ROAD TRIP TODDLERS TIPS

23 Best Tips to Survive a Family Road Trip with Toddlers & Preschoolers

Today I’m going to share about how to survive a road trip with toddlers.

We had 4 kids in 5 years, and always lived out of state from one side of our extended family. We love to visit them, and we sure as heck aren’t going to load a baby, a toddler and 2 preschoolers onto an airplane for the cost of $3,000 and all our sanity. So we drive. 

Disclaimer: These 22 tips for surviving a road trip with little ones aren’t fool proof.  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 negative-10 degrees outside and you’re driving at midnight. #SpeakingFromExperience

1. First Thing’s First: Plan Accordingly. 

I usually start kinda sorta thinking about our upcoming trip 2-3 weeks in advance, depending on how long of a trip it will be. I think through the following:

  • How far are we driving?
  • How many activities do I want?
  • What do we have on hand?
  • Do I need to order anything for the activities?
  • Do I want to put any toys in the house away in hiding so that they’re fun and new when we hit the road?

2. The Best Rest Stop & Meals 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 with 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:

  1. Get off the road and drive through when people are getting hungry
  2. Get back on the highway while I dish out everyone’s food in the car.
  3. Eat and chat for 30-45 minutes in the car.
  4. 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!
  5. 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

3. Rest Stop Bag

We generally try to make 3-4 hour segments in the car before stopping. After many stops at a gas station 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.

traveling with toddlers

4. Book Basket Recommendations for Road Trips

Put a book basket 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 because of the aforementioned eating-in-the-car tip.

But we gotta keep things exciting. Living on the edge, folks.

road trip with toddlers

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:

Britta Teckentrup has loads of fun finding books for kids ages 4-6:

britta teckentrup books toddler road trip ideas

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!)

5. 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!

6. Activity Binders

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.

7. 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.

survive road trip with toddlers
toddler dot sticker ideas
The first time your child plays with dot stickers, just let them put stickers randomly on a piece of paper. Then write something large, like the first letter of their name or their age on a blank sheet of paper. Peel a couple stickers off and put them on the lines and then hand them the sheet and say, “You try it.”

Snacks

Here are all my best snack suggestions:

8. Use a cooler like this one to keep healthy snacks fresh!

9. 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.

10. Our favorite healthier snacks are: string cheese, apples, grapes, berries, raisins, nuts, trail mix, and beef sticks – mostly from Costco.

11. 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.

12. Buy some fun snacks you don’t usually buy!

13. 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.

14. One of these days I’m going to spring for these trash cans on the back of every head rest. #dreams

15. 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 🙂

16. 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!

17. Recommended Road Trip Toddler Activities & Toys for Ages 2-5

  • New coloring books
  • 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.
road trip activities toddlers water wow
Water wows come in 3 packs – so many fun choices!
  • Magnetic cookie sheet with alphabet letters matching activity (free printable HERE)
car activities for toddlers
  • 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.
car activities for toddlers
  • Magnet Tiles – I usually give 2 or 3 to a one year old and 10 (ish) to a 2 or 3 year old 🙂
At 14 months, taking playmags apart and together lasts a while!

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. (Our first two kids had done fine with markers.)

So, just do what works for your kiddo!

Last 6 Fun Car Trip Ideas for Little Kids

18. Special Road Trip Toys

I usually buy one or two new activities/ toys per trip. Over time, we’ve built up our 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. 

Rather than list them all here, you can check out our favorite road trip supplies on Amazon! 

Check Out My Favorite Road Trip Supplies on Amazon!

19. Create Binders O’ Fun

19a. 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.

car activities for toddlers

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. 

IMG_0277_2

Palmer Practicality has a ton of great free printables designed for Do-a-Dot paints*, but they also work well with these $1 stickers for in the car!

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.

Go to her site… She has tons of fun options!
do a dot paints road trip toddlers
Do a dot paints + printout + clipboard

19b. 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:

20. Audio Books + Muisc

First of all, I have a completely obnoxious toddler playlist on spotify. I’m sorry. And, also, you’re welcome. My toddlers 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!

This is actually one of my kids’ favorites! It’s best if you introduce the concept before you travel… show your child how to turn the page when they hear a ‘ding.’ A 2-3 year old might be confused and get “off” from the right page, but they still enjoy looking at the pictures and hearing the CD read to them.

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)
  • Matilda
  • 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!)

21. 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. And we try to make the ‘getting there’ part of it a fun family friendly trip vibe! We hope to travel more with our kids as they get older, so we are trying to plant the seeds now for having fun with it – even when we want to pull our hair out. 

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.

22. 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, I’m not going to lie… I love my minivan DVD player.

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.

road trips toddlers movies

(Side note about car seats: The big kids on the right are sitting in Diono Radian RXTs. Every other car seat 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.

23. Noise Cancelling Headphones + Grace

Know it won’t be perfect, give everyone extra grace (including yourself), and buy some noise canceling headphones. (Ha! Just kidding. But seriously.) 

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 think one more time about those noise cancelling headphones. 

What are your tips and tricks for travel with littles? Add your great ideas in the comments below! 

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family survive road trip toddler

19 thoughts on “23 Best Tips to Survive a Family Road Trip with Toddlers & Preschoolers”

  1. Pingback: Toddler Travel Idea Roundup - Mama Teaches Middle School

  2. woah!! That’s a REEEEALLLY good idea!! I never knew what to do about carsick kiddos!

  3. Thanks for some good ideas! My only tip is for carsick kids. Our daughter easily gets car sick, but I found that putting something in the window (a t-shirt, windshield shade etc) to block the view seems to help a lot! It doesn’t allow her to see out, but it keeps her from getting dizzy and throwing up three times in five hours.

  4. Pingback: Tips for Traveling With Tots - Andrea Dekker

  5. Kate, glad this was helpful – good luck!!! Come back and let me know what they liked and how it goes 🙂

  6. Thank you so much for posting this!
    We are heading out for a 2,5 month long trip (not all a road trip, but LOTS of time in the car anyway) and this time it’s with TWO kids. My son is now 4 (and an excellent traveler) and my daughter (17mo) hasn’t done anything like this yet, so I am gathering ideas and I love all of these! For a part of our trip, we will my cousin to be the babysitter in the back with the kids, but we have to be prepared!

  7. Pingback: How to Survive Road-Trips With a Toddler (And a Pregnant Lady!) – Positively Panicked

  8. Tabitha, I totally feel you! Actually, as our second has gotten older, the older 2 just play together/ make up games/ sing/ play and want to interact with us (ispy, alphabet games, etc…). Lately, we usually do that for a few hours, then turn on a movie and justify all the screen time with it being great convo time for me and hubs 😉 haha

  9. We regularly take 6 hour (one way) trips to see grandparents and have since my boy (now six) was a baby. We have the six year old, four year old, two year old and a 5 month old. And I’m usually by myself. I have yet to delve into the realm of portable DVD players. They each have a basket of toys they fill up and we put in the van the night before… Snacks/drinks are limited for everybody to reduce number of times we have to stop, because once we stop it all goes downhilll from there. I have tried the embroidery-the plastic needles quickly turned into darts and swords. I have tried the cookie sheets and magnetic games, can you say drum corps? 😀 We took a long road trip-two days driving 8 hour days-last year… So I tried the binder/crayon thing with things to color…. I ended up taking the iron to the van to take care of melted crayons. I have to say, I AM working on hubby to get a portable DVD player for our long vacation in the spring, South Dakota to Florida. In the car.
    Honestly, for US, I have found the best entertainment is the simple stuff. I had to stop overthinking and just let them play as much as car seats will allow. We pick up toys/trash every time we stop to start with a clean slate. It’s amazing what their imaginations will come up with. Of course the train tracks outside the window help A TON.

  10. Great ideas! I really like the embroidery hoop idea. I will have to use that one on our next big road trip. 🙂

    For the baby food, I got the pouches that I could attach a spoon to. It made cleanup much easier. I still use the pouches for my toddlers because it’s a quick easy and nutritious snack.

    Here’s a link for the baby spoons that can attach to a pouch. I used one similar to this brand. https://www.amazon.com/Plum-Organics-Dispensing-2-Count-Packages/dp/B003L4BV5U

  11. I love this list! We recently did a 5 hour road trip and have a 12 hour trip coming up. For my 21 month old, we have the talking dog by fisher price and an ipad loaded with his favorite movies. My son also has books, he loves flipping through them. OH! And the basket trick is AWESOME! I now keep one in the vehicle at all times.

  12. oh my gosh – yes!!! now that the kiddos will happily watch a 1-2 hour movie, we are going to buy a portable DVD player for car trips 🙂

  13. Natalia Miller

    We loaded up on Bubble Guppies DVD and a portable DVD player. Each DVD had 5 episodes so we just swapped them out when they ended. When we started our trip back, our DVD player QUIT WORKING! So we stopped by the local Walmart and got a new one. There was no way way we were traveling 26+ hours with out one!

  14. Hi Carrie! A bag of activities is fun too! I think we’ll do that when they’re slightly older. Right now, if the 1 and 2 year old each had a bag, they’d just dump it out in the first 20 minutes and we’d still have 7 hours to go – ahh! i may or may not have dreams about minivans with dvd players 😉 haha some day. a momma can dream!

  15. Great ideas! I don’t think there is any shame in using electronic devices on road trips. We totally played Cars over and over again for our 2.5 year old for hours and actually fried the portable player on our trip this spring . . . I pack each child a bag of activities, but I love your organized method!

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