Road Trip Tips for Traveling with a Toddler (and baby!)
When I was sharing about our family beach trip over on Instagram two weeks ago, I got a few messages asking about traveling with kids and the tips and tricks we use to make the experience as fun as we can. Travel is normally a big part of our life (in this pandemic, the beach trip was our one and only trip planned for the foreseeable future) and I’ve previously shared about simplifying trip preparation, road trip tips for traveling with a baby, tips for flying with a baby, tips for hotel stays with a baby, and simplifying packing for travel with a baby. I feel like I’ve sufficiently covered what works for us and traveling with a baby, but a long road trip with a toddler is a whole other ball game! LJ is now 2 1/2 years old and we definitely needed to adjust our travel game accordingly. Today I thought I’d share some of the things that we do to make the road trip a fun extension of the vacation instead of a miserable bookend to an otherwise great trip.
Just like every baby is different, every toddler is too – these are just the things that work well for our family when we travel. I just wanted to share in case another parent out there might find one of these ideas helpful. I think the travel sets the tone for the start of your vacation so whatever we can do to make it a little more positive is great!
This is an obvious one, so I won’t waste much time elaborating. Pack a ton of easy snacks and have them accessible (I keep the big back of snacks right behind the driver and passenger seats) as well as water bottles. I would say pack more than you think you’ll need too – you definitely do not want to run out!
Load up on mess-free non-food treats
I got a small plastic basket at the dollar store to store things to occupy LJ throughout the trip. Our van is 14 years old and far from swanky, but it does have a DVD player and for that we are thankful haha. If your vehicle doesn’t have one, a portable DVD player might be a worthwhile investment for a long trip. We were in the car for 12+ hours, so an hour or two here and there of screen time helped all of us pass the time.
I also like to have little mess-free activities for LJ to have every once in a while. I’ve had people tell me that they have little things to bring out at milestones (like every 100 miles or every hour or something), but I just brought things out as needed. I hit up the dollar spot at Target before long trips to find little activities for LJ – things like felt books, mess free markers, stickers, etc are perfect for the car!
We also have a few of these Water Wow books and they are a HUGE hit. LJ loves them and will color them over and over. You just put a little bit of water in the brush and the water colors in the picture. Then it dries clear and you can color it again. These occupy him for a long time!
Sometimes, desperate times call for desperate measures. In the moments where the kids are going crazy or crying (or both) and we just can’t stop quite yet, my solution is bubbles! While not necessarily 100% mess-free, bubbles floating around the back of the car instantly turn both my kids’ moods around and can help make a tough stretch of driving much more bearable. This is also something we can break out during a pit stop and need a little something to do.
And speaking of pit stops…
Plan to stop, but keep it flexible
In our experience, traveling with kids is not the time to have a tight schedule. We assume that we will need to stop at least once every 2-3 hours and plan our travel time accordingly. Each stop is about 30-45 minutes to give our kids adequate time out of the car seats to stretch and burn off some energy. So if a drive is going to take 8 hours, we mentally plan for it to be at least 10 hours with stops. This keeps us from getting frustrated when there are inevitably delays or extra stops.
We typically do not plan stops in advance. We have a general idea of places we’d like to stop (i.e. let’s see if we can make it to X city) but we don’t plan specific places, mostly because it is really hard to plan hours in advance when your kids are going to need to stop. When it seems like our kids are getting restless or it’s getting close to meal time or we need to stop for gas, we stop wherever we are.
Find a Green Space for Pit Stops
We try to avoid high-traffic areas like rest stops – especially in a pandemic! – so our trick is to search for green spaces.
My process is simple. I open up Google Maps, find where we are, and look around at the upcoming exits (if you’re not on an interstate, just look at the next few miles of your route). I try to find green spaces within 1-2 miles off the road. You can also search “park” or “playground” to help find a good stopping point. (Note: I did pack plenty of hand sanitizer to use after we left each playground, even though we were the only ones playing at most of them).
Here’s an example of a place I found just looking ahead at our route when we drove to the beach:
Even if there is no playground, a place like Schwartzkopf or Millcreek Park is a good place to try because it’s near the interstate we’re driving, the green space is relatively large, and there’s a creek next to it. At the very least, we could run in the grass and find sticks and rocks to toss in the river (which we did!) It turns out that that park also had a small playground though, so it was a double win!
This is another park we found and I ended up saving it in my maps for future road trips because it was an exceptionally good stop: it’s off the beaten path, there’s a scenic walking trail around a small lake, a nice playground, and working bathrooms. It’s definitely somewhere I’d like to visit again!
The “search for green space” method has honestly never steered us wrong. The worst case scenario would be we show up and it’s just a flat space of grass. Even then, we could still run around and hunt for rocks or sticks or dandelions or bugs, or we could break out the bubbles I brought along. The point is to get energy out and have some fun so that the kids (and adults) are happier for the next stretch of driving. (And for the record, so far it’s never been just a boring flat space of grass. There has always been something!) This is also good for Vi – at 10 months old, she loves the change in scenery of a park or playground and there is also usually a bench for me to use to sit and breastfeed.
Pit stop for meals too
In a pre-pandemic world, we would always stop at a restaurant and eat inside, even if it was fast food, instead of just going through a drive through and continuing on. This actually saved us time later because it counted as a pit stop for our kids to get out some energy and would allow us to keep going for another 2-3 hours after eating.
In this pandemic, we obviously did not want to stop and eat in a restaurant. Instead, we got drive-thru food, took it to a park (again, just looking around on Google Maps for nearby green space) and had a little picnic.
I keep a picnic blanket in our van at all times and this is handy to pull out if there’s no picnic table around! It also makes for a great place for Vi to crawl around since she’s too small for playgrounds.
I can’t emphasize this enough: try to make your pit stops fun! If you only allow for a 10 minute stop + bathroom break, your kids will likely not last as long back in the car before needing to stop again. Trying to power through a long drive with babies and toddlers, at least in our experience, just leads to a more miserable time in the car because they are cranky and tired of sitting in their car seats. By incorporating a little bit of fun through pit stops, it not only makes the actual time in the car more pleasant (and quiet), but it also makes the traveling feel like a fun part of the vacation too and not just something to endure to get to the good part. Our pit stops were all fun and unique times to explore a new area as a family and create memories just like the actual time at our destination did. So worth it!
For extra long trips, consider stopping overnight
Our beach trip was a 12 hour drive with no stops, so we planned for it to be at least a 16 hour trip with stops. We could have tried to power through and do it in one day, but we had the ability to stop overnight and break it up into two 8 hour travel days instead and we were all much happier about that. It’s not always feasible, but when it is, this can be a really helpful option! Hotels have cribs and pack and plays for use (usually for free!) and we can usually find a good, relatively inexpensive option (we love Holiday Inns) last minute. If we happen to know someone who lives along our route, we’ve also asked to stay with them to break up the trip!
If we do plan to stop overnight, I pack a small suitcase with everything we need for the night: toiletries, LJ’s blankets and stuffed animals, our sound machine, pajamas, etc. We pack it last, so it’s right there when we open the trunk and it’s super easy to just grab that one bag and take it in without trying to wrangle multiple bags and kids.
And an extra tip, the Slumberpod is an absolute GAME. CHANGER. for traveling with kids. Our family of four shared a hotel room in our overnight pit stop and then we shared a room at the beach house with Vi, and this thing was AMAZING. It is a black out tent that fits over the pack n play. It is breathable and totally safe, but it completely blacks out the crib so baby can easily sleep in the middle of the day or we can keep the lights on in our room at night. We will absolutely take this on all future trips with babies! (Also, in the beach house Vi did sleep in the large closet, but we didn’t close the doors )
It worked so well in the hotel room too because Vi went down before LJ did and we could leave the lights on for him until it was his bedtime too. Win!
Take along a Toddler Potty
LJ is 90% potty trained at this point, and he does not wear diapers on the drive. We keep his little Paw Patrol potty right in front of his seat, so when he tells us he has to go, we can stop anywhere. We’ve pulled over on the side of the road (if it’s safe), pulled into empty church parking lots, pulled into subdivisions to park along a quiet street . . . when he tells us he has to go, we can stop wherever. I highly recommend this if you have a very young toddler who cannot hold it to wait for a bathroom. This was also really helpful in the pandemic because it meant LJ never had to go inside a gas station or restaurant to go potty during the trip.
What tips do you have for traveling with a toddler?