It’s the holiday season which means a road trip to see grandma may be in your near future! I know traveling with kids can be completely daunting – especially long road trips, which is why I’m sharing all my best tips and hacks for road tripping with kids like a pro.
We have four young kids (6, 5, 3 and 1) and over the years have taken road trips ranging from a few hours all the way up to 30+ hours. They haven’t all gone perfectly, but we’ve learned a lot and I’m happy to say my children are wonderful travelers and our experiences are always way better when we follow these tips!
Prepare in advance
Packing and planning for a trip, especially one with kids, isn’t something you want to leave to the last minute if you can help it. About a week before a trip I sit down to mentally run through where we’re going, what we’ll be doing and what we’ll need to make everything go as smoothly as possible. At the end of this post I’ve included a super handy family travel planning kit that will help you prepare for trips the way I’ve found works beautifully!
Write out a packing list for everyone
Part of my pre-trip planning always includes writing out a master packing list, starting with the kids. This process enables me to visually see everything before I pack, and also helps me narrow down what I think we will really need so unnecessary extras can be eliminated, saving time and space in the long run. I’ve included both a blank and pre-filled travel packing checklist in the planning kit I mentioned earlier!
Pack only what you will need
I know it can be super tempting to stuff all your bags full of everything little thing you think you may need or want. But, the reality is that the more stuff you have with you to manage, the greater risk there is that things will become unmanageable! And on a long road trip with kids, you don’t want unmanageable chaos.
When making your packing list, start with the basics and go from there. Pack 1 outfit per person, per day and include 1-2 spare outfits just in case. Pack outfits according to the weather and activities you anticipate encountering. I usually only pack 1-2 pairs of pajamas, depending on how long we will be traveling, since pajamas aren’t likely to soil quickly unless there’s an accident.
Pro tip: Pack complete daily kid outfits (ex: top, bottoms, underwear, socks and accessories) in individual gallon-size ziplock bags. This will make it so much easier to grab exactly what the kids need each day instead of piecing outfits together each day.
Condense the toiletries you need to take as much as possible, and pack all liquid toiletries in one plastic travel toiletry case, including a few empty ziplock bags in case of spills to keep products separated.
For kid gear, again – keep things simple! Pack only the basic necessities to ensure your trip is smooth and comfortable. This leads to my next tip…..
Have what you need waiting at your destination
This can be a HUGE lifesaver! Call ahead to see what gear and essentials you may be able to have waiting for you wherever you’re staying. This trick can save you tons of room and tons of hassle.
If you’ll be in a hotel, see if they have portable cribs and cots for your little ones to sleep on so you don’t have to pack those. Many vacation rental properties will provide things like cribs, high chairs and other children’s entertainment equipment.
If you’ll be staying with family and they don’t have what you need, see if they might be able to borrow gear from local friends during your stay. Get creative with this one, because it can make a world of difference!
If you’ll need groceries during your stay, definitely plan to purchase those upon arrival – don’t try to bring a week’s worth of food in a cooler on your drive! Just pack enough snacks and food to see you through your drive and shop when you arrive.
Pro tip: Take advantage of online shopping if available where you’re traveling! You can place your order online and pick it up when you arrive in town!
Condense the number of bags you pack
There are lots of varying opinions on how many bags you should pack – some parents strongly suggest having family members share bags in order to conserve space, while others vehemently disagree, in favor of each family member having their own separate bag to keep things simple and clear.
We’ve tried both, and honestly both are good options with pros and cons. But I do recommend packing as few bags as possible. We usually try to have our two oldest daughters share a bag and our two youngest share a bag, then my husband and I each have our own bags. This seems to work best for us.
Pack one entertainment bag for the kids
I also highly recommend having one entertainment bag filled with games, books, activities, toys and tablets for on the drive and at your destination. We usually pass out something to play with before we leave and the kids get to trade out when we make a stop.
I would also recommend stocking up on a few great audiobooks for the drive if you have older children. We started this last year on a big cross-country trip to Utah, and it was a big hit! If you have a DVD player in your vehicle, I would rent or buy a few new movies for the trip – ones the kids haven’t seen before so watching the new “road trip movies” can be a special thing to keep them entertained!
Pro Tip: Check your local library for great audiobooks and kid’s movies. Most libraries will let you keep these for at least a week, if not longer. RedBox is always a great choice for movie rentals on the road too!
Bring a dirty laundry bag
Trust me – this is a lifesaver! It is so handy for keeping clean clothes separate from dirty, ensuring no one gets stuck wearing stinky clothes, AND if you’re staying somewhere you can do laundry, it makes it easy for you to grab the bag and go.
Prepare for emergencies
It’s nice to envision a perfect, painless, emergency-free road trip when mapping out your plans, but….let’s be real, when traveling kids there is bound to be something unexpected that comes up!
I have no idea why this is, but in recent years our family has had a penchant for getting sick when we travel (worst thing EVER, I know). There are also things like potty accidents, boo boos and spills to content with, so being prepared is a big key to a smooth-sailing road trip with kiddos.
I recommend that you put together a road trip emergency kit, complete with things like basic first aid, cleaning supplies, bottled water, paper towels, cold, headache and stomach medicine (or travel essential oils) and lots of plastic ziplock or grocery bags.
If you will be traveling with kiddos in diapers, I would also include a few extra emergency outfits or onesies just in case!
Map out your road trip schedule
This is one of my best, most helpful tips. When road tripping with toddlers or babies, bearing in mind their usual schedule is crucial. It’s important to be completely realistic about your expected travel time based on the facts. How often do your little ones need changed or potty breaks? How long can you usually go between feedings? When are your kid’s difficult times of the day? When do they usually wake up, take naps and go to bed at night?
Considering the answers to all of these questions, and then mapping out a thoughtful schedule accordingly can be the difference between a trip that is manageable (and dare I say, even enjoyable!) versus a trip that is a complete and total living hell 😂
Even though my kids are getting a little older now and no one is nursing, we still usually follow the 3-hour rule, meaning we never plan to drive longer than 3 hours without a stop. I typically like to work backwards when mapping out our driving schedule, figuring out when I’d ideally like to arrive at our destination since everyone will be tired and cranky from traveling and I don’t want to have to contend with getting everyone unloaded and to bed at 2am.
So, set a time you’d like to arrive, calculate the actual driving distance then include allocated time for stops, giving you your actual grand trip distance total. For example, usually we travel from North Carolina to Missouri every year to visit my husband’s family, which is about a 15-hour drive. When the babes were tiny, we almost always split it up between 2 days with a hotel stay in the middle.
Here’s an idea of what our baby road trip schedule looked like then:
08:00am – Leave (3 hours)
11:00am – Stop for feeding & potty break
11:30am – Drive (3 hours)
2:30pm – Stop for feeding & potty break
03:00pm – Drive (3 hours)
06:00pm – Stop for the night
08:00am – Leave (3 hours)
11:00am – Stop for feeding & potty break
11:30am – Drive (2 hours)
01:30am – Arrive at grandma’s!
Now that the kiddos are a little bigger and more adaptable, we actually squeeze the entire trip into one day. Here is what our trip schedule looks like now:
05:00am – Leave (3 hours)
08:00am – Stop for breakfast, potty & stretch break (30 min)
08:30am – Drive (3 hours)
11:30am – Stop for lunch, potty & stretch break (30 min)
12:00pm – Drive (3 hours)
03:00pm – Stop for snack, potty & stretch break (30 min)
03:30pm – Drive (3 hours)
06:30pm – Stop for dinner, potty & stretch break (30 min)
07:00pm – Drive (2 hours)
09:00pm – Arrive at grandma’s!
Hopefully seeing how I map things out will help you in planning your road trip schedule! I’ve including a worksheet in the family travel planning kit at the end of this post to help you do it for yourself.
Clean your house before your trip
Ok, so this isn’t a necessity but it’s something I did for the first time a few years ago (I actually had cleaners come!) and boy oh boy is it nice to come home to a fresh, clean house after days of traveling and feeling grimy and icky!
Trust me, if you can plan ahead to include this step, you will be thanking yourself every time. Between unpacking, catching up on sleep and all the laundry, having a clean house will ease the settling back in process.
Clean your car before your trip
Again, not a necessity, but a really nice thing to do before setting off on a big road trip. You’ll feel better driving in a clean car (though, don’t expect it to stay that way during your travels!)
Give it a little TLC – pull out the vacuum, clean out all the trash and junk, and pop a car air freshener or some essential oils in that bad boy!
Pack simple, healthy snacks & drinks
My last tip is to be really mindful about what kinds of food, snacks and drinks you pack for your trip. Stopping for fast food for every meal and snack is not ideal, so if you can prepare in advance by packing good food, everyone will thank you!
Sandwiches are a big road trip staple for us since they are relatively healthy and easy to eat. We also like to pack fresh fruit and veggies, trail mix and cheese sticks for snacks, and everyone gets their own travel water bottle that we refill with jugs of water we pack along with us.
As much as possible I recommend avoiding super greasy, sugary or processed foods because a) they will make everyone bonkers, b) they’ll make you sick of “food” fast and c) they cause your immune system to take a hit, leaving you more prone to getting sick on your trip.
Pro tip: Look into getting some bento-style lunch boxes for each of your kids if they’re old enough. These are lifesavers when it comes to road trip meal time! This is a great option if you want something super basic, and this is great if you want something a little more durable.
You’ll also want to make sure and have a little travel trash bin to keep things as tidy as possible while you drive. This is a great option.
So, I know this is a lot, but I wanted to thing of everything I could to help you prepare to have the best road trip possible with your little ones! I find that once you’ve done it a few times, you find a groove as a family and learn how to adapt together.
To make things even easier, I would definitely recommend that you download this free Family Travel Planning Kit that I’ve put together! It includes a travel planning timeline, a packing checklist and a road trip schedule planner. Just enter your email below for immediate access – you can download the file and use as many times as you like!