Road Trips in our family are a common occurrence. Our kids have been on road trips more often than they have been to the movies or to the grocery store it seems like. We have traveled the 5 hours to Disneyland to and from in 1 day or 1 weekend several times, and similar distances to visit family in Ut, AZ and Ca. But most notably we took my first set of twins when they were just barely 2 across the country. We drove 30 hours straight in the car and we only stopped at gas stations along the way. Oh yeah, and Mt. Rushmore was a pit stop for about 2 hours before we kept going.
And, just this summer our family of 6 (kids aged 7 and 2.5) traveled across the country for 23 days and hit 23 states and nearly 7,000 miles.
People think we are crazy. I think we are crazy. But, it was the most fun trip and best bonding time our family has ever had. It is doable. Don’t let a road trip with babies or toddlers frighten you! Frankly, I think it would be worse with teenagers
So here is my ultimate road trip guide:
- Plan for 1 day at a time. What do your kids need for one day? That’s what you put in your diaper bag/front seat. Food and drinks first, then diapers and wipes, then toys. You can always refill that bag later. I usually pack all my extra diapers, food, formula, etc. in a box or laundry basket.
- LESS IS MORE! Your toddlers/kids really don’t need extra activities in the car just because they’ll be spending more hours there. Most things end up on the floor in 2 seconds flat! Then you have a tantrum because they dropped it! Don’t give them anything until you really need to. (I’ll make a list of our road trip toys at the end).
- Sing, talk and play! Make up games. None of that requires equipment.
- Gas stops are toddler breaks. We always have 1 adult pump the gas and buy the food, and the other takes all kids to the bathroom and changes diapers, etc. We let them walk and run outside as much as they can. A few minutes is all they need. For a short day drive we stop once or twice at the most. Have a scout go in first to see if there is a diaper changing station in the restrooms! If not–stay at the car to change diapers. Front seats are trickier, but they do work especially if your toddlers are old enough to stand up. Use diaper cream as a barrier helps their little bums not hurt as much for long hours of sitting.
- Prepare for emergencies. We have been stuck on the freeway stopped for hours, and had to change hotels at the last minute because of spiders and had kids projectile vomiting. It’s okay. It really is. What do you need for emergencies?
- Triple AAA
- Extra water and formula to make it if needed
- Plastic bags to put soiled wipes/clothes
- paper towels
- disinfectant wipes
- hand sanitizer
- extra clothes in a tote bag
- good phones and chargers
- fill up with gas often
- ziplock bags
- tylenol, benadryl, etc (I just keep a first aid kit in my console always with band aids, neosporin, etc.)
- You can never have too many wipes!! (for our 23 day trip, I brought 5 packages-1 in the car at all times, 1 in the backpack at all times, 1 in the clothes suitcase, and 2 in the laundry basket).
- Prepare your kids: Even young toddlers can understand what a road trip is sort of. We told ours we were going on a long trip and that they had to 1. get in their buckles and 2. sit nicely without screaming. If they did, they would get prizes.
- Overpack-you can buy stuff at Walmart and gas stations. Do you have enough to feed your children for a few hours in case you get stuck somewhere? then you have all you need.
- Plan too many stops. We plan for our stops to take about an hour. 1 stop for every 3 hours of driving
- Never stop if someone is sleeping! Don’t even slow down… Trust me, you’ll regret it
- We let our kids eat in our car as long as it’s not something completely messy, but most of the time we stop and eat on trips. We find that it’s worth buying the fast food especially when we can split meals between our kids. Or we find restaurants where kids eat free. Finding a play place is a bonus. They can get their energy out while we eat and rest. Usually my toddlers share one meal just fine. Sharing in the car is tricky, so I bought little trays from the dollar section at Target. I can divide up the food and they love eating out of the containers. I just would wipe them out with a disinfectant wipe and a little water afterwards
- If we are staying in a hotel, we try to find ones with free breakfast included. 1 less meal to worry about. And if they load up on breakfast, their snack whining goes way down.
- I don’t give them many snacks in the car so they are hungry for meals.
- Everyone has their own water bottle and we bring lots of water with us for refills. We refill at gas stations as much as possible.
- You have to have some fun: Our go to family road trip snack is gummy worms. Trolli brand only If someone is cranky, we might just say, “you need a worm”
- You don’t always have to eat poorly. We stopped at a gas station and my kids chose to have: a pretzel, cheese, veggie, fruit and yogurt meal. They turned down soda and juice most of the time. Whatever they eat at home they can eat on the road–it is doable.
SLEEPING: We have slept in hotels, friends’ couches, and grandparents’ houses which of course are the best
- I’ve always used and brought 2 pack n plays with us. I know hotels tend to have cribs available, but a lot of the time they cost a fee, or are not really available. I have a crib sheet and blankets already rolled up inside the pack n plays plus any stuffed animal so it is all ready to go. (It does all fit in there).
- For hotels, we send one adult in to check in and bring out a cart. The other one unloads the car. We load it all onto the cart, have our kids hang on and off we go.
- I pack all of our stuff into one bag. (just enough for 1 night).
- Big kids are in charge of their own blankets and comfort sleeping items. We get a room with 2 queens. The big kids either share a queen or an adult each sleeps with one of the big kids to split them up if they’re too wild to sleep. (This was just for fun. Toddlers sleep in pack n plays).
- Every single hotel room we’ve found has room for 2 pack n plays
- If we are at a friend’s house then our big kids each have a sleeping bag with a blanket and pillow wrapped up inside. They are in charge of it.
- We also try to get hotels with an indoor pool or hot tub. I will stay and unpack/organize the hotel while my husband takes the kids swimming. Then everyone can bathe really quickly and get into fresh clothes before bed. Gets them away from jumping on the beds and making our neighbors mad
- We have always divided our duties up into driving or navigating. If you happen to have extra drivers, the other adult is the sleeper! The driver drives. That’s it. No other duty. The navigator is in charge of GPS, taking care of the driver, temperature, music, and kid control. If everyone and everything is under control, they become a sleeper
- We have found for days trips that you don’t need to worry about who drives when. Just decide whoever wants to. But for our longer trips we always switch at the 2 hour mark. It doesn’t matter if the driver wants to keep going, we switch. Our motto is: “No hero shifts.”
- Yes, we use technology. Our SUV does not have a built in DVD player, but we invested in a portable one with 2 screens. For drives that are 6 hours or less, we just let them watch movies the whole time. They barely watch any tv during the week, so it doesn’t bother me to have them binge watch the whole time. The toddlers don’t have access to a screen though so they just get their normal stuff. (books, coloring, music, etc.)
- For longer drives, they have to “earn” their movie time by reading, writing, or playing first before they can ask for screen time.
- We started a point system which worked really well. I had a chart in a plastic sleeve protector taped to the dash that worked as a dry erase board. Every day I wrote the date and where we were going. (For a 23 day trip, it helped to keep everything straight!). Then they were able to earn points for activities such as: getting in their car seat buckles quickly, not whining, sleeping, throwing their trash away, etc.) Then they got to turn in their points for prizes (stickers, soda, gas station toys, etc). My 2 year olds loved this and every time they got in their carseats they would say, “I get a point!”
- For a short trip, I give each kid a bag with their stuff for the day. When it’s on the floor or used up, it’s gone. “Sorry.” I do ziplock bags with crayons and pencils. Glue stick and scissors for the older kids. I have a clipboard for each kid with plain paper and coloring sheets. Everyone gets a few books and one toy that is fun. That really is all they need.
- For our long trip, I had 1 bucket in front with one day’s worth of activities and 1 bucket in back to refill the day bucket. That way they didn’t get board too easily. The best thing I did was get activities that could be thrown away! That way when they fell between the cracks or onto the floor-we just scooped them up at the gas stations and said goodbye.
- bubble wrap sheets if you can stand the popping
- aluminum foil sheets-kid(s are really creative. Ours had a snowball “fight”
- clothes pins and pipe cleaners (make butterflies, etc)
- window stickers
- paper for airplanes and creations
- glow sticks were great for night driving (flashlights too if they don’t distract the driver)
I hate dry erase boards! They are a nice thought, but the markers are permanent and even the washable ones are hard to get out! Instead, magna doodles are the way to go. And it’s fun to use real magnets to trace on them too. Remember, less is more!
- I would get a babysitter for 2 days before you go anywhere. These are the most stressful days-1 day for laundry, the 2nd day for packing. Get a friend who doesn’t mind taking toddlers for the day. That way you don’t have to use too much tv right before you have kids sitting in the car all day.
- You don’t have to have another driver…I have done a few day drives by myself with all 4 kids! Yes, it is tough to drag two infant seats into a public restroom with 2 four year olds grabbing onto your back pockets, but I did it! I just had to make sure everyone had everything they needed before I started driving. If it fell, or was lost- too bad. Again, same rules as driving around town.
- If you have young potty training, or fresh potty trained toddlers-never fear! You can still drive to Gma’s for Thanksgiving. Just throw in a toddler potty into the car. If there is a potty emergency, stop and have them squat on the road–I know, toddlers are stubborn and I’m dreaming right? the back of the car works, Pull Ups are great, or if there are accidents–that’s what the plastic bags are for. Just line the carseat before they get in and bring lots of changes of clothes
- Naptimes get all messed up. I do different things depending on the situation. Most of the time I let them have their sleeping blankets/binkis if applicable in the car the whole time. No use putting up a fight. But, sometimes I’ve often saved them in the front and given it to them right at naptime. Even if they don’t sleep in the car, it still signals them for sleep and they can have a “rest”. Same with bedtime. As soon as it gets dark, we start signaling them for bed. Get them in pjs at a rest stop (maybe), turn on lullaby music, give them blankets, etc.
- Earplugs are great
- Redbox is great…you can rent a movie at a gas station and return it in the next city
- We drive the same route up to family a lot, so we know where there is a cheap pizza place we like. We call about 20 minutes before we get there, and lunch is served.
- Backpacks-instead of my regular diaper bag, I put everything we need the day in a good backpack–that way it can go from car to stroller to walking around Manhattan without having to juggle anything.
- PJs–just make sure your kids are in comfy, weather appropriate clothes. If they fall asleep right before you get to a hotel-it should be no big deal to just put them straight to bed.
- You do not have to play the Alphabet Game. It’s overrated.
PACKING: On any given trip, I will have:
- a Backpack for a diaper bag
- my personal tote for purse, books, tablet, phone chargers, etc
- briefcase (my husband works on the road)
- a tote with the day’s car activities in it
- a basket with extra diapers, wipes, formula, toys, etc.
- a suitcase that is packed for everybody (or 2 small ones). These stay in the car.
- a duffle bag with our clothes and cosmetics for just that night to bring to the hotel (and a trash bag for laundry)
- a mesh bag with our swimming stuff if applicable
- a small cooler with water bottles and a few healthy snacks (we bring this to the hotel every night to put in the fridge).
- an emergency car kit that always stays in there
Stashed in the console or under seats I have:
- 1st aid kit
- paper towels
- stickers (I control those so it doesn’t get out of control)
- everyone has a small travel pillow that is kept under the seats
- I have stick on window shades, but if it’s really sunny, I keep extra baby blankets to hang from the windows
- bungee chords always come in handy
Okay, that is a lot of information. Mainly if you are having a great time with your family-that is the most important!
I’ll never forget one of my favorite road trip moments:
I was pregnant and by myself with my almost 4 year olds. They had closed the freeway and I was almost out of gas. Needless to say, I was very anxious. But I was able to pull off to one of the only gas stations and fill up. Then I called my husband and he talked me through to an alternate route. So getting home took twice as long on a one way highway through the mountains, but we got home!
At one point, I had to pass a truck and it made me nervous since there was almost no shoulder, etc. I told my kids that they had to be totally quiet since Mommy was doing something “very important.” I whizzed past the truck and then it was smooth sailing after that. The kids were even especially quiet. Only about 30 minutes later, I heard a tiny voice from the back asking, “Mommy, are you still doing something important?” I knew right then, like I’ve known all along, that I have good kids.