My family recently returned from a wonderful weekend getaway to Cincinnati, and on the way home I couldn’t help but feel like now was the right time to write a post about road trips with kids. I wrote this one back in 2014 and it’s beyond time for an update with some specifics on staying organized, especially since Zoey is older now. If you’re looking for tips with toddlers, that’s a great short post so start there, then come back here and join me for the improved list of travel tips and must-haves for road trips with kids! You’ll find a couple of things that are similar, yet updated here, and some new ideas we’ve picked up along the way. I will say that we rarely (or never) hear the dreaded “are we there yet?” question from Zoey, so clearly these are working!
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1.) Invest in a travel present: I still stand by this… yes, it sounds materialistic, but kids love something “new” and when you have a long road trip ahead, it’s a good idea to invest in something fresh for that trip to keep them entertained for the long haul. We like to do a new movie, special treats, a travel-friendly toy, new coloring book, etc. You can do themed presents (Lego or Disney, for example), or something generic, but it’s a lot of fun for the road. Dollar Tree even has some fun little trinkets you can buy. In the past we’ve also purchased a new game for Zoey’s LeapPad (Amazon often sells $20 digital gift cards for $14.99! Plus, you can get games on sale through the Leapfrog app store). It’s fun to tell her “turn on your LeapPad, you have something new on there!” She’s 7 and still loves her LeapPad as much as she did when she was 4. We have the LP Ultra XDI, in case you’re wondering.
2.) Prepare for mess: Pack a cheap towel for the backseat. We figured this one out after making the mistake of allowing Zoey to get a Blizzard from Dairy Queen on the drive home. We were on a mission to make it to a specific location by a specific time, otherwise we would have just had her eat it before driving again. Alas, we did not do that and I’ve since learned (I’ll get back to this later in the post). The ice cream was overflowing because it was melting entirely too fast, so before we could get moving, we had to take a few minutes to let her drink down all of the melted ice cream, and to clean up the cup it came in. That is when it dawned on me that we should keep a cheap towel in the car for moments like that. Something small enough to drape across her lap without taking up much space, but to catch messes. Whether it’s sauce for chicken nuggets, ice cream, or yogurt, no one wants that all over the car or their kid while on the road. And let’s be real, a “no food in the car” rule isn’t practical for a road trip. Don’t even play.
- Bonus Tip: Walmart sells hypoallergenic, fragrance-free, alcohol-free baby wipes for $0.88 (80 ct – look for the white package) and these are GREAT to keep in the glove box in case of messy hands. Even though Zoey is way past the days of needing baby wipes for the bathroom, we always keep these in the car for emergency messes. They are safe for the face and great when you need to refresh yourself in the car.
3.) Prepare for medical treatment: Pack emergency items into the glove box, such as napkins, tissue, and even barf bags. You just never know. I’ve also found that it’s a good idea to keep basic medicines in there, such as Dramamine, Ibuprofen, Pepto, and mints. Notice a pattern? No one wants a sour stomach on the road… it’s the worst. Kids already need to stop for the restroom more frequently than adults… adding a sour stomach to the mix or a bad headache is no good. We always keep extra bandaids, hand sanitizer, and eye drops as well. I use my empty Ipsy bags for little care packages to keep everything organized.
4.) ALEX Toys Artist Studio Car Valet: Zoey is an artsy kid and could spend hours creating. A few years ago, we had a lap table that wrapped around the carseat and it ended up being a pain to deal with during stops. It was incredibly awkward to take off and put back on before driving again, so we got rid of it after one trip. We recently purchased this valet and oh my goodness, what a difference this thing made! It’s incredibly sturdy and made it so much easier for Zoey to read books, draw, and color comfortably. It also comes with velcro storage pouches for art supplies. It doesn’t come all the way across her lap, but because it aligns perfectly with her legs, it essentially extended her creative space and gave her more support for doing art in the car, and also for snacking. What I love about it is how it zips closed easily so it can get out of her way when needed, but also opens easily.
- Bonus Tip: If you have a child you can’t trust with markers, get Crayola Color Wonder markers because they only work on Color Wonder paper! The Stow and Go Studio is a great starter set for kids on the road, and makes it easy to pack the paper and mini markers for the car. Zoey is old enough to trust with markers in the car, but even she still enjoys her Color Wonder items, especially her Stow and Go Studio. It has become a staple item for all our road trips! If you don’t mind glitter, they do have glitter paper that is a lot of fun. Or, you know, maybe not if that’s not your thing. 😉
5.) Kids Car Backseat Organizer with Flip-Side Tray: If you have a child as messy as Zoey or 2 children and need something in between them, this inexpensive backseat organizer is amazing. We filled it with snacks and it added an extra set of flexible cup holders for drinks, french fries, napkins, you name it. My favorite part is the table on top. This made it so much easier for Zoey to enjoy her toys and food in the backseat. Everything had a place to go that wasn’t the floorboard. If two people are in the back, they could even play a card game on the table. It’s sturdy for how inexpensive it is, and a true must-have for the backseat. I also love that it has a strap so we were able to carry it into the hotel with us easily and not leave food in the car.
6.) Headrest Hanger Storage Hooks: This probably seems minor, but these headrest hooks are an easy way to hang bags or a small umbrella in the backseat without filling up the floor. When going on a road trip, maximizing your car space is crucial. These are very inexpensive hooks and great for hanging a trash bag, snack bag, purse, etc. Speaking of trash…
7.) The DRIVE Bin XL: It drives me absolutely insane when trash ends up all over the inside of the car because there isn’t a dedicated place to put it. It’s either in the door consoles, in cup holders, on the floor, in the seat, or under the seat. I am glad I bought this trash bin because it gave us a dedicated place to put trash, and it’s leak-proof! So if Zoey throws away a drink that wasn’t quite empty (or, you know, a Blizzard cup), it won’t go everywhere. It also came with little trash bags, but you can use grocery bags as well. I really enjoyed having this on the road. It truly made the car so much cleaner on the drive and a lot less work at gas stations when we’d stop to refuel and clean up.
8.) Audio Books: We get audio books for free through our local library on the OverDrive app, but you can also do a free trial of Audible.com if your kiddo enjoys that sort of thing. Zoey is really into the Harry Potter movies, so on our recent trip we started to listen to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and she loved it. She would color while listening and it was amazing how into it she was. We didn’t get to finish the book so we’ve been listening to/from her summer care each day, but we look forward to binging some of the other HP books on our upcoming Legoland+Disney trip. It’ll definitely make the 12+ hour drive more enjoyable for everyone.
9.) Portable DVD Player: When Zoey wants a break from audio books, having DVDs on hand is really essential. If you are traveling somewhere themed, it’s a lot of fun to pack movies that make the anticipation more fun. For our upcoming Legoland+Disney adventure, we’ll make sure we have both Lego movies and all of her Disney favorites in the car. When we go camping, it’s fun to pack movies that focus on the great outdoors or animals. Either way, investing in one of these is a good idea when kiddos are involved. We still have the same cheap RCA 7″ dual monitor system that we bought when Zoey was 18 months old, and it has held up great the last 6 years. It doesn’t have the greatest reviews, but somehow ours has lasted beyond what we expected so either we’re not as rough on ours or we got lucky. We currently have our eyes on this 10″ Car Headrest DVD Player upgrade though. So fancy!
10.) Snacks, snacks, and more snacks! There are two approaches I take when it comes to road trips:
- I always pack snacks. We buy up our favorites at Dollar Tree, Aldi, and Walmart for a fraction of the price and pack a bag (or now our new backseat console!) with a bunch of food. Those peanut butter filled pretzels at Aldi are the BEST for a road trip.
- Budget for some gas station drinks. Here’s the thing: When you stop for gas and to use the restroom, children always want something. They will always ask. Heck, I usually want something! Whether it’s a cappuccino (because we all know gas station cappuccino is oddly the best) or some fancy new soda I’ve never seen before, there is just something extra fun about gas station drinks on the road. I make sure to pack plenty, but I also budget a little for gas station drinks and treats so when Zoey asks (and she always does), I can say yes without thinking about it. We avoid buying chips and such as much as possible and just pack our own, but we do budget a little extra for a special drink or an ice cream.
11.) Comfortable neck pillow: We found a comfy memory foam neck pillow for Zoey at Five Below in Cincinnati and I was so glad because it was just $5 (cheaper than Amazon!) and she really needed it. On the drive up she had her Pillow Pet and it was incredibly awkward to get it positioned just right so she could safely ride and also rest her head. I’m a stickler when it comes to seatbelt safety and making sure she is always sitting upright, and our pillow method just wasn’t working when she wanted to nap. Having something that makes sleeping in the car safe and comfortable is essential for road trips with kids. While we do have the pillow from Five Below, we’ll probably also pick up this inexpensive seatbelt shoulder pad as a back-up, and if all else fails, the passenger in the front seat can use it. 😉
12.) Always pack a blanket. It never fails… we’ll be completely comfortable in the front seats and Zoey will be cold from the A/C running. We always make sure to pack one of her fleece blankets because not only are they lightweight and fold down small, but she has character blankets. When we’re on our way to Disney, this makes it so she has some of her favorite characters to cuddle up with. Trust me, it’s the little things that matter… having her Elsa & Anna blanket is essential.
13.) Plan ahead for bathroom stops: Do not wait until your child is freaking out before stopping for a restroom break. Not only is a stop good for your circulation, but it makes you a lot more comfortable. I have found that by the time Zoey communicates her need to use the bathroom, she is uncomfortable and about to explode. Yes, she’s 7, and she still does this. And, of course, there isn’t a stop in sight that doesn’t look like something out of a horror movie. Planning ahead for bathroom stops at nice rest stops or large, populated truck stops makes the drive much more comfortable, and ensures that there aren’t any emergencies or pee accidents on the road. Half the time we don’t realize how badly we need to go until it’s bad because we’re sitting the whole time. Plan ahead! On the drive, pay attention to the interstate signs, or use the Waze app to help you find a safe place to stop, and require that everyone tries to go, even if they think they don’t have to. My grandparents used to stop every 100 miles when traveling with me as a child. That may seem excessive to some, but you might find it a crucial part of your planning with little bladders in the car.
14.) Download relevant apps on smart devices. I recently found out that Legoland has launched a new app called Quest to Legoland where children can set up an adventure and it follows you via GPS all the way to Legoland. How cool is that?! The app has 40 different games you can play along the way, and also has trivia about the area you’re driving through so you can learn a thing or two. I thought this was a crazy cool concept because there definitely won’t be any “are we there yet?!” questions with this app. It shows children where they are on the map so they know exactly what to expect. Now if only Disney would come up with something similar, we’d be in business! We can’t wait to test this out in October since we’re going to Legoland before checking in at Disney. I’ll be sure to report back how it works. The only downfall is Zoey’s little iPhone doesn’t have any connection without WiFi (it’s my first iPhone I ever had and basically a glorified iPod at this point), and GPS won’t work on it so she’ll have to take over my or Glenn’s phone while the other phone runs Waze.
- Bonus Tip: Waze has some really funny voice options on its GPS, so if you want to entertain your kids on the drive, try the boyband option (quite hysterical) or Mr. T (downright hilarious)! The random outbursts Mr. T makes in our car causes us all to laugh, and that makes the trip more fun. Don’t be too offended by “Turn right, fool!” or “Make a left, sucka!” It’s nothing personal.
15.) BE FLEXIBLE! Yes, I am repeating myself… but for the love, be flexible to a change in plans. Whether it’s a change in route, stopping more than planned, or adding a new destination to your trip, be flexible to change. You never know what will happen with kids in the car, especially on long distances. You may find that you need to stop longer than planned at a rest stop to let them run for a minute, or maybe want to pop into that alligator farm you heard about to stretch your legs. Or, you might find out the hard way that your kids get car sick if they don’t look out the window enough… insert Zoey on our first drive down to Disney and having to quickly get off the interstate. Be flexible for unplanned stops and make the most of it. Who cares if you arrive later than you hoped? Making good time isn’t the world. Stop for that ice cream… don’t be me.
And there you have it! Those are my top 15 road trip tips and must-haves for traveling with kids. I’d love to hear your road trip tips as well. Anything I’m missing?