I am not a fan of road trips, but we are a family who road trips. We live 300+ miles away from family and travel to see them at least five times a year. We also occasionally add on a road trip component to a vacation, like we did earlier this year when we drove from Los Angeles to Monterey and back, either because of flight costs or because we simply want to see things that we otherwise would not be able to if we didn’t spend time driving. As a result, we easily spend 3,000 miles a year in the car. That’s a lot of miles on the road with toddlers/kids/dogs. Over the years, we have learned a number of tips and tricks to surviving road trips with kids.
#1: Start Early
My kids spend a lot of time in the car. We live in a major metropolitan area with tons of traffic and our daily commute to daycare/school can be anywhere from 30 minutes to 90 minutes, depending on traffic, weather, general conditions. As a result, my kids are used to being in the car for at least 90 minutes a day from birth. We also started road trips early – when my oldest was less than four weeks old, we drove 9+ hours (over 500 miles) to South Carolina for a family reunion. Both kids traveled to my in-laws (300+ miles) by the time they were two months old. Starting early not only gets the kids used to being in the car, but also helped condition us to traveling by car with young children.
#2: Be Flexible
As everyone knows, kids go through phases and they include everything from sleeping through the entire car ride to screaming the minute they see a car seat. As a result, it’s important to be flexible. We have woken up our toddler at 3am to begin the drive to my in laws to avoid holiday traffic or simply in the hopes that he would stay asleep and sleep through a portion of the car ride. We’ve also driven through the night to avoid traffic and taken strange detours (including stopping for lunch at our local Walmart) simply to give sthe kids a chance to stretch their legs.
#3: Be Prepared
Being prepared is critical to a successful road trip with kids. Being prepared means having all your essentials ready and easily accessible – diaper bags packed and within reach, a general plan as to where your stops will be, including where you will stop for a meal, factoring in other needs such as potty breaks and nap times.
Devices: I also make sure that we have fully charged and loaded iPads prior to trips. Family practice when it comes to screen time varies and I applaud those parents who travel with kids without relying on devices, but this is the one time in which screen time is unlimited. I simply want to make sure we survive the trip with as few incidents as possible. If that means screen time, all the time, so be it. As a result, I spend a few minutes the night prior to any road trip ensuring that our iPads are fully charges and loaded with the kids’ most recent tv/movie/cartoon obsession. I also double check to make sure my kids have their headphones packed so that my husband and I don’t go insane listening to whatever it is they’re watching in the backseat.
Snacks: Being prepared also includes having necessary items at the ready. For some families, this means a steady supply of snacks. Due to a choking incident when my oldest was three, I am not a fan of food in the car for young children. As a result, I typically don’t let my kids eat in the car and prefer instead to simply stop and let them snack / eat at rest stops. I have gotten more flexible as the kids have gotten older (so yes, my eight year old is allowed to eat in the car, but not when his 2.5 year old little brother is riding next to him), but as a general rule, we don’t snack in the car. Water is permitted, of course, provided it is in the appropriate vessel (leak-proof water bottle / sippy cup for my toddler who tends to drop everything).
Diapering Essentials: For those traveling with young children, diapering essentials are necessary. When both my kids were infants, I simply packed a regular pillow in the car and changed the kids on my lap in lieu of using a public diaper changing station of questionable sanitation. As they grew, I packed towels or swaddle blankets, or disposable changing liners, to lay on a patch of grass so I could change them outside, instead of in a grimy bathroom. For boys (and girls!), it’s helpful to master the art of the stand up diaper change so that for most bathroom incidents, there is no need to even enter a public bathroom. A potty training or newly potty trained toddler adds a new level of difficulty and stress. Although many people have luck bringing a portable potty seat along with them on long car rides, neither of my kids used the portable potty. As a result, I put my kids in “travel diapers” for long car rides (basically a regular diaper that is there for emergency situations), pack lots of wipes (including Chlorox wipes for sanitizing public toilet seats), and many, many changes of clothes and plastic bags for holding soiled clothes. Luckily, the newly potty trained stage is short lived, and as long as you plan regular stops, we have been fortunate to avoid having too many issues.
Other Essentials: I happen to have a toddler who is prone to motion sickness, so I pack puke bags and plastic buckets (I’ve found plastic paint mixing buckets to be the perfect size and quality for this purpose!), which I keep within reach so I can hand them over to him when he feels ill. If your child has any special needs, you will want to have within easy and immediate access anything you might need in the event a situation arises. As any parent with kids knows, “other essentials” also includes things like lovies and blankets, pacifiers, special toys… basically anything that your kid might suddenly demand during a long car ride. If you pack your child’s favorite stuffed animal in the trunk and they need the toy in order to fall asleep, then you’ll find yourself stopped in a parking lot, frantically unpacking and digging around for the stuffed animal. I say this from experience – save yourself the heartache and frustration and make sure you have these essential items up front and easily accessible.
Adult Needs: It is important to make sure that adult needs are taken care of. When you’re stopped, take the time to use the restroom, get a drink of water or a bite to eat, grab some caffeine or music that you want to listen to on the radio… The most important thing is that your family arrives as its destination safely and making sure that the adults (especially the driver!) have their needs taken care of is a necessity. This is also useful because you don’t want to find yourself needing to pull over for a restroom if/when the kids finally fall asleep!
#4: Have a Sense of Humor
Having a sense of humor and knowing that the most important thing is to arrive at your destination safely is key. No matter what happens, know that someday, you’ll look back at the road trip memories fondly (or so they say!).