Traveling with Kids :: Tips for Road Trips with Toddlers

With Thanksgiving coming up this week, we know many of you are preparing to hit the road or the skies with young kids in tow. We hope these tips from our Traveling With Kids Series will be useful in helping you prepare, or at least in giving you a laugh. 


I’m not gonna lie.

Mention a road trip with a toddlers, and I die a little inside. No – I die a VERY slow death, complete with an epic meltdown of dread, fear, and agony, throwing myself on the ground three-year-old style, kicking and screaming, “I DON’T WAAAANNNAAAAAA” until I fade away into a breathless whisper…

It’s not pretty.

At least I know I’m not alone. I think many of us can relate to what Jen Hatmaker calls the “Four Stages of Road Trip Management.”

Honestly, I feel for my kids. I mean, in their short lives, a few hours in the car equates to months (or years) in adult-time. Being harnessed into the back seat of a mini van with no choice but to be happy does NOT sound like MY idea of a good time. Beyond that, you should see my three-year-old bounce and jump just trying to tell you about the fun sticker he found on the ground at the grocery store (pretty sure it came from a banana). If he has that much energy pent up in those little feet while he’s allowed to run and jump and be free, strapping him down for hours at a time has GOT to be pure torture.

So when my husband recently mentioned visiting his family 9.5 hours away, I took a deep breath and decided to come up with a new strategy. It was completely experimental, but a few hours of preparation and an attitude of flexibility made our latest road trip remarkably… successful.


How We Survived Our (Latest) Road Trip with Toddlers:

  1. Prepare well & Build Anticipation – We talked to my three year old a LOT about the road trip before we left. I told him about special snacks and games and toys he would get to play with while we drove to Grandma’s house, but also reminded him we would be in the car for a long time and he would need to practice being patient. He was so excited when it was time to go on our “Woad Twip”, he didn’t even fight getting his shoes on.
  2. Special Toys and Snacks – A road trip is the PERFECT time to introduce some “special” things to your child, especially “new” things. Pile them into a laundry basket and you’re on your way:
    • I found a bunch of workbook pages specific to my son’s age online, printed them off, and put them into plastic sleeves in a three-ring binder. We bought some dry erase markers and let him go to town. His favorite activity was a road trip scavenger hunt where he could look out the window and find various objects. He spent two hours EASILY working through his workbook.(**NOTE: If you decide to go this route, I’ve now been introduced to dry erase crayons, as the dry erase markers were effective, but… well…) 
    • I kept my eye out for Happy Meal toys or small figurines people sell for a dime apiece or sometimes even have in a bin labeled “free” at rummage sales, cleaned them up, and put them in a lunchbox. Opening that box was like Christmas.
    • I bought a cheap cookie sheet and some alphabet magnets as well as foam figures at a craft store and attached stick-on magnets to the back of those for imaginative play.
    • We visited the library the day before our road trip and picked up a lot of books. Among the books was a book on CD he could follow along with – my biggest regret in this road trip is not picking up more books on CD, because we ended up listening to “Duck on a Bike” for (I kid you not) two hours straight. My husband was not happy with me about this lapse in judgement.
    • We went grocery shopping together the week before our trip and my son picked out special snacks he would only be allowed to eat while on the trip. I also bought fruits and veggies I felt comfortable throwing at them in the back seat and told myself not to worry about the mess. Sanity is worth a good car wash.
  3. Plan ACTIVE Stops – My husband and I used to enjoy sitting down to a nice dinner while on the road, but we’ve changed our priorities a bit. Now, when we stop, the sole intention of a stop is for a potty break and running time for the kid-lets. This can be at a fast food play land (ew, but desperate times call for desperate measures, amIright?), a rest area playground, or even Walmart (yes, we are *those* parents who let our kids run wild around WalMart every now and again to burn off energy). Any wide open space will do.
  4. Save Electronics for “Kid-Mergencies” – Believe it or not, the things above lasted us the first 7 hours of our trip. Hour 8, we hit meltdown mode, and I whipped out the iPad. I was so grateful we had saved it for this moment. It was novel, new, and we were able to get by with him only watching one movie and playing a game for 20 minutes before arriving at Grandma’s.

Of course, every family and situation is completely different, but these are the things that seriously made a night-and-day difference in our last road trip. I hope something here can help your family, too!

What survival secrets to a road trip with toddlers can YOU share with me?

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One Response to Traveling with Kids :: Tips for Road Trips with Toddlers

  1. Mariana November 24, 2015 at 2:50 pm #

    Great list Heather! I’m suddenly feeling unprepared….maybe a quick stop to dollar tree on our way out is in order!

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