We are known in our circle of friends as travel disasters – doesn’t matter if we travel by car, train, plane or boat. There is always something that happens to us. It makes for some great stories, but it is nice to have calm vacations at times. One of the reasons, I love car trips is that it puts us in a little more control with dealing with the disasters. The other reason I love car trips is that the open road is full of possibilities and freedom and is a chance to just focus on one thing at a time. It is dangerous to multitask while driving, so this is a time when you can feel good about single tasking.

Of course since we are known as the travel disasters, we have compiled a list of lessons learned while traveling by car and the disaster stories of how we learned it (and added some other fun tips as well).

Getting the Car Ready for the Trip

The first topic is about the car itself. During a long car trip, you will be sitting among all of your luggage, food, trash, entertainment, etc. so you want to start out with things as organized as possible.


Before you go on the road trip, clean out your car first. This will make it easier to pack and organize everything. Make sure you take out anything unnecessary, wipe down the surfaces with a damp cloth, clean the inside of the front and back windows, and if you can, vacuum out the car. It is much nicer to ride in a car for hours when things are clean. You can even purchase a little vacuum that plugs into your car to keep it clean along the way. There is not real story to go along with this other than spending hours sitting among a bunch of food trash (on top of the mess that we started with) didn’t make me a pleasant person to ride with – so maybe if you asked my kids, they would say it was a disaster waiting to happen

Car Maintenance

In addition to cleaning your car, make sure your oil change is up to date (taking into account the miles that you will travel to your location and back), check your air in your tires (don’t forget the spare), and that you have things like jumper cables, flares, etc.

When you do this maintenance, just make sure you don’t do the day of or day before you leave. We definitely learned this the hard way when right before a long trip, we took our car to get the oil changed. When the work was done, the drain plug was not properly installed back, and in the middle of our long drive, the drain plug fell off, all the oil immediately drained from the car, and the engine was ruined. This all happened in about 10 seconds. We were stranded in a far from home location with a car that was not just inoperable, but needed a whole new engine. If we had done work done a few days before, the issue would have still happened, but it would have been close to home, which would have been much easier to deal with.


Be sure to bring an adequate number of chargers in the car for various devices. If you don’t have a multiple port adapter, you can buy them fairly inexpensively and can charge 2 or 3 devices at one time. This will keep the sanity of the car’s inhabitants if their devices are still working.


Once you have everything you need to keep devices going, be sure to pack enough headphones for everyone so car travelers can be listening to different things at once if needed. A charger keeper can be nice to keep everything organized if you have a lot of devices to keep chargers and headphones.

Downloaded Media

Another tip we have found is to download movies, music, podcasts to your devices (phones, tablets, etc) if you can before the trip when you are still on a Wi-Fi connection. A lot of services like Netflix, Amazon Video, iTunes, Spotify and more will let you download these items with no extra charge. You are usually limited to the amount you can download at one time. Doing this will not only save your data on your plan, but if you are like us and will drive off to that cabin in the woods with no cell signal – it can be a life saver on those rainy days when there is nothing to do.

Packing Food

We like to bring our own food many times since it saves money, uses up what we already have, and we can access the food in the car as well.

Cold Food

Bringing coolers are an obvious choice for cold food, but we have a couple of ideas that we have used to keep things cold and re-purpose. The first is to  freeze disposable water bottles. We freeze about 10 of them days prior to the trip and use them to pack around the food in the coolers. They can then be used later as just water bottles. A second idea is to make your own cold packs with inexpensive sponges and zip lock bags. You just get the sponge pretty wet, place in the zip lock bag and freeze. The cold packs can be useful during the trip if there is an injury or can be used to cool down in the hot weather. A combination of the two ideas can be very useful in your travel cooler.

Make sure you bring enough cold packs for your trip. We have had a lot of good fresh food such as yogurt and cheese not be usable by the end of the drive because one of my kids had been into the cooler and left the lid open for several hours in the car.

Utility Bags

Photo of a utility bag that is has a rectangular opening and zig zag pattern used for car trips
Utility bag – great for food or other loose items on car trips

For packing the dry food, we like these utility bags that are rectangular and have a reinforced opening to keep the bag’s shape. They fit things like cereal boxes perfectly and are easier to carry than normal reusable grocery bags. We actually use these for more than food (beach towels, small items that you can group together, toys for kids, and just about anything that isn’t too heavy) so we have about 4-5 of these bags that we use on our trips. Once you are at your location, one of them can be a laundry basket, or use one to haul items to the beach. The fabric is easy to wipe clean, and you can buy them for about $11-16 each. Best bags for car trips!

Emergency Car Trip Kit

Pack tissues, hand sanitizer, napkins, some plastic spoons/forks, hand wipes, and car sickness bags (if you have a car sick prone traveler) in a small, but accessible bag. We have several members of my family that car sickness is an issue. I probably don’t have to elaborate anymore how we learned this lesson.

Look for the Weird

If you are not trying to race to your location in the shortest time possible, thing about looking for some interesting places or attractions to stop.

Try searching on RoadsideAmerica.com for cities along the way. This website is a very interesting index of weird things to see in America.

Roadtrippers.com is another website to view. This site allows you to enter your start and end locations along with dates and shows you things to see along the way. It can be very helpful to find some stopping spots especially with kids and find those weird attractions that will be along your route or maybe inspire you to veer off route a bit.

Music for the Car Trip

Whether you use a service like Spotify or use have purchased your own digital music, coming up with a playlist for the trip can add some spice to your drive. You can do themes – such as tv show theme songs to get other people in your car to sing along or play games like who can say what show it comes from first, your songs can be from the same era or find songs that come from or are about the area you are traveling to. There are many possibilities, but this is a great activity to develop during the lead up time to the trip.