With warm temperatures on the way and lockdowns still restricting air travel, many families will be hitting the road for family fun this summer.
Travelling by car with kids, especially toddlers, takes a little more planning and patience than older kids.
Here are 17 simple tips on how to survive a long car trip with the kids for you to pick and choose from:
1) Get Road Ready
The first step to getting ready for a long road trip with toddlers is to make sure you can focus on the trip when it’s happening and not on that thing that went wrong with your car.
There’s nothing worse than setting out on your vacation only to find this or that fluid is low and you’re going to have to stop and address it at the nearest gas station.
Here’s a quick checklist to make sure everything is as ready to go as you can get it before you buckle in:
- Make sure wiper fluid is full
- Make sure gas tank is high enough to get you to your first stop
- Make sure coolant and oil are topped up
- Make sure your tires have enough air
- Get your child’s car seat inspected and make sure the settings are good for their current size
- Make sure the first aid kit is in the car
- Make sure you have a phone charger in the car
If you don’t feel like your car is capable of handling a long road trip, think about getting a rental, the extra expense will be worth the nightmare of a breakdown with little ones in tow.
At the very least, check to see if your auto insurance, cell phone plan, credit card, or even Costco or Sam’s Club membership offers you roadside assistance. If not, consider purchasing some to make sure you’re covered if something happens and you need a tow to a service station, to fix for a flat, or help if you leave your keys in the car.
Write the number for your roadside assistance down and put it in the glove box in addition to adding it to your phone ⸺ you never know.
Important Note: If you lock the keys inside the car with your child inside call 911, not your roadside assistance. If it’s hot outside, don’t think twice about breaking a window to get your child out.
2) Dress for Success
I know how exciting it can be to go somewhere nice, especially after months of lockdowns, but for the drive itself dress you and your little one for comfort.
Your little one especially will be stuck in one position under a snug harness for most of the trip so having any irritating pieces of clothing on will just add to their frustration.
Everybody looks raggedy at the truck stop, don’t worry.
3) Plan For A Lot Of Breaks During the Day
The most important tip is don’t plan on driving straight through without stopping.
Unless they are sleeping, kids need frequent breaks to use the restroom and stretch their legs.
Plan on stopping every 2-3 hours, and even more frequently if you are travelling with a young baby.
4) Be Realistic About How Long To Drive
Be reasonable about how far you are going to make it each day if you’re far from your destination.
Expecting very young children to just sit in the back for hours and hours, even with breaks, is a lot to ask.
It’s also a lot for you to multitask driving with meeting every need and cry for attention.
If you’re embarking on a very long trip that would take more than 8 or 9 hours, play it safe and choose a route that has lots of places to spend the night, and don’t feel defeated if you have to stop for the day. The trip should be half the fun!
5) Remember that Little Kids NEED to Move
You know as well as I do that most toddlers don’t, stop, moving! I sound like a broken record, but asking them to sit there for long stretches, even with lots of small potty breaks, can be a big ask.
If you can plan some additional stops with fun things to do, even if it’s just to have a picnic next to an oversized highway attraction (nickels, apples, chairs, there’s lots) that will also help you and your little let off some steam to make the cooped-up drive more bearable.
In general, the more breaks, the less whining.
6) Consider Driving at Night
It won’t work for all families, and I definitely don’t recommend it for single-drivers as driving without sleep is just plain dangerous; but for many parents driving toddlers a long distance, driving at night can make car trips much less stressful.
If you have two drivers splitting the night into two shifts can make quick work of your long drive. Not only will the traffic be lighter and road work stopped, but the kids will usually sleep through the drive, meaning you have to take far less breaks.
If you’re not keen on the idea of losing half the night’s sleep to driving or are driving alone, consider leaving super early in the morning, at like 3 or 4 AM if your kids will snooze for that first chunk of the morning — you’ll get many of the same benefits while not losing too much sleep.
7) Bring a Cooler with Lots of Snacks
You’ve probably already thought of this one, but this one is key so I’ll remind you here.
A cooler filled with snacks and easy meal ingredients is a lifesaver when kiddo just can’t wait until the next stop.
Keeping your cooler in the back will make it easy to reach on the go, which can save you from a meltdown.
That cooler with snacks will of course also save you money on eating out, give you more options about where we stop for breaks, and keeps it healthy.
8) Bring An Overnight Bag for One-Nighters
If you’re stopping for an overnighter during your trip, getting in and out of the motel will be a hassle already – don’t make it harder by dragging all your luggage back and forth.
Have a small bag with changes of clothes for everyone, toiletries, and other basic necessities that you can grab quickly for a one-night stay. This is in addition to your regular diaper bag, which you’ll be using for your pit stops.
9) Bring a Potty and Plastic Bags (or pullups)
If you have a little one that’s potty training, “I have to potty” often means “I have to potty in the next 10 seconds or I will have an accident!”
Keeping a potty handy, so that you can pull over and potty anywhere will be a lifesaver.
Line the inside bowl of the potty with a plastic shopping bag so you can tie up the waste and toss it at the next rest stop. Or, some parents prefer to line the potty with a disposable pull up or even a cloth diaper to soak up the wetness instead of tying it up in a bag.
10) Prepare for Unpleasant Messes
Even with a potty on board, messes can happen, either due to potty accidents, or other things like car sickness. Be prepared so that if disaster strikes you don’t have to hang your head out the window until the next stop.
Some ideas to bring are:
- Wipes, lots of them
- A box of tissues
- Wet bags or plastic bags (for holding wet clothes, trash, etc)
- Anti-nausea medicine
- A cup or a small bucket lined with a plastic bag
- Diapers, pull-ups, or extra underwear
- A towel, for spills or wet seats
Your overnight bag may also come in handy here as you can quickly grab a change of clothes if needed.
11) Prepare for Tantrums
Despite your best preparations, road tantrums may still happen. Understanding this going in is important because in the heat of the screams and crying, your number one priority is driving safely to the next pit stop.
Your little one will be strapped into their car seat and safe. Do what you can to console them verbally, but try your best to mentally remove yourself from the tantrum and just focus on driving.
12) Bring a Variety of Activities
Your best chances at keeping the kids busy on the road is a variety of activities that are new to them in addition to their favorites.
This doesn’t mean you have to spend a lot of money in order to entertain them.
I have a full post with tons of suggestions for road trip toddler activities, toys and games including lots of free and printable games and activities.
If you take the time to make sure your children are entertained and happy in the car, your drive will be more pleasant and safer because you can focus on the road.
Pro tip: start with the lowest-tech, lowest flash toys and activities first. As the drive goes on, bring out the flashier games and eventually the electronic gizmos that are loud and more stimulating. Trying to go from a super-stimulating toy to something like coloring for example will be a tougher sell.
13) Bring the tablet, and movies
If you’re in for a particularly long drive, everyone’s sanity and safety outweighs the screentime limits. Bring along the tablet and some kids videos for when things are going downhill fast.
Important Note: If you have a kiddo that’s prone to carsickness (as me and my daughter are) just be warned that screen time will bring on that sickness, fast, so a dose of kid’s gravol or other ani-motion sickness medicine before the movie may be needed.
14) Have an Adult Sit in the Back
Road trips are fun and exciting, but they can also be stressful for your little one, especially if they are in a rear-facing car seat and are mostly looking at a seat.
If there are two parents in the car, and there’s room, having the passenger sit next to a young toddler can make them feel more safe and secure.
Your little one may even sleep more during the ride if they can hold a hand and feel safe.
15) Have Lots of Pacifiers, Stuffies, and Blankies Ready
If it’s not possible to have a parent in the back, or if your kiddo is prone to anxiety when away from the routine and comforts of home, making sure they have all of their comfort objects like pacifiers, stuffies or blankies close and at the ready will be very helpful.
Bring extras in case of messes or mishaps so that your toddler always has something to calm themselves with if needed.
With all those tips and tricks in place, you should be all set for your adventure and ready to just enjoy the time together doing something special.
Again, if you’re in need of some car trip activities, don’t forget to head over to our list of the best toddler road trip activities, games and toys here.