Last updated on September 4th, 2016
With three toddlers in tow all by myself, I drove from Colorado to Wisconsin in order to visit family. My mother had recently been diagnosed with cancer and since our third child had been born just a few months before, she hadn’t had a chance to see her grandchild yet. I had vacation time to take, my wife did not, and so I piled all the kids into the minivan and set out across the country.
When we moved out to the Pacific Coast, I repeated the same experience, only this time in the middle of the Winter. We even got snowed in for 24 hours trying to cross the mountains on that trip! It’s an interesting experience trying to purchase groceries when you’ve got to push a stroller through a foot of snow just to get into the store.
Many families are doing the same thing this holiday season, shuffling their toddlers into a vehicle for what is sometimes an extended drive ahead of them. You don’t need to arm yourselves with a bunch of movies to entertain the kids as the miles go by! With three solo long distance trips under my belt with three toddlers, here are some tips that I’ve learned from my experiences.
8 Tips For Holiday Travel With Toddlers:
Tip #1: Be Prepared to Sing Lots of Songs
Even if you have movies that the kids can watch while you drive, eventually the idea of watching a movie gets old. For a toddler, everything gets old after awhile. What doesn’t seem to get old are songs that can be sung while you drive down a stretch of open road. Old McDonald Had a Farm is a particular favorite and the best part is that with each child choosing a new animal, we went almost an hour singing this one song! This is also a great opportunity to teach your toddlers new songs because let’s face it – you’re not going anywhere for awhile.
Tip #2: Stop Every 2 Hours Max
Toddlers get restless a lot and as much as I might be prepared for a 4 hour trip in-between gas stations, the kids weren’t ready for that level of stir-craziness. I learned that I could generally go about two hours before needing to take a stop somewhere so they could get out and run around for awhile. If I didn’t need gas, then I’d stop in whatever town I happened to have reached and look for the local playground for awhile. Even with just 15 minutes of play time on a break, you’d be able to drain enough energy out of that toddler reserve to help make it the next leg of the journey. Plotting out stops before taking off helps a lot too so you don’t spend 30 minutes wandering around a small town too.
Tip #3: Be Flexible with Your Routines As You Travel
Toddlers are very much routine orientated, which means when you’re in your vehicle for a long stretch of time, you’ve already eliminated that routine. Instead of sticking to the home routine, I found it easier to create what I call the “Travel Routine.” The road tends to put the kids to sleep after awhile, whether they like it or not, which means they’ll likely take at least two naps during the trip at some point if you’ve got to travel all day. What do two naps equal at night? Lots of energy!
Instead of forcing a regular bed time on the kids when we’d pull in somewhere to spend the night, I’d give the kids a chance to unwind – no matter what time of night it happened to be. Sometimes that meant playing tag with the kids in a hotel room at 10pm… so be it. You can’t really force energetic kids to fall asleep anyway and an energetic game can help to relieve the stresses from the road.
Tip #4: It Doesn’t Matter What Other People Think
In my first cross-country trip, my youngest was just 6 months old. That meant needing bottles every few hours, diaper changes on-demand, burping responsibilities, a little tummy time, and all that other good stuff. I brought a lot of infant-friendly water along for the drive, but cold formula? That’s enough to make any child shudder! So I’d mix the formula in the van, then haul all the kids into the bathroom with me at a truck stop so I could warm up the formula under a hand dryer.
There will be looks when you travel with young kids. You’ll get lots of unsolicited advice. None of that matters! What matters is that you stay confident in what you’re doing, provide for your toddlers, and keep your family safe. On a road trip, those judgmental folks will probably never see you again anyway, so don’t bother wasting any energy on them whatsoever.
Tip #5: Don’t Be Afraid To Ask Questions
It’s amazing how many resources you can access for your toddlers when you simply ask people a few questions. At a restaurant, a couple employees helped make some warm water for an infant bottle through their tea machine. I’ve been able to use several employee microwaves across the country. Free batteries, crayons, and other needed distractions are often available behind a counter. The best part, however, is this: once you get a successful request, you can often get a discount on whatever you need to buy at that location as well!
In one particularly bad moment, I had a tire blow out with the three toddlers and was stuck driving on the spare on the interstate system at 45 mph. I pulled into a gas station just to rest because it was still over 100 miles to where I could get the tire replaced. I asked if there was any hot food in town and the clerk not only called the local pizza place to have food delivered, but included drinks from the store and they did it all for no charge. Bottom line: if you need something, just ask. Expect to pay for your needs… but be willing to accept a gift from someone trying to be nice as well.
Tip #6: Blitz the Miles During Nap Times
It didn’t matter how badly I needed to use the bathroom or how many energy drinks I needed – when the kids were all sleeping, that was the time to bust down some miles. Sometimes that happens in the middle of the night. Other times it could be right after lunch. Whatever the case may be, have supplies on hand so that when the motion of the vehicle causes a nap to happen, you can take advantage of that quietness and just drive in peace.
Tip #7: Remember Childproofing Supplies
Most places you’re going to visit for an evening aren’t childproofed. Sometimes that’s not such an issue, but if you happen to be staying somewhere that has easy access to chemicals or other potentially harmful agents, it’s good to have some locks with you that you can quickly install. Kids can get up at all hours and you might not hear them open up that one cabinet door!
Corners, outlets, and other hazards are just about everywhere too – it only takes a few minutes to childproof a hotel room. If your room has windows, don’t forget to make sure those windows are locked too – especially if you’re above the first floor! It only takes a moment… and as I’ve spoken to other parents of toddlers who travel with their kids, childproofing supplies are often the one thing that gets overlooked. That’s why it is a helpful tip here!
Tip #8: Have a New Surprise Ready Every Day
In total, I’ve spent 11 full days on the road with three toddlers in tow. Out of all the tips I could share, this tip might make the trip easier than any other – have a surprise ready for your kids before you start your day on the road. A new surprise of a toy or treat can help to entertain for quite awhile! Buffer this surprise by packing favorite toys that can stay within reach of your toddler as well so that play times can be extended.
Sometimes the toy will be dropped – that’s ok! In my mind, a screaming toddler who has dropped a toy qualifies as a road emergency. I’ve pulled over a few times to rescue dropped toys, dropped sippy cups, and even blankets because I was too far away to make it to a rest stop, exit, or town to incorporate a rescue with a planned stop somewhere. It only takes a few moments, but of course be smart about pulling to the side of the road. If it’s rush hour and the highway is packed, you might want to wait.
Do you have toddlers? Have you driven with your kids over a long distance and have your own secrets to share that have helped the trip be easy on the whole family? If so, then share your experiences in the comments below!