We just got back from a somewhat epic road trip from Iowa to Pennsylvania and I must admit that the biggest wild card of the adventure was how our little one would do being in the car for that length of time. It was 14 hours each way, and she’s always on the move, so I had a feeling she’d get sick of being strapped in after a while. I was right—but I also found a few ways to keep her happy, entertained, and well-fed along the way.
So if you’re heading out for a road trip with your family, whether long or short, or you just need some new ideas to make traveling easier with your toddler, here are 10 tips that worked for us on this recent trip.
10 Tips for Better Family Road Trips
- Leave early.
On the day that we planned to drive 8 hours, we strategically woke our toddler up earlier than usual so that she’d go back to sleep in the car. Sure, it’s not guaranteed that all toddlers will go back to sleep, but I was relatively sure that an early wake up would buy us 3 naps instead of 2—which would make it easier for us to drive that longer distance. Thankfully it worked and we even managed to get to our hotel with enough time to play in the pool before dinner.
- Plan overnight stops.
Before traveling with kids, we’d just drive until we felt like stopping—which I don’t do now because I like to have a plan in palce. And more importantly, having a concrete ending point makes it possible to help kids understand what’s happening. So you can say, “We have 2 more hours to drive!” instead of just a vague, “We’ll be there soon”. (I also found this helpful for my own sanity!)
- Think through the layout of the hotel room.
Our toddler goes to bed 30-60 minutes before our 5 year old, so we tried to make that doable in our hotel rooms on our drive to keep everyone happy. On the way out, we stayed in a one bedroom suite (that wasn’t much more than a regular room) and on the way home we had a room with two queen beds with a wall in between. The latter wasn’t as great since there wasn’t a door and the girls didn’t like that we were still awake (even though we were essentially just trying to read in the dark!) but it did work out better than us all being in the same room. Planning to camp? Good luck to you! We can never get our kids to go to sleep in a tent…
- Get creative when you run out of toys.
My 13 month old actually did a great job entertaining herself for the 45-60 minutes after each nap. Then, she’d start to fuss and needed some mama-entertainment. (We’d typically pull over so I could get into the backseat.) I’d help her “read books”, play peekaboo, and then move on to turning all sorts of random things into toys. She played with my sunglasses case, opening and closing it, for a solid 30 minutes one day, and also loved shaking a water bottle, trying to pull my glasses off of my face, and a piece of wadded up painter’s tape. (Yes, I packed a roll of painter’s tape…my 5 year old loved playing with it too!)
- Let the littles stretch their legs.
I was amazed that we had a few 3 hour stretches of driving, but whenever we stopped, we let both girls walk around a bit. This was especially important for keeping the little one happy—she’s been walking for about a month now and love nothing more than to toddle around—and didn’t take more than 10 minutes. The scenery of rest stops wasn’t always much to write home about, but she didn’t mind! (And the PA welcome stop was actually pretty lovely.)
- Pack food that’s easy to eat on the go.
This is not the time to try out a new quinoa salad recipe on your toddler, because, holy mess, but the classic PB&J? Do it! Also try: cheese sticks, cheese slices, deli meat, dry cereal, baby/toddler puffs, crackers, dried fruit, blueberries, bananas (with a trash bag nearby for the peel so you don’t stink up the car!), beans, thawed peas, sectioned clementines, fruit leather (just not Trader Joe’s brand since that’s crazy sticky!), bread cubes, and pouches (either store bought or reusable with purees or applesauce you add yourself).
- Bring along at least one meal and plenty of snacks.
Similarly to how I feel when flying, I much prefer to pack most of our food than to chance timing our hunger with good roadside food options. I had a cooler packed with food for us and then stored anything left in the fridge in the hotel overnight. This helped us to make the most of our time on the road since our stops were pretty short and it was a good way to avoid falling into a fast food trap. Plus it was less expensive and it ensured that we all had options that we liked.
- Make use of the free hotel breakfast.
My little one loves oatmeal, so that’s what she ate, along with a banana, each hotel morning when breakfast was included in our stay. There are usually plain options that are easy to customize for toddlers like Cheerios, milk, hard-cooked eggs, and toast. I grabbed extra fruit to take with us and packed leftover sandwich for my older daughter on the morning that she didn’t finish hers.
- Pick up food before you head home.
We stayed with family, so it was easy for me to pack food for the way home—but we also stopped at a farmer’s market for some special snacks (snap peas!) and I hit up a Trader Joe’s since I don’t have easy access to one at home. This allowed me to pack fresh foods for our journey home, rather than hoping we’d all be happy living on granola bars for two days.
- Don’t stress about a little extra snacking.
Generally, I don’t recommend using food as a distraction or as a way to pass the time, but snacking on one Cheerio at a time can be a big help when your little one is losing their patience during a long travel day. Don’t stress about it! (Same goes for crackers or whatever their favorite snack food might be.) You can get back to your normal routine just as soon as you reach your destination.
And as with all things toddler related, try to be flexible, silly, and open to new adventures. I mean, who knows what fun will come your way while out on the road!
The awesome containers shown above are the Seal Cup Trio from EcoLunchbox and their Splash Box. They are stainless with silicone lids, so they’re completely plastic-free, and they seal and keep foods well contained when on the go. (Added bonus: The trio set nests when empty to make for easy storage.) I’ve had the chance to try them out and they’ve quickly become new staples in our house.
P.S. We also loved listening to Wow in the World and the “Disney Stories” playlist on Spotify with our older kiddo.