Car Travel with Kids


I know many parents whose babies have, at some point, hated extended car rides. Laurel responded similarly as an infant, and no wonder; it’s noisy and likely weird to be strapped into a car seat unable to see the parents. Back then we dreaded car trips since they typically involved unsuccessfully trying to console Laurel and thus driving with a screaming baby; our first Thanksgiving trip with Laurel fit this scenario and at one point I actually climbed into the backseat, uncomfortably wedged myself over the car seat, and nursed, hoping that Jon wouldn’t hit any sharp corners.

We’ve come a long way since that time, but our recent vacation’s 14 hour round trip drive still left room for intimidation. We decided to plan what we could but roll with the rest, and it worked out amazingly well. Consider these tips when readying for your next family road trip:

  • If your child still naps, plan the drive so that some stretch occurs over nap time (we’ve also done some trips where we have left ridiculously early in the morning – scooping a still sleeping Laurel into the car). It’s just more relaxing to have a stretch to get some miles behind you where you don’t have to worry about entertaining baby.

  • We’ve found that setting tight expectations about a journey’s duration just sets you up for disappointment. Factor in a generous chunk of time for frequent stops. We mentally overestimated a couple of extra hours on each direction of our trip, and it felt like a nice bonus when the overall trip took less time than estimated.

  • This might seem like a no brainer, but if your child is between diapers and potty just toss a diaper on for the drive so you’re not worrying if there are no rest stops in sight (or if your kid conks out for an extended stretch of time). We’re at the stage where Laurel only uses a diaper for nap and nighttime, and using diapers during the drive didn’t result in any regression. We just made sure to explain to her that we were just using them for extra protection in case she fell asleep or in case we couldn’t find a potty, and that we’d use the potty per usual once we were done driving around.

  • If possible, when packing up the car, try to leave one seat empty in case one parent needs to hop in the backseat for a while. We haven’t had to do this since Laurel was an infant, but it’ll provide peace of mind to have the option (and of course if you’re packed to the gills and don’t have the space, you’ll need it).

  • Pack surprise books and toys (which will serve for the car as well as when you're out at restaurants). I’ll be writing up some ones that worked well on this trip; meanwhile, check out our book and toy archives for ideas.

  • Pack a cooler loaded with drinks, fruit, and easy to eat food (e.g., Annie’s mac n’ cheese is easy cold, sandwiches, etc.), and have wipes nearby for easy cleanup. While Laurel loves surprise books and toys, we actually found that she was engaged for longer stretches when she had yummy snacks in hand. Dehydration tends to be a problem for us during travel so in addition to having plenty of fluids on hand, we packed a lot of pre-washed and prepped fruit (e.g., grapes, sliced strawberries and peaches, grape tomatoes) in small plastic containers, which were easy for Laurel to hold and a huge hit. We also brought dry snacks for backup, but tried to opt for fruit or raw vegetables whenever possible since on the go kid meals tend to gravitate towards carbs like pizza and pasta.

  • One of the best on the fly things that we did on the way home was stop for lunch at a picnic rest area (with restrooms) instead of a typical fast food plaza. We had a blanket in the trunk that we spread out on the grass and it felt amazing to stretch out, and it was great for Laurel to have a chance to run around and burn off some energy in a more peaceful setting. While it was fun to indulge in yummy restaurants during our vacation, by the end we were ready for normal food. Having sandwiches, salad, and fruit instead of fast food made all of us incredibly happy.

  • Finally, a general travel tip: when booking your lodging, try to stay somewhere with a kitchenette or at least a refrigerator. For our first hotel en route we didn’t have many options and the single hotel room with no refrigerator meant we were in the dark with sleeping Laurel early in the evening (we knew we were in for this from previous trips) + we had to keep stocking our cooler with ice. For the main part of our vacation we stayed in a bed and breakfast apartment that had a kitchen. This arrangement allowed us the flexibility to have meals in and fresh fruit and drinks at the ready, and also prepare food for the ride home that served well for our impromptu picnic.