10 Road Trip Tips You Need to Know When Traveling with a Toddler

Oh toddlers! The seemingly minute-to-minute joys and agonies really bring out the true character of all involved in their care. For some, this can be a major deterrent to doing much outside of the usual routine; and there is certainly much wisdom to routine (as chronicled by researchers at the University of Albany who in this study discovered that strong routines lead to strong focus, a highly desirable trait these days). There is equally as much wisdom in versatility and adaptability, which is what road trips bring to the table.

I embarked this year on a 1,400 mile journey of a lifetime with my best friend and daughter, who is now two. It was an amazing success for all of us, though the road was far from a smooth one. So here go the 10 tricks to the road that we learned en route from one huge state, California, to another, Texas.

You’ll notice that they are almost all mentality-based, and that’s because that’s how the road works! The more clear and level headed you are, the better your trip(s) will be, just like the more clear and level headed you are, the better parent you can be to your toddler. That said, there’s concrete nibbles to break it down and make it easy for you as you get ready to go!

# 1 Travel Light

To some of us, this is second nature. But with the plethora of things we’re inundated with as parents, it can be difficult to know what you really need and what you don’t. Think of your time on the road as survival mode- very similar to the “if your house was on fire and you had a few minutes to grab what you need” scenario- don’t worry about trying to cram every toy, every distraction, every cooler full of every snack, and every outfit you, your toddler, and your crew own.

When you actually get on the road, supposing you have also used step 2, you will find yourself very engaged and fully present and you will not miss the knick knacks you may have been thinking about bringing.

Things worth packing more than you think you’ll need

***Diapers and wipes! **** For some reason, these seem to run out oh so quickly and you’ll just feel good having an extra case. Maybe you’ll decide to be spontaneous and stay at the Grand Canyon one more day or maybe you’ll just be prepared for the time your toddler decides to poop six times in the same restaurant (yes… this one is from the experience of having run out of diapers at poop number four in the restaurant which had me thankful that CVS was right around the corner but making mental note about the level of preparedness I’d like to be for the next time…).

If available to you, make sure to book places where you can do some laundry so you don’t need to pack more than a few days’ worth of outfits, and bonus points if all of your outfits can mix and match!

My favorite technique for this is the monochrome palette- packing 3 outfits in all the same color, and all 3 outfits complementary to each other so I can create up to 9 outfits effortlessly. I also try to pack only 2 pairs of shoes per person, though depending on weather I know this can be challenging.

It is also worth bringing cozy bed and nap time favorites- particularly loved jammies, soft blankets, and a favorite pillow will introduce that feeling of home and comfort that help little travelers get great sleep!

#2 Spend (Most of Your) Time Prepping

Study maps. Seriously, I know everyone and everything is outfitted with GPS but you’ll want to know what you’re in for, where the grocery stores, gas stations, and restaurants that you find appropriate for you and your toddler are located (and how much space in distance and time is in between).

You’ll want to also check out some scenic opportunities so when you feel the urge to stop and smell the roses, you also feel equipped to do so!

Knowing the road before you go will give you a good sense of timing for naps and other tending to your toddler’s routine and will just help you to feel as strong and stable as you do at home.

Knowledge is power as they say, and empowering yourself is something your toddler will respect you for as you embark on a journey together!

They look to you for leadership, so preparation is key. Plans will change on the road, things will happen unexpectedly; and you want to be able to enjoy the adventure of it rather than feel overwhelmed or dizzy in a new environment.

As I said before, road trips are something of survival mode but in an energizing/renewing way, and your toddler will mirror your attitudes and behaviors! So put your best foot forward just like you do at home.

Looking at alternate routes is always a wise idea because roads can shut down for almost any reason. Knowing where alternate lodging can be found is equally wise, as is knowing “dead zones” (not the time to have YouTube videos on if you’re heading through the Rocky Mountains- but definitely a wonderful time to have someone sitting in back with your toddler to gaze out the window with them and learn new words- “snow”, all the colors of cars and trains, “huge trees”).

Download favorite games, movies, songs to sing, etc. and pack some spare car chargers, and depending on your route, you can usually follow a similar screen time schedule that your toddler is used to from home so they aren’t spending 8 hours a day on an iPad while you travel.

#3 Enlist Support

Taking my first road trip with my daughter and best friend was probably (unbeknownst to me at the time) the best decision I could have made! I love my family, and we all love our partners, but sometimes the added stress of those can make for a less enjoyable trip.

If you have the option and if you’re unused to traveling with your toddler, I highly recommend you enlist the support of friends!

We were able to take turns driving and playing with my daughter and there was no power dynamic to work with, each decision (where to stay, for how long, which route to take, even where to eat and how much money to spend) was highly equitable.

In any case, the support you enlist on your journey could equally well take the form of stops in a friend or family member’s home, should they have the desire to host you and your little one (as well as the rest of your crew, whomever is along for the ride). Whenever we used this option, we found that staying 3 days or less was the magic number for maximum enjoyment of all.

Any longer and toddler life is usually somewhat straining on the host which in turn becomes straining on everyone.

If planning to stay in one location for an extended time, definitely consider using AirBnB to continue to use home-like facilities (laundry, a fully equipped kitchen, etc.) in combination with your host.

#4 Take Your Time

This is a lesson echoed through many times during toddler parenting. I get it that we want our children to get dressed when we say because we have many pressing things to do; but the truth is, it is extremely rare that what we are doing is so pressing that we can’t take a minute to laugh along at the silly antics they so love to put on display!

Expect that whatever challenges your toddler gives you, whether that’s getting dressed in the morning, eating more varied foods (or eating at all sometimes!), etc., they will continue to do so on the road. Use this as an opportunity to have a new response; maybe even a lighter response.

While you are in the mode of experiencing new things, experience your relationship with yourself and with your little one in a different way.

Instead of having some behavior aggravate you, try laughter! Instead of chasing them around the house while they throw a fit, try playing hide and seek! You will find yourself feeling a lot better when you give yourself more time than you need.

I found that the ideal travel time was 6 hours but that a 9 hour day was doable. Any more than that and all three of us were miserable. However you decide to make your plans, especially the first ones out of the gate, take it all in the learning experience stride just like you expect your toddler to!

Laugh off the “failures” and treat yourself a little- sleep in at your next stop, or buy that latte you’ve been thinking of. Treat your toddler too- an extra long bath time or a favorite comfort meal and extra snuggles without fail do the trick.

Most of all, they just want your attention, so the more you can give them, the more joy you will receive. Taking your time will inherently create a rich bonding experience, and this is attainable even if traveling for business or moving purposes.

Life really is a highway, trust the journey and watch your little one experiencing the world in a big way for the first time!

#5 The Less to Do, The Better

In the same vein as the above, unless staying somewhere for more than a couple of days and unless decently familiar with the area, I would avoid things like dinner reservations or anything where childcare would be required.

There’s a lot of factors that become out of your control while on the road and major plans in short windows are a recipe for stress (unless they’re something you can easily opt out of without paying a big price for).

I would skip plans requiring childcare altogether (obviously, some things cannot be helped, perhaps a job interview or other unique opportunity, in which case spending more time in that location will be of benefit as is not overbooking in the time before and after) simply because of how much change your toddler will already be experiencing.

Added vulnerability will unsettle even the most go with the flow little ones, even if it’s childcare with someone they have met or seen before; the truth is that no one comforts or puts them at ease like you do, and that’s still age appropriate.

Having less to do will also keep you very present, and if you followed tip #2, then having less to do doesn’t mean being less prepared! It actually means that when inspiration strikes, you’ll be able to follow it.

Trust that you’ll know what to do when you see it, and again this can be a huge bonding moment with your toddler when you see his/her face light up at something they see and you can spontaneously opt into it, you’ll both be having the time of your life.

Do charge your cameras/phones so you can take photos, all those spontaneous moments are a whirlwind and a blur- if you have enlisted help, make sure they take photos of you with your child too! These are the most precious (and I can personally guarantee they’ll be your toddler’s favorite photos to show people s/he knows back home).

For when you arrive at your destination(s), one of the first things we would do is take a shower or bath; for some reason, just that little bit of hydrotherapy was all we needed to re-center ourselves and either find a place to eat/cook a meal or doze off before the next days’ worth of activities. If your toddler is used to bedtime stories, definitely keep them on that routine to maximize sleep!

#6 Acceptance is Key

So you got a flat tire. In the middle of the desert. In the middle of the summer… Or you made a wrong turn and now you’re almost 100 miles off course because your GPS failed in that time due to heavy forestation. Or you’re just stuck in normal LA traffic when you just drove the entirety of the California coast in less time than it’s taking to go 5 miles.

Or whatever the case may be… You feel that “Why me” feeling. Delays, mistakes, sometimes even something scary happening- all come with the territory of modern pioneering out on the open road.

Remind yourself throughout that you are safe, that you are prepared (you did follow tip #2 right?), that you brought what you needed to care for yourself and your little one, and that you don’t have the end of the story yet… Here’s one for you: I put Def in my car instead of gas at my first fill up, not even outside of the California state lines. My daughter was happily chattering in her car seat and my best friend was checking her phone, and I had to deliver the news that I in fact was a massive idiot and probably compromised our entire trip in the first 150 miles.

A tow truck, a few mechanics, a lot of phone calls, and $200 later and the whole thing was resolved; we were back on the road, and the initial picture was really not all that different.

Overall, we “lost” 2 hours. But we gained so much in communication/troubleshooting, more car knowledge than I’d ever thought to learn, a hilarious picture, my daughter’s personal favorite- a ride in a “huge truck”, and now a story that I get to tell and re-tell for the amusement and the learning purposes of others.

Remember that things in the moment that seem chaotic will find a funny way into your heart, and let yourself enjoy the bumps in the road as much as you do the smooth parts. Also be easy on yourself. And it doesn’t hurt to have your favorite mechanics on speed dial, as well as to re-up your AAA membership if it’s not current (well worth the investment!).

#7 Notice and Celebrate the Little Things

Your road trip is a fantastic time to notice and celebrate things your toddler does. You may notice in an all new context how they are being very respectful and quiet (most of the time) in small spaces like the car, or how they have gained more “potty awareness” and verbalized when they need a diaper change or bathroom stop.

Get ready to be amazed and rejuvenated, if not a bit swollen with pride, as you get to see the results of that parenting routine in action. You’ll also be amazed at how durable your toddler is- plan for some hikes or outdoor activities, take them swimming, run to their heart’s content at the rest stops you make!

Since much of your time will be spent out on the road, you’ll savor the moments you can spend both in and out of the car.

Whenever possible, especially relevant if you’ve enlisted help, spend time in the car giving attention to your toddler. They’ll pick up tons of new words and ideas, you’ll bond over making up games or singing songs, and you’ll have a break (again, if possible) from driving.

I found that in my turns to drive for long stretches, playing mirror peek-a-boo and singing as loud as we could enthralled my daughter. On our road trip, she learned upwards of 50 new words. She is very verbal to begin with so I played up her strengths and talked to her about every little (even mundane) thing. Celebrating the new accomplishments and getting excited about them passed some of the long time on the road.

Now, here is where I will remark on fussiness. It’s inevitable with toddler territory and for me, I was somewhat terrified of hitting the road (initially) because my daughter spent the first year and some change of her life hating the car; like screaming bloody murder and stopping her breathing type of hating the car.

Even 5 minute drives were often out of the question for me, I would walk everywhere with her. So, coming off of this and having only ventured out at 20 minute drives, part of me wondered if we would need a miracle to get by on this trip.

But, with enough attention, snacks, some (less than you’d think- we only downloaded 3!) games (and no Internet), as well as knowing where/when we’d take rest stops and keeping the trip to mostly 6 hour stretches- she only fussed about being in the car for one total hour, and that was when we attempted a 10 hour day once we had almost arrived at the final destination.

We may have gotten lucky; but give your fussy toddler a chance to surprise you. It’s not the time to introduce new concepts or boundaries, but if you pay attention to them and have done your prep, you will have an enjoyable trip!

#8 Do Budget for Gift Items

I’m not big on walking out with everything in the store; but definitely keep a space in your budget for a couple fun somethings (they don’t have to be big ticket items).

I found that my daughter absolutely loves tumbled stones! So I would help her put together several bags at shops along the route. She also really enjoyed sticker books (which doubled as fun car and hotel activities) that were geographically relevant! You can purchase these ahead of time too if you know that stickers are good for your toddler, both Amazon and Barnes and Noble have great varieties!

#9 Let Go

This is a really mental one! Anytime you find yourself having an un-enjoyable time, do what you’d advise your little one to do: take a deep breath, count to ten, do it again until you feel a little bit easier.

Go easy on your expectations of yourself and your toddler, and keep an open mind and heart. Notice when you get frustrated or angry and when you can gently ease off of that, and explain to your toddler that you are currently frustrated/angry but are bringing yourself back to your center.

Sometimes, especially if you’re going on a road trip longer than 3 or 4 days, the disorientation and sensory overwhelm can get to even the most seasoned of travelers!

So if you’re going on an extended trip, plan for some moodiness to set in around day 4 or 5 and don’t be afraid to bribe yourself (I keep a little stash of Jelly Bellies- my favorite candy- around to share) or your toddler (balloons always put a smile on my daughter’s face and are usually readily available- you can also keep a stash in your car for convenience! I love these from Etsy because they are biodegradable and super pretty).

Just remind yourself that what you’re feeling is normal, what your toddler is feeling is normal, and when you feel ready you can get back to looking forward to the next leg of your journey.

#10 Take Pictures

Ok, so this isn’t really a hack, but it IS a necessary reminder because as busy moms and dads it can be tough to also play photographer! You’re going to want to on your trip.

And looking through photos is one of the best ways to spend those hours on the road for your toddler and hotel down time where you may have to wait or you need a little extra time than your toddler is willing to give you to get ready to go in the morning or after their nap!

Those photos will guaranteed be priceless, and have the added bonus of being engaging for your toddler to explore while you need a few minutes of hands free time.

Make sure to take photos of the things that are “fails” or don’t go “well” either- these will make for some of your funniest stories once you’re out of the situation and able to see the comedy again!

The other thing I’ve found that my daughter is particularly captivated by is photos of wildlife (even basics like squirrels and crows) and she will spend hours chatting to anyone willing to listen about all sorts of things from the trip related to wildlife.

Having lots of photos will also provide you with shareables once you get home, and if you’re really on your multitasking game, you can do your Christmas card (or other event, maybe a pregnancy, engagement, or anniversary announcement) photos as well- and if you have the capacity I’d recommend it simply because it feels good to accomplish something and be “ahead” when you do get back home.

Written by Shannon Daley