Toddlers can be erratic balls of energy, and their unpredictability can spell disaster for parents traveling unprepared. If you’re vacationing on four wheels, fret not. You can have the best road trips with kids by taking note of the most common travel faux pas.
A road trip with children can be overwhelming. Hair will be pulled, milk will be spilled, and no, you aren’t there yet – but the inquiry will be made a million times. An unprepared parent will always be on the brink of a total meltdown.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. A road trip with kids, especially younger ones, can be an enriching experience. Nothing beats seeing your wide-eyed children behold beautiful locations while soaking up experiences and learning new things along the way. You just have to be prepared. In this case, however, rigorously prepared.
To have the best road trips with kids, you need to plan well, adjust your expectations, and be patient and flexible. Avoid these common mistakes and sail through your next road adventure without going off the deep end.
Table of Contents
1. Not being flexible
Travel can be unpredictable, but this uncertainty can reach exponential levels when going on a road trip with kids. Flights, luggage, food, destinations, and your schedule – all of these need to be carefully adjusted to make way for your children. With that said, flexibility spells the difference between a road trip failure and one that’s for the books.
Selecting your destination
In most cases, parents will have to eschew their first choice destination in exchange for less logistically-demanding locations. That 8-hour road trip around the Olympic Peninsula Loop may have to wait until Bethany can sit through the ride without screaming like a banshee. Thinking that hike to Mammoth Cave in Kentucky is family-friendly enough? Wait till Johnny has to pee.
The best American road trips with kids are those with carefully selected destinations with your children in mind. Mentally list down each of your kid’s quirks and imagine how they’ll behave throughout the entire journey. Now pick a location based on that.
While we love moderating everything about our kids’ lives, be it screen time or sugar, road trips may sail more smoothly with a little rule-bending. Since road trips don’t happen all too often, your kids are safe from serious long term consequences. Rules can be laid back down once the road trip is over.
This may mean buying the best road trip snacks for kids, even if they’re processed or sugar-laden. It may also mean giving them full access to their Nintendo Switch for an unlimited time. Family vacations are justified times to spoil your kids, so cut them some much needed slack.
If you think you’ve budgeted just enough, think again. When traveling with young children, make sure to set aside just enough for unprecedented circumstances. Toddlers get sick often and mood swings are common.
An emergency trip to the hospital may be warranted, and sometimes, the only way to appease a belligerent child is to bribe him with snacks (or even a new toy). While we understand that rules are rules, spoiling your kids in situations where there is no other choice, such as on a road trip, requires money. Overbudgeting won’t hurt so you can handle the unpredictable when it arrives, and while we’re talking about budget…
2. Skimping on better comforts
Some of us are working with a tight budget, and that’s okay. But if you can afford to splurge on better comforts, the right time to do so is when traveling with younger children. That power bank you’ve been eyeing for days may be super expensive but think of your fifth hour on the road with a child and a dead iPad.
The right gear matters
If you’ve ever used a stroller with wheels that have lives of their own, you know how the right gear matters when getting around with children. If you’re taking many stops on your road trips, consider buying a good stroller with sturdy wheels and enough storage space for snacks and necessities.
A road trip on a totally cramped car is hell, so you may also want to rent out an RV. And for children who are fussy with beverages, look for the best travel cooler for car (trust me when I say that sometimes, the only thing a defiant child needs is a can of ice-cold coke to chill out).
Here are some items to keep in mind:
Baby wipes, diapers, and extra clothes
You’ll be driving for hours, and restrooms may be few and far in between. When it comes to diapers and baby wipes, it’s wiser to overpack. Packing extra clothes will also come in handy should spills and splashes happen.
Toys, gadgets, and accessories
If your child is on a digital detox, a road trip may be the best time to loosen the reins. The best road trips with kids are those where the children are thoroughly entertained every hour of the way (sometimes, only a trusty iPad or mobile phone can do this).
If you’re really aiming for less screen time, why not consider some of the best road trip books for kids? These books come with many fun activities everyone in the car can participate in (a round of Mad Lib, anyone?).
Of course, it’s wise not to overpack too many toys for your toddlers. Select just two or three of your tiny tot’s most favorite items.
A first-aid kit
Sometimes, no matter how careful you are with watching over your children, the inevitable happens: they trip over and bruise their shins. Packing a fully-stocked first aid kit with bandages, ointment, and basic meds are a must, especially when on an extended road trip.
Selecting your accommodation
While it’s tempting to select a humble and more affordable Airbnb outside of the city and away from the action, getting to and from the sites you want to see becomes a real ordeal – especially when you’re traveling with young children. You’ll have to factor in eating schedules and nap times. This is especially true when in bigger cosmopolitan cities. The best road trips with kids are those with accommodations close to the sights and activities in your itinerary.
3. Not grounding your expectations
Parents who have never gone on a road trip or an extended vacation with kids often underestimate the stress and logistical difficulties involved in the process. The truth of the matter is, traveling with kids can be a massive (but rewarding) ordeal – even if you planned well and covered all bases.
As such, some of the best road trips with kids are those where everyone has grounded expectations. It’s time to accept an irreversible truth: with kids around, you won’t be able to travel as you did before. Unrealistic expectations will only lead to frustration, stress, and disappointment. So, why not focus on the positives?
The value your kids get from going on a road trip is priceless. They get exposed to new things while expanding their worldview, which consequently increases their confidence.
Mind your travel pace
You’ve invested so much time and money to make this road trip happen, so it’s only natural that you’d want to get the most out of it. When traveling with kids, you’ll have to adjust your pace.
Depending on how old your kids are, you’ll have to consider stamina, mobility, patience, and interest level. You’ll also have to factor in sleeping and eating times while dreading a potential meltdown, sudden mood swings, tantrums, and energy crashes.
In this case, the best plan is having no plan. While it’s wise to have an itinerary on hand, don’t be afraid to divert from it. The goal is not to cross things off your travel list but to have the best memories and experiences with your children.
Add buffer days
Were you thinking of requesting a three-day leave from work to compensate for a two-day road trip? Request four or five days off instead. Adding buffer days to your total day of travel will come in handy if you want to have one of the best road trips for kids.
When going on long road trips, you may want to take a break and consider staying the night in a hotel. Kids, especially toddlers, can be a handful, and you can be burned out sooner than you know it.
4. Not listening to your kid’s needs
Let me tell you a story of a father who, in a hurry to get an early lead on his family’s road trip, completely ignored his toddler’s plea to answer the call of nature. (Spoiler: it did not end well, and a full hour was wasted on the road trying to scrub the muck off a thoroughly soiled backseat).
Young children have particular needs that must be respected for the well-being of the entire family (and the fate of the road trip). This means that you absolutely must not force a child with ADHD on an 8-hour road trip to Crater Lake, and if your child says that he’s hungry or thirsty, respect their mealtimes. Here are more tips:
- Kids have lots of energy. Sometimes, the only way to deal with a restless youngster on a 5-hour road trip is to make a stop, swing by McDonald’s, and order a happy meal. Stops offer children opportunities to stretch their legs and release pent up energy.
- Allow your kids to decide what to do and where to go. A great idea is to reserve a block of your travel schedule entirely for your kids! Kids who have something to look forward to are generally more cooperative.
- Homesickness can be a real issue, especially for young children not used to traveling. Bring a blankie, a stuffed toy, or anything that reminds them of home.
Always remember that kids are easier to handle when their needs and wants are recognized and respected.
5. Not keeping your children entertained
There’s only so much to do in the backseat of a car, and for young kids with short attention spans, this can be a recipe for disaster. The best road trips with kids are those with a slew of planned activities that can entertain and stimulate the mind for hours on end. Here are some suggestions.
The mobile phone is a nifty thing, and if you aren’t limiting your kid’s screen time, then this might be the only thing he needs to keep himself occupied. Consider downloading road trip-specific mobile games like The Wheels on the Bus, Trivia Crack, the karaoke app Smule (not advisable if you’re looking for peace and quiet), and GeoTouch (an educational app about geography).
This might also be the perfect time to allow your kids to bring their handheld consoles. The Nintendo Switch has a slew of kid-friendly games your tiny tot will surely love.
Try an offline car game
Some parents detest seeing their kids’ faces buried in a mobile phone for hours. If you’re a digital detox advocate, there are other ways to keep your kids occupied without the need for a device. Consider bringing some of the best road trip books for kids (some of these are a compilation of fun games and activities you can do inside your car). Other fun offline games include I Spy, the State License Plate Game, and Category Game.
Don’t skimp on snacks
Believe me when I say that nothing’s worse than a hungry child. The best road trips with kids are those with a good stash of delicious snacks, and while it’s wiser to select an assortment of healthy food, don’t be afraid to throw in some junk here and there (come on, you’re on a vacation and your kids deserve it).
An alternative option to driving by a fast food outlet is packing some snacks and having a little picnic in an excellent scenic spot. This will not only fill you up but give your kids chances to release pent up energy!
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