After over two years of way too many road trips with a toddler, we’ve learned quite a few things along the way. We’ve had road trips go amazingly well and others resulting in crying and whining 50% of the way. (I’ll thank minor car sickness and potty training for that!) While we’re still learning with every road trip, we’ve included in this post some of our best tips for a road trip with a toddler.
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1. Have a Variety of Car Activities Available
Combating boredom with a number of different toddler road trip activities is best thing you can do for a smooth road trip with a toddler. We’ve tried a variety of road trip with toddler activities over several car rides. (Many of which work well when flying with a toddler too.)
Below are some of our favorite toys and mess free activities for a road trip with toddlers.
- Sticker and activity books like these
- Mess free coloring books like these
- Water WOW books
- Magnetic books with different scenes
- Interactive reading books with lift-the-flap or sounds
- Toddler road trip games including:
- Load a tablet with shows and movies (Note: We often save the tablet until we’ve exhausted the other road trip activities)
- Use a lap desk or kids travel tray for coloring and other activities in the car.
Another one of our favorite toddler road trip ideas from Consistently Curious is to make these road trip goody bags. You prepare the bags in advance and fill them with a variety of activities or road trip toys for toddlers. Then give them a new bag every hour of the drive for on-going entertainment.
For more toddler road trip toys, check out our favorite baby and toddler travel toys.
2. Pack Lots of Road Trip Snacks
Let’s face it, most toddlers are always hungry. And the only thing worse than a hangry toddler is one that you’re stuck in the car with. We typically try to pack a variety of healthy road trip snacks for kids and adults. We also always have a cooler on hand for drinks and cold snacks, even if we aren’t packing meals. (This soft cooler is great for the car and folds up between use.)
Pro Tip: We usually use Instacart or Target Drive-Up to save time on shopping for snacks, drinks and road trip activities before a big family vacation. Snacks below are linked to Target to help you prepare!
Toddler Road Trip Snack Ideas
Below are some of the best toddler road trip snacks that work well for the whole family.
- Goldfish crackers
- Veggie straws or veggie chips in a can
- Trail mix
- Packaged cracker sandwiches
- Honey wheat pretzels
- Fruit: Apples, clementines and grapes all travel well. (I will often pre-cut or pre-peel fruits for less mess in the car.)
- Veggies: Carrots and celery are great for the car
- String cheese sticks
It’s not uncommon for our toddler to get hungry for lunch before we’re ready to stop. I almost always pack a peanut butter and jelly in these reusable sandwich containers that are great for road trips with toddlers.
Of course, we’re not above bribing for good behavior. We usually make sure we have fruit snacks or lollipops on hand if we need something extra to get us through the trip. Just try to avoid too many sweets if it will make your toddler sick during the car ride.
3. Consider Sleep Times When Deciding When to Depart
If you’re doing a long road trip with a toddler, you’re bound to be driving during the night or nap time at some point. (And if I’m being completely honest, sometimes my favorite part about a toddler road trip is when they’re sleeping!)
As babies enter toddlerhood, they typically move from taking two naps to one, longer nap in the afternoon. Definitely take advantage of driving during this longer sleeping period for a quiet ride.
So when is the best time to leave for a road trip with kids?
I hear this question a lot. The answer really depends on your family and a few variables, including a.) Your child’s sleep schedule and ability to sleep in the car, b.) Your preference on driving at night or early in the morning and c.) The length of the car ride.
Below are a few different strategies that have worked for us and families we know, when deciding the best time to leave for a long road trip.
- Leave at a normal time in the morning and take a longer break during lunch time. Start the next leg of the trip right before nap time.
- Leave the house really early (between 3 and 5am) if your child typically sleeps until a reasonable hour and will fall back asleep in the car. (Our son has trouble falling back asleep once he’s up so this hasn’t typically worked for us.)
- Leave in the early afternoon (around nap time) to start the drive with quiet rest time. We did this a lot when taking a 1/2 day off from work.
- Leave in the evening after an early dinner and take a quick break before bed time. Finish the remainder of the drive as your child is (hopefully) sleeping.
Does your toddler have trouble sleeping in the car? While our son thankfully sleeps in the car, he typically needs zero stimulation to fall asleep. If you have a sensitive sleeper, below are some tips to get your toddler to sleep in the car.
- Take a break from the car before nap time or bed time to burn off energy.
- Turn off any shows or movies on the tablet and put on quiet music or a podcast up front.
- Consider a sound machine with a USB plug in or white noise app if your child is especially sensitive to background noise.
- Block out the sun with a magnetic blackout curtain for the car.
- Give them a stuffed animal or blanket they typically use at home. For overnight or early morning drives, have them stay in (or change into) PJs to get comfy.
If your toddler sleeps in the car at any time of day with noise in the background, consider yourself lucky!
4. Plan An Active Break For Longer Car Rides With a Toddler
As your child gets older, it’ll become more important for them to burn off energy during a long car ride. Sitting at a restaurant after sitting in the car for hours doesn’t always cut it!
Unless you’re taking a long enough drive that warrants stopping overnight, we’ve found that taking a longer break in the middle of the drive works best for long drives with toddlers. In the summer months, parks and nature areas are perfect to get some fresh air and run around. On our way home from Sandbridge Beach, Virginia, for example, we stopped at a large park in Maryland and walked the trails while hunting for bugs.
In the winter months (pandemic aside) fast food restaurants with indoor play places work well for stops. If you have more time, you can also look for roadside attractions or toddler-friendly places like aquariums or children’s museums to break up your drive.
More frequent, shorter stops are always an option, especially if you have a newly potty trained toddler who always has to pee. More on that below!
5. Be Prepared For Potty Training on the Go
Oh, potty training. Enjoy your long car trips with toddlers before adding that level of fun to the equation. Just kidding. Sort of.
A fully potty trained toddler will typically communicate the need to use the bathroom and/or be able to wait for the next rest stop. It gets tricky when you’re in the midst of potty training. Often that means working through your child’s ability to recognize when they have to go, fears of public toilets, and other common potty training issues.
We’re definitely not experts in the potty training arena, but this potty training book has been super helpful with the potty training learning curve. One recommendation that has worked for us while traveling is to use a red solo cup for potty training on the go. It’s easy to keep disposable cups on hand, and it works especially well if your child has a fear of public bathrooms. (Yep, you read that right. Who knew that the cups you drank from and played beer pong with in college could some day serve as a potty for your toddler??)
Going #2 has been a whole different story. Our son’s “belly aches” from holding it in accounted for most of our stops and screaming in the car during recent car rides. To avoid this, I recommend using whatever usually works for your child (under a doctor’s guidance) to make sure they go potty the day before a long road trip. (Prune juice, probiotics, Miralax, etc.)
Traveling with a toddler is so fun, I swear.
Additional Tips for Potty Training While Traveling by Car
While the poop department is still a work in progress, we have learned a few things during our traveling while potty training journey. Below are more tips and toddler road trip essentials when you’re in potty training mode.
- Make sure you have a change of clothes and underwear easily accessible in case of accidents.
- Bring a potty training potty with you on every road trip with a toddler. This 2-in-1 potty is the best travel potty for toddlers. It doesn’t take a lot of space, which makes it great if you want a travel potty that you can pack in a suitcase or fly with. It can also be used as a potty training seat.
- Use these disposable portable potty liners to make cleaning up travel potties super easy.
- This small, foldable potty seat works well too if you want something small enough to keep in a bag or purse. (Although keep in mind that you may not always have access to a potty to put it on.)
- Consider purchasing a potty training car seat protector in case your child doesn’t make it to the potty on time. You can find a great one here.
- Always have toilet paper on hand, especially if you’re traveling with girls while potty training and need to make a roadside stop.
- Wipes and large Ziplock bags make for easier cleanup on the road.
6. Manage Car Messes Like a Pro
If you’ve ever done a road trip with a toddler and your car came out super clean, I commend you! Toddlers are messy, so here are some additional long car ride with toddler tips to limit the clean up required afterwards.
- When packing road trip snacks for toddlers, either purchase individual bags or break them out into smaller snack bags so they’re easier to eat. These snack catchers are also great for younger toddlers to minimize mess.
- Watch out for foods that make your toddler sick in the car. (We realized the hard way that our son couldn’t have too much yogurt, milk, or other dairy products before a long car ride.)
- Try to avoid any drinks that can easily spill or stain. We always have water in this kids water bottle or these no spill cups for toddlers.
- Keep napkins on hand as well as wipes for cleaning hands and messes.
- Consider a backseat car organizer to keep the toddler road trip activities organized.
- Make sure you have a good hand held vacuum for the car. We have this car vacuum is awesome for those hard to reach spots.
- Keep an empty trash bag or large ziplock bag in the car for trash.
If you have any additional road trip with toddler hacks, please share in the comments!
Looking for more road trip ideas for toddlers and babies? Be sure to read our post on taking a road trip with baby.