We have always lived out of state from one or both of our families. As newly weds, we used to enjoy the 7 or 8 hour car rides together… listening to new music or podcasts, reading aloud, discussing life, stopping as we please for coffee & bathroom breaks.
Those days are long gone though. Fast forward 4 kids and 5 years later, we still like to visit our family. BUT, we’ve had to figure out a few things to how to survive a road trip with toddlers. And by “toddlers,” I mean a baby, and a toddler, and 2 preschoolers.
Disclaimer: this isn’t a fool proof method. Even if you do every single one of these things, there is still a 17% chance that your 6 month old will projectile vomit all over herself and her carseat 3 times during the trip, when it’s -10 degrees outside and you’re driving at midnight. #SpeakingFromExperience
Movies & Tech!!
I was philosophically opposed to tablets + movies to entertain kids in the car. We did it when we were little, so can they. HAHAHA. This was obviously the philosophy of pre-parent Renee, back before I had kids, when I was the most perfect parent. Now, bring on all the movies.
Our kids get bored and crabby with back to back movies all day, so we alternate between movies and other activities. We also don’t start the drive with a movie. We go as long as possible before resorting to movies because it seems to make everyone happier for longer.
It seems like around age 2 or 3, they start to enjoy a full-length movie in the car. Before then, it’s hit or miss on whether a movie will hold their attention.
We NEVER let them watch movies when we’re just driving around in town, so they get super excited in anticipating movies for a long car trip. We go to the library and get a few old favorites, plus a couple new ones.
(Side note: The big kids on the right are sitting in Diono Radian RXTs. Every other carseat we’ve ever owned feels like a major hassle compared to these ones. If I could go back, I would just buy that from the beginning and use it for life. In fact, we recently got 4 of these slightly cheaper, but still awesome, Diono Radians 3r ones for my inlaws’ minivan so Grammy can tote grandkids around. They are amazing!)
If you are judging me, I assume you either:
a.) have a 2 year old who is freakishly good at entertaining herself
b.) don’t have children
c.) never drive 500+ miles with your children under the age of 5
d.) are a much better parent than me.
Judge all you want judgey mcjudgerson. I have no shame.
Best Rest Stop/ Eating Tip
We tend to pack snacks and buy meals when we’re on the road.
We used to make stops for each meal, but it’s nearly impossible to make a meal stop in less than 30-45 minutes with little kids. (Especially more than 1!)
So, we’ve switched to eating in the car and stopping 30-60 minutes later for a quick potty & run around break. Here’s how it plays out:
- Get off the road and drive through when people are getting hungry
- Get back on the highway while I dish out everyone’s food in the car.
- Eat and chat for 30-45 minutes in the car.
- After an hour or so, when everyone has to go potty, we stop for 15-20 minutes usually at a highway rest stop or a gas station/ fast food place near some grass. That way the kids can run around and go potty!
- Get back in the car and keep going!!
This strategy has made our stops faster and fewer. It also is nice to occupy some of the car time with a meal.
The last time we did our 500 mile trip to Grandma’s, we drove through for breakfast on our way out of town, stopped 3 hours later for 15 minute potty + run around, and drove the rest of the way without stopping. It was AWESOME!!
What to pack where
Rest Stop Bag
We generally try to make 3-4 hour segments in the car before stopping. After many stops at a McDonalds where I’ve had to run back to the car in the freezing cold to get a change of clothes or diapers or wipes or cheerios or baby food or whatever… I now pack a “rest stop bag” with the following:
- 3-4 diapers of each kid’s size
- Travel pack of wipes
- Formula + bottle if we have a kid of this age with us (which we have had almost continuously for the past 2 1/2 years….)
- Baby food + spoon + puffs or cheerios if we have a kid of this age (the baby food age is the WORST age to make long road trips with…)
- Change of clothes for each kid
- My wallet
The key to the rest stop bag is don’t put anything in it that you need to get out while driving. Rest stop items only in this bag.
Book basket recommendations
Put this within reach of your child!!
For a 2 year old, I’d put mostly old favorites because they like the same thing over and over.
As our kids have gotten older, we checkout fun new library books for the trip. It’s pretty risky traveling with library books, but ya’ know, gotta keep things exciting. Living on the edge, folks.
Besides your kids’ favorite books, any ‘finding’ or flap books are fun for toddlers in the car too.
Some of our go-to’s toddler age finding and flap books are:
- Big busy book of trucks
- I spy letters (toddler version)
- I spy animals (toddler version)
- Where’s spot?
- Where are you?
- Where’s walrus?
- Dear Zoo
- Trucks slide and find
- Where’s the pair?
Britta Teckentrup has loads of fun finding books for kids ages 4-6:
My big kids (5 and 6 yrs) have enjoyed these other finding/ spotting books too:
(We often grab them at the library before we go so they’re fresh and fun!)
- Ultimate hidden pictures across America (hard!)
- Any of the classic I Spy books are fun once they can read!
- Wacky Wednesday – fun for an early reader
- Where’s Waldo?
- Our library has a bunch of books in the “look and find” character series – these are nice for pre-readers because they have PICTURES of what you’re supposed to find on each page.
Secret Hidden Box of Toys in the Front Seat
Put a mix of old and new “hands on” activities in a box and keep it out of site.
I used to put this box right next to our toddler, but I’ve found it all provides more entertainment if I give out one new activity at a time.
Honestly, before the kids turn 2, we just bring a couple favorite baby toys and they do fine. Our babies have generally been pretty happy in the car except for the aforementioned projectile vomiting incident. My theory is that sleep training from birth helps babies travel well in the car!
As the kids have gotten older, a toy box has come in handy though.
*I will detail what toys we’ve liked the best later in this post!
For kids ages 2-4, a sticker activity book is really fun! We have found putting lots of papers in a binder, with some stickers in the front pocket or a zipper pouch works pretty well.
I keep these binders in the aforementioned hidden basket o’ fun and bust them out when needed later in the drive.
Pro Tips for Dot Stickers
If your child has never played with dot stickers, introduce them before you leave, so that he knows how to do them independently. Otherwise, the experience will be frustrating! I buy the dot stickers super cheap on Amazon! But if you’re in a pinch you can find them at Walmart or Target.
Here are all my best snack suggestions:
- Use a cooler like this one to keep healthy snacks fresh!
- Keep the snack bag accessible to a parent and dish them out to the kids over the course of the trip. If you’re traveling solo, you might want to have them pre dished out so you can just toss them back as needed.
- Our favorite healthier snacks are: string cheese, apples, grapes, berries, raisins, nuts, trail mix, and beef sticks – mostly from Costco.
- We mostly buy large bags of snacks instead of pre-packaged snacks because it’s SO much cheaper… then, I bring a handful of ziplock bags with sliders or reusable snack bags. I just stick them in the cooler and dig out snacks as requested.
- Buy some fun snacks you don’t usually buy!
- Bring several plastic throw-away grocery bags with you and put them in some random car pocket. Keep one out for trash at all times and throw it out at every gas station.
- One of these days I’m going to spring for these trash cans on the back of every head rest. #dreams
- Use snacks as an activity…. when the kids are hungry, I have them set down whatever they’re working on and eat their snack. Then when snack time is over, they go back to activity of choice… it buys you like 15-30 minutes per snack 🙂
- We love these stainless steel kids sized water bottles!! We let the kids keep them next to their bed at night, and use them when we’re out for a whole day in the summer. I have the grownup size too!
Road Trip Toddler Activities & Toys (Ages 2-5)
- New coloring book
- New mini pack of markers or crayons
- Puffy stickers (easy to peel and come off anything!)
- A small notebook with a new fun pen, pencil, and pack of stickers.
- Small amount of duplo squares in a ziplock
- Wood lacing beads
- Lacing cards (Sometimes the Target Dollar Spot has these!)
- Do-a-dot marker (I give 1 or 2 at a time with a piece of cardstock or a notebook)
- Small baggie of a couple figurines or character toys
- These water wow things are AWESOME. You might need a way to refill the water… I used a plastic waterbottle from a gas station with a sports type lid.
- Magnetic cookie sheet with alphabet letters matching activity (free printable HERE)
- Embroidery, toddler-style. (plastic needle & hoop from hobby lobby + yarn) For the netting, I used some of that stuff you put down in your cabinet to keep things from moving around. Or you can buy netting near the hoops at hobby lobby.
- Magnet Tiles – I usually give 2 or 3 to a one year old and 10 (ish) to a 2 or 3 year old 🙂
Use your discretion on what would work for your kids depending on age/ responsibility level…. If they can’t unscrew and re-screw a top, don’t give them do-a-dots. It only took 1 road trip with my 3rd child to realize markers were not a good idea for him. (The 1st 2 had done fine with markers.) Haha!! So, do what works for your kiddo!
Here are a few more fun ideas.
I usually snag one or two new activities like this per trip and I’ve built up my road trip activities stash. The key is, remember, to keep these put away until your next trip so that they’re new and fun each time.
Binders O’ Fun
Sticker Binder (Age 2-5 ish)
I mentioned activity binders earlier… these are awesome and consume so much of their time!!
Make a binder filled with dot sticker pictures, letters, numbers. The neon ones are from Walmart, or if you plan ahead, you can order some on Amazon.
I had a bunch of page protectors from my teaching days and put each letter in a page protector. This makes it easy for your OCD child to take the stickers off and put them back on if they don’t line up right.
Also, you can just peel off all the stickers and reuse them without reprinting the whole alphabet. Heck, maybe your toddler will even enjoy peeling them off herself!
This activity lasts our toddlers a lonnnnnngggg time.
The page shown below is from Play at Home Mom. I purchased the downloadable file for $5 – it included the uppercase and lowercase alphabet as well as some various numbers and counting activities.
Shortly after purchasing that file, I stumbled on this free file from Confessions of a Homeschooler. The letters are a little smaller but it still works. And it’s free.
You can also skip the printables and just write large letters or numbers on blank pieces of paper. Put them in a folder and hand out one at a time with a clip board and one piece of paper.
The other day, my 3 year old did this at home for 35 minutes…
If your toddler is trustworthy, the do-a-dot paints would be fun in the car too. They’re not very messy if s/he knows how to screw the tops on and off.
Road Trip Activity Binder (Age 4-6+)
Once my oldest kids were in the early reading stages, I created a road trip activity binder. This is super fun and can be done several days in advance.
I put most of the sheets in page protectors to be done over and over with dry erase markers. Then, I put some coloring activities in the back pocket.
You can include a zipper pouch of writing supplies in the binder or just throw them all in a ziplock and hope they don’t drop it. (That’s what I did… they dropped it. I’ll be getting a binder zipper pouch for next time. HA!)
I scoured the internet for free printables. These were the best ones I found:
- #11 and #18 were my kids’ favorites from this list!
- The other favorites were mad libs style printouts. I didn’t buy any madlibs because I wasn’t sure they would get the concept at such a young age, but we did it together and they loved it! Here are some more.
- Some of these are super fun.
- A few of these road trip activity pack freebies.
- I also added a few color by numbers, easy mazes, and word searches because that’s what my kids were into at the time.
Audio Books + Muisc
First of all, I have a completely obnoxious toddler playlist on spotify. I’m sorry. And, also, you’re welcome. My kids love it. I try to save it for later in the car trip when everyone is grumpy and it’s worth it to me to listen to the Wheels on the Bus instead of whining.
I also love these kids scripture memory songs! And my kids love them too.
Audio books won’t be super interesting to your 1-2 year old, but by age 2.5 or 3, our kids have loved audio books!
We grab the picture books that come with CDs at the library for long trips!
Or you can grab more traditional audio books for your slightly older kiddos.
Favorite Audio Books for Road Trips with Preschoolers, Kindergarteners, 1st Graders
- Frog & Toad*
- Magic Tree House
- James Herriot’s Treasury for Children*
- Magic School Bus*
- Winnie The Pooh
- Ling and Ting: Not Exactly the Same*
- Mercy Watson (series)*
- Ana Hibiscus
- Harry Potter (once they’re old enough to follow the story)
- The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (around 5-6)
- Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
*These have picture books too…. You could snag those at your library for kids to look at while listening.
We use Scribd instead of Audible. It’s $8.99/ month and you can download anything for free. It has ebooks, and audio books – almost everything I’ve ever searched for is there. Everything on the above list is there except Harry Potter.
When my dad first told us about Scribd, I thought, “Wait, is there a catch?” Because it was such a better deal than Audible. But it’s legit! We’ve been using it for over a year. Try it 2 months for free here! (and if you do, I get a month free too… woot woot!)
Family Bonding… Talk, Sing, Play
Though the conversation may not be as interesting or as intellectually stimulating as our pre-children car conversations, sometimes, I’ve noticed, our kids just want to be included.
So, we ask questions, reminisce on funny stories, sing songs the kids like, make up new songs, and talk about where we’re going and what we’ll do when we get there.
Once your child starts recognizing the ABCs, you can try to teach the alphabet game. I think our kids started enjoying it around age 4. We also play a lot of I spy, and Name That Tune.
Headphones + Grace
Know it won’t be perfect, give everyone extra grace (including yourself), and buy some noise canceling headphones.
We’ve had kids get the stomach flu 4 times on road trips, once in a rental car. Crap happens (sometimes literally) on the road with kids. Embrace it. You’ll be there eventually. Hold a hand or let them cry, and perhaps invest in some noise-canceling headphones?