How to Survive a Car Trip with Kids

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My kiddos have traveled quite a bit for their young ages. Each stage of their lives has presented different challenges when traveling. There’s the baby stage when you worry about how to heat up their bottle on a plane or on the road, diaper blowouts in a cramped window seat, missing nap times, and ears sensitive to the altitude changes. The toddler stage brings on a whole slew of new issues. Missing nap time turns sweet cherubs into terrorizing monsters, temper tantrums seem to flare up at the most inopportune moments, potty training can completely derail. And then there’s all the gear to deal with and think about. Ugh!

I must say, after a few plane trips at these stages, there was a time or two that I said, “Never again!” Car trips weren’t quite as traumatic since there were no other witnesses to annoy or judgmental darts being thrown at you from every side, but they still were stressful and filled with difficulty.

Now that my kids are six and almost eight, life has simplified dramatically. Lula can help me SO much and pretty much do anything… like running the DVD player for example. That makes a HUGE difference. And so, when my parents asked us to come halfway across the country to their home for Spring Break, I hesitantly agreed. My husband had a work trip scheduled during this time to France, and I had no desire to stay home with my homeschooling children by myself for that length of time. Flights were way too expensive for the three of us, and we were out of airline miles. So… I thought, “Why not take a fun road trip?!”

I’ll admit this has always been a dream of mine. The phrase “Road Trip” makes me instantly happy until I start thinking about all the logistics. I love to wander, but having little ones has dampened that desire quite a bit. It doesn’t take much to overwhelm me, and the idea of traveling with them is usually pretty overwhelming! I don’t like chaos, and if you don’t want chaos with kids, you have to have a plan. But I decided we were ready. And thankfully I like to plot and plan. :)

So here are some tips that helped me get to Maryland (and will help me get back) with my sanity and happy kids still intact:

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1. Depending on the length of your journey, plan stops accordingly. From Missouri to Maryland is about 1100 miles. So I planned two stops along the way. Our first day took us to St. Louis to spend the night with my best friend and her family. This was only three hours of our journey, but I don’t get to see her often, and our kids are about the same ages, so they had a blast and got lots of energy out, and I got to catch up quickly with my bestie. Win-win.

The next day we traveled about six hours to Kentucky where my grandmother, aunt, and cousin live. We also don’t get to see them often, so again, this was a great way to visit with people and take breaks with the kids. Our final day took about eight hours and was a little rougher than the first two days, but we survived!

I am lucky to have good friends and family to visit along this route. This also helps with the expense of hotels of course. But if you don’t have this option, find fun places to stop along the way to give everyone a break and to get some energy out. At least make sure your hotel has an indoor pool that is OPEN, or find a famous museum or great park, etc. that would be fun for everyone. Wearing the kids out a bit each day is important for the next day’s journey!

2. What to do! Think about ALL the things your kids like to do, and then try to put those things in the car with you! We don’t have a built-in entertainment system in my Highlander, so years ago we bought portable DVD players at Walmart, and they’re still working great. Here are all the things I planned for the kids to do:

  • DVDs, audiobooks, and books from the library
  • Audiobooks from friends (We borrowed the whole Narnia series from a friend, and the kids are LOVING it!)
  • Crafts, coloring, and drawing
  • Pillows and lovies/stuffies for nap time
  • NEW games for devices
  • Snacks (Oh yes, eating is an activity!)

OK… so this is obviously the most important and crucial part of any road trip! Stuff to do! Every child and family is different, but I didn’t want the kids to be on screens the ENTIRE trip, so I thought ahead and planned diligently. I thought of captivating books for all of us to listen to (this is entertainment for me too). I thought of crafts that would be easy for them to do in the car without needing too much assistance from me. Etc.

Both of my kids love to do crafts and color/draw. So I spent several days going to several stores when I had a spare moment from them to pick up crafts and drawing books. I split the crafts in half so they will have some new things to do on the way back also. Those are hidden in my suitcase still! The other new items I saved until our second day. I knew the first day was short and didn’t want them to use everything up on that easy day. They were SO excited to see all the new items on day two.

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I was skeptical about the audiobooks honestly. My kids LOVE to be read to, but they also love to see pictures. So I didn’t know if this would go over with them or not. But instead of making a big deal out of it, I simply inserted the first Narnia CD when it seemed like they were having a quiet moment, and we began. I decided not to worry if they were hearing every second of the story or not, but when they started a conversation or asked me a question, I would turn the story off. Surprisingly, once they were finished talking, one of them would say, “Unpause!” You can imagine how happy this made me!

They watched some movies on the way out, but they actually never finished one. I think they were enjoying the other things they were doing more than the movies. Again, a big surprise!

We have an iPad. So before the trip, I downloaded a bunch of new games for them to play. Some of the bundle games… like the Panda ones and the Toca Boca games, were good choices. They took turns playing them throughout the journey.

Just like with the crafts, I stocked up on a ridiculous amount of snacks and tried to pick things we don’t usually have so that even this would be a novelty and give them something exciting to do. I also bought some lollipops. I didn’t want them eating junk the whole time, so lollipops are great because they last a good long time! I know, I know… they’re terrible for your teeth! But so is a whole bag of M&Ms or Starbursts! I’m thinking calories here, guys, not dentist visits. ;)

I thought about bringing some of their toys, like their Magna-tiles, that would’ve been easy to play with and easy to keep track of (read: no small pieces!), but we just didn’t have enough room.

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3. Take control. Just like at home, kids need direction in the car as well. Obviously you don’t need to have a super specific schedule, but when the fighting and arguing begin, you might suggest that it’s time for a nap. Or you might demand that it’s time for a nap! I also chose when to turn the audiobook on without asking. If they seemed fidgety, I’d suggest a certain activity they hadn’t tried yet, or a different location in the car. They didn’t always choose to do my suggestion, but sometimes they just needed a little guidance.

I also gave them head’s ups throughout the trip. “We’ll be stopping in about 30 minutes for a potty break.” “We’ll eat lunch at our next stop” Etc. This gives them some time frames so the trip doesn’t feel so endless.

4. Packing and car comfort. I tried to consolidate everything as much as possible so that there would be lots of room and no one would feel squished. There’s nothing worse than getting fidgety and claustrophobic in your own car on a trip! So for example, I found an old CD/DVD case to put all the movies in instead of trying to bring all the individual cases along. I only brought one box of art supplies and combined markers, crayons, colored pencils, scissors, and glue in one box. Etc.

As far as packing the car, it depends on your space of course, but I tried to keep all similar items together. So their books went in the pockets in front of their seats. All the crafts were together. All the snacks were together, etc.

With only two children and one adult, we were able to make the car quite comfortable. We have a third row in our Highlander and decided to put this up for the trip so that the kids could move around a little and have a few places to be. They were also able to lay out some instead of being stuck in an upright position the whole time. Of course they were always buckled in regardless of where they were in the car. But this gave them some options and allowed them to stretch out a bit.

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5. Don’t be in a hurry! I can’t emphasize this enough! I know you want to get to where you’re going. (So do I!) But with little kids, you simply have to relax, be flexible, and not assume you’re going to be somewhere at a certain time. I tried to let them roam around the convenience store a bit at each stop so they could stretch their legs instead of hurrying them through the stop. This was really hard for me! I like to stay on schedule. So it was easier for me to just not have a schedule in the first place. Instead I thought, “We’ll get there when we get there.”

Hopefully these tips will give you some new ideas to help you survive your next trip… or maybe even give a trip a try if you never have before! If you have any other surefire techniques to add to the list, please comment and let us hear them! Happy Travels!

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