you have kids interested in paleontology or dinosaurs — the park is one of the world’s richest fossil beds and they are still uncovering amazing fossils each year!


Breakfast at McDonald’s

Totally unintentional & unplanned but sometimes that’s how these side trips are done. 

We had a flat tire on a Sunday morning while traveling through small town America.  None of the tire stores opened until 11 am (yep, small town 😉 but luckily we were near a McDonald’s and waited there while having a late breakfast. Not our first choice for food as we’re pretty healthy eaters but in small town America, you go with what’s open 😉

My son never knew that McDonald’s served breakfast and loved the little containers with the syrup — talked about them the whole trip. 

Our kids have great memories of many of these stops. 

We will frequently hear “Do you remember when we stopped at that place ‘on the way’ to our vacation?” 

Those small things can make big memories!


Now head over to Part 2 of our Ultimate Family Road Trip series:

  • Keeping the Kids Entertained
  • Items We Love
  • More Fun Tips & Secrets!


Do you have any packing secrets or tips for planning great road trips for your family?  I’d love to hear them!  Please leave us a comment or tip below.


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