20 Things to Do on a Car Trip With a Teenager

Road Trips with Teens

Road trips…yuck. Car trips…also yuck. There is nothing worse than traveling in a vehicle for more than two hours, yet my husband insists any travel destination we can reach by car in under 8 hours is worth the drive. He likes to break it down like this:

  • 1 hour drive to our airport
  • 2 hours in the airport (plus the cost of airfare, the cost of checking bags, rental cars when we land, etc.)
  • 1-2 hours flight time
  • 1 hour to disembark, get luggage, make bathroom stops, wait at the rental facility
  • Time to travel to the hotel/rental home

Road Trips with Teens

In his mind, he’d rather have control over the schedule if it’s going to be the same timeframe. I get it, but I don’t have to like it. On to my next question, is there a difference between a car trip and a road trip?

I consider a car trip something that we take when it’s a few hours in the car. A road trip is when it’s longer than 4 or 5 hours, but some people take actual road trips where they just drive for days and days and continue driving even more than a few days.

It’s a hard no for me. However, I’ll tell you that we do take at least three car/road trips a year in our home, and we do each of them with our four kids (who are almost 15, 12, 9, and 9) and usually one of our teenage daughter’s best friends.

We head straight for the Tennessee Mountains (9 hours) every year after Christmas, we spend spring break at our favorite resort in Miami (4.5 hours), and we spend the first week of summer vacation in 30A (5 hours).

Anywhere else, and we fly. But these three trips are always done via car, and the kids are really easy in the car. Keeping them happy, especially our teen, is something we excel at doing.

Road Trips with Teens

Teens Are Surprisingly Easy to Entertain

Maybe we are fortunate, but we don’t have a lot of ‘are we there yet?’ going on with our kids. Our son likes to give us weather updates anywhere we go. He also likes to tell us which county we are in, what’s near us, and how far it is to whatever big city we happen to be near. He’s a tour guide, essentially.

But last summer, our daughter turned 14, and we decided for her birthday, we’d ditch the three little kids at home with grandparents for the weekend and take her and her friends to Charleston, South Carolina, for a long weekend that included a Thomas Rhett concert.

The drive from our house is just under 6 hours, and it included myself, my husband, and three 14-year-old girls. The ride began with napping, then snacking, then a lot of teenage music, bathrooms, lunch, and then more snacks and music.

Wash, rinse, and repeat. However, we did learn what it takes to keep teens happy on a car trip, and I’m sharing with you now.

Road Trips with Teens

1. Rent a Large Vehicle (if you don’t already own one)

This is, hands down, the single most important thing you will do for your kids. I’ll be honest with you – I don’t understand how people can drive anything small on a road trip.

My everyday car is a 21 Yukon XL, and it’s perfect for road trips. Plenty of space for luggage in the oversize trunk, lots of leg room in every row, and seating for seven (no, thank you, to the middle row bench seat for me). Teens need space.

I’ll also add a simple note here for you – if you do rent a vehicle for your trip, keep this in mind. If there are more than four people traveling with you, do not rent a regular length SUV.

They do not have trunk space unless you put the third row down, and they are entirely impractical for more than four people and luggage. You’re better off renting a minivan with ample luggage space and room for more than four people to sit comfortably. Moral of the story – you must have an extra long SUV if you need the third row for seating.

Road Trips with Teens

2. Pack Accordingly

You can pack anything for a road trip, but you cannot pack everything. Safety is a consideration, and you must be able to see out of your windows and mirrors. Additionally, you also need to have space for your passengers to get in and out of the car easily during breaks.

Road Trips with Teens

3. Let Your Teen Invite a Friend

Spring Break is the only vacation we take every year in which we absolutely do not open the door for guests. It is much-needed family time for the six of us, and we don’t get that if our teen has a friend along.

Otherwise, however, we are good with a friend coming along. We have an extra seat, and we usually let her fill it with a friend. It’s a lot more fun for teens to have someone they love (outside of their family) on a trip.

Road Trips with Teens

4. Pack Snacks

No one wins when you’re hangry. Pack snacks. Healthy snacks, unhealthy snacks, and good snacks. Pack them all.

Road Trips with Teens

5. Bring a Trash Bag

You pack snacks, you’ll need trash bags. Teens don’t like their empty water bottles and snack packaging invading their backseat nap space. You’re welcome.

Road Trips with Teens

6. Let Your Teen Choose the Music

We don’t always love the music our teen and her friends choose in the car, but we love 90 percent of it. You might be surprised to learn that your own teens love Journey and Queen, Dr. Dre and Eminem, and all the stuff you loved at that age.

Road Trips with Teens

7. Bring Blankets and Pillows

I cannot sleep in the car. How can I possibly be a backseat driver to my husband if I’m sleeping? The teens, though? Road trips are like naptime for them. Or a full night of sleep. Whatever. Just make sure they have fuzzy blankets and pillows.

Road Trips with Teens

8. Consider Slip on Shoes and Fuzzy Socks the Official Road Trip Shoe

I don’t allow boots, sneakers, or anything that doesn’t slip on and off during a road trip. Why? Because nothing irritates me more than kids who need 14 minutes to put their shoes on when we stop.

Additionally, my teen has taken to wearing her slippers on road trips, and guess who didn’t notice that until our first restroom stop on the way to our mountain house? Yeah, gross. So, they can wear fuzzy socks, but they also wear slides in the car.

Road Trips with Teens

9. Consider Playing Travel Games

Let your teen pick games. They don’t have to be corny. Or they do. whatever you like. More importantly, whatever they like.

Road Trips with Teens

10. Have a Real Conversation

One of my favorite things to do in the car with my kids is have a conversation. They can’t leave, they’re not distracted, and they have my full attention. We have some of our best conversations on long car rides. From fun conversations to serious ones, we do a lot of talking, and it’s a bonding experience.

Road Trips with Teens

11. Break Down Longer Trips

Here’s where the road trip thing comes into play. If you are planning an actual road trip where you will be in the car for days, break it down. Even if you are driving 10-15 hours to your final destination, break it down. Don’t do it all in one day unless you want your teen to glare at you forever. Drive halfway, stop at a hotel for the night, and then go.

Road Trips with Teens

12. Let Your Teen Help Plan the Trip

When it comes to stopping, make sure your teen gets some say in it. Is there a place at the halfway point they want to stop for the night? A specific hotel in a city that they think is cool? A restaurant near where you are stopping that they’ve always wanted to visit? Let them have some input to make the trip more exciting.

Road Trips with Teens

13. Pre-Plan Food Stops So Your Teen Has Good Options

Actually, let this be a job for your teen. Have them map the best stops during your road trips so that you already know in advance what’s coming up to eat. You also don’t have to do the dirty work, and they feel like they’re doing something helpful.

Road Trips with Teens

14. Keep Lotion in the Car

Whether it’s hot or dry, it’s common for everyone to become scaly and itchy while traveling. The hot air zaps the moisture right out of your body. So does the cold air. So does car air and airplane air, and all the air. Make sure you have hand lotion in your car for everyone.

Road Trips with Teens

15. Consider Downloading Audiobooks You Both Want to Hear

Audiobooks are a great way to pass the time. Everyone can listen, and the ride is so much more entertaining.

Road Trips with Teens

16. Download Movies or Shows

We surprised our kids with a long weekend in NYC in December, and they were so excited. However, the flight is just over two hours, so our teen and our pre-teen both downloaded “Wednesday” on Netflix on their phones so they could watch the entire season while we were traveling. Kids love stuff like this. They can binge anything.

Road Trips with Teens

17. Pay for The Wi-Fi Your Car Offers

The cost is probably different depending on the service provider and the type of car you drive, but there is nothing more valuable in our lives than paying for the Wi-Fi in my car.

I can work while I’m in car lines, the kids always have internet to watch their shows, and everyone is always able to play on their iPads, etc. It’s worth it…especially if you’re on a car trip. I believe you can pay for internet for a month at a time, too, so you’re not locked in.

Road Trips with Teens

18. Keep Medications On Hand

Prescription medications should always be kept on your person when you travel. However, a road trip is the kind of vacation that requires regular meds be kept on hand, too. Here’s my medication travel tip. I keep a plastic toiletries bag in our medicine cabinet ready to go on every trip (you cannot and should not store meds in your car at all times). In the bag, I keep:

  • Adult ibuprofen and Tylenol
  • Chewable Tylenol for the kids
  • Chewable motrin for the kids (we have a daughter allergic to advil and chewables)
  • Liquid Tylenol for our allergic little one
  • Antihistamine
  • Melatonin gummies because no one ever sleeps well in any beds but our own (it’s me, I’m no one)

If you have a teen who tends to get car sick, keep some motion sickness meds with you, too.

Road Trips with Teens

19. Do Stop for Breaks

Even if it adds time to the trip (trust me, nothing is more important to me than beating the ETA on my navigation screen), stop. Everyone needs to stretch, move around a bit, and get some fresh air.

Road Trips with Teens

20. Be Patient and Calm

No one loves being on a road trip except my father (and I question his sanity strictly because of his love of road trips), so it’s important you keep your patience while on the road. No one wins when you are in a mood, and teens can smell any shift in mood. Stay calm. You can do this.

Bonus Tip for Taking a Road Trip With Teens: Fly. Just book the airline tickets and fly. Go. Go forth and fly, and don’t waste your time on a road trip. That’s my expert advice.

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