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Tips & Tricks to Make a Family Holiday Road Trip Easier

Becky Hart | Sep 23, 2022

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Winter in the mountains.

As the song says, “Over the river and through the woods, to Grandmother’s house we go.” It just proves how classic a holiday road trip is (although I was today years old when I found out the song is about a Thanksgiving trip). Many of us take to the roads to visit family for Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hannukah, Kwanzaa, Boxing Day … the list goes on.

For some, holiday road trips are a tradition. “It became the norm for me and my sisters,” said Seven Corners writer Ashley Fritz, who would often spend Thanksgiving in Chicago, Christmas in St. Louis, and New Year’s in Iowa visiting family. “It was so customary to us that as we got older and our parents considered just staying home for the holidays, we argued that a holiday season without road trips would not be a holiday season at all.”

When you’re traveling this winter, knowing how to make a road trip with kids easier can be the difference between an enjoyable outing and wishing you’d just stayed home. Where do you start? With these holiday road trip tips and tricks for families and pets, of course.

SUV in the snow.

How to Have a Good Family Holiday Road Trip

Your kids want to have fun, you want to avoid as much stress as possible, the driver wants to stay awake at the wheel. There’s a lot to manage during a family holiday getaway. These seven tips will have you feeling like an expert holiday road trip planner.

1. Stock a backseat organizer.

Make your life easier by containing the clutter and by making it easier for your kids to take care of themselves. Your car organizer should include items for entertainment, hopefully reducing how often “are we there yet?” gets asked, as well as cleanliness.

  • Trash bag: Big ones will make the car smell before you’re ready to empty it, so go with a smaller bag designed for bathroom trash cans or a plastic grocery bag instead.
  • Zipper sandwich bags: Great for bagging that half-eaten snack, crayon pieces, the new rock collection started at the roadside rest stop, and anything else that “needs” to be saved.
  • Napkins/tissues: Runny noses and spilled or sweaty drink cups. Need we say more?
  • Upholstery-friendly writing utensils: For the littlest of travelers, this could be crayons or water-activated markers that only color when used with the special book. Older kids might be able to handle markers. Choose whatever saves your sanity and your car upholstery when kids are crafting in the back seat.
  • Headphones and chargers: If you’re allowing screentime and electronics in the car, stock up on headphones so you don’t have to listen to eight straight hours of Coco Melon (unless you want to) and chargers with extra-long cords if you need them to reach outlets by the front seat.
  • Books: Perfect for when you’re not doing screentime. Books are a great distraction when you’re “playing” the quiet game, or if you want your younger ones to practice reading aloud to you while you drive. Think of it as a live-action audiobook.
  • Carsick bags: Family vacations on the winding roads of the Smoky Mountains always left me carsick as a kid when I was too short to see out the backseat windows. If it’s your first long family road trip, pack bags just in case, even if your little one is usually okay on shorter outings to the grocery store.
  • Self-serve snacks: Special treats are half the fun of road trips. Stock a few non-messy snacks — animal crackers, baby carrots, dry cereal — in your backseat car organizer so your kids can reach them easily without you having to pull over and serve them every time they get bored or hungry.

2. Leave at the right time.

The “right time” could be different for every family. Some prefer to drive at night when the kids will sleep. Others vote to leave early in the day when everyone is feeling fresh and energized. Either way, prepare and pack as much as possible the night before. It’ll make those last-minute tasks that much easier as you’re trying to get everyone out the door.

When it comes to winter holiday travel, factor the weather into your decisions about when to leave. Will colder temperatures at night bring icy roads? Will overnight snowfall make early-morning drives more difficult? You might make your itinerary extra flexible and decide the day of departure when you leave based on road conditions.

3. Pack festive in-car entertainment.

Help everyone get in the holiday mood with holiday-themed entertainment. When road tripping with kids, distraction is key to fending off boredom. Load up iPads with their favorite holiday movies. Look for kid-friendly podcasts everyone will enjoy. Treat them to holiday-themed coloring books for when you want them to turn the screen off for a while.

You can also play classic car games and add a holiday twist. If you’re a Christmas family, see who can find the most red and green cars. Play a game of “I Spy” where the items you’re looking for match the season. It could be a snowman with a scarf or inflatable snow globe in someone’s yard.

4. Shake up your seating arrangement.

If you typically ride with two adults up front, switch things up occasionally and put one adult in the backseat. If your child is old enough, this gives them a chance to ride shotgun, which could be a treat. It also opens up the chance for a child in back to have some one-on-one time with a parent. And, if we’re being honest, it also splits up the bickering if you’ve been in the car a bit too long.

5. Pick a special road trip gift.

Gift giving is part of many winter holidays, and you can make it part of your road trip, too. There are two ways to approach this. One, treat your kids to an early gift, preferably one that will keep them occupied during the drive. This could be a new book, a new app for their phone, or an extra-cozy blanket to snuggle with in the backseat.

The second option is to create a road trip-specific gift. Ashley, who traveled the Midwest every winter, remembers Bug Juice as a highlight from her own family holiday road trips.

“My sisters and I looked forward to our Bug Juice each trip. I can’t say I’ve seen it sold anywhere recently, but Bug Juice (glorified sugar water) was our favorite drink that our dad would never fail to pick up when we refilled on gas on our road trips. I remember exclusively drinking Bug Juice on our road trips as a kid and thinking you could only buy it at certain places. It made using up our gas worth it in my eyes!”

6. Plan detours along the way.

One tip for surviving a long road trip with kids is to break it into smaller stretches and give them a chance to burn off some energy along the way. Look for tourist destinations or roadside attractions — hello, largest rubber band ball east of the Mississippi — en route, or simply stop at a playground or park. You might think of it as just another jungle gym, but they’ll still love it, especially if they can make snow angels or have an impromptu snowball fight. Pack extra clothes if it’s cold.

7. Plan for an emergency.

Anything can happen on a road trip, from minor cuts and bruises to a car accident on an icy road or catching the flu. Planning for an emergency doesn’t mean you’ll avoid it, but it can make it easier to deal with the consequences. Stock your car with a basic first aid kit, pack extra blankets if you’re traveling in cold weather, and consider traveling with sand or kitty litter for when you need extra traction on winter roads.

Travel insurance for holiday travel is another great way to prepare for the unexpected. Look for a plan that includes rental car coverage, if you’re renting a vehicle. If you’ve planned excursions at your destination, such as a family outing at an amusement park’s holiday extravaganza, trip protection can also reimburse you for that prepaid expense if you have to cancel your trip or a delay causes you to miss it for a covered reason. Finally, look for a plan with 24/7 travel assistance. All our plans come with services from Seven Corners Assist, which can help in a number of predicaments like when you need to find medical care if you get sick or hurt while traveling.

Roadtrip in the mountains.

How to Take a Road Trip with Pets

Pets are as much a part of the family as the little humans you gave birth to. Some of the tips above are the same regardless of how many legs your “kids” have, so if you’re traveling with the entire family, you’re in luck.

1. Tag and chip them.

Even well-trained pets can get spooked, especially during holidays when there’s extra activity, unfamiliar people, and a lot of joyful noise. Plus, if they do run away, they might not be able to find their way back when they’re in a new place. Microchip your pet — update the information on the company’s website if you’ve moved or other details have changed recently — and make sure the tags on their collar are up to date.

2. Get yourself organized.

You’ll want a different kind of car organizer for pets. Trash bags and napkins are still must-haves. Add a dog leash and waste bags for your own easy access. We also like a towel for wiping muddy and snowy paws before they get back in the car.

We would skip stocking your car organizer with snacks, however. With some animals, cats especially, you’ll want to limit their food and water while they travel. Car rides can upset some pets’ stomachs, and if stopping to relieve themselves is difficult in the cold and snow, the less your furry friend has had to eat or drink, the better.

3. Break up the journey … or not.

With kids, we recommended planning detours along the way. If you have a high-energy pup, you might follow that same advice. For other animals such as cats, birds, and rodents, it’s usually best to make as few stops as possible. Traveling can be super stressful for them, so the quicker you can reach your destination, the better.

Be prepared for potty breaks.

Just as you would pack extra diapers when taking a road trip with a baby, you need all the equipment to clean up after Fluffy and Fido on your way to Grandma’s house. Make sure you have plenty of bags to pick up after your pup (plus an airtight container to store them if you have to make a roadside stop and there are no trashcans to dispose of the waste bag).

Portable litter boxes are available for cats. You’ll want to stick to their regular brand of litter, if possible. You can also line their carrier with pee pads as a backup.

4. Pack something that smells familiar.

We all know that most pets have strong noses, and that something that smells like home can be incredibly calming. Pack a blanket, article of your clothing, a favorite stuffy, anything that reminds them of home while you’re on the road. This will be helpful in the car and at your destination.

5. Crate them.

Crating your pet during a road trip is a matter of safety, theirs and yours. While some pets are calm enough to just lay in the backseat during the ride, placing them in a crate can act similar to a seatbelt in that it secures them in the event of an accident. If they aren’t calm passengers, a crate can help keep them from distracting the driver.

Depending on the length of your trip, you might use the same carrier you do for shorter everyday outings to vet or dog park. For longer trips, you might size up. For cats, that could mean placing them in a dog crate. This will give them extra room to move around a bit and have litter box access. Remember to pack their usual, smaller carrier for when you arrive at your destination. A snuggly blanket in any of the carriers will surely be appreciated during the cold months.

Best Travel Destinations over Christmas

Assuming you aren’t headed to Grandma’s house for the holidays — Thanksgiving or otherwise – you might be looking for the best holiday travel destination for your family. We’re firm believers that your family vacation should have something for everyone, from toddler-friendly activities to adult-focused treats, so that everyone has a memorable trip.

Holiday road trips when you want warmer weather 

Carlsbad, California

North of San Diego, Carlsbad offers miles of coastline for when you want to return from your holidays with a healthy glow. November and December temperatures hover in the 60s during the day with just a few days of rain, perfect when your road trip is to escape the chill of an Eastern winter. If exploring the beach isn’t up the kids’ alley, check out LEGOLAND California. There’s also plenty of golf courses to test out. Some resorts in the area cater to traveling families, offering outdoor movie nights, Christmas crafts, and more.

Charleston, South Carolina

Many of us are familiar with the classic Southern charm of Charleston. In the winter, you’ll find Christmas parades, drive-through holiday light displays, and more to give you that festive feeling during your visit, even with daytime temperatures in the 50s and 60s. The King Street shopping district and Holiday Market in Marion Square are ideal for any last-minute gifts.

Sea Island, Georgia

One of four barrier islands that make up the Golden Isles, Sea Island has everything from private beaches to luxurious resorts to stunning golf courses. Start the holiday season with Thanksgiving celebrations in November — live music, bingo, family activities and, of course, turkey — then carry on through December with a visit to the life-size Gingerbread Cottage and the delightful Reindog Parade, and wrap up with a New Year’s celebration that includes fireworks and even more delectable food. December high temperatures in the Gold Isles average the mid-60s.

Holiday road trips when you crave the crisp outdoors

Jackson Hole, Wyoming

Nearby Colorado and Utah get most of the attention for skiing, but Jackson Hole has its fair share of snowy slopes. This town is also full of luxurious resorts, perfect for cozy family holiday time together. When you’re ready to venture out from your resort, Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks are a short drive away. Just stay aware of the weather conditions as some parts of the parks may be closed due to snow.

Beaver Creek, Colorado

We picked Beaver Creek as one of our favorite affordable resorts in our latest guide to planning a ski trip. It will be pricier at Christmastime, but also more beautiful. Beaver Creek gets more than 300 inches of annual snowfall, with some of the peak views of the mountains (pun intended) coming in December. Beaver Creek Resort hosts Beaver Creek Wonder in December with oversized art installations, ice biking, and more seasonal fun for the family.

Stowe, Vermont

Ski season in Vermont usually starts in mid-November, and Stowe is one of the most popular spots on the East Coast. This is partly because of the great powder and partly because of its location. Stowe is within easy driving distance of many northeastern cities. There’s a reason the 1954 movie White Christmas was set in Vermont — it's the perfect backdrop for a fun family holiday.

Holiday road trips when you must see the city

New York, New York

Deciding how to spend a holiday in New York City is probably the most difficult aspect of this trip. Try picking one or two activities — a show, ice skating at Rockefeller Center, visiting Santa at Macy’s — and then leave the rest of your itinerary open to simply take in the lights and energy. Because driving in the city can be a harrowing experience for out-of-town road trippers, look for accommodations with parking included and then walk or take public transit to see the sites. You can also book a rental house outside the city and take the train in if you’re looking for less expensive options, although this might be easier if your children are older.

Branson, Missouri

We bet you didn’t know Branson is known as “America’s Christmas Tree City.” That’s because this midwestern playground city has more than 1,000 trees covered in millions of lights to make the season bright. In a town that’s also known for its shows year-round, you won’t be short on entertainment options, either.

Washington, D.C.

If you like the idea of decorative Christmas trees but want something a bit more metropolitan than Branson, head for the nation’s capital. The White House, U.S. Capital Building, Library of Congress, and more all decorate trees extravagantly in December. Although it can get quite cold this time of year, winter is the cheapest time to visit Washington, D.C., helping you to stretch your family vacation budget.

Protect Your Holiday Road Trip.

Looking for more tips? Try these road trip essentials for traveling with kids. And when you’re ready to plan your holiday getaway, chat with one of our licensed travel insurance agents to find the best travel insurance for your winter vacation.

Email sales@sevencorners.com

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