How to Road Trip with a Toddler

7 Tips for Toddler Road Trips  |
In the last 10 days we drove over 1,600 miles visiting my parents in Central Illinois and then back to Philly.

This is the third Christmas we’ve made long road trips with a kid and a dog. The first year, Adelaide wasn’t quite 5 months old. We rented a miniSUV-type car and our dog Hugo and Adelaide slept together in the back seat. Hugo has always been good in the car and since Adelaide was so young, she slept most of the time. Although Hugo’s separation anxiety caused us to eat all of our meals in the vehicle, we stopped frequently to nurse Adelaide and to let Hugo get out and stretch his legs. It went surprisingly well.

Last year, on the every-other-year holiday schedule, we drove our minivan down to Tallahassee to visit Tim’s family. We learned a lot from that trip, and this year we had it down pretty well. At nearly two years, five months old, Adelaide did great.

Here are my top 7 tips:
(Keep in mind we only have one child and we fortunately have the space that a minivan provides, so take that into consideration.)

1. Have one adult sit in the back next to the child to help “entertain.” Adelaide is still facing backwards in her car seat (it’s much safer and kids should be kept that way as long as possible), so she can easily interact with the adult she’s facing. We abandon the passenger seat all together and use it for coats and whatever else we need to cram in. Without the adult sitting back with her, we would never survive. She wouldn’t be able to play with most of the things we bring for her without our help and she would get much more upset without us next to her to chat and sing songs and give her snacks.

2. Wrap presents for the child to open every few hours. Last year we brought several gifts to open, stickers, coloring books etc… This year, Tim’s mom sent 10 individually-wrapped books to open throughout the trip. I believe they were all used books she had picked up at Goodwill, so although they were all in great shape, I’m sure they weren’t expensive. The Sesame Street wrapping paper helped too. I rationed the presents out so that we would open 2-3 each day, saving some for the ride back to Philly. Although Adelaide always asked for “another present” immediately after she opened one, she seemed satisfied that we would open more “later” and reading the books gave us something to do.

3. Snacks, snacks and more snacks. I know I get cranky when I’m hungry and surprise, surprise, kids strapped in a car seat for hours at a time do too. It’s great to have munchy food like raisins, nuts and crackers, but things like apple sauce and yogurt work too if you can bring along a cooler. A cooler also comes in handy for things like milk and bottled water or soda for Mom and Dad.

4. Crayons, coloring books, stickers and other non-screen activities. This year, I bought Adelaide a new box crayons and a Santa-themed coloring book that she hadn’t seen before. We had lots of stickers and a small notepad, her Fisher Price doodle board, books to read etc…

5. Mobile electronic device for games/videos in cases of emergency (or the last hour of each day’s drive). Last year we only had my smart phone, but streaming Elmo videos saved us at the end of each day. This year, we have a Kindle Fire HD loaded with several kid-friendly apps and an episode of Sesame Street. I’m surprised to say we didn’t even use it on the way home, but it did come out the first day on the way there. Adelaide knows how to play most of the “games” herself so she doesn’t need a lot of assistance from Mom or Dad (which is good because I have a tendency to get motion sick).

6. Stop half-way and get a hotel. For us and our sanity, I don’t think an 800+ mile trip would be possible without stopping overnight at a hotel. We usually use to book a hotel a few weeks in advance and can find a pretty good rate. Nothing fancy, just a place to rest our heads. (And no, I don’t have an affiliation with, it’s just the site we tend to use.) We usually get in by 5 or 6pm, order a pizza, watch cable and go to bed fairly early.

7. When possible, get a hotel with an indoor pool. is nice because you can filter for “allows pets” and for “pool” (just read the hotel profile carefully to make sure the pool is indoors!). When I was doing the search, Tim insisted the pool wasn’t a deal breaker, but I’m sure glad I didn’t listen to him–haha! If your toddler is like ours and loves the water, an indoor pool was such a special treat after a long day of car travel. The last two summers we’ve taken advantage of the short public pool season in Philadelphia, but between mid-August and the beginning of July, we don’t have a lot of options for swimming. The hotel pools were small, but both nights we were the only ones there. It was so fun!

7 Tips for Toddler Road Trips  |

The combination of these things and naps helped the time go by quite quickly for us. Okay, “quickly” might be a stretch, but we survived fairly painlessly. We only did between 6-8 hours each day so no one day was particularly awful. As the driver, podcasts helped me pass the time. I caught up on the Longest Shortest Time podcast and listened to an episode of my old standby, This American Life.

A long two-day road trip isn’t something I’d want to do very often, but once a year it’s totally do-able. It’s cheaper than buying three round-trip plane tickets and leaving our dog with a dog sitter for 10 days. Plus, we have our vehicle while we’re there and we can be flexible as far as weather and wanting to leave a day early or stay an extra day or two if something comes up.

If you have any other suggestions for traveling with a toddler, or tips for traveling with two or more kids, I’d love to hear them!

We had a great trip visiting Papa and Grandma Ruth, but it’s good to be home. Here’s to an incredible 2014!

Related posts:

  1. Mary Ellen’s avatar

    Thanks for the great tips!
    I agree, the pool is essential if possible!


  2. Caitlin’s avatar

    We have gone on a ton of long car trips with our 2 yr old. You have a lot of my go to tricks. We also checked out some books on cd for our last trip. We listened to snow white so many times and by the end of our trip we all knew it by heart.


  3. Gina Badalaty’s avatar

    These are awesome tips for my family too! We rarely do car trips because of our daughters’ disability, but these would work perfectly!


  4. kim @ DESIGN + LIFE + KIDS’s avatar

    I TOTALLY agree with the hotel pool suggestion! It lets them get all that energy out and can almost guarantee for a solid night’s sleep! I love the present wrapping idea too…BRILLIANT


  5. Jeanine @MommyEntourage’s avatar

    #8 Invest in a rockin kids music CD that they can jam out to in the car! (and possibly a pair of ear plugs for mom).

    Great tips!


  6. Kelly Moran’s avatar

    Great tips! Will pass along this article to my friends with toddlers!


  7. Barb @ A Life in Balance’s avatar

    With 5 kids, I always joke that we travel on our stomachs!

    This spring we’re going to Cape May for a family wedding. We’ll be staying in a hotel with an indoor pool for the kids to use while the adults are at the reception.


  8. Jennifer A’s avatar

    Great ideas. We have used some of them and continue to do so. It seems no matter the age, the kids need to help being entertained in the car.


  9. Brooke’s avatar

    Great tips Beth! We decided to stay home this year, but this is good info for our next trip to Philly!


  10. Gretchen’s avatar

    I love the idea of allowing the screen time for the last hour of the trip! My tip: buying or checking out family friendly concerts or music DVDs. Especially for a whole car player. This keeps kids entertained but is more interesting for the parents to listen to when they cannot see the screen!


    1. nextlifechapter’s avatar

      Good idea! We don’t have a whole card player, but I can see how that would be useful in the future.



Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *