How to Survive a Family Road Trip as an Adult

Family: love ’em or hate ’em, your limits will be thoroughly tested on a family road trip. 

I’ve been going on road trips with my family ever since I can remember. When we were little, my brother and I would sit in the back seat of the car, entertained by our walkmans and Gameboys (or bickering about something stupid), driving hours from our home in Tampa to visit our grandparents in Ocala or to and from our home in Louisville during holidays.

As an adult, however, how on earth can you possibly survive a road trip with your family? You can’t be placated by candy or movies. You can’t be distracted by the license plate game. In this post, you’ll find my best tips for how to survive a family road trip as an adult, all learned from past experience. And believe me, if my family can make it through 8 days in a car in the Scottish Highlands, yours can make it through anything.

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Make sure the car is big enough for all the people and their luggage

Sounds simple, right? With four adults and multiple suitcases, we were pretty crammed into our car. While it wouldn’t have been smart to get a bigger car, our family road trip car could not have been any smaller. Make sure you’re renting a car appropriately sized for your needs — and make sure you include luggage size when you take into account how much space you’ll need.

Agree on entertainment beforehand

Will everyone simply listen to their own music? Or will the driver control the entertainment? Squabbling about road trip entertainment can cause unnecessary strains and delays, so come to a decision beforehand about setting limits on who controls what and for how long. You won’t regret it.

Go over the rules of the road beforehand

While this applies whenever you find yourself driving in a foreign country, be sure to prepare yourself for country-specific rules (and potentially rules in different languages). You don’t want to get a ticket or fine while you’re driving your rental car!

driving glen etive scotland on a family road trip

While the rules of the road can be agreed upon beforehand, things might not always go to plan. I don’t like to go too fast on winding roads; my brother does. This caused some tense moments on the road. Despite us urging him to drive slower before and during the trip, my brother has a need for speed and a penchant for stubbornness and we had many discussions (read: arguments) about his driving habits.

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Decide who will be the primary driver and who will be the primary navigator

I haven’t driven in over three years, so obviously, I was not going to be the primary driver during our family road trip. My mom and dad weren’t comfortable driving on the other side of the road, so my brother was the chosen driver. Because I need to sit in the front seat to prevent myself from getting carsick and because I made the itinerary, I was chosen to be the primary navigator. Despite some confusing directions (not my fault) and crazy driving (definitely my brother’s fault), our system worked out well!

sibling picture in stirling castle

I was the primary navigator, my brother was the primary driver. We had our ups and downs, but we survived!

Make sure everyone is aware of the itinerary

Itineraries: I live by them (even though I wish I didn’t). I’m good at putting the itinerary away when I’m in a city or walking around, but I will create an extremely detailed itinerary for a road trip if it’s in a new place. In Scotland, where we stayed in different places every night and only had a limited time to see each location, an itinerary was a must.

In theory, my family knew about the itinerary—at least, they knew that one existed. But since I was in charge of planning the trip and didn’t want anyone changing my plans, I kept my cards close to my chest. This was my mistake. While everyone was happy for me to plan the trip, they weren’t necessarily happy with my chosen activities or time limits at certain stops. Passive aggression and bickering ensued, some of which could have been prevented if they were aware of my plans and reasoning behind them!

quiraing isle of skye

We stayed at some places longer than others due to differences of opinion about the itinerary!

Plan alone time for everyone

Family tensions will run high on a family road trip, no matter how well you all get along. It’s inevitable, especially after six hours crammed in a car together driving in a foreign country. Whether you go off on your own at a stop or spend time alone after you reach your stop for the night, make sure that everyone can spend some alone time at some point in the day.

Be prepared for compromise

glenfinnan viaduct scotland

Not everyone wanted to visit Glenfinnan Viaduct, but we compromised with a short visit there and skipped another item on the list!

That place you wanted to visit but no one else does? You might need to miss it this time around. Family road trips (and traveling with other people in general) necessitate compromise at some point during the trip. During family road trips, where everyone’s schedule is the same, you will have to be willing to compromise to keep everyone happy. Nothing is worse than a tense, silent car ride where everyone is frustrated.

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Be prepared for unexpected delays

image of shieldaig scotland in the scottish highlands

Wildfires unexpectedly cut off the power to most of western Scotland, meaning all cafes were closed for service and all power was out. Not ideal!

Bathroom breaks, food stops, winding roads, wrong turns, rainy weather, incorrect maps—expect it all. Unexpected delays are part of road trips. While seemingly an obvious point, make sure to consciously prepare yourself for unexpected delays because they will happen. Whether the fault of one of your fellow passengers or something completely out of your control, take a deep breath and remember that delays are just part of the journey.

Assigned seats (to prevent fighting later)

Luckily for my family, we tend to gravitate to the same seats every drive. My dad or brother drive, I sit in front (yay, carsickness!), and my mom or brother fill the other empty seat. Even if it’s an unspoken rule, make sure you know who is sitting where. I know from previous experience that fighting over who sits where in the car causes unnecessary tension and delays.

Have fun! (and don’t forget the family photos)

applecross bealach na ba scotland in the scottish highlands

Family road trips can be fun, you just have to know how to survive them. Finding family time as adults can be difficult, so make sure to enjoy your family road trip! And don’t forget to take photos to document your successful family road trip.

Have you taken a family road trip as an adult?

How to Survive a Family Road Trip as an Adult

Travel Tips, Travels
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6 Comments

  • Reply
    Dee
    12 November 2018 at 07:10

    Great post, and very timely with the Christmas holidays coming up! Road trips were much easier when I was growing up, even though there were lots of problems with all of us getting along.. Now it seems like it’s impossible to even schedule them in when we’re all adults and have our own families and obligations. And yes to car sickness! I get the front seat too :)

    • Reply
      almathews
      12 November 2018 at 12:55

      Yeah we still have problems all getting along in my family. Tensions ran high during our road trip, which is why I figured I needed to write about it ;) My brother graduates college in May so I have a feeling our road trips will be a lot harder to schedule once we all work full-time.

  • Reply
    Sandra Serrano
    18 November 2018 at 08:30

    This was awesome! I love traveling with my husband because we’ve been doing it together for 20 years, but not sure if I could hack it with anyone else. Family is wonderful until you’re in a tiny car together. Love your advice about letting everyone know the itinerary.

    • Reply
      almathews
      20 November 2018 at 17:22

      Haha! Yes. We do great in separate rooms of a house, but our limits were truly tested on our road trip!

  • Reply
    Katie
    20 November 2018 at 01:19

    Oh my – I haven’t done a family road trip for a while, but the last time was from the UK to the South of France in convoy! That wasn’t so bad as we were in different cars, but agreeing the plan and making sure you get alone time was definitely key!

    • Reply
      almathews
      20 November 2018 at 17:21

      Definitely agree. The alone time part we learned the hard way!

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