A road trip with kids and toddlers can be daunting- here are our top tips to help you survive and thrive! From preparation to activities, to travel hacks, these 20+ tips will keep help you navigate a long family road trip with kids and toddlers.
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Planning Ahead for a Road Trip with Kids
The planning stage of any road trip with kids is key to a smooth ride.
Check out Road Trip Essentials for our full list of supplies and gear so you are completely prepared for whatever comes your way.
You may also like The Complete Family Packing List for Day Packs.
Set Expectations Each Day
Make sure you are setting realistic goals for each day, and that everyone in the car knows what the plan is. While the youngest children may not follow along, it helps older kids to know when a long day is planned, what stops to look forward to, and what to prepare for.
You’ll get a lot less “Are We There Yet?” if the kids know that you won’t be arriving at the motel until after dark, or after dinner, or after the next three rest stops.
Be Realistic About Travel Time with Kids and Toddlers
Traveling with kids is slow at the best of times. All those bathroom breaks, diaper changes, and tantrum breaks add up to more hours on the road than you expect.
Plus our kids are slow eaters, and they need to stretch their wiggly legs, so lunch breaks are long. For our 60+ day Epic Cross-Country Road Tip to start our Family Year Out, we tried to limit our travel to 4-5 hours in the car each day.
Choose your Road Trip Start Time Wisely
Some people like to leave at night with the hopes that their kids will sleep. We have not found that to be true for our kids. My two-year-old stayed up all the way to Boston one night for some unknown reason.
We prefer starting in the morning so we can all be in soft beds by bedtime. Plus if we stay up all night driving, we’re grouchy in the morning!
Our kids are early risers, plus the excitement of a trip gets them up and moving fast. We like to pack up as much as possible the night before, then hit the road early. Figure out what works best for your family and your destination.
Know Your Family Limits
Your family’s limits will change as your children grow, but give it your best guess. We were on a long car ride when S. was a baby, when she was just DONE being in the car. We tried everything to console her, but she kept screaming.
We stopped and let her play in the grass outside a Dunkin Donuts for a while. She was happy and smiling- until we put her back in the car. There was nothing we could do, we had to push through and get home. It was a miserable experience for all of us.
Our longest single-day car ride was 9 hours to Burlington Vermont (normally around 5 hours). After many stops, a wrong turn, and endless delays, we finally arrived at our destination. We were all hungry, tired, and achy.
For our family, I wouldn’t plan for more than 8 hours on any given day, knowing that should give us a cushion for delays and traffic.
As part of our recent Northwest American Road Trip, we did a 9 hour one-day drive from Montana to Seattle, due to our rearranged plans for crossing the Canadian border. We talked to the kids about it ahead of time, and made sure they knew this day was an exception. We all did really well!
Consider Renting a Car
Consider whether to rent a car for your road trip. Will you be flying to your first destination, then driving? Is your current car large enough for your family to comfortably spend a lot of time together? Do you have enough room for all the gear you are planning to bring?
If you decide to rent a car, check prices at Discover Cars. They have a great range of brands to choose from, free cancelation, and are very clear and upfront about what is included in your rental. All part of a stress-free experience!
Check Prices: Car Rentals at Discover Cars
If you do fly and then rent a car, don’t forget the car seats! We love our travel Mifold Comfort Booster Seats. They fold up and weigh just over 1 1/2 pounds.
If you prefer a high-back booster, check out the Mifold Hifold. It’s heavier, but if you won’t be moving it in and out of the car very often should be more comfortable for long trips.
Plan Stops and Bathroom Breaks
We like to plan a fun lunch break that we can all look forward to. Instead of thinking of “8 hours until we get to Washington D.C.”, we can all talk about ” 3 hours until our fun lunch break in Philadelphia with a carousel” and then “4 hours until we arrive at our hotel”.
Plan to stop every two hours or so depending on the age of your kids. When we stop everyone must use the bathroom! This prevents the “oh, oops I have to go” five minutes after you got back on the highway (most of the time).
Designate a Diaper Change Area
When packing your car, figure out where you will change diapers when bathrooms are not available. It may be on top of a suitcase laid flat in the back of the car, or the front passenger seat. Have a game plan before the diaper explodes.
We have always depended on our Skip Hop Changing Station for all those “less than ideal” changing locations from bathroom floors (who decides to build a bathroom with no counter space and no changer??) to grassy fields.
Create a Bag of Surprises
This is your secret stash of magical goodness that will stop the whining and the bickering. See what you can find in the dollar bin at Target, or at the Dollar Store.
For toddlers, wrap each thing in tissue paper. Just unwrapping something occupies a toddler for several minutes.
When the mood in the car is heading towards trouble, and it’s not time for a stop, dole out a special surprise from the bag.
Contents can include:
- Special Snacks (treats, candy, things they haven’t tried)
- Stickers (vinyl are best for toddlers so they don’t destroy your car)
- Gel window stickers or window markers
- A new coloring or activity book
- Crayons or washable markers
- A new book to read aloud (could be a library book)
- travel games
- travel “packs” of small activity books with stickers
- Imagine Ink Books– the special marker included reveals the color on the pages, but don’t mark anywhere else.
- Mystery eggs with small toys inside
Be Ready for Car Sickness
Kids and car sickness often go together. Long rides, windy roads, or just being stuck on the sunny side of the car can make kids nauseous. Here are a few ways to help:
-Be aware of road conditions and set expectations. If you are starting a particularly windy stretch of road, let everyone know, and put away books and tablets that cause kids to look down.
-Have everyone look straight ahead, rather than to the side or out the window, it helps the brain to process the true horizon line.
-Have ginger candies or gum available for anyone who gets queasy.
-Have bags or a bowl available in case anyone gets sick. Grocery bags work just fine, as long as you check for holes ahead of time!
-Be prepared to stop and let the sick passenger have a few deep breaths of fresh air.
-Try Sea-Bands or other natural motion sickness bracelets. These are really helpful for our girls. Make sure to get the adult size, they run very small.
Things Will Go Wrong
Things will always go wrong, if you acknowledge that fact ahead of time and prepare as best you can, you’ll be (mostly) ready when they do.
When your four-year-old slips leaving a port-a-potty and lands in slushy grossness, you’ll be ready with a hug and a change of clothes (not necessarily in that order). Throw the gunky clothes in your favorite wet bag.
Tips for On the Road with Kids
Once you are on the road, here are some tips and tricks to keep everyone happy and moving along on your way!
Start with a Good Breakfast
A good breakfast helps everyone start the day on the right foot. When we are on the road, we find the kids need to eat before we are ready to leave the room, so we make sure we are prepared with easy breakfast items for them, ranging from oatmeal to bananas.
Pack Tons of Snacks
Snacks keep us all sane on a road trip. For long car rides, we bend the rules and allow less healthy options than we would at home.
Pack more snacks than you think you will need, and dispense from the front seat for younger kids.
Check out our full list of 40+ Easy Road Trip Snacks for Kids and Toddlers, which also includes suggestions for breakfasts and lunches.
Take a Long Lunch Break
Highway rest stops are boring (and the food leaves us feeling gross), so we try to plan for a more fun lunch break. It could be a park with a carousel, it could be a town square with a gazebo, or just somewhere we can have a picnic and run around.
Bonus points for a playground. Run a few races before you get back in the car to get everyone moving.
Plan for Parking
If you’ll be stopping in larger cities, take the stress of the end of the day by pre-booking your parking spot! SpotHero shows you a map with prices, and lets you choose your parking spot ahead of time.
No more circling parking garages looking for spaces. We love this option in hard-to-park locations like New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Portland where parking is either not included with your hotel, or super expensive.
Check Prices: SpotHero Parking
Find Your Inner Chill
This is not always easy when you are stuck in traffic, and the kids won’t stop whining. Remember, the kids are watching how you react to the unexpected, and they’ll mirror you (eventually). So when the motel can’t find your reservation, or you blow a tire, try to find your inner chill.
How to Make a Road Trip Fun for Kids
Happy, entertained kids, lead to happy, relaxed parents. Here are some strategies to make road trips with kids fun for everyone.
Get Creative with Entertainment
Kids want to engage with their parents (most of the time), so we try to do some group games or songs. There are tons of classic road trip games for kids. Some of the more offbeat options that have worked for us include:
–Who can spot the (blank) first? (Capitol building, Golden Gate Bridge, whatever you are approaching)
–Who can find the railroad tracks? (GPS usually indicates the presence of tracks, which is the clue to start looking)
–Counting Anything! Counting railroad cars is a classic, there’s another version where you count cows until you pass a graveyard, then you “bury them” and start again. Tailor the game to the environment you are in.
–Would You Rather? Go in a circle as everyone gives their answer and the reason for which option they “would rather” do. You can download questions ahead of time, or take turns making them up.
–What Am I? One person thinks of something they “are” and the car has to ask Yes or No questions to figure out the answer. Great for all ages.
Make a Map
Kids love maps! Create a map of your journey that they can follow as you drive. You can update where you are each time you stop.
Some people get crafty with a laminator, or you can print out a simple google map of your route. This really helps kids understand how far you’ve gone and how far you still have to go.
Road trips are a great time to work on kids’ geography skills. We cut out black and white postcards for each state before we left for our first cross-country road trip. Every time we cross into a new state, we all yell “PICKLE” and the kids get a postcard to color in. (We chose PICKLE as our silly word to yell, pick whatever word you want!)
Allow Some Screen time
We limited screen time at home (ok, not as much as pre-pandemic, but who does?), but on road trips, it’s ok to allow some screen time.
Most of what our kids interact with is reasonably educational, after all their favorite website is PBSKids! Everyone needs to chill out with a movie or a favorite show once in a while, and it will give the grown-ups time to chat. Headphones are required of course!
Encourage Writing or Journaling
Journaling has been shown to increase gratitude and self-awareness- great skills to encourage in our kids! Long stretches of car time are a great opportunity for kids to process what they’ve seen and done and record it for themselves for later.
Supply each kid with a notebook or journal and a set of pencils, and set aside time to journal. Younger kids can draw and label what they’ve been doing.
Some kids may love a blank page, others may need more prompts like in this Travel Journal from Lonely Planet Kids.
Schedule Quiet Time
“Quiet Time” is a holdover from naptime in our house. It generally happens right after lunch for about an hour. It means silence or quiet music, no talking, and most importantly- everyone does their own thing!
It gives everyone a break from each other, so we can all play together nicely afterward. Kids can opt to look out the window, read a book, take a nap, journal, or color quietly.
Music, Podcasts and Audio Books
Don’t underestimate the power of sound! We were once near the end of a long drive, stuck in downtown Boston traffic, with a toddler who wouldn’t stop screaming.
We changed the radio station, stumbled upon a jazz station, and our toddler immediately went quiet and listened. It was amazing. Obviously, that won’t work for every kid, but it’s worth a try! We all respond differently to musical genres and instrumentals.
Podcasts are a great way to get kids engaged (while coloring or doing other things). Audiobooks are also a great way to connect with everyone while quieting the car. After listening to a chapter or episode we can discuss what we liked, any questions that came up, etc.
Siblings know how to push each other’s buttons like no one else! It is inevitable there will be poking, copying, and just general breathing in the wrong direction. If you have the room, seat siblings so they are out of direct reach from each other.
When all else fails try to distract them with your bag of surprises. You can set a time-based goal like “if you two can get along for five minutes I’ll bring out a new activity”.
We also like to make sure we have some activities that are best played by the siblings- like tic tac toe, or a card game to give them an incentive to get along.
We also practice our compromising and negotiating skills- for example, “you can watch a movie, but only if you can agree on which one”.
There You Have It
Our top tips and strategies for a successful road trip with kids and toddlers. From preparing ahead of time to managing car sickness and settling sibling arguments, you are ready to hit the road!