How To Survive A Road Trip With Toddlers

Ready to hit the open road? Traveling with young children doesn't have to be a nightmare. Here's how to make it fun.

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This summer, we took our very first road trip as a family. My husband and I have three children, and the oldest is 5. It’s been a busy few years for us, adjusting to parenthood, and honestly, we had been hesitant to try anything more than a weekend at the lake near our home. Our kids had done two and three hours in the car at a time…but that would only take us so far. In the snow and cold of last winter, we realized we were feeling desperate to see the beach. My husband and I hadn’t been since we were teens, and my children hadn’t at all. Since we’re from the Midwest, though, getting to the beach means hours and hours in the car. We were ready for a challenge, however, so we did it. We booked a condo and started making plans for the trip. If I’m being perfectly honest, that first hour in our car was rough, driving south on 71. I was certain we had made a mistake. My middle child was already fussing, and my oldest was begging for the tablet. We made two different bathroom stops before leaving our city limits. Then, I remembered the endless advice I had gotten from seasoned parent-travelers when we first started planning the trip. So we pulled over, my husband climbed in the back, and he started digging through backpacks for coloring pages and crayons while I drove—he challenged my kids to a coloring contest. Things improved at that point. We employed every piece of advice I had been given, from stretching out snacks to playing games, and we made it to our first overnight stop in Memphis with very little drama. Thinking about hitting the road with toddlers in tow? Here’s what I learned from seasoned parents while preparing for my family adventure.

Pull a graveyard shift.

Let’s be honest, the easiest parts of a road trip are usually when your kids are asleep. So while it isn’t for everyone, there’s a big benefit to driving at night. “Last time we drove from D.C. to Florida, we put the kids in pajamas and sized up their diapers,” shares Katie Ann, mom of two. “We drive overnight and then had a big stretch in the morning for breakfast time.” Personally, I’m not great at driving overnight, but I can attest to the benefit of scheduling at least part of the trip for a time when the kids will doze. On one leg of our trip, we started at 4 a.m., and our kids slept for the first four hours of the drive.

Face your anxiety.

Taking a long trip for the first time can be a little nerve-wracking. It’s easy to get caught up in the anxiety of the unknown, but letting your nerves rule your mood can definitely set you up for a stressful experience. Pushing your kids out the door in the morning or getting wound up about the noise level in the car will only create unnecessary tension on the drive.

… I think our attitude affects theirs.

Katie Ballard, mom of six, says that staying positive is one of the most important things a parent can do. Kids pick up on moods, and your stress or temper can put everyone involved in an awful one. If you’re feeling particularly nervous about the trip, don’t try to ignore it—deal with it! Work through everything that makes you feel nervous, and create a plan for success. Being prepared can help you to feel more at peace with a new experience.

Make it special.

It’s easy to look ahead with dread at multiple hours of driving, but the drive can (and should) be part of the experience—even for your kids! Plan to make your drive special by scheduling stops, or even surprises, at certain milestones of the trip.

We try to make the road trip as fun as we possibly can.

“I prepped a fun road trip bag for each of them with new markers, fresh blank paper and coloring books, some books to read, and some silly putty,” shares Lisa Moussalli, mom of two. “I wrapped a few fun gifts that I handed back just once or twice as day, as needed.” Gretchen Bossio, mom of four, recalls how helpful doing her research before taking her kids (at this point, she only had two) on a 13-hour drive to Yellowstone. Being able to stop at the fun restaurants she’d scouted or make a pit stop at a playground provided much-needed opportunities for her kids to burn off energy during the drive. “We plan to stop in a neat area,” adds Lacy Stroessner, mom of three. “We explore part of a city we’ve never been, find a great restaurant that everyone will love, stay in a hotel with a pool… . We try to make the road trip as fun as we possibly can.”

Prepare for the worst.

Okay, so a potty training accident on a road trip might not be the worst thing that could happen, but it certainly makes things more difficult than they need to be. If you’re driving with a newly potty trained toddler, do yourself a favor and put the Pull-Ups on just in case. Using Pulls-Ups doesn’t just act as a mess-preventing measure, according to Tessa Schull, mom of three. She says having the extra insurance will allow you to keep driving with fewer stops, especially when your 3-year-old asks to stop thirty minutes after your last potty break.

Pack a grab bag.

If your drive requires an overnight stay along the way, make sure you pack a separate bag for the stop. No one wants to unload a week’s worth of luggage for a single night. “If your first stop is just one night, only pack the night stuff you need, plus the clothes for the next day, and so on,” suggests Jeanne Eschenberg Sager, mom of one. “That way, you’re not hauling all your luggage into each stop—along with your kids and all their stuff.”

Pump on the road.

Traveling with a breastfeeding baby presents a whole different set of challenges. Newborns eat a lot, requiring regular stops for as long as thirty minutes at a time. When possible, pump while your partner drives, and occasionally offer your baby a bottle instead of the breast. You can also sit in the back with the baby and feed them the bottle without having to stop during the drive. If you have a baby who nurses frequently, buying a car adapter for your breast pump might help you avoid extra stops. “When [my son] was tiny, I think he was about 6 weeks, we took a trip to Maryland,” shares Katie Martinez, mom of three. “One super helpful thing we did was that I had a car adapter for my breast pump, so I could pump in the car and feed him a bottle if need be.”

Adjust your expectations.

As prevalent as screens are these days, most parents have strict rules about how much time their kids can spend watching TV or playing games on tablets. It’s okay to the adjust those rules, though, on a road trip. Special occasions call for a special set of guidelines. “Some of our normal rules go out the window for road trips,” admits Stroessner. “For example, the kids are never allowed to use a device or watch a movie in the car, but if we’re going to be in the car for two or more days, you better believe we’re breaking out Moana or Trolls.” My one word of caution, however, is to wait on screens as long as you can. We had our kids do all the other activities we packed first. That way, when we were just a few hours from our destination and everyone in the car was starting get antsy, the screens were a new and exciting change of pace.

Snacks, Snacks, Snacks

When you’re packing for the road trip, pack more snacks than you think you’ll need, and then pack some more. Throughout our entire 16 hours trip to Florida, pulling out a new snack became our go-to when nothing else worked. Make sure you have a good distribution—too many sweets could set you up for a car-full of wild and crabby toddlers.

Enjoy the journey.

With kids in tow, it’s tempting to focus so much on getting to the destination that you forget that to enjoy the journey. Every minute of your drive won’t be enjoyable, but take advantage of those that are. “The biggest mistake we made [was] pushing too hard to get to our destination,” admits Kendra Moberly, mom of three. “It ended with me being stressed and grumpy, overtired kiddos who were crying, and us just booking a hotel room.” Instead, take mom Olivia Moore’s advice: Give your kids the chance to experience the new destinations you’re traveling through. Let your kids be bored, encourage them to play with one another, and create playlists that coincide with the trip. “For us, the drive is part of the fun, not something to endure,” she says, “and I think our attitude affects theirs.”

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