When Willie Nelson wrote “On the Road Again”, I doubt he did a road trip with toddlers. I’m almost certain it wasn’t in a four-door sedan, with excited children asking, “Are we at the beach? How long until we get to the beach?” every two minutes.
We are kid road trip veterans. My husband Sean and I have family road tripped numerous times at varying stages in our children’s lives. Our first was a weekend trip from Phoenix to San Diego with our then nine-month-old daughter, Ellen (now four). Only 30 minutes from our San Diego hotel, we thought we might lose our minds, when she wouldn’t stop screaming and crying.
A glutton for punishment, six months later, we flew from Phoenix to Minnesota, then drove to see more family in Kansas. And, in just the last six months, we’ve endured two road trips to the famed California beaches with Ellen and Patrick, our two year-old son.
All of these family road tripping trials and errors are now shiny nuggets of parenting wisdom that we happily to share with you.
Here are our 8 tips for a stress free road trip with toddlers:
1. Keep the drive time reasonable and realistic.
Shorter is even better, but we found six hours one-way to be the sweet spot. It fits nicely into a schedule of departing first thing in the morning, stopping for a bathroom break about two hours in, stopping for lunch four hours in, and cross your fingers for a kiddie food coma nap for the last two hours, before arriving at the destination mid-afternoon.
2. Pack twice the kid outfits you think you need.
With day trips to the beach and various activities along the way, our kids ended up changing outfits more than usual, post-beach and pre-dinner. I didn’t want them putting on the same stuff from the morning when I just showered them down after being at the beach. And because accidents happen, double up on the undies, too.
3. Bring half the toys you think you need.
Your destination’s items are going to be new and exciting compared to things at home. In general, we bring some favorite bedtime reading books, blankies (which also encourage sleeping in the car) and keep stuffed animals and other toys to a minimum. They are just unnecessary with hotel room key cards, kids’ meals toys and all the new stuff they discover on vacation.
4. Stay at vacation rental homes, opposed to hotels, if possible.
Having a house was much easier, convenient, and overall cheaper, than staying at a hotel. We had a full kitchen to cook a few meals and we weren’t on silent lock down after bedtime – we could hang out in the living room or on the porch and relax with a drink.
The washer and dryer at the rental house made it super easy to throw in a load of laundry at the end of each sand-filled and sunscreen-stained day, making our laundry needs much lighter when we got home. (Bonus tip: Spray sunscreen, depending on your children’s sensitivities to skin products, made getting ready for the beach a breeze).
We succeeded with Airbnb for our most recent beach trip over the Memorial Day weekend, but a quick internet search will give you a number of good vacation rental options.
5. Make technology your backseat babysitter.
We bought kid-sized headphones and an audio splitter, along with a headrest mount for our iPad, and with all the items combined, you’ve got a little make-shift kiddo-approved entertainment system (your bigger iTunes bill is the price for your sanity). This is also a fantastic set of items to have on the airplane – you can attach the iPad mount to upright, locked tray table. (Bonus tip: Car chargers for your various electronics are worth their weight in gold.)
6. Turn windshield time into quality time with your partner, perhaps with audiobooks.
While your little angels in the backseat watch a movie, you and your partner can enjoy an audio book. As busy parents, there isn’t a lot of time to sit down and enjoy a good read, so this is a great way to plow into your summer reading list. Plus, I find it makes for some fun conversation during the trip, almost conducting a mini book club session along the way. Why do you think that character did that? Have you ever been to Rome? That chapter about the cabin reminds me of…
7. Use snacks to quell crying and whining; it’s hard to cry with a full mouth.
When kids get bored, similar to adults, one of the first inclinations is to eat. Instead of the sophisticated, culinary snacks I pack for the adults (read: beef jerky), I pack the kids small boxes of dried fruit, nuts and organic snacks, like those by Annie’s. Packaged food tends to be less healthy, but is way easier.
To keep them hydrated, each kid gets their own water bottle, filled about 1/3 full – potty breaks be damned. Check the dollar section at Target to find water bottles and individually packaged snacks. (Bonus tip: Avoid anything that melts, smears, or is otherwise messy — chocolate, peanut butter, etc.).
8. Less camera means more fun.
People who document how much fun they’re supposed to be having instead of just putting the phone/camera down and having actual fun is a pet peeve of Sean’s. I agree, to certain extent. But as I’m more active on social media, and often the photographer, I think I found a good middle ground. On our most recent trip, I ditched our DSLR and snapped a few Instagram photos during our outings. I was able to soak in the fun we were having with the kids, but also made sure we had a few photos to look back on.
Road trips with young children are challenging, but they don’t have to be terrible if you plan things right. Following these eight tips, with proper pre-trip prep and smart traveling decisions, your family will arrive safely, with all of your hair intact.
How have you handled road trips with young children? What tips did I forget?
Amy O’Hara is a mom of two, who credits much of her parenting successes to trusty Dr. Google. During the week, you will find Amy at her day job as a PR professional. On the weekends, she can be found in the dollar section of Target, or trying to keep her two and four year old children entertained. Follow Amy on Twitter at @amycohara.