Any parent knows how challenging a road trip with toddler can be. Are you also at your wits’ end on how to survive long drives with kids? This article is for you!
As a mother of three boys who differ in age by less than 2 years (the two youngest are twins), I know exactly how emotionally exhausting long car drives with kids can be. Especially when they are little and there is no way to reason with them…
Not only is car travel with toddlers tiring and frustrating, but let’s be honest – it’s really dangerous too. After all, how can a driver concentrate on the road when a bored child is constantly requiring their attention. Or – in case of 2 kids and more – when there is a constant war going on in the back seat…
If there is one thing that we quickly learned when road-tripping with kids is that children need space. Young kids also need constant entertainment and are simply not capable to remain quiet when sitting in a car for hours in a row… There is no way around this, so you have to accept it…
However, it doesn’t mean that you cannot do something that would make your family road trips more pleasant for everyone involved: your kids, your partner, and yourself.
I have to admit that we still haven’t found one secret formula to traveling with kids in a car that works all the time. Having said this, let me share a few time-tested tips for traveling with kids in a car that helped us time and again.
Most of these tips are applicable not just for toddlers and young children, but for older kids as well. However, road trips with toddlers are definitely the toughest, so I’ll focus on that.
I guess I don’t have to tell you that you have to use the right car seats for your children or that you have to check that your car is in order before you set on a road trip with kids. This article is not about that. Instead, it’s about all the best hacks for traveling with toddlers in a car that will help you survive the long car rides. Take a look!
Below are our essential tips for traveling with young kids and toddlers in a car:
1. Separate the kids!
If you are traveling with more than one child in the car, try to keep the kids apart. As far from each other as possible!
One of the biggest challenges when traveling with kids in a car is that they start to fight. You hardly leave your street and they are already complaining about each other… By the time you reach the highway and cannot just stop anywhere, they are fighting…
There is just one way to prevent this from happening and that is to separate the kids. If your car is big enough, make sure that the kids sit as far from each other as possible.
At home, we drive a 7-passenger minivan, which we bought the moment we heard that we would have twins. However, when we are traveling overseas and renting a car, we usually find ourselves in a regular 5-passenger vehicle… When our kids were little, I would always sit in the back in order to separate them…
There are many advantages of going to sit in the back, between your kids. You can interact with them, point out some interesting things on the road, play a game, read a map together, or simply let them lean against you if they want to sleep.
However, I understand that it’s not always possible and definitely not a viable solution when you are the only adult when driving with kids. In any case, do whatever is possible to have the kids sitting as far from each other as you can.
2. Drive at night
When our kids were little, driving at night was the only way to survive the really long drives. We don’t do it now anymore (must be getting old), but it was a real life-saver when they were toddlers.
I don’t encourage you to do this often, driving at night must be your last resort. If you are not comfortable driving at night, then don’t. It’s also not a viable solution if you are making a long road trip – after all, you can’t do sightseeing during the day and then drive the whole night long. Sleep is extremely important, not just for your kids, but for you as well.
However, if you are going on a family holiday that requires a 10-hour drive from point A to point B, you are well rested before your trip, and have at least two people who can take driving shifts, it’s really worth considering driving at night. There are usually no traffic jams or road works at night, which usually means that you’ll reach your destination faster. On top of that, you don’t have to take pit stops for kids, as they’ll usually sleep through the night.
If you are not comfortable with driving at night, a better option might be to leave really early in the morning, around 3-4 AM (just make sure you get enough sleep before you leave!). That way, you can cover a big distance before the kids will wake up without feeling completely exhausted yourself.
3. Plan your trip itinerary with kids in mind
We have made so many road trips with our children over the years. Our twins had just turned 2 when we visited South Africa, a year later we made a 5-week road trip in Australia, and then that same year we also made a 4-week road trip in Namibia…
One thing we learned when road-tripping with toddlers is that it’s crucial to plan your trip itinerary with kids in mind. Here are a few examples.
If you have a long drive ahead, it’s best to leave really early in the morning. Wake your kids just before you leave, make sure they go to the bathroom and then leave immediately. With a bit of luck, they will sleep further in the car. Even if they won’t sleep, it will take them some time to properly wake up. They can then quietly have breakfast that you packed and, before you know it, you’re two hours further without them even realizing it.
If you are on a road trip, try to visit some place nearby first thing in the morning. Ideally, it’s not further than 1 hour driving distance from your hotel, so that the first stretch of the trip will not be too long. After your visit, the kids will have moved a bit and will be more willing to rest.
Once again, they can have a picnic lunch in the car, which will save you time and will make the drive look shorter. Also, early afternoon is perfect for driving long distances with toddlers, because it’s usually their nap time.
Ideally, you don’t plan any road trip stops during your kids’ napping time or you risk having to wake them up, which means you’ll have to deal with a grumpy child for the rest of the day… At the same time, you have to make sure that you are flexible enough to make stops when your kids are awake, which brings us to the next point.
4. Let the kids move
Sitting in the car for a long time is hard for everyone, but it’s simply impossible for toddlers. No matter how much you try telling them that you’ll reach your destination so much quicker if you can just drive without having to stop, young kids just have to be able to move.
So even if it’s very tempting to drive straight to your destination, you really should try to plan a couple of short stops along the way.
Make sure to stop at the places where kids can move. A playground is perfect for smaller kids; a short hike or a picnic will suit children of any age. Don’t expect to just find places like that as you go – you really should do some research upfront.
Look for parks, playgrounds, quirky roadside attractions – anything that can break the drive without taking too much time. If there are no exciting short stops along the road, think of taking a ball with you – there is always some place where you can play ball for a couple of minutes.
You’ll be surprised at how much effect a short stop like this can have on your children. Young kids might even get tired enough to take a short nap afterwards, which is always a huge relief when traveling in a car with toddlers.
5. Stock up on healthy snacks
There is hardly anything worse than a hungry baby or a toddler stuck in a car seat with a long drive ahead. Prepare for this and make sure that you always take some snacks when traveling in a car with young kids. This will not only save you time, but will also prevent you from buying chips and chocolate bars at the nearest gas station…
I would not recommend any snacks with sugar when traveling in a car with kids as it will only give them more energy. Energy, which they will not be able to get rid of… Not even to mention sticky hands and crumbs all over the place…
What we usually do is take fruit that isn’t messy, e.g. apples, grapes, bananas, or mandarins. Our kids also love raw veggies; especially carrots are perfect since they keep young kids busy for a long, long time… Dried fruit is also great to have when traveling in a car with kids.
We also always have reusable water bottles in a car, one per person. For toddlers, I recommend reusable water bottles that won’t easily spill Do yourself a favor and avoid any sweet and sticky drinks in the car as well!
6. Play road games
Probably the best way to keep young children entertained in the car is by playing road games. Toddlers love playing games, but older kids will enjoy it as well. This is something children always love to do, no matter their age. The only problem is that you will get tired of this long before they will…
There are so many road trip games that you can buy. I’m not an expert as there are so many of them, but I know that Travel Scavenger Hunt Games always do well with kids. Alternatively, you can also get a book full of ideas for road-trip games and activities for kids.
To tell you the truth, we always try to pack light (here you can find our family road trip packing essentials), so we don’t take that many games or toys when traveling with kids in a car.
One game per child is our absolute maximum and the kids can take turns at which one they play. We love SmartGames for 1 person – they are small to pack, keep the kids busy, and there is no reason to fight when you are playing on your own.
When we drive just short distances, it’s also easy to keep the kids busy by asking them to look for a car, a truck, a bus, a house… However, when driving for a longer time, it’s so nice to have at least a few minutes for yourself. That’s where road trip games come in.
Our kids especially like road trip bingos – it’s such a great way to keep children busy in the car for a long time!
If you don’t have the time to make a road trip bingo yourself, you can get these fun travel bingo cards. Or you can download the road trip bingo that we created and use for our kids via the form further below.
7. Listen to kids’ music and audiobooks
When you are embarking on a really long drive with kids, sometimes snacks and road games are simply not enough. After all, most of the activities mentioned above require at least some involvement from a parent, and it’s just not always possible.
When traveling with toddlers in a car, we found that when everything else fails, music and audiobooks do wonders. I remember that we were so impressed with the effect it had on our kids that I even wrote a blog post about this magical solution to keep kids quiet in the car during very long rides.
The choice of music, audiobooks, or CDs with kids fairy tales will of course depend on your kids’ age, but I’m sure you already have some CDs or mp3 files that your kids love. If you don’t, check this huge selection of children’s audiobooks on Amazon and you’ll have plenty of choices for any age.
Put on your kids’ favorite music or stories and it will keep them quiet for hours… When traveling with toddlers, be prepared to sacrifice as they’ll often want to listen to the same song or story five times in a row. Even then, I find it totally worth it as it helps to survive the long drives with kids and stay sane.
Music and stories do wonders for us every time. Repertoire has changed during the years, but it’s still our favorite way to entertain our kids in the car when we are all too tired for all the rest.
8. Digital tablets, films, and games
The last resort when traveling with toddlers in a car is to switch on a movie or let them play games on a tablet.
I know that many parents use this as the first and the only way to entertain their children and I certainly understand that it’s very tempting at times. However, we find that too much screen time has a negative effect on our kids’ behavior, their interest in places that we visit along the way, and their ability to keep themselves entertained without the screen…
I find that the children (and the parents) enjoy a road trip much more if they are more involved and aware of the surroundings, instead of looking at a screen the whole time. However, as a mom of three, I can tell you that there are times when you’d do pretty much anything just to make sure that everyone survives the long drive in a car.
Anyhow, watching a movie in the car is always a huge hit with our kids. If your car doesn’t have built-in screens, you can use a portable DVD player or a tablet, and it will sure keep your kids quiet. Well, at least for the duration of the film or a game. Because afterward they might be quite agitated from all the impressions on the screen.
9. Pack strategically
I want to add a few more tips for traveling in a car with kids. One of the most important tip is to pack smart. Road games, crayons, snacks, audiobooks – make sure you have everything you might need during the car ride within easy reach. Some people like to use travel trays for young children. That way, everything stays somewhat organized.
It also helps to know where a spare set of clothes is located, so that you don’t have to unload the whole car in case of a little accident.
Here are some other items that you must have when traveling in a car with toddlers:
- Toilet paper and/or wet napkins.
- Extra diapers (if still using them), a potty (if traveling during the potty-training stage), or a travel toilet seat if your kids are really young.
- Sickness bags.
- First aid kit.
- Your kids’ favorite cuddly toy.
So, these are our main tips for surviving long car trips with toddlers and young children.
If you want to share your hacks for traveling with toddlers and young kids by car, feel free to leave a reply below.
READ ALSO: Tips for Traveling with Kids – in this guide, you’ll find all our top tips for turning any family trip into a big success for everyone. Check it out!
More tips for traveling with kids:
- Road trips: What to pack for a family road trip
- Flying with kids: What to pack for kids on the plane (ages 3 to 8)
- Books: Best travel books for kids
- Shoes: Best travel shoes for kids
- Luggage: Best travel bags for kids
- Booster seats: Best booster car seats for travel
- Gear: Best travel gear for children
- Some family travel inspiration:
- Best Family Travel Destinations
- Best US National Parks to Visit with Kids
- Lesser-known National Parks for a Family Vacation
- Spring Break Destinations in the USA
- Spring Break Destinations in Europe
- Universal Studios Hollywood
- Warner Bros. Studios Hollywood vs. Universal Studios Hollywood
- LA Itinerary
- San Diego Itinerary
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Monday 22nd of February 2021
Planning a short road trip! This was useful.
Tuesday 23rd of February 2021
Glad to help, Lana. It's never easy with toddlers who have to spend a long time sitting quietly, but if you plan well, you'll be fine. Have a great trip!
Tuesday 29th of December 2020
Driving at night is the only option for us! Although thanks for the other tips - maybe we'll try some of those out. But for now driving at midnight is the perfect solution. The kids wake up but just for a minute. When we try to drive during the day we have two vulcanos on board!
Thursday 31st of December 2020
Ha ha, volcanoes on board. I know what you mean. We have three of those. :) If you can drive at night, keep it safe, and still function during the day, then it's definitely a good option when the kids are young. We did it a few times, but ideally when driving back home. It's really tiring and often, you arrive at your destination and are completely exhausted, but the kids are in top shape and full of energy. Not an ideal combination. I guess there is just not one solution that fits every situation. You just have to find what works for your family for every road trip. What worked when kids were babies might not work when they are toddlers, etc. Happy travels and drive safely!