Surviving Family Car Trips

Ages 3-5

  Curator Betsy B.

Curator Betsy B.

Why I Created This Guide

Recently my husband and I solved a longstanding mystery that had haunted us for a good two years.  Why was it that every time we went on a long-distance car trip with our daughter (or, sometimes, a taxi ride from the airport) she got carsick?  The answer, to our infinite surprise, was solved when we finally realized that every time she watched a screen, be it a laptop, phone, iPad, or television monitor in the back of a cab, it gave her motion sickness.  Problem solved, right?  Well . . . sorta.  We were happy enough to take away the screens but now we had to figure out how to entertain a child for car trips that would sometimes last 10-12 hours at a time!  Here is the solution. A collection of books, games, apps (your kids may not suffer the same stomach malady as ours, after all), family activities and more for handling children and staving off the dreaded words, “Are we there yet?”

Picture Books About Car Trips

Are We There Yet? by Sam Williams

Ages 3-6

More a metaphor for a trip than a straight recounting, but delightful just the same.  A mother duck takes her kids on a trip away from their "boring" pond.  Parents will recognize the complaints coming from most (not all) of the traveling fowl.


Are We There Yet? by Alison Lester

Ages 4-6

You think your trip was long?  Try a three-monther around the continent of Australia!  You've got nothing on this family and the book shows not only what they see but also how they deal with travel.


Backseat A-B-See by Maria Van Lieshout

Ages 3-6

It's the alphabet and familiar road signs all at once!  Finally kids can learn to interpret the language of the road on their own.  Each letter goes with a distinctive road sign.  Fun both in and out of the car.



Let's Go for a Drive by Mo Willems

Ages 3-7

Easy reader books don't get any better than Elephant and Piggie, and their adventures don't get any funnier than this.  When Gerald the elephant decides the two should go on a car trip they spent a great deal of time getting everything they need . . . with one significant exception.  


Fred and Ted's Road Trip by Peter Eastman

Ages 3-7

Another easy reader, this time featuring two dog buddies.  They've a wonderful trip planned, but neither one expects the sheer number of disasters that hit them along the way.  In the event of an emergency on your trip, use this book to put things in relative perspective. 


Riding in My Car by Woodie Guthrie, ill. Scott Menchin

Ages 3-6

Planning on seeing the country?  Then why not let one of America's greatest wordsmith's guide you along?  In this book a family of dogs sees the sights and along the way readers can use the pull tabs and other interactive details to have a jolly good time.

Books to Save Your Sanity

If there’s any kind of book that can keep a small child enthralled for long periods of time it’s one that’s just rife with details and sneaky teeny tiny elements. These books are ideal for the pre-reader or early reader and offer up something new each time you open them.  


Where’s Waldo? The Ultimate Travel Collection by Martin Handford

Every single Waldo book is so packed with details and tiny elements that you could go blind trying to discover them all.  Now all five of his original classic adventures have been bound into a single “Travel Collection” which will be perfect for any trip you hope to take.



Richard Scarry’s Cars and Trucks and Things That Go by Richard Scarry

An oldie but a goodie.  Sure the book is a historical piece to some extent (dig Mama Pig’s 80s headband while marveling at some of the older cars and trucks) but that doesn’t make it any less fun. 


Everything Goes by Brian Biggs

Consider this Where’s Waldo meets Richard Scarry. If Scarry loved cars and trucks and Waldo perfected the art of the teeny tiny detail then Biggs combines the two together in a brilliant way.  There are three books in the series right now including Everything Goes on Land, Everything Goes in the Air, and Everything Goes by Sea (to say nothing of the companion board books).  Read them together and you’ll find characters jumping from one book to another as well as the author’s own cameos.  Mesmerizing.



Busy Bunny Days: In the Town, On the Farm & At the Port by Britta Teckentrup

A clever idea that has a lot to offer.  In this book Teckentrup shows three locations, one after another, at different times of the day.  As you read you begin to notice distinct storylines and sneaky characters.  Keep an eye out for Benny Badger!  That guy is up to no good.  A book that teaches time of day while also remaining interesting.


Eloise by Kay Thompson

An oldie but a goodie.  I think a lot of us forget just how long and engaging Thompson’s original book really is.  Eloise proves to be a handful but her adventures in the plaza won’t just exhaust her nanny.  They may well exhaust you and your kids as well.

Activity Books

A good activity book is worth its weight in gold.  Fortunately we live in a virtual golden age of interactive books.  Here are some of the loveliest and most amusing:


Super Space Sticker Activity Book & Amazing Pets Sticker Activity Book

What’s more interesting than a mere activity book?  A sticker activity book!  And what’s more amusing than a sticker activity book?  A sticker activity book from National Geographic that’s just chock full of sneaky facts as well as sticker, games, mazes, coloring pages, etc.  More fun than they deserve to be and twice as attractive.  Forget hours of entertainment.  These books will provide weeks and months worth, if doled out carefully.



Don’t Let the Pigeon Finish This Activity Book by Mo Willems

Clocking in at a whopping 272 pages this is the book for kids who are already fans of Mo’s precocious pigeon as well as those meeting him for the very first time.  With a funny plot involving a Mad Cow, this is probably the most action packed, fun, multi-dimensional activity book you will find out there.


Doodle With Maisy by Lucy Cousins

Pack up your best crayons and get ready for a book chock full of fun and ideas. All your favorite characters are here with lots of different choices and ways to take the pictures.  A plethora of good ideas!


Photoplay! by M.J. Bronstein

Ambitious!  Behold the doodle book where you draw on and improve photographs.  Somewhat surreal but always grounded in the real world, this is one title that lets kids’ imaginations really fly!


For a trip of any decent length you’re going to want apps that offer a myriad of different possibilities and games. 


Press Here

Ages 3-5

The original book by Herve Tullet celebrated the power of print.  The app, to its credit, does something entirely different.  Kids explore fifteen different games and activities, often having to figure out how the game works even as they play it.  Incredibly clever and engaging, it’ll amuse for long periods of time.


Mad Libs

Ages 4 and Up

Younger kids may need a little help coming up with the nouns, adjectives, and verbs but they’ll definitely get a kick out of the hilarious results that come.  This one really is fun for the entire family!



Family Car Games

Ages 4 and Up

This app actually has 100 (you read that right) suggested games for the whole family to enjoy.  Everything from singing games to good old rock, paper, scissors is all here.  There’s bound to be something in this app for everyone.  Ideas galore!

Need more? Be sure to read this list of 5 Awesome Apps for Family Road Trips.  Great suggestions to be found there!  Then read the 10 Fun Game Apps to Play on Your Road Trip.

Tips and Tricks in the Car

Everyone needs a little help sometimes.  If you’ve time to prep before your trip then why not create these cute little items to help get you through.  After all, you’ve got miles to go before they’ll sleep.

Surprise Packages

Prepare ahead with paper bags of items to be given out every 25, 50 or 75 miles -- marked on a map with the location. It takes a little bit of preparation to do this but it REALLY helps young children. In each bag put a wrapped item -- usually a small toy. Then in some of the surprise packages you can add juice or a snack, stickers and a piece of paper, or something pertaining to the trip that you can talk about.

Travel Tickets


Use some colored construction paper to cut out some "tickets" for your trip. Give your child a pre-counted baggie full of tickets. Every half hour (or every 30 miles) they can turn in one ticket to you. When their tickets are gone, the trip has ended!   This can really helps young children get an idea of how much time is left on the journey. Go here to print some printable travel tickets.

Drawing boards 

Pack along something like Magna doodle, Etcha Sketch, and small white boards with dry erase markers. No mess, no fuss, no worries!

Have a Puppet Show

Do the show in the car, in the hotel, or anywhere, kids love puppets! Break up the monotony by having your puppet "tell" the kids what's coming up next on the trip. If they won't listen to you, maybe they'll listen to a silly puppet. Then give them a chance to each have their own puppet to "talk" to each other.

Teach your kids to like YOUR Music  

I think a lot of us have seen that YouTube video of the little girl crying because her parents won’t let her listen to David Bowie.  Obviously we’d suggest you incline more towards artists with a beat that kids can dance to (sorry, Postal Service) but even a playlist of Oldies can have the car jumping and grinding if done right.  Make it one great big car singalong!

 Source: The Denver Housewife   

Source: The Denver Housewife


Give each child a "Trip Bag" 

This can be a backpack for each child, or a canvas bag or even a big plastic bin that is used specifically for road trips.  Kids can load it up with all their favorite road trip stuff and other toys so they can have it all handy and easily accessible to them in the car. You can even decorate the bag to designate it as their special trip bag and use it to collect stickers or pins from various trips. 

Chalk and black paper 

This makes an interesting artwork and is easy to clean up.  You can use colored chalks or just a box of white chalk and black construction paper.

Treasure Bottle 

It’s like a three-dimensional I Spy game you can hold in your hands!  Prepare this one ahead of time.  Use a large soda bottle or a large clean peanut butter jar. Fill it no more than 2/3 full with uncooked rice or birdseed. Then put in about 20-25 small objects (safety pin, plastic bugs, button, nut, bolt, paper clip, penny, bead, piece of macaroni, tiny lego, and other misc. toy pieces or stuff that is probably rolling around in your kitchen junk drawer.)  Keep a count of the items and write down the number of items on the outside of the bottle. Put the lid on tight (super-glue it if necessary).   Let the kids take turns rolling the bottle around in their hands until they find them all. Kids of all ages love this game.  You can make more than one treasure bottle so kids don't have to take turns - put different items in different bottles.

Keep them happy with food and snacks!  



Woe betide the parent that failed to pack enough munchies on a trip.  Hard pressed to think of any aside from Cheerios?  Here are some suggestions:

  • Make your own trail mixMake it with stuff that's on sale: mix dried fruit, nuts, M&M's, cereal, goldfish crackers, etc./ together.  Put servings into small sandwich bags to be passed out at the appropriate times.

  • Cereal mixMix ALL different kinds of cereal and package in individual zippy bags. Or just package individual kinds of cereal in bags. Pass them out for breakfast in the car.

  • Apple slicesDipped in Sprite (keeps them from turning brown)

  • String cheese

  • Bottles of waterMake it the only drink kids are allowed to have in the back of your car. It's healthy and makes cleaning up spills a lot easier than juice or soft drinks.

  • Fruit roll upsNow they even have tattoo roll ups. Oh the fun you can have with food!

Not enough suggestions? Then check out even MORE ideas at

Tips for Maintaining Sanity

All this aside, you’re going to be a very small space with very small people.  Is there anything you can do to prepare yourself and your family members for what’s to come? Here are some ideas.

  • Get the whole family involved in planning the trip – especially the kids – so everyone has a say in the itinerary and they know what to expect.

  • Estimate your travel times and don’t try to drive too far in too short a period, which can both be dangerous and have the potential to turn fellow travelers into raging psychopaths. Plan where to make fuel stops in advance, and don’t let your vehicle’s fuel level get below one-quarter of a tank to avoid inadvertently running out.

  • Set aside sufficient time to pack your clothes, load your vehicle and get a full night’s sleep so you can start your trip refreshed.

  • Pack appropriately. Secure luggage in the trunk and keep toys and other objects in the passenger compartment to a minimum – these could become dangerous projectiles in a crash. Bring along a pillow or two so passengers can sleep.

  • Don’t forget the necessities. Bring any applicable prescription or over-the-counter medications, and be sure to carry garbage bags, paper towels, tissues, an extra roll of toilet paper, baby wipes, etc.

  • Don’t be in too much of a hurry. Stop every two hours for a bathroom break and to stretch your legs. Have lunch or snacks at a park or highway rest area to let the kids run off some steam. The AAA suggests road trippers plan on taking a rest stop every two hours or 100 miles.

For more tips check out the Forbes article Taking a Family Road Trip That Won’t Make You Crazy.

About Betsy B.

Betsy is currently New York Public Library’s Youth Materials Collections Specialist. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, reviewed for Kirkus and The New York Times and has also written the picture book Giant Dance Party, illustrated by Brandon Dorman.  In 2014, Candlewick will publish Wild Things: Acts of Mischief in Children's Literature which she co-wrote with Jules Danielson and Peter Sieruta.  You can follow Betsy on Twitter @FuseEight or at her blog A Fuse #8 Production hosted by School Library Journal.