3000+ miles, 4 states, 2 weeks, one 2 year old, one MASSIVE road trip.
This was going to be our first family road trip with our two year old toddler kid and I thought that we were biting off more than we could chew.
What prompted this madness?!
My mother-in-law was coming to visit and we wanted to take her somewhere epic. We wanted to go see the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta (the biggest hot air balloon festival in DA WORLD!) but the combined flight and accommodation fees would burn too big a hole in our budget.
‘Why not drive there?’ My crazy brain suddenly whispered. I should not have shared my crazy thought with my husband because of course, he immediately thought it was a great idea.
So I ended up spending weeks planning our road trip across four states; California, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico in the US and trying to avoid us:
- Dying by the side of the road from too much exhaustion and not enough rest;
- Ending up brokenhearted listening to our kid wail the whole time during the road trip.
To my relief, not only did our road trip end up being UNFORGETTABLY AMAZING but our two year old kid was an absolute STAR throughout the trip.
Family Road Trip Planning
We wanted to travel on parts of Route 66 while stopping over at Las Vegas, on our way to attend the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. We also wanted to see Carlsbad Cavern and marvel at the Grand Canyon on the way back.
Knowing what we wanted to do helped me to create a rough itinerary and from then, it was all about using Google Maps to decide which route to take, how many hours driving would be required and what reasonable accommodation we could find along the way.
I changed our route at least three times in order to ensure that there would be no more than six hours of driving a day. We needed to travel a great distance within a defined space of time. Three hours of driving in the morning and three after lunch felt like the maximum we could do without tiring ourselves out. Most days, I tried to keep our driving to only about four hours a day.
I made sure that I included a few stops where we would do no driving for at least two nights (to give everyone a break from being stuck on the road) and made sure that I allocated time for bathroom, leg-stretches and food stops.
Despite my meticulous planning, I was still worried. Our two year old kid had been on short road trips before but never on such a long road trip like the one we had planned. Although we would be driving for an average of three to six and a half hours per day, once we included time for our stops, we would potentially be on the road for up to eight hours a day!
How would my kid handle being stuck in the car for so long and for so many days?
In my head, I could see her screaming to be let out and crying throughout the trip. If this fear of mine came true, this would be an absolute nightmare of a road trip and highly unpleasant for everyone.
The Verdict: A Successful Road Trip After All
Thankfully, our kid did not cry for more than a minute or two on the road as we were able to provide enough entertainment and engagement to distract her from her ‘car seat prison’.
In fact, our kid was able to stay seated/asleep in the car for two to three hours without stops. Although she had the occasional outburst where she demanded to be let out of the car, she remained mostly calm for the entire two weeks.
The road trip ended up being a truly memorable experience and totally worth it.
Here are 12 tips for doing an epic family road trip with your kid.
- You Can Never Have Too Many Entertainment Options.
The two most important parts to keeping your kid happy in the car is firstly, to keep them entertained and secondly, to keep them comfortable (which will be discussed below).
If you are not opposed to your kid spending time on electronic devices, things like iPads and smartphones are sanity-savers and almost guaranteed to keep your kid preoccupied.
However, if you don’t like the idea of your child spending too much time on electronic devices, then take my advice and make a trip to your local Dollar store or Target to pick up as many new activities, books and toys as you can for your child. I thought that we had enough but I ended up making additional purchases along the way as she got through them quickly.
Choose stuff that you know that your toddler will enjoy. For example, our kid enjoys music, coloring and stickers so we brought coloring books, sticker sheets and books that play music.
But beware about bringing things that could potentially become a ‘pick-up’ headache in the car like tiny crayons or LEGO pieces. You will not relish having to constantly bend down to look for lost stuff, trust me!
- Comfort Is A Priority.
Keeping your child comfortable while on the road trip is as equally important as keeping your child entertained. Besides new toys, you also need to include items that can bring comfort to your toddler.
His or her favorite loveys, comfort toys, teddy bears and blankets are great choices. We brought along two of our child’s favorite soft toys as well as her blankets.
These comfort objects will be essential in helping your child to stay comfortable in the car as well as adjust to the new sleeping environments that your child will have to encounter while on the road trip.
If you have the trunk space, you could bring along a travel crib or pack ‘n play similar type bed but we didn’t have the space to do so in our car. There will be more tips at the end of this article about how to score free sleeping arrangements for your kid!
- Face Your Toddler Forward.
We realize that this advice will be controversial. Take it as you will.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that your child stay in a rear-facing car seat for as long as possible or until your child reaches the maximum height or weight limit of the car seat (previously, it was at least until two years of age).
We made the decision to turn our kid to face forward at least a month before we took this road trip. At the time, she was over two years old but she had not yet reached the maximum weight and height limits of the car seat.
We did this because we knew that she would enjoy the road trip so much more (and protest less) if she could see the sights that we would be seeing from the car. We also could interact with her a lot more if she was facing forward.
For example, we would say things like, “Can you see that big mountain?” “Can you see the huge truck in front of us?”
With her facing forward, it was also easier for the front seat passenger to hand her toys, food and drink.
We think that allowing our child to face front made the road trip a lot more bearable for our child (and us) but of course, this does come with added safety risks if your child is especially small.
At the end of the day, make the decision that is best for you and your family.
- Start Off Easy.
When I started planning our driving route, I thought that the first day of driving would be our best when I assumed that everyone would still be feeling fresh, rested and excited. I thought that the last few days of driving would be our worst when everyone would likely be feeling exhausted.
So accordingly, I planned for us to drive more hours on the first day and lesser hours on our trip back.
I was wrong.
The opposite ended up being true.
Our first day of driving was by far our worst because our kid had still not yet adjusted to sitting for a long time in her car seat. She was considerably less tolerant of the long drive and we had more angry screaming protests of wanting to be let out.
On the second day, she started to grasp the concept of a road trip and the protests decreased. By the third day, she was a star and was happy to remain in the car as long as we were.
- Play In The Morning And Then Drive.
Most young children are at their best and most active early in the morning.
We found that it was better when we went to play and see the things that we wanted to see in the morning.
After we had spent time sightseeing, we would then continue on our drive in the late morning or early afternoon. Our kid would then spend a decent amount of time napping in the car (which is wonderful for everyone involved).
We would occasionally also do some sightseeing in the afternoon after her nap but often, we would spend the late afternoon just resting and allowing our toddler to adjust to her new environment.
- Take Your Kid’s Lead.
Early on when our kid was still a baby and we went for shorter drives, we made the mistake of stopping for toilet breaks as and when we adults wanted to. We would take turns going to the bathroom while our kid slept in the car (ie. one adult would stay with our sleeping kid in the car).
Unfortunately, when our kid woke up 15 minutes later (or some time later), she would demand to get out of the car and we would then have to waste another 30 minutes stopping somewhere so that she could have a break too.
Like it or not, it will just make everything easier if you stop when your kid is ready for one.
Don’t ever make the mistake of trying to wake your kid up or disrupt your kid’s sleep. Once they are awake, they will demand attention and entertainment and be unlikely to go back to sleep. Just let sleeping dogs lie, as they say.
The rules we follow for rest stops during our road trip are:
- If our kid is sleeping soundly and we go past a nice town, we can drive through the town but we keep driving (unless it’s somewhere amazing like the Grand Canyon).
- If our kid is sleeping soundly and none of us need a toilet break urgently, we keep driving for as long as possible.
If the need for the toilet becomes urgent, we stop for as short a time as we can and then, keep driving. The car remains on throughout the whole time so that our kid’s sleep is not interrupted.
- If our kid wakes up and starts screaming for a rest stop, we immediately start looking for a decent place to stop where our kid can have a little bit of activity, run and play for at least half an hour. Grocery stores and fast food chains with playgrounds worked particularly well for us.
With these rest stop rules, we had a lot less meltdowns as we timed our car stops to our kid’s rhythm.
- Learn To Change Your Kid Wherever.
If your child is not potty-trained yet, learn to change your child in the car or even in your stroller. There are many places with no changing tables and sometimes, your child may need a change when you are in the middle of desert road with no rest stops in sight.
If your child is already potty-trained, get a travel potty that your child can use wherever and whenever outside of the car. We all know what a nightmare it can be to look for a bathroom when you are in the middle of nowhere. Just make sure that you bring some plastic bags along!
- Bring Non-Messy Snacks.
Having food in the car made it possible for us to keep driving even during meal times. This saved us valuable travel time especially when we were occasionally behind schedule.
You may have a policy of not letting your kid eat in the car. If so, be prepared to make more stops than necessary.
If you are afraid of messes in the car (which present a genuine problem on a long road trip), bring easy-to-eat foods such as food pouches, bananas, rice crackers and cheese sticks.
We brought along a portable cooler bin to store foods that needed to stay cool like sandwiches, cut up fruits, cold drinks, cheese, salads and even milk. This cooler bin was by far, one of our most valuable purchases as we used it every single day of our road trip. If you lack space, you may prefer to bring along a smaller cooler bag or if you want something fancy, an electric mini fridge/cooler/warmer.
- Bring Easy-To-Remove Window Shades.
Because our road trip was in summer time, we really needed window shades to keep our kid in the car cool and help her sleep without the sun in her eyes.
Window shades are not only great for keeping the car cool but are also wonderful for hiding stuff in your car.
Whenever we were parked outside, we always put the window shades up, even if we were in a shady spot, so that we could keep prying eyes out.
We recommend easy-to-remove window shades because you will likely come across spectacular and interesting sights while you are driving and you want an easy way to remove the window shades so that your kid can look outside too. Window shades that are sticky on one side for sticking on the windows are especially great.
- Get Gas Whenever You Enter A Big Town Or Use Google Maps.
If you are on a huge road trip, gas prices start to matter as you will be using a lot of gas.
It helps if you can work out whether you have enough gas to get you to your next destination without stopping. If not, make sure that you get gas at larger towns. Depending on where you are, there might be long stretches of driving with literally no gas or rest stops.
Did you know that Google Maps can reveal to you the fuel prices of different gas stations in the location you are in? This allows you to compare prices and decide which one you want to go to.
To do this, open your Google Maps app on your smartphone. Under the “Search” bar on the top, type in ‘gas station’ and Google Maps will immediately reveal the closest gas stations in your location and their fuel prices.
- Collect Random Objects Along The Trip.
Since entertaining your kid in the car is one of the most important aspects of having a successful road trip, you should always keep an eye out for new objects that could potentially double up as a toy along the road trip.
Most young children are still easily fascinated by the world and simple cost-free objects like strange-shaped rocks, a bright-colored paper cup, brochures, a magazine full of pictures or even a plastic spoon can be engaging.
It is a good idea to keep a constant supply of these objects, however random, as a backup in case your child gets tired of his or her regular toys.
Even if your kid doesn’t end up being interested in the object, it would have cost you nothing and at the very least, it will challenge your kid’s curiosity, imagination and creativity.
Keep your eyes open for these objects around you and you may be surprised at how many fun resources you can find for your kid at cafés, restaurants and visitor centers.
- Take Turns With Your Kid At The Back.
If there are at least two adults in your road trip and you have space for an adult in the back seat, you can take turns sitting behind with your kid to play, sing, feed them and keep them happy. This is especially useful if you predict that your kid is going to throw a tantrum and you will be unable to take him or her out for a rest (or you just need to keep driving).
Entertaining a child is tiring work though which is why you probably should take turns if you can. Be prepared with lots of songs and TONS OF PATIENCE.
- Always ask about kid sleeping arrangements.
We discovered that it is possible to travel without having to bring our pack n play for our child to sleep in. We have a pack n play at home but it saved us so much trunk space by us not having to bring our own.
If you are planning to stay at hotels or resorts, make sure that you call in advance and request for a crib or pack n play bed for your child. These are almost always available for free. You can also make your request once you check in but since these cribs are available based on the ‘first come, first served’ principle, we suggest that you book it in advance of your arrival. You will still have to bring a blanket for your child as they often only provide the crib with a clean bed sheet but nothing else.
If you stay in places like motels and Airbnbs, also be sure to inquire if they can provide suitable sleeping arrangements for your child. We stayed in nine different Airbnbs throughout our road trip and even though some of the places did not indicate that they had a crib, we would ask them in advance for an extra floor mattress or air bed. To our surprise, ALL of them were able to find something suitable for our child without extra cost. Huge score!
- Fuel the excitement.
As you can imagine, this presented some challenges but one thing that we were able to overcome successfully was to get our kid’s buy-in into the constant moving.
One way we did this was to make sure that we made everything sound like fun and adventure. I would often say when we started packing up that we were “going to go to somewhere new to play”. Or I would ask our kid, “Do you want to play somewhere else fun?”
Admittedly, our kid is pretty easy-going and flexible in personality but I think that by keeping the fun and adventure idea up, it helped her adjust and ease into each new Airbnb better.
On top of creating fun and excitement with each new move, we would often take her straight to look at our bedroom and her new sleeping area immediately after we arrived at a new place (she slept in the same bedroom as us).
We would comment on how wonderful her new sleeping area looked and we would show her the bed we would be sleeping in too (often, next to her). We would then let her arrange her toys and blankets exactly how she wanted to.
This helped her adjust to the idea of sleeping there later that night and although she did wake up in the middle of the night a lot, she would willingly go to bed every night.
Epic Family Road Trips Are Possible
We not only cherish the memories that we accumulated throughout the road trip but it was great for our budget.
I am now already starting to think about where and when we can do our next epic road trip. That’s how much fun it was!
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May you too have an EPIC FAMILY ROAD TRIP!