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When you have kids, a minivan makes a lot of sense. Having the larger vehicle—with space for everyone to stretch out, without touching—and the room for all your luggage without piling it on someone’s lap is a lifesaver. Especially when it comes to those long summer vacation road trips. There’s another product that makes those long drives with impatient kids even easier, no matter what kind of vehicle you’re in. And chances are, you already have one sitting around: a tablet.

As someone who has experienced the before and after (my kids were all born pre-iPad but grew up with the devices), and thus can truly appreciate what a difference the tablet has made for parents, I put together a list of five ways a tablet can save your sanity on a summer vacation road trip.

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Probably the single greatest use for a tablet on a road trip is for playing movies. A full-sized tablet like an iPad Air is the perfect size for watching movies or TV shows. Just remember to load up the tablet with favourites before you leave—don’t rely on those movies you have in the cloud. I actually have a first generation iPad with 64GB of storage that I keep specifically for road trip movie duty. It’s too old to run a recent operating system or apps, but it still works perfectly well for playing video. At around 1GB a pop for standard definition, it holds enough movies and TV shows to last for several days on the road, with plenty of options to choose from.

You’ll also want to have headphones for this.

Video Games

Are your kids gamers? If so, try pre-loading your tablet with game apps. They’re inexpensive (many are free) and they can be a great distraction. Try to choose titles that run locally and don’t require a Wi-Fi connection. I’d also suggest avoiding titles that require extreme precision touch controls, otherwise hitting bumps in the road can be frustrating.


Every since I’ve had kids, music has been the number one source of car-related arguments. When they were younger, it was the radio versus The Wiggles. There is only so much Wiggles adults can take, especially when navigating an SUV full of kids, dogs and towing a trailer through cottage-bound traffic. Now that they’re older, the battle is my retro 80s music versus the individual musical tastes of three different teenagers. They’re not only fighting me for control of what’s played, they’re fighting each other. It is so much easier for everyone to leave the stereo for the driver, with passengers instead plugging their headphones into a tablet full of their own music.

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Progress and Attractions

One of the issues that kids have with long drives is a lack of information. It’s tough to visualize the distance they’re travelling and to understand progress. Parents everywhere are familiar with this effect, which manifests itself with the frequent demands of “are we there yet?” or “how much further?” from the back seats.

A tablet can be the key to providing the info your kids crave. With a data connection, they can visually follow your progress on Google Maps or a similar app.

Even without data, you can spend a little time before the trip downloading a map that shows the route. You can also pre-load the tablet with information like interesting roadside attractions to watch for—things like big bridges, towers, airports or statues. Knowing that these are coming up and keeping an eye out for them can help keep kids entertained and engaged in the trip itself. They can even take a quick snap or video, using the tablet.


Not everyone can read when in a car as it can cause motion sickness. However, some people are fine with it. If one of your children likes to read when travelling, load up a tablet with e-books.


I like to use a different option for road trips. I’ve found that comic books are less likely to cause any nausea when driving and they don’t require the same concentration. I sometimes load a bunch of digital comic books onto an iPad (using a service like ComiXology) for the kids to pass around on an extended drive. They’re always a big hit.

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Useful Extras

There are a few accessories you might want to consider to make the most of your tablet as a mobile entertainment centre.

Power is always a concern, especially on long road trips. Some vehicles are equipped with USB ports but if not, a USB car charger that plugs into a standard DC power port ensures your tablet battery never runs out. If you have multiple kids in the car, a headphone jack splitter is a great gadget to have on hand if they decide to watch a movie together, or listen to music together. With a splitter, they can both plug in to the same tablet. You may also want to consider a headrest mount, that keeps an iPad securely in place for rear-seat viewers. Finally, if you want your kids to have access to mobile data (and have a generous data plan), you could use your smartphone as a mobile hotspot that shares its internet connection with tablets in the car.

I also keep a spare USB to Lightning cable in the car (for an iPad), as well as a few inexpensive pairs of headphones—just in case someone forgets theirs.

I’m getting ready for my first road trip of the summer and the first thing on my checklist before leaving is to make sure each of the kids has their iPad. And as an added bonus, loading up a tablet for the road trip means you also have a fully-loaded, portable entertainment device once you reach your destination. This is really useful for situations like waiting for a flight, sitting in a hotel lobby waiting for check-in, or being stuck in a tent during a rain storm. Good luck with your summer vacation and any long distance driving that’s part of it!

Editor Computing solutions
I’m a long-time electronics and gadget geek who’s been fortunate enough to enjoy a career that lets me indulge this interest. After 13 years as a product manager with a leading Canadian tech company, I transitioned into a full-time career of writing about technology. I’ve contributed to a range of publications and websites including Forbes, Wired, Gizmodo, Lifehacker, About.com, MSN Money, the Winnipeg Free Press, InvestorPlace Media, Shaw Media and—combining technology and my three kids—I’ve been a Core Contributor to the award winning GeekDad blog since its launch in 2007.