Family Travel: Tips for Road Trips with a Toddler

Hello friends, as I approach the due date of my second son, I'm going to be handing over this online space to other writers a bit more to share their tips, stories and journeys as writers and travellers. I'm hoping I'll cover the same themes I always do - travel (with a focus on luxury holidays and family travel), writing and yes, lots of tips for coming to Amsterdam - and I'm focusing on getting guest writers to share their experience and advice about things I don't know so much about, and today's post sharing tips for road trips with a toddler is the perfect example of one such topic! (And by the way if you'd like to write a guest post for As the Bird flies, here's where you can find out more.)

Tips & Advice for Road Trips with Toddlers

Living in Amsterdam we don't have a car and we make 90% of our journeys by bike. When we leave the city it's normally by train or by plane so we really don't have that much experience of going on long car journeys with our toddler son. However, I know for many people this is their main mode of transport and road trips are a very common way to go on a family holiday, so it's a pleasure for me to share this collaborative guest post by up-coming family travel blogger Chelsea Kelly-Sipe with you today. We co-wrote this post together but the main tips are hers as she's done more road-tripping with a young child than I have! You'll see where I've also pitched in with a few tips of my own from when my son has joined us on long car journeys aged two and three while back in the UK or on holiday. Hope you find this useful!

Now over to Chelsea....

Top Tips for Taking Road Trips With Young Kids

Are you a seasoned road trip traveler? Or perhaps you are new to the idea of taking a road trip. For our family, we always have to weigh the cost of plane tickets versus driving to our destination. We typically prefer to fly, especially if the drive is over nine hours, but in some cases, like our road trip to Croatia from Germany, we knew driving would be the best option. Based on these experiences and from generally driving long distances with our son as a toddler and pre-schooler, I wanted to share my top ten tips for preparing and packing for a road trip with kids so it goes as smoothly as possible!

Make sure your vehicle is ready to drive a long distance

It should go without saying that making sure your car is ready to go on a long journey is the most important thing you can do before a family road trip. If you want to be extra careful you can take your car into a garage for a check-up or extra service, but it should be enough that it's had an annual maintenance check and the you can do the additional checks and tests just before you are due to set off on your long drive. These checks should include making sure your tyres are at the correct PSI, checking the oil, and ensuring that you have enough fuel. You should also check you have a spare tyre, that you have jump start cables in case of a flat battery, and maybe also ensuring you have your car's manual in your glove compartment. If you're going to be driving in Europe, you should also know that some countries require you to have a hazard sign and a hi-visibility vest to wear in the even your car breaks down, so be sure to know rules of the road of the countries your driving to. We also usually give the car a wash, and clean and vacuum out the inside.

Pack smart for your road trip

Depending on where you're driving to and for how long, it's important that you have all the supplies you'll need for the journey. Yes, this means SNACKS especially when there is a toddler or two involved, but it also means having a few things ready in case of emergencies (i.e. spillages) or just ensuring you don't need to open up your packed luggage.

It's also fair to say that having all your supplies well organised for your journey could make or break the drive. Whether you have to make a ferry departure at a certain time or you simply want to arrive in your destination before it gets dark, the chances are you will have a rough idea of when you want to get somewhere and so you don't want to waste time rummaging around under your seat for a packet of baby wipes or pulling over to search through a suitcase. (FRANKIE: Also, if you're like me, you may get bad motion sickness doing this so knowing exactly where something is will make all the difference!) I like to use car organisers hung on the back of seats to keep everything neat and tidy, and also you can use these to store toys and activities for your kids to easily reach hold of by themselves. If your children are still quite small you can also use the foot wells of their seats as they won't really need the leg room. You could even have some foldable bins put in here with items stored there that you just reach around the seat and grab. The bins will also stop their toys going too far when they get dropped!

These are some of the items you should really think about having with you in the car for your journey:

  • Paper towels and baby wipes for spillages and messy hands.
  • More snacks than you think you'll need, including for you and any other adults in the car!
  • Plenty of water for one and all.
  • Rubbish bags that are easily accessible so you can bag up rejected, half-chewed snacks or keep all the wrappers in one place!
  • First aid kit (no, we didn't think your kid was at risk of cuts or bruises strapped into a car seat but YOU NEVER KNOW!).
  • Plastic clips or re-sealable bags for when your toddler decides they don't want to finish the banana or bag of snacks they just opened.
  • Nappies and changing stuff if needed.
  • Spare clothes for you and your kid/s. (FRANKIE: We recently discovered our son (then aged 2.5 years) can get car sick on a two-hour transfer from our ski resort in Hopfgarten, Austria to Munich Airport and of course this only revealed itself by him vomiting suddenly. Unfortunately we discovered this barely 20 minutes into our journey so we had another hour and a half of him being sick. We got through several changes of clothes and in the end I also needed to swap tops. It's less than ideal having extra clothes taking up space in your car but it's well worth it if one of your kids unexpectedly gets sick - also this is the case for having more rubbish bags and baby wipes than you think you'll need!)
  • Toys, activities, and/or screens for the kids - see below for more suggestions!

Have enough stuff to keep your toddler/s entertained (but not too much!)

My advice for having suitable entertainment options for young kids on a road trip is similar to that for long-haul flights with toddlers; have a decent selection of toys but think practically about what you take and don't take too many because a) too many toys or options can overwhelm a kid and b) they'll get bored at some point no matter how many different activities you think of so... c) don't waste space in your car or risk it looking like a travelling toy shop by the end of your journey. 

(FRANKIE: Personally my best tip for choosing toys for a long journey is to have new-to-them toys that they've never played with before or give them back an old toy they love but haven't played with for a while. A friend of mine also likes to wrap up these toys before the journey so unwrapping them becomes an activity in itself, but I"m afraid I don't have the patience or time to do this before travel - even just packing suitcases is hard and a rush enough! I would also avoid toys with small parts that can be dropped and lost, and don't give yourself any extra stress or mess by packing anything remotely messy. If your kids like colouring in then choose those magic pens or the water pens and corresponding colouring books, but even then I would only bring these if you're guaranteed for your little ones to sit and do the activity for a decent amount of time - i.e. more than five minutes!)

Below is a list of toys and accessories that you may want to consider to ensure your toddler has everything they may need so they're not asking you for a new toy every two minutes, but at the same time they're not being overwhelmed by choice:

  • New-to-them toys. (FRANKIE: My son loves cars/trucks/trains, dinosaur and animal figures, and transformer robot-car toys)
  • Sticker books or stickers for windows. (The best kind are those that have vinyl stickers that fix to glossy pages in a book, as these can also then be stuck to the window (and more importantly, removed easily!)
  • Any comforter toys (FRANKIE: My son will only sleep with his favourite cuddle zebra, "Ra", so we have to have that if have a hope of him getting some sleep!)
  • A small selection of books. Not all pre-schoolers will spend hours flicking through books by themselves, but others will spend ages (like ten minutes or more!!) "reading" to themselves, so definitely pack some books if this is your child. Again, go for books that they haven't read for a while, or ones that are new to them, and ones with lots of images to look at or flaps to lift/textures to touch and explore. (FRANKIE: Remember you don't have to buy new, you could do a swap with friends!) Our three-year-old currently loves  flicking through the following books by himself: Dear Zoo, ABC, and The Very Hungry Caterpillar.
  • A travel tray to fix onto the car seat to make reading or sticker books or just playing easier.
  • A drink's holder for the car seat.
  • A sun blind for the window next to your toddler.

If in doubt, SCREEN TIME

(FRANKIE: Regular readers will know how I feel about screen time, and so it will be no surprise that I think it's a good thing for road trips and long journeys. Just be sure to be careful about what's available on there as unless you're sitting next to them you won't be able to control what they're watching or doing, and you'd be amazed how capable a two or three-year-old is on an iPad! We have one iPad that ONLY our son uses and it has a number of parental controls in place, but really the best thing we did was removing YouTube, only installing apps that are 100% kid-friendly, and ensuring there is no network connection so our son only has access to things we've purposefully downloaded from Netflix. Needless to say, make sure your tablet is fully charged before the journey and invest in a good holder that will protect the device and also make it easy to hold in little hands. This one has lasted us over two years so was well worth the money! And there are lots of apps and games that are educational and well improve their development, for example this Reading Eggs app reviewed by another mum looks great!)

Screen time isn't for every family, but if your kids do like to watch movies or play games, using a tablet or iPad on a long road trip could be your secret weapon! You may want to consider getting a headrest mount for your device or a suitable holder for your little one to easily hold it themselves (and protect it should they drop it, which they very likely will!). 

Let's talk more about food and snacks!

So yes, we mention above that snacks are essential on any road trip with a toddler, but what exactly should you pack in order to avoid too much mess, sugar rushes (and subsequent dips), and other worst of all - running out of food completely!

Depending on how long you will be driving for, you may want to get a small cool bag for storing a decent stash of healthy snacks in. (FRANKIE: I think it's a great idea to make up a packed-lunch style picnic for your little one/s for the road trip. Get them involved in making or packing it up before the road trip starts as this is likely to make them more interested in actually eating it later. However, whatever you do, don't let this be the only source of food for your kids as they will very possibly want to eat it all within the first hour of the journey, so you'll definitely need more food later!). Keep a decent amount of food "hidden" from your kids for emergencies later on in the drive when moods and blood sugar are low! In other words, this will be when you want to bring out the chocolate or less healthy snacks!

Some great road trip snack ideas for toddlers that are healthy and should cause minimal mess include:

  • Fruit pouches (if your little one can be trusted with these!).
  • Dried fruit bars/roll-ups.
  • Fruit in whole form or sliced up if required.
  • Raw veggies (but not tomatoes!).
  • Sandwiches and wraps, with dry or spread fillings (i.e. sliced cheese, thin layers of peanut butter,
  • Boiled eggs.
  • Cheese chunks.
  • Popcorn.
  • Pretzels.
  • Cereal bars.
  • Pasta shapes.
  • Rice/corn crackers.
  • Rye bread crackers.

I'm afraid to say that no matter what you give your little ones as snacks during a road trip, there will be some mess as a result both on them and in the car seat and surrounding area. This is the price you pay for having thirty seconds of peace and quiet as they eat in silence!

If you're going to stop on the way and have a proper meal in a road-side services or maybe in a town that's en route, do a bit of research in advance about what is on offer there. This can help you save time, get your kid/s excited about what food they're going to eat, and also help you avoid making unhealthy or expensive (or just plain gross!) meal choices at a place you just stumble upon!

Stay (the right amount of!) hydrated

(FRANKIE: My son is not long toilet trained and we're yet to do a long car or plane journey with him out of nappies. Truth be told, this makes me very nervous as he is still a bit funny about public toilets. However, I know it's a bridge we have to cross. That said, I can't help but panic when I see him drinking lots before we're about to go somewhere! If you have similar worries about your toddler on a long car journey, I recommend getting them used to going 'al fresco' prior to the day you travel, i.e. taking them outside or to a park and teaching them how to squat or point so they can pee almost anywhere! Alternatively, you could think about taking a travel potty with you for the road trip - this one comes highly recommended by many people - and of course, if in doubt you can use a nappy to pee on - you know they work at absorbing everything!)

Avoid spillages and mess by having drip- and spill-proof cups or bottles for your toddler to drink out of and make sure they have this to hand so they're not asking you for another drink every 30 minutes (again this is where a cup holder comes in handy!). Unless you really know your kid to to be good with one avoid carton drinks or pouch and straw drinks (like Capri-Suns) as just one little squeeze could cause a big old mess. It's also advisable to stick to water during a road trip to avoid sugar lulls and sticky fingers.

Try to make sure your kids drink enough, but not too much as this will of course mean more toilet breaks. Be mindful of this in advance and encourage children to empty their bladders whenever the opportunity pops up, and do the same yourselves! It's only too easy to forget about your own needs when worrying about kids!

Road-trip entertainment for the whole family?

It will depend on your kids' age/s and what keeps them happy/entertained but you may want to think about some entertainment that the whole family can enjoy together. This could be listening to a playlist of songs you all love and can sing along to, or it could be an audio book of one of their favourite stories, or maybe a new book you'd all like to listen to. Here are some good suggestions for audio books for toddlers (TO DO!!). Some cars will also have built-in entertainment systems for playing movies (usually in screens in the back of the front seats' head rests) so make sure you have some ready to go for that.

(FRANKIE: I've read previously that kids love and benefit more from screen time or reading when parents are involved in it, i.e. talking about what happens or asking questions, so while I don't think you should sacrifice an hour of sleep in order to interact with your kiddo as they watch Peppa Pig for the millionth time, don't feel bad about using screen time, if at some point you can use it as an opportunity to talk about something or get involved with whatever it is they're watching or doing.

Another idea for road trip entertainment for the whole family is playing games like I Spy (which even our three year old is just getting the hang of) or giving your kids challenges for things to tick off. These could be a piece of paper with a number of pictures of different coloured cars printed on them and then with a pencil they can cross or scribble out the coloured cars they see on the journey. Likewise, you can do this with road signs or larger vehicles or other common sights, and make it as age appropriate as you have to.)

Know where you're going!

Now you've got your child's every possible need covered, it's time to think a bit more about the journey itself! Knowing exactly where you're going and making sure you're fully ready for the journey ahead is equally as important as looking after your little ones as it can mean avoiding setbacks, problems and delays!

It should sound pretty obvious but while chancing it or only roughly mapping out a journey sounds romantic or daring when you're child-free, it can suddenly seem a bit risky and dangerous when you're also responsible for a young family, so it's worth not only a SATNAV and traffic alerts, but also looking up your route online or in a map before you go so you have a vague idea of where you're going before you step in the car. This is also a good opportunity to plan stops for refreshments and going to the toilet!

It's even worth researching the roadside services you'll be stopping at as some will have more facilities for children than others. We found several on our European road trips that had playgrounds, indoor play facilities and really excellent changing facilities for younger infants.

(FRANKIE: If you're driving across borders in Europe be sure to know the different road rules in each country you're going to be driving through, no matter how short. Many European countries require you to have a "vignette", a sticker displayed in your car that allows you to drive on the motorways, and the speed limits can change from country to country - or not exist at all, hello Germany! Knowing all these things in advance will help you avoid unnecessary and very expensive fines!)

Stay connected and 'in charge'!

If you're relying on your phone for Google Maps to be your SATNAV (you should also check out Waze) then you will need your phone to have plenty of battery or to have the option to charge it when it runs low. Make sure you have an in-car charger to do this, or a portable battery charging station that is fully charged before you leave. This could also be useful in case you need to re-charge tablets or devices for the kiddo/s!

Another top tip is to make sure your GPS or SATNAV is currently up to date before you leave, because roads and directions change all the time and you'll need to make sure you have the latest version for all the latest maps.

And finally, if you're using your phone, make sure you have a mount for it that doesn't block your view or distract you!

Be safe... and healthy!

Sitting in a car for long periods of time can take its toll on your body and we're not just talking about numb bottoms. It's important - wherever possible - to share the driving so nobody is driving for too long, something that can seriously risk fatigue and cause accidents. Sitting in one position for kids and adults alike can quickly get uncomfortable so maybe make it a bit of a game to do some regular stretches of arms, legs and feet to loosen up limbs and keep blood pumping. if you're going to be driving in summer or a very sunny day then make sure you have sunglasses and/or a sun hat on hand for your little one, and that sun blind for their window.

If you're planning on driving at night and/or having your kids sleep some of the road trip, make it easy for them to do so. You could use black out blinds on the window to dim the back seat area (or at the very least sun blinds to reduce glare or sharp light) and you should make sure they have any comforter or cuddly they want to soothe them to sleep. Give them a blanket and maybe even a small pillow. (FRANKIE: We have the toddler pillow from Ikea which is a great travel size for toddlers.) 

FRANKIE: When I was a child, I used to love going on road trips in my pyjamas. It was exciting, I was comfortable and this definitely helped me to sleep! Try also to play relaxing music, or maybe that audio book we talked about to get kids to stay calm when you'd like them to sleep, and obviously make sure they have empty bladders and not too much sugar in their system!

Now all I have to say is safe travels to you and your family! I hope these ten top tips for road trips with toddlers and young children were helpful. The key thing to remember is that for children of this age, road trips can be just as much part of the fun and adventure as what happens when you reach your final destination so remember that it's an opportunity for fun and family time, though of course being organised and prepared will help with this!

Guest author Chelsea is a military wife and mother of a young son. She is a special education teacher by trade, but is currently staying home and writing for her new family friendly travel blog. If you enjoyed reading these tips check out her family friendly travel blog at www.packmoreintolife.com and follow their travels and adventures on Facebook.

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Frances M. Thompson

Londoner turned wanderer, Frankie is an author, freelance writer and blogger. Currently based in Amsterdam, Frankie was nomadic for two years before putting down some roots with her Australian partner and having a baby boy in July 2015. In 2017, she launched WriteNOW Cards, affirmation cards for writers that help build a productive and positive writing practice. When not writing contemporary fiction, Frankie shops for vintage clothes, dances to 70s disco music and chases her son around Amsterdam.
Find Frankie on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and Google+.

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