This summer has been busy with family reunions for both my husband and I. Our trip to his reunion in Wyoming was nothing—just a 4-hour drive time that turned into maybe 5 hours, accounting for the times we stopped for the kids. MY family reunion was another story. The drive from our house in Utah to my parent’s house in Missouri takes 20 hours, one way, and has us crossing 3 ½ very boring states (seriously, what is in Nebraska? Anything??). Since we’d be traveling with our 2 year old toddler and our still-breastfeeding 5-month-old baby, I had to do some major prepping in order to make this car ride less hellish than I expected it to be. And I’m pleased to say: the four days of driving (2 days going out there, 2 days coming home) actually went pretty well!
Here are my tips for surviving a long road trip with kids:
- Plan ahead. Start gathering the toys your toddler with play with, start budgeting how much gas will probably be and how often you’ll have to stop along the way. Mentally prepare yourself for the inevitable crying you’ll have to listen to and buy earplugs.
- Buy new toys your kids have never seen before. I bought a few toys and hid them until the big day, so they would be new and exciting, and the kids would play with them longer while we drove.
- Tip: Have a toy that makes noise but doesn’t have volume control or an off button? Put some clear packing tape over the speaker. This muffles the sound at least a little and won’t make you go crazy while stuck in the same car for hours.
- Wrap the toys in tissue paper or gift-wrap for the toddler. I wrapped up the new toys I had gotten my daughter, along with a lot of little toys she already owned but hadn’t played with in a while. Then, every few hours when she got ornery because she was bored, I’d pull out a new present for her to unwrap. She LOVED this! It was such a surprise for her to see what was wrapped and turned her mood around instantly. Then she had the new toy to play with for a while.
- For the baby, get a toy that straps to his car seat. Here are some options.
Again, I didn’t let him see it until that drive so it was new and exciting for him. If I strapped both ends to his seat, it’d be too close to his face, so instead I’d only strap one side (the side closest to me) on. That way, he was able to play with the toy, and then kick it off when he was done. And because it was strapped on, I could easily find it when reaching back to put it back on his lap when he was getting fussy. The one I have makes noise and lights up, and has other toys like rattlers on it. He loved it!
- Snacks, snacks, snacks. Now is not the time to be worrying about healthy. Bring the snacks you know your toddler loves and bust one out every now and then. Just like adults tend to eat when we are bored as we drive, kids will ask for snacks a lot as well. Don’t give them too many all at once because you want to avoid tummy aches and vomit smells lingering for the rest of the drive. But good snacks will distract a kid for a while, and I always bring a small sucker or two just in case my toddler gets really bored and upset. The lollipop came in handy when we made altitude changes and my toddler needed to suck on it to pop her ears, as well!
- Make easy lunches you can eat in the car. One day, we had PB&J sandwiches already made up. Another day, we had cheese, crackers and pepperonis, with juice boxes. Having lunch already prepared and easy to eat as you drive helped save some time and money. It was one less stop we had to make.
- Be silly and have fun. My toddler loved when she saw her dad and mom singing loudly and dancing around. She joined in and for a good hour, she was entertained, and so were we.
- Get creative. When the baby wouldn’t stop fussing for no other reason then he was just bored and wanted to be out of his car seat, I reached back and started playing/talking to him using my hand as a puppet. Young babies don’t realize it’s you and your hand, so they will love it. Better yet, make an actual puppet from a sock and try to snatch your baby’s hands. He’ll love it!
- Take turns driving. If you are traveling with your spouse or another adult, take turns driving. When it’s not your turn, try to nap when you can so you’ll be rested and prepared to drive again. Exhaustion on the long, flat and boring roads is a real problem, and the constant sound of the car while staring at a flat road can almost hypnotize you into falling asleep at the wheel. Stay alert, stay safe. You’re carrying precious cargo.
- It was also nice to let my husband have a turn being in charge of handing out snacks, retrieving the baby’s pacifier, and entertaining the toddler. It showed him that being the passenger wasn’t easy by any means!
- Don’t watch the clock. This was really hard for me while driving across the incredibly flat and boring Nebraska. I’d look at the clock, drive what I thought was an hour at least, then look again and realize it had only been 5 minutes.
That realization will drive you crazy and make the trip feel so much longer! So I stopped watching the clock. I forced myself to just focus on driving and when I would eventually look to see what time it was, hours really would have passed and I’d have a feel-good moment, knowing our trip was that much closer to being done.
- Load up your phone or tablet with movies. Toddlers and older kids are easy on long trips because they can just watch a movie for a few hours and be quiet. It’s the baby you have to worry about more. But sometimes your creativity to entertain just runs dry so this is where movies will save your bitt. My tip would be to hold off on letting your kids watch a movie for as long as possible. If the drive is exceptionally long, and you just throw movie after movie on for them from the start, they will get bored of them and start complaining. Try exhausting all other means of distraction before resorting to the movie and it will make the movies that much more effective when it’s time.
- Don’t be afraid to take breaks. Look, I get it. Your drive is already super long, you’re already having to take the necessary breaks to breastfeed the baby or let the wife with a tiny bladder go potty. You don’t want to have to extend your travel time even more by taking yet another break. But if a good half hour at Burger King to let your toddler play on the jungle gym will save your sanity in the car for the next few hours, it’s worth it. Just accept that breaks to get the wiggles out are just a part of traveling with kids and enjoy the time out of the car as well. You’ll get there when you get there.
- Take things hour-by-hour and go with the flow. As much as you prepare and hope things will go smoothly, sometimes there’s nothing you can do to stop your kids from crying or throwing tantrums. If you’re in the car for hours and hours, kids will get tired of sitting in their car seats. Other things you can’t predict might add to the stress, like flat tires or traffic. Just take things hour by hour, knowing you’re one hour, one minute, closer to your destination than you were before. It’ll end, eventually.
I went into our 20 hour drives expecting things to be really tough and the kids to be crying all the time. Turns out, we got really lucky and the baby slept most of the way while my toddler enjoyed everything I had prepared for her, only getting bored and grumpy a few times. When you expect and plan for the worst, you’ll be pleasantly surprised when things go better than you thought they would! Good luck!