Road Trip Tips when Tiny Travelers are in Tow
If the idea of being in a confined space with your entire family for hours on end has you feeling a little carsick, take it from me, you can do this AND survive! If you’re ready to hit the road with your littles, take note to make your trip with tiny travelers as pleasant as possible.
As a kid growing up with a special-needs sibling, plane travel was not an option. When it came time to visit extended family for holidays or special celebrations, we packed up our big blue van and settled in for lengthy road trips. I was exposed early to long car rides with my family, and as a ‘90s kid, it was a big deal to have a car equipped with a video cassette player, allowing my brother and me to enjoy movies during our long voyages. Today, the clunky square televisions and VCRs have been replaced by slimmer screens and iPads, and while these devices can certainly play a role in a successful travel strategy, they are just a small component of what can make a road trip with tiny humans less daunting.
With the holiday season approaching and many of us still leary of air travel in the midst of a pandemic, you may be considering buckling up for a road trip or two. As a transplant mom of a 4 year old and a 1 year old, originally from the Midwest, living in Texas, I know a thing or two about extended car travel with kids. In fact, our family of four has logged 100+ hours in car travel to extended destinations, each trip ranging from 3 to 16 hours. So how do we do it? Strap in and sit tight as I share some of our true and time-tested travel tips with you.
PACKING AND PLACEMENT IS KEY
I can’t stress enough the importance of packing the car strategically for optimal ease! If you’re hitting the pavement for an extended period, don’t shove everything into a suitcase and bury it in the back never to be found again. When items can’t be located quickly, the co-pilot will end up spending the entire trip unbuckling to lean across the armrest into the backseat to dig for every small request: “I’m thirsty, I need a snack, I want a toy to play with, my feet are cold, etc.” Even worse, if you are driving alone, every small request (and trust me there will be many on a long road trip) may force you to pull over and stop – further extending your already long trip.
To avoid the hassle, plan ahead! When you’re packing for your trip, think about what you’ll need access to along the way and separate those items from things that you won’t need until you arrive at your destination. This could include things like: chargers, tablets, drinking cups, lovies or activity booklets, snacks, a cooler, diapering/bottling/or pumping items (if you have an infant), changes of clothes, and hairbrushes/tooth brushes/deodorant (if you’ll want to freshen up at any point).
Once you have a list of all the items that will need to be in the cabin of the car with you, think about where and how you will place them so that you can have access to them as needed. In my family, we typically pack lunches and snacks to avoid lengthier stops to eat. Snacks, therefore, need to be readily accessible. Think about where they can be placed in your vehicle so that you can reach them without unbuckling your seatbelt, moving or digging under other items, or turning around to reach too far. If you have older children, place snacks within reach so that they can help themselves without interrupting the driver. A great hack is to place snacks in a small caddy that can be easily picked up and passed around when hunger strikes. It also helps to pack the cooler with accessibility in mind. Water and small refrigerated snacks like string cheese and yogurt pouches tend to be of highest demand in our family, so I try to place them near the top of the cooler and put items that we won’t need as frequently towards the bottom. It can also be useful to section your cooler (drinks on one side/food on the other) so if you have to reach for something, you can find it quickly without a lot of digging.
TIME FLIES WHEN YOU’RE HAVING FUN
Travel entertainment is another priority item that needs to be easily accessible. For kids, back-of-seat organizers can be a huge help to parents. Place items like tablets/headphones, crayons, coloring/sticker books, small quiet toys, and lovies in a backseat or car seat tray organizer so that kids can help themselves to activities of their choosing. The less driver and co-pilot have to assist with backseat requests, the better. This affords the driver of the vehicle less distractions (and a safer trip) and gives the co-pilot the opportunity to partake in a book, a movie, a podcast, or dare I say…a nap!
Parents also need to think about how they’ll want to spend their time on the road. Listening to the radio can get boring, and it can turn into a task if you’re having to find new stations as you drive in and out of signal range. My husband and I prefer to preload podcasts on our phones and stream them during the drive. I’m often surprised how quickly time can pass when I’m immersed in an engaging story. When not behind the wheel, I also like to have a few Netflix shows or movies loaded onto a tablet so that I can catch up on my latest binge! Of course, you’ll want to have device chargers up front with you and within reach. Again, it’s key to plan ahead so that you’re not trying to download shows on the road where there can be limited network coverage.
One thing to keep in mind about device usage on trips is that just like at home, it’s a good idea to limit use to avoid experiencing burn-out. One trick that has worked really well for us is the 1-hour waiting rule. When we first embark on our journey, the kids have to wait at least an hour before they can have access to a device. I have found this to work extremely well because it helps get the kids used to longer stretches of time in the car. If they have to spend the first hour without stimulation, they have the opportunity to be bored, which invites time for them to take in the experience of the road trip. They may look out the window, make-believe play, talk to their siblings, or eventually fall asleep (which can then help even more time pass). You might find that after an hour, your child is still contentedly playing or has now fallen asleep. If they still continue to ask for a device after the hour is up, you can hand it over, but now you’ve already got an hour of your trip underway. Sometimes for trips longer than 5 hours, we will institute the 1 hour rule after every stop. If you’re stopping every 2-3 hours, this may mean your kiddos might actually spend half of your trip just riding in the car and only require activities and entertainment the other half of the time.
MAKE THE MOST OF YOUR STOPS
My last bit of advice has to do with the time you spend out of the car. Long trips mean stops become necessary, but too many stops can make your trip seem never-ending. Think about the types of stops you’ll need and how you can maximize the time you spend outside of the car. My family has found we can go between 2-4 hours without stopping. When the inevitable bathroom break or lunch break comes up, we try to bundle to avoid multiple stops. Need to stop for gas, but also need lunch? Don’t waste precious drive time going to two separate destinations, but find a travel plaza that has food options and gas pumps at a single destination. If you pack lunches in your car cooler, you can also avoid exiting the highway for a restaurant or convenience store when all that’s needed is restroom access – most rest areas are equipped with picnic tables, and some even have walking paths and playgrounds where you can stretch your legs and get the wiggles out.
Just need a break from driving in general? If you map your route out ahead of time, you can find fun destinations along the way that you may want to stop and spend more time exploring. If you don’t have a hard deadline to reach your destination, stopping for some fun along the way can turn a long car ride into more of a journey with less emphasis on just reaching your destination. Examples of things we’ve done include exploring a small local museum, stopping at a nature preserve for some exercise and outdoor time, hitting up an obscure store or fun roadside attraction, or staying that night at a hotel with a pool. You’d be surprised by how refreshed you can feel after visiting one of these locations. Fresh air, a unique experience in a new location, and a little fun can also go a long way in helping the littles to expel some of their extra energy. It may be just the break your family needs to finish the rest of the trip without the constant “Are we there yet?”
I hope you’ll find these tips useful in planning for your next car journey. LEAVE A COMMENT BELOW and let me know what works for you or feel free to share your own magic tips for travel! Happy Road-Tripping and Safe Travels!
About The Author
Kristin Merron is a boy-mom of two, William (4.5) and Benjamin (15 months), who resides in Carrollton, TX with her husband Matt. Originally from Chicago, IL she moved to Dallas, TX in 2011. She has a professional background in Communications and has worked as a full-time mom, a part-time mom, a work-from-home mom, and is now navigating life as a stay-at-home mom. She joined CECPTA in November 2019 and is part of the PURPLE and RED playgroups. She enjoys family bike rides, binge-worthy shows, board games, travel, and exploring new places in and around DFW with her children and husband.