Road Trips with a Toddler – 9 Lessons from the Front Seat

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Disclosure: Some of the links below are affiliate links meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will receive a commission if you click through and make a purchase.

Until a few months ago, we lived on the opposite side of the country from family and friends.  This means that for every trip to Grandma’s house, we boarded multiple planes and spent almost an entire day on airplanes and in airports.  Now doing this as often as we did with a newborn and into the early toddler years, we were feeling pretty proud of our ability to smoothly travel with a baby or toddler. 

So, when we moved close enough to family to drive and visit on a regular basis, we were thinking it would be a breeze compared to flying across the country.  Well our first 8-hour road trip to Grandma’s was not quite as easy as we expected.  However, I live by the motto, “you win, or you learn”, and we definitely learned a lot on this trip.  Keep reading to find out what we learned when taking a road trip with a toddler, so that you are prepared to hit the open roads.

Road Trips with a Toddler – 9 Lessons from the Front Seat

Toddlers have a really short attention span

Theoretically, I already knew this.  However, at home or the playground where my toddler can run from one activity to the next, I didn’t fully develop an appreciation for how frequently new activities must be furnished.  Airplanes usually have enough good people watching and looking out the window and new noises to keep a little one pretty occupied.  However, my son thought the constant view of fields did not make for a very interesting trip. 

We had taken a variety of activities, but not nearly enough for the entire 8-hour trip.  In the future, we will take many more activities.


Activities that work for other kids may not work for yours

You can easily find recommendations for travel activities online.  However, each kid is unique and what is magic for others likely won’t work for you.  Use all these ideas, to spark ideas of what you think your child will like.   Ideal activities are interesting, non-toxic if eaten, and low mess.  Once you have some ideas of what might work, do a dry run.  Try them out while you are driving across town or take a mini road trip to a nearby city.  See which activities work well in the car and keep your toddler entertained and which ones aren’t worth the effort.  This will help you narrow down your list of activities to pack.

These toddler travel activities can help you start the brainstorming process of what may work for your kid.


Get a travel tray

There are a variety of travel trays available, and you will definitely want to invest in one.  This is the one that we have and really like. When selecting a travel tray, there are a few things to consider:

  • How it attaches, you will want to make sure it will be easy to put on and take off
  • Avoid cupholders that go below the tray base because these can be uncomfortable
  • Waterproof because you will want to clean the tray frequently
  • Compact
A toddler using a travel tray to hold toys and a drink on a road trip.

Know that the travel tray may not always work

The travel tray was really helpful for meals.  It was great to set my son up with his drink and food in a way that he could eat it without making a big mess.  However, when we wanted to sleep, the tray just annoyed him.  It worked well for us, to be able to remove the tray from the front passenger seat.


Plan for a play stop

No matter how many activities you pack, your little one will need to run around at some point to burn off some excess energy.  I suggest planning a stop midway that will allow a break from the car.  There are a number of rest stops with playgrounds now, and many that have big green picnic areas.  Plan where this stop will be.  By doing your research online ahead of time, you can have a good plan that will save a lot of stress while traveling.

A toddler playing on a playground.

Plan your gas and food stops

Similar to the point above, you will want to have a general idea of where you plan to stop for food, gas and restrooms.  Figure out what you want in your idea stop.  Do you want gas and coffee, or a specific fast food restaurant?  You can research these ahead of time to save stress during the trip. 

I love using the iExit app to figure out where to stop.  You can read more about it and my other must-have travel apps here.

Are you starting to see a theme about planning here?  To maximize your efforts, you can grab my Family Travel Planner here.


Take your motion sickness medication

The person in the front passenger seat will be turning around a lot during the trip.  If there is even the slightest chance you will get car sick, take motion sickness medication to prevent it.  The non-drowsy version of Dramamine which contains meclizine, is my favorite.  I can read, work or turn around and help my toddler without getting nauseous. 


Download some baby tunes

Toddlers love music and there is something about Baby Shark and other toddler songs that appeal to that demographic more than any other type of music.  Before your trip, prepare a playlist or CD of favorite toddler tunes. When your little one starts getting cranky, break out his favorite songs.  These work wonders for pulling my son out of a cranky fit while we are driving.


Consider how sleep will happen

Even if it’s naptime and even if you walked your toddler around the neighborhood before getting in the car, there is no guarantee that sleep will occur.  However, to improve your chances, consider how you can make the backseat darker.  Window shades help to some extent.  Does your little one fall asleep best with a full tummy and a cup of milk?  If so, plan a food stop shortly before you want sleep to occur.  Also make sure you get food, gas, drink, bathrooms or anything else everyone else needs before your toddler falls asleep.  The worst thing is for sleep to finally happen and then someone needs to stop for a bathroom.


There are the 9 lessons I learned on our most recent road trip.  Before your next trip, you will also want to check out these tips for traveling with a baby or toddler.

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Road Trips with a Toddler – 9 Lessons from the Front Seat

Disclosure: Some of the links above are affiliate links meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will receive a commission if you click through and make a purchase.

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