I used to dread long car trips with my kids in tow. There’s nothing worse than a screaming kid in a car when you have to get from point A to B. (Well, almost nothing worse. A screaming kid in an airplane with 300 other witnesses is definitely worse. Ha!) Whilst long roadtrips are still not my favourite thing to do with my toddler and preschooler, we’ve done enough car travel now that it’s definitely manageable. I wrote a post last year about my top 10 tips for roadtripping with babies, and I wanted to follow that up with a post about roadtripping with toddlers and preschoolers as it’s a whole different ball game – some things are harder, some things are easier, but there are definitely steps that we consistently take that make the whole thing a whole heck of a lot easier (on us and them). So read on for my top 10 tips on how to keep your sanity in check whilst roadtripping with the under 5 crowd.
[ 1 ] Bend the rules just a bit . Whenever we travel, whether by car, train, or airplane, I don’t stress about breaking our usual “rules”. Whether that means allowing a lot of screen time or consuming sugar (within reason, of course, sugar-high kids are no joke), whatever keeps the peace is fine by me. Because the emotional and physical stress of listening to kids screaming in a confined space is not worth it. My number one rule in the car is keeping everyone happy.
[ 2 ] Time your trips around sleeping . If your kids aren’t big car travellers (mine aren’t), timing car trips around nap times or when they should be sleeping at night is generally a good idea. During the daytime, if we drive around lunch or early afternoon, my kids are pretty much guaranteed to fall asleep, which lasts anywhere from 45 minutes to 2 hours. And at night, if the kids are comfortable, I can get even longer stretches out of them. Which brings me to my next point…
[ 3 ] Have comfortable car seats . Sleep is just not going to happen (or at least not long sleep) if the kids aren’t comfortable. And, for us, that means a comfortable car seat that can do extended rear facing. Rear facing allows for more of a recline than forward facing, which means they don’t wake themselves up constantly from the dreaded head droop. We currently have two Diono Radian rXTs that both the kids and us parents love. It’s got an amazing list of safety features: steep alloy frame, aluminum reinforced side walls, energy absorbing EPS foam, and an easy-to-use five-point harness (that is super padded and comfortable to boot). It also does rear facing to 45 lbs and is tall enough for even tall kids like Isabelle (she’s turning 4 in a couple of weeks and in the 99% percentile for height, and is still fine for rear-facing). We just tried installing them forward facing (as you can see in the pics) to see if we want to have them turned around for shorter trips (since they don’t nap much anymore) and they love being able to see out the front window, but I’ve actually turned them around again since I took these pics, as it’s just so much better for longer trips (and safer for Nicky who’s still under the recommended age of 4 for forward-facing).
Another great thing about these seats is that they fit three-in-a-row in most cars. Whilst we only have two, we can seat another adult in the middle between them. (We drive a Nissan Rogue, for reference). And perhaps my absolute favourite feature is that they fold flat for travel and you can get extra straps to carry it as a backpack! (They’re also FAA approved, which is great for air travel.) If you’ve ever flown with toddler car seats, you’ll know how outrageously large they are and how that size is super inconvenient. Yes, these aren’t the lightest seats, but the fact that they are so small when folded makes carrying that little extra weight more than worth it.
[ 4 ] Map out bathroom (and tantrum) breaks . If you’re dealing with a recently potty trained child, you’ll need to be ready to stop at a moment’s notice, so it helps to map out your route beforehand and know exactly where a bathroom is within a 5-10 minute drive at all times. It’s also good to know where you can stop and let your kids run around a bit if they get too stir crazy. When kids are behaved, you’ll want to keep driving even if you had planned to stop (toddlers dictate the break schedule, amirite?), so having lots of break options mapped out is always a good idea so you’ll have something ready when the stir-crazy tantrum ensues.
[ 5 ] Snacks, snacks, and more snacks . The amount of snacks I bring when we do long travel days would make a college linebacker proud. But seriously, snacks are always my first line of defence when my kiddos get irritable in the car. Lots of variety and mess-free finger foods are key.
[ 6 ] Bring comfort items . If your kids have a special item (or two) that comfort them at night, chances are they’ll help in the car as well. Especially if you want your kids to fall asleep. My kiddos each have a bear that they sleep with and which come with us whenever we do car trips longer than an hour.
[ 7 ] Have dedicated car entertainment . Having toys that are only available in the car (much like buying new things before a long flight) is great for keeping the peace when kids start to get antsy. I actually try to hold off on giving my kids toys for as long as possible as I find it’s taught them to know how to just be bored in the car (aka looking out the window, playing with their hands, that sort of thing). So if our trip is only a couple of hours, these toys don’t come out. But for longer trips, there’s no getting around some additional entertainment, and there’s nothing quite like a new toy (or one they haven’t seen in a while).
[ 8 ] Kid-friendly music that you don’t hate yourself . Whilst we don’t break out the toys until necessary, we always play music in the car. We used to always play toddler tunes, but to be honest, that stuff drives me up the walls if I listen to it for too long. Now we’ve compiled a playlist (Isabelle helped me) with “regular” songs that both kids like and that us grown ups are also fine with. Think lots of Tayler Swift and Miley Cyrus.
[ 9 ] Distract, distract, distract . All the time I’ve spent in the car with my two car-averse kiddos has made me a master at toddler distraction. What currently works well for us is spotting heavy-duty vehicles outside. “Look, a digger! Oh my goodness, a digger! Nicky, check out that giant digger!” with as much excitement as possible. This works for a solid hour when necessary.
[ 10 ] Use electronics as a last resort . My kids are obsessed with playing and watching videos on an iPad or iPhone. It’s our first line of defence when we fly because it can keep them entertained for hours (at least with Isabelle, although Nicky is getting there as he gets older), and being in a confined space with hundreds of other people means I have zero qualms about my kids’ screen time. For car travel, though, it’s my very last resort. I find they get car sick more easily when they’re looking at screens and, once the iPad or iPhone has been pulled out, there is absolutely nothing that works afterwards. I also find that whenever I get more relaxed about my no-screentime-in-the-car rule, they get antsy so much more easily on subsequent trips because they figure they can get an iPad or iPhone if they yammer enough. So if we need to buy 20 minutes to make it to our next pit stop after hours of driving then I’ll definitely pull it out, but only after exhausting all other options.
What works well for you for longer car trips? Comment below, I always love learning new tips.
Disclosure: This post was sponsored by Diono. All thoughts and opinions are my own.