Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Car Travel with Young Kids: 5 Tips for Success

So, you've got young children and are looking down the barrel of a long, excruciating car ride?  Well, my husband and I just finished a cross country trip with a 7 month old, 2.5 year old, and an 80lb dog.  Along the way, we saw amazing sites, had more than one meltdown, and laughed lots.  By the end of the 11 day trip, we learned several lessons that I'll pass along to you in the hopes that you don't experience the same growing pains we experienced at the beginning of our trip.

1. Know When to Travel.  I know, I know, it sounds tempting to travel by moonlight.  The kids will sleep, so no entertaining or stops necessary.  But, stop and think it through for a minute.  Travelling at night means that, most likely, the driver is tired and not as well rested as they should be (yes, I'm being the safety police).  The kids, while sleeping, are not getting the same quality of sleep that they would get if they were in a bed.  So, come daylight, when you are dog tired from driving all night, and the kids are cranky from poor sleep, you've got yourself a recipe for major family meltdowns.  So, think about the personalities and needs of your children rather than letting yourself get woo'ed by the lure of nighttime travel.  What we discovered worked best was getting up early and hitting the road between 5 and 6am.  That way, we'd all gotten a good amount of restful sleep, and yet we had the benefit of sleepy children.  This allowed us to get through the first leg of driving (2-3 hrs) with sleeping children.  It was the best of both worlds!

2. Activities.  I know it sounds obvious, but seriously, OVER prepare on the activity front.  Everyone told us that we should just invest in a portable DVD player, but we have not introduced our toddler (and certainly not the baby) to the wonderful world of television and didn't want to break our own rules simply to make our lives a little easier for a few days.  So, instead, I packed a large bag of goodies for each child (since the ages vary so much).  In my toddlers back, I included lots of books (she can spend an hour happily flipping through her books), a piano, dolls, favorite stuffed animal, playdough, play computer, and other various toys and art supplies.  I was sure to include some favorites, some oldies (and forgotten goodies), and some new toys.  For the baby, well, I just grabbed up various teethers and infant toys that she hadn't played with much or really enjoyed.  When the toys failed to entertain, we'd sing or point things out on the road and talk about them (trains, trucks, broken down cars, cows, horses, etc).  One of Olivia's favorite activities now is to be quizzed on the color of the semis as we pass them.  So, put on your creativity hat - we discovered you could have a lengthy (albeit simple and repetitive) conversation with a toddler on just about any everyday "sight".

3. Breaks.  I know, I know, the destination is in sight.   You are planning a 6 hour road trip and hope to make it to your location in 5.5hrs flat.  But, let's be honest, children do not travel well and being cooped up in a car for hours on end is a recipe for disaster (or at least the loss of your sanity).  So, slow down and "enjoy" the ride.  We found this schedule worked best:
  • Leave early and drive approx 2.5 hrs (kids sleep)
  • Stop for breakfast
  • Drive another 2.5 hrs (kids play)
  • Stop for lunch/playtime
  • Drive another 2.5 hrs (naptime!!)
  • Take a snack break
  • Finish out the day of travel (everyone is pretty done with travel and ready to get out of the car - this is the hardest part of the trip)
When we stopped, it was typically a 45-90 min stop.  We always ate at restaurants (or a park if we got lunch to go).  We discovered it worked best if we found a play area for the kids to run/crawl around during/after our lunch break.  That way, when we got back in the car, the kids were ready for nap and not nearly as restless.  While breaks add a lot of time to your overall drive day, believe me when I tell you, they make the drive sooo much easier.  We could usually get away with a 45 min stop for breakfast, then a 90 min stop for lunch (lunch and park play) and then a 30-45 min stop for a snack.

4. Know your Limits.  Only travel as long as you need in one sitting.  If you have a 12 hr drive ahead of you, seriously consider doing the drive in 2 days rather than 1.  We found that 6-8 hrs of "drive" time was fairly doable (this actually took us 8-11 hrs total with stops), but much longer than that got excruciating.  After about 6 hrs, everyone gets restless and whining, fights, and crying inevitably ensue.  Since we were going cross country and weren't on any time constraints, per se, we stopped and visited friends and family along the way.  We were able to work it out so that we didn't travel more than a couple of days in a row before taking a couple of days off.

5. Laugh it Off.  Its gonna suck.  You're going to have moments when everything is coming apart at the seams.  You are going to get more than a few grey hairs from the trip.  So, try to brush off the small things and laugh whenever you can.  Hey, you've gotta balance out those miserable moments with good memories.  Otherwise, you will never again want to get behind the wheel for a long drive with your kiddos and you'll end up tethered to your home because, let's face it, air travel with kids is equally painful and even more cramped.  So, sit back, throw out your expectations for arrival, and enjoy the scenery.


  1. Great tips! We *may* be making a move soon...

  2. Glad you liked the tips - we've definitely learned a lot over the past 6 weeks! Making a move, huh? How far?