Do road trips with small children drive you crazy? Try these 10 survival tips to make your next adventure on the open road with a baby or toddler easier.
Road trips with small children can make even the best parent cringe with fear and anxiety. Who wants to be trapped in a car with a screaming infant or toddler for hours on end? The ideas and tips we’re sharing today can help!
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Fortunately, we’ve been on several long road trips with our kids. Every year we travel for eight hours each way to Pennsylvania for an annual family gathering.
The most extreme road trip, though, was a drive to Denver, Colorado and back a few years ago. I drove with my parents and C1, who was two years old at the time, to visit my sister and her husband. We took three days to get there and another three days to get back. If we can survive that kind of road trip, so can you. Just follow these 10 tips to survive road trips with small children.
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How to Survive road trips with small children
These are 10 of our time-tested tricks. After all our family road trips, we learned a few things that made a huge difference. I hope they help you enjoy the vacation too.
1. Bring plenty of snacks.
It probably goes without saying, but having plenty of good snacks and drinks should be at the top of anyone’s list to survive road trips with small children. Hunger can make even the best-natured kid (or parent) cranky, obnoxious or grumpy.
Great snacks for road trips with small children include:
2. Allow plenty of time to reach your destination.
When planning road trips with small children, it’s important to leave yourself plenty of time to stop frequently or for longer breaks.
Babies and toddlers need fresh air and a change of scenery periodically. Being strapped in a car seat is only fun for so long. Rest areas along the highway usually have picnic tables where you can enjoy a snack or lunch.
Many rest areas also have play areas with swing sets, slides, and other activities. Friends of ours bring an inflatable ball along on their road trips. At rest areas, they quickly inflate it for a game of catch, kickball or soccer to help their small children burn off some energy.
Once they’re back in the car, they deflate it for quick and easy storage until the next stop.
3. Use a car seat tray.
If you need to have snacks or meals in the car during your road trips with small children, we highly recommend a sturdy tray for the car seat. It makes meals in the car so much easier. It also gives your child a surface to play with toys or draw.
We love the Taby Tray. It securely straps under your child’s car seat so it stays in place. The Taby Tray detaches from either side so it can be partially or fully removed when not in use. Its hard plastic surface is easy to clean.
There’s a small lip around the edge to keep toys and liquids from easily falling over the edge and the built-in cup holder is really handy. We have one of these trays for each of our boys.
4. Have a bag of dedicated toys for road trips with small children.
Put together a bag of small toys that only gets used for long road trips with small children. This way the toys always seem “fresh” and “new” when you’re ready to hit the road. In anticipation of your first road trip, you can hide away some smaller toys your son or daughter hasn’t used in a while.
You can also buy inexpensive toys at a dollar store or on clearance. My friend, Katie, keeps her toy bag in the front seat with her. Whenever her two-year-old daughter drops a toy out of reach, Katie just hands back a new toy. Problem solved.
Some of our favorite toys for long road trips with small children are:
- Magnetic alphabet letters or other magnets – We keep ours in a small metal tin. Our son sticks the letters on the inside of the lid. A small metal cookie tray would also be great for magnet play. Magnets are less likely to get dropped on the floor of the car. Just make sure the magnets are large enough that your child can’t swallow them.
- Small cars
- Small stuffed or plastic animals
- Plastic keys
- Toy steering wheel
- Travel doodle board
5. Bring art supplies.
We really like the Crayola Twistable Colored Pencils for road trips. Unlike crayons, they won’t melt if they’re left in a hot car for an extended amount of time. When the pencils lose their point, you just twist them, no sharpening needed.
6. Entertain the kids with a puppet.
A puppet is another great thing to have in the bag of toys you only bring out for long road trips with small children. The kids can use it to entertain each other. A parent can also make small puppet shows from the front seat. When our son was an infant, we used the puppet to play “peek-a-boo” with him around the edge of his car seat.
7. Break out the electronics.
If all else fails (or maybe even sooner!), use a portable DVD player, iPad, iPod Touch, or another electronic device to entertain your child. This is subject to your family’s preferences about electronic use, of course.
Episodes of their favorite TV show or a movie can keep them quietly entertained for a very long time. Our son also enjoys playing games on the iPad. We especially love the educational games for toddlers from Grasshopper Apps.
If you don’t want to hear your child’s movie or game, you may want to pack headphones. For our three-year-old, we recently bought the Kidz Gear Wired Headphones. They’re designed to fit small children and have a volume limiter to protect precious little ears.
8. Help your child track the passing of time.
Small children can’t tell time. There are only so many times parents can hear “Are we there yet?” before they go mad.
Laurel Smith from MomsMinivan.com suggests creating “tickets” your child can use to demonstrate the passing of time.
In her helpful article, Car Travel Games & Tips for Toddlers, she says “Give your child a pre-counted baggie full of tickets. Every half hour (or every 30 miles) they can turn in one ticket to you. When their tickets are gone, the trip has ended! This really helps young children get an idea of how much time is left on the journey.”
9. Prevent leaks and spills.
Messy accidents happen on road trips with small children. There are several things you can do to prevent them or lessen their impact.
- Use sippy cups and snack cups with lids so your child doesn’t make a big mess in the car. We really like the Munchkin Snack Catchers. The lids are difficult for a child to remove and there’s an opening in the top where little hands can reach in to grab snacks without dumping them everywhere.
- Put your child in absorbent “overnight” diapers. We recommend using Huggies Overnite Diapers for your children on long road trips. They’re designed to go 12 hours between changes so the extra absorbency helps prevent leaks. Even for older toddlers who are potty trained, you may want to use pull-up style diapers in case they have to go potty and a restroom is nowhere nearby.
- Use a waterproof car seat protector in case your child has a diaper that leaks or a drink that spills. We have the Diono Dry Seat Car Seat Protector. If an accident happens with a diaper or drink, only the car seat protector is wet, not the entire car seat. It also works great if your child spills a snack. You can easily remove it at a rest area to shake out the crumbs. It’s also washable when you get to your destination.
- Keep a roll of paper towels and some baby wipes in your car to quickly clean up accidents and sticky hands/faces.
- A few gallon-sized resealable bags are also important to have in the car. They’re useful if your child gets motion sick easily or if you have wet clothes.
10. Have a stash of supplies for emergencies.
Road trips with small children are unpredictable. You never know what kind of other crises or emergencies will arise. A few years ago, we saw a great idea on Pinterest.
Aunna James from the blog, Rips in My Jeans, recommends creating an “Ineeda Box” to keep in the car for unexpected emergencies. The “Ineeda Box” includes things like hand sanitizer, safety pins, bandaids, and pain reliever pills.
Check out her website for a complete list and explanation of this great idea. (NOTE: We sincerely apologize. As of January 2016, the Rips in My Jeans website is no longer online.)
What are the longest road trips with small children you’ve survived? Please comment below and share any tips you’d add to this list.
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Other Tips for Traveling with Small Children
If you like these survival tips, you may also want to read our other posts about Travel with Small Children:
- Flying with Small Children: 10 Tips for Stress-Free Travel
- Flying with Car Seats: Pros and Cons of 3 Options
- Carry-on Luggage: What to Pack for Babies and Small Children
- Theme Park With Small Children: 5 Survival Tips for Families
Originally published March 2014. Updated October 2019.