20 Frugal Road Trip Activities for Kids

It’s time to travel! Summers for many of us are about road trips, and this summer seems tailor-made for getaways by car. However, that does mean for those of us with children figuring out ways to keep our kids entertained and healthy in their car seats for long hours. Don’t fret. There are many inexpensive but fun things you can provide your kids to keep them happy and engaged.

Fun & Frugal Road Trip Activities

  1. Maps! We live in a digital world, and I certainly rely on GPS apps on my phone to navigate through places both familiar and expected. However, that doesn’t mean that knowing how to read a map is a useless skill! Far from it! Not only that, but kids really enjoying tracking their family’s progress on a road trip. An added benefit? It helps cut down questions about how much longer before you stop.
  2. Assemble travel craft kits. Do you have (like I do) lunch kits or bento boxes missing vital pieces, beat-up rubber food storage containers, lunch boxes that have seen better days, or other small storage pieces you’d like to repurpose? Make them into travel craft kits. Each tray can hold supplies for a craft to keep little fingers busy. Make a coloring kit, a decoupage kit) with pipe cleaners, precut pages from a magazine, and tape), or any other safe while driving craft that your kids will enjoy.
  3. Play games. There are many choices for fun car games the entire family will enjoy. Free printable travel games are available featuring a variety of games like seeing who can spot license plates from the most states to a road sign scavenger game. Magnetic board games are available, which makes playing in the car far easier.
  4. Read! Car rides are great times to catch up on reading. Hit up the library or your local used bookstore for cheap reads to keep everyone entertained during the ride. Along with books for kids to read independently, a car ride is also a great time for a book you can read aloud to the whole family.
  5. Listen to audiobooks. Remember that audiobooks count as reading. Most public libraries offer free access to Libby, which lets you listen to digital audiobooks for free.
  6. Travel toys. Preparing for a trip? It’s a perfect time, in my world, to hit up my local dollar store. There I load up on fun, cheap, small toys that will keep my kids entertained in the back seat. Instead of handing them this plethora all at once I wrap them and stick them in a tote bag. At certain points in the trip (I go by mile markers or our moods, depending on how the trip is going!) I hand them new toys. The excitement of unwrapping a toy and having something new to play with helps ease over difficult moments in the car.
  7. Have your kids keep a travel journal. These can be as simple as an inexpensive composition notebook, or you can buy premade travel journals for kids. Younger kids will benefit from prompts, or you could even design the journal on your computer and have it printed and bound. Your kids can sketch fun things they see from the car windows, paste in brochures or other paper souvenirs, and older kids can even write down some of the things they see along the way. Fun, cheap, educational. What can be better?
  8. DIY lap desks give your kids a stable workspace. An easy way to get one cheaply? Rimmed cookie sheets from the dollar store are a perfect size, are inexpensive, and the rimmed sides help hold your kids’ supplies in place.
  9. Another idea for a cookie sheet? Younger kids will enjoy playing with magnets on their lap desks. Letter magnets are cheap and have the added benefit of getting little minds used to letter shapes.
  10. It’s a great time to try out some workbooks. Kids love to learn, and you can use some car time to reinforce what they learned last year. Phonics, language, math, and science workbooks are available inexpensively at dollar and discount stores.
  11. Listen to music. A fun pre-trip activity might be helping your kids craft playlists for the car ride (this also allows you to veto any songs you truly can’t stand). Let each kid’s playlist have its time to shine! And don’t forget to make your own, because sometimes you need a break from kid tunes.
  12. Try out some podcasts. Okay, not true crime or personal development (the podcasts I have queued up) but some focused on kids. There are many produced for, and in some cases by kids, your whole family might enjoy. One of our personal favorites is
    But Why
    where kids ask questions (like how words are added to dictionaries) and then adults take them along as they discover the answers.
  13. It’s a good time for apps. Sure, we are all concerned about the amount of time our kids spend with screens. But it is a vacation! Not only do kids enjoy them, but many also provide educational benefits and experiences.
  14. Don’t forget naps. It’s important to try and maintain some routine for your kids, even on the road. So when it’s naptime quiet down the car, turn on soothing music, and help your kids get to sleep. Older kids will benefit from some quiet time with headphones or a book. And let’s be real-parents also need quiet time on road trips to recharge our batteries!
  15. Play Mark the Miles. If you are road tripping to a certain destination, make a chart for your kids that either marks the hours or miles of the trip. Each hour or hundred-mile mark (whichever you prefer) has tickets they can pull from the chart and trade in for snacks, treats from your dollar store bag, or screen time.
  16. Invest in pipe cleaners. Pipe cleaners can be used in many ways by inventive kids. They can tape them to paper to make pictures, twist them together to make jewelry or sculptures, or you can poke holes in the plastic top of a coffee can and younger kids will enjoy feeding the cleaners through the holes.
  17. Make scavenger hunt games. Know ahead of time where you will be stopping? Prepare some easy scavenger hunt cards to keep your kids entertained at parks and sights of interest along the way.
  18. Don’t forget movies. Since the devices are already out, let your kids enjoy a movie. Movies are especially great when it’s dark and other activities aren’t possible due to lack of light. They also work well when you are ready for the kids to calm down either to prepare for naptime or going to sleep.
  19. Pack snacks. Snacks are vital on car trips. One, because fed kids are typically happier kids. Two, because it’s something else to do and look forward to in the car. Prepack snacks that are both healthy and not terribly messy for their health and the sake of your car!
  20. Tell each other stories. One nice thing about car trips is that you are all together (to be honest this is also one of the challenging things!). It’s a great time to talk and reconnect and tell each other stories about your lives, your families, and where you are going. Let the little ones chime in. Their stories might not be rooted in reality, but they’ll enjoy telling them!

Road Trip Essentials

  • The best way to save money is by packing food, both snacks and meals, to keep your family from spending money at convenience stores and fast-food outlets.
  • Don’t forget water bottles and backup beverages! Having cold water at your fingertips keeps your family hydrated and healthy.
  • A first aid kit. Accidents can happen, and it’s always better to be prepared.
  • Cell phones, chargers, and fully charged battery backups. The United States is a vast country, and you want to make sure you can use your phone when needed.
  • A car emergency kit with jumper cables, a spare tire, blankets, and necessary equipment.
  • Beach toys, beach blankets, or whatever equipment you’ll need for your planned stops. These things often cost much more at tourist destinations than they do at your local discount big box store.
  • Multiple sources of payment. I was once on a road trip when my bank had a computer issue and all of their ATM, debit, and credit cards stopped working. Luckily, I had some cash with me and my travel companion’s cards were from a different bank, but it was not a fun experience on my vacation! So bring a combination of cash and cards, and don’t put them all in one place. After all, theft and simple loss are real concerns while traveling.

Other Ways to Save Money

  • Use gas apps to find the cheapest places to fuel up.
  • Set a budget before you go, and break it down into categories like gas, food, lodging, and experiences.
  • Consider camping out for at least some of your nights away.
  • Find free campsites.
  • Download apps and sign up for newsletters for hotels, motels, and chain restaurants you are likely to frequent along the way.

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