Going on long road trips with a toddler can be daunting. If you’re anything like me, you’re probably reading this post at 3 a.m. after spending the last 2 hours worrying about how your family is going to handle the drive without you losing your mind! Don’t get me wrong: traveling with young kids is bound to have a few moments of hair-pulling frustration. But with a little planning and some reasonable expectations, you can make it through and still have an enjoyable vacation! We spend a lot of time traveling with our kids, and below you will find my top 10 tips for making your next trip as easy as possible with a Toddler and/or baby.
Background Information: I have a toddler and a baby who is currently six months old, so I’ve included information that is helpful for kids of both ages.
1. Safety First, My Friend.
Before you hit the road take a few moments to make sure your family will be safe in the event of an emergency.
- Make sure car seats are installed correctly. 85% of car seats are installed incorrectly. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has some helpful tips for installing and selecting the right car seat. Or you can get your car seat inspected by a certified technician near you. Find one here.
- Pack a first aid kit.
- Bring plenty of water.
- Make sure you have all the basic car safety equipment including a spare tire and jumper cables.
- Pack a flashlight somewhere easily accessible, especially if driving overnight.
- Make sure your phone is charged fully before leaving and bring a car charger.
- Check to make sure your car insurance is up to date, and you know who to contact in case of an emergency. Let others know where you are going and when they should hear from you.
- Get a good nights sleep and consider alternating driving with your partner or spouse.
2. Pack Strategically & Get Organized
- Pack an On the Road Bag that you can keep in the front cabin with you. This way you don’t have to dig through everything to find what you need. Include anything you think you might need while driving.
- Change of clothes for each kid in case of accidental spills, road sickness or the dreaded diaper blow-out.
- Extra Binky for each kid that needs one – even though my toddler doesn’t get her binky during the day, on road trips we make an exception. (See #9 below – anything to keep the peace!)
- Plenty of Diapers and Wipes.
- Diaper Rash Cream
- Disposable Diaper Bags – trust me on this one. No one wants to drive 45 minutes with a stinky blowout diaper and clothes covered in poop just sitting in the car. These bags will block the smell until you can get somewhere to dispose of the diaper and/or wash the clothes.
- Formula/Breastmilk and Bottles for Baby: I prepare enough in advance, so I don’t have to worry about cleaning the bottles on the road. Plus that way we don’t have to stop every time Bubba needs to eat, I can just jump in the back and feed him in his car seat
- Plenty of burp cloths/ bibs for baby. I bring two bandana bibs for Bubba on our road trips in case one gets too dirty. Bubba drools a lot. This way I can switch out the bibs without having to change his outfit when he gets uncomfortable.
- Sippy cup with water. We bring lots of water bottles, but my daughter isn’t the most skilled at drinking out of them yet. So having a sippy cup with a straw that my daughter can keep in the back without spilling it everywhere is a must.
- Tissues for runny noses.
- Phone Charger for both yours and your spouses phones.
- Printed instructions for your hotel/condo: I like to print out any applicable information that I might need upon arrival like instructions for accessing the condo, where to park, confirmation codes, etc… that way when we get there I am not searching through my phone (which is almost always out of batteries). I also make sure I have the contact information for the condo if we stay in a vacation home rental.
- A little stash of cash: I like to pack a little money in a side pocket of the bag in case something happens, and I lose my phone (which is also my wallet). I bring just enough “emergency cash” that we can make a call to someone and find a place to stay until the next morning.
- Outdoor Clothes: If we are going somewhere where we might need warmer clothes, I will throw in a jacket and a hat for each of my kids. I also include sunscreen in case we decide to make a pit stop at a park along the way (see #7 below).
- Medicine: I always bring some kids ibuprofen and some adult Tylenol for me. I also like to bring some Benadryl just in case seasonal allergies kick up.
- Pack an Overnight Bag if splitting the drive half: If the road trip is longer than 11 hours (of driving time – which means about 13 – 14 hours by the time we make all our pit stops), we will split the driving across two days. This way our kids don’t get too burnt out on being in the car, and my husband can get a little bit of sleep.
- Include extra diapers for both kids.
- Anything your kids need to sleep. We always bring a sound machine, and if we are staying in a condo, we bring a monitor for each kid.
- Pajamas and an extra change of clothes for each member of the family.
- Basic Toiletries
- Swimsuit if your family plans to go swimming at the hotel pool.
- Pack things into your car strategically.
- If splitting the trip into two days, put anything you’ll need to get out of your car for the first night on top including your overnight bag and any pack n’ plays.
- Try to leave space for you to sit in the bag if possible. I realize if you have three kids and only one back row of seats, this won’t work for you. But if you have two kids, try not to pack anything into the middle seat. This way you can go back and assist the kids when you need to without having to make a full pit-stop.
3. Drive at Night or Sync Drive Time with Nap Times
The best thing you can do for your sanity is plan most of the drive during the time your kids are typically asleep. If we can drive through the night, we will leave right after a good dinner. We will stop at the gas station and my husband, and I will get a few energy drinks for the drive. Then around our kids’ usual bedtime, we will start playing their lullaby music. After a few minutes, they will usually bomb out (and my kids are not good car sleepers). Then my husband and I have the rest of the evening to talk and enjoy our drive without having to stop for bathroom breaks, diaper changes, and food.
If you can’t drive through the night due to either schedule conflicts or because you don’t think you can stay awake through the drive(safety first, people), then the next best thing is to plan your drive time around your kids’ nap schedule. Ideally, we like to leave after our kids have eaten lunch. That way they are nice and full and typically getting ready for a nap. Both my kids’ naps will be extremely short if taken in the car, but we take what we can get! Then we will stop for dinner at their regular eating time – let them play a little and hope for the best when it’s time for bed (if the road trip is that long).
4. Make Them Comfortable
Or as comfortable as they can be sitting in a car for hours on end.
- Bring any special toys or comfort items such as a lovey or a favorite stuffed animal. We like to bring a small blanket for each child and a small pillow for our toddler.
- Cover the windows with a shade during nap times when it’s still light outside to make the cabin as dark as possible and prevent sun getting in their eyes. I usually remove the shade when they wake up from their naps to establish clear awake/sleep cues for my kids.
- I allow my toddler to keep her pacifier during road trips, even though at home she is restricted to using it only at night.
- Dress your kids in comfortable, loose clothing. Let them take their shoes off. If we are driving late at night, I just put my kids in pajamas. That way it’s easier when we get to our destination because they can just go right back to bed.
5. Snacks, snacks and oh yeah… more snacks!
I cannot stress this enough! Bring TONS of snacks. Bring a variety and bring things that your kids don’t usually get to eat (see # 9 below). Things that are easy to dole out in the car and don’t make huge messes are my go tos. Good options include squeezable fruit and yogurt pouches, goldfish, bananas, oranges, graham crackers, cereal, popcorn, raisins, cheese sticks and grapes. I like to put the snacks in these containers so my daughter can get them when she wants them and I don’t have to reach back to hand them to her continuously.
- Save the good snacks for when you need them the most.
- Be careful not to overdo it on the snacks around lunch or dinner time. You’ll have a short time for lunch, and your kids will be less cranky if they get a good meal in versus loading up on snacks here and there.
6. Pack a Special Road Trip Bag for Each Kid
I like to make a quick run to the dollar store or target and find some new things for my daughter to do during the drive. I put them in a cute backpack or ziplock bag and hide them in my On the Road Bag (see #2 above). Then when my daughter starts to get bored and complain, I pull something out of her bag and hand it to her. (I do the same thing on long plane rides). Shannonagans has an awesome Toddler Activity Bag that’s filled with small cheap toys perfect for two-year-olds! Check it out here!
- Tip: Make a separate bag catered to the likes and ages of each kid.
- Don’t just give them the bag at the beginning of the trip. They’ll quickly go through it and then start complaining again. Make everything that comes out new and exciting and space them out a little bit.
7. Schedule some Well-Timed Pit Stops
Research things to do along the road before leaving. Schedule one (or two if it’s a really long trip) pit stops along the way during regular activity/eating times, where you can grab something more hearty and filling to eat and take it to a local park (weather permitting). Or stop at a fast food chain that has a play area attached so your toddlers can take some time to get their energy out.
This applies to adults as much as kids. If the kids are entertained or asleep my husband and I like to play car games. Some of our favorites include the ABC game or 20 questions – Disney addition.
- Car Games: If your kids are a little bit older, the Idea Room has a great post with 20 road trip games for kids. Some older Toddlers will be able to play a few of the games.
- Audiobooks: Purchase and download audiobook for the road. We have a subscription to audible, and they have an entire section dedicated to books for kids under 4. Or get one for you to listen to help the time go by a bit faster.
- Nursery Rhymes: Oh nursery rhymes, I love and hate thee! But this can come in handy on a long road trip. We sing the nursery rhymes together as a family, and it helps distract my daughter from whatever it is that’s bugging her at that moment. We turn it off after 2-3 songs and she will usually play with one of her toys from #6.
- Lullabies: Our kids listen to lullabies at night when we are home, and we always make sure we have them with us when we travel. When it’s close to bedtime, and we want them to start winding down, we will turn on the lullabies and my husband, and I will try to be quiet for about 30 minutes so they will fall asleep.
9. Ditch the Rules (or at least some of them).
We relax a little on some of our rules when we are on a long road trip. We let our daughter watch movies on the iPad (see #10 below), and we let her keep her binky throughout the drive. I try to keep the snacks as healthy as possible, but I usually pack a few treats to give her when things start to get rough. We let her take her shoes and socks off. I don’t stress about the little things she does like stuffing her graham cracker in the cup holder of her car seat. I just try to keep the peace as much as possible and go back to regular household rules when the road trip is over.
10. Have a Backup Plan
Our backup plan is the iPad. We pull it out towards the end of the drive when our kids are really starting to get antsy and irritable. We have a mini iPad in a protective case that we bring on every road trip. It’s stocked with a variety of kid-friendly movies (Tigger and Tinkerbell are our families favorites for toddlers), digital books, and games.We use this case because I can hang it over the headrest behind my daughter and she can’t touch the buttons. She’s not old enough to quite understand how to use the iPad. This way I don’t hear “Siri not available” the entire drive!
Do you have any suggestions? Activity bags have revolutionized our road trip experiences!