7 Tips for Surviving a Road Trip With a Toddler

In a fit of self-induced madness I somehow convinced my husband that we should drive, with our toddler, from Miami to New York City. There were actually a few legitimate reasons for doing this, but the biggest reason, from my perspective, was my all-consuming, completely irrational fear of flying. Madness is apparently contagious because, after casually mentioning this idea a few times over dinner I had us both convinced that this was actually a great idea and that we’d all have a lot of fun.

Funnily enough, we actually did end up having a lot of fun and even made it to New York City. But, if you’re planning a road trip with a toddler, there are a couple of things you probably ought to know.

1. Planning is  key

Gone are the days of the spontaneous road trip (if those days ever existed). You’re traveling with a ticking time bomb whose need for food, sleep and entertainment must be the lodestar which guides you from stop to stop.  Don’t assume that a rest stop will magically materialize when it’s time for lunch. Or that you can just pull into any old motel when it seems like you’ve reached a good stopping point. Plan out your route, book hotels in advance and research nearby restaurants and attractions.

2. You’ll probably be most successful if you don’t drive all day

It’s possible to make the drive from Miami to New York in two days. We did it in six. There may be some toddlers who are perfectly happy to hang out in their carseats watching the world go by, but mine isn’t one of them. He wants out pretty much the minute he gets in. So we organized our trip so that each day was made up of two drives (about two hours each) with a long break in the middle.  This also allows you some wiggle room if you hit a bunch of traffic or need to stop for an impromptu diaper blow out (and when are those ever not impromptu).

3. It’s best to try to drive during nap time (his, not yours)

If your toddler is able to sleep in the carseat, maximize this time by making sure you’re on the road when it happens.  My son was still taking two (very short) naps a day, so we drove in the morning and afternoon and took a break in the middle of the day.  If your toddler takes only one nap, you can reorganize your time accordingly. For example, drive a short distance in the morning, take a long break for sightseeing and lunch, drive a longer distance (while your toddler naps), then take another break around snack time and then more driving.

4. Including some sightseeing in your plan for each day will make everyone happier

Part of what allowed my husband and I to convince ourselves that this trip could actually be fun was the decision to turn the drive itself into a vacation. We planned our days so that the long break would occur at a place of interest to all of us.  This wasn’t always easy given that we had to stay pretty close to the I-95, but that’s where the planning came in. It allowed us to visit places like the Kennedy Space Center, Savannah, Georgia, Mount Vernon and Washington, D.C.  My son loved running around and looking at all the interesting things (though I think George Washington’s outhouse at Mount Vernon was his all-time favorite), and my husband and I had a great time visiting museums, parks and other attractions. The mental stimulation did wonders for all of us.

5. You’re going to need to buy a few new toys

Novelty is key.  It also helps if they’re not going to poke his eye out if the car stops abruptly or choke him to death if he puts them in his mouth. We brought a steering wheel toy so that he could drive too (this was a big hit) and some little trucks and some action figures. Stickers could be good if your child has the manual dexterity to do them on his own (mine doesn’t), and busy boards are fun if you have the time to make one (which I didn’t). As long as he hasn’t seen it before and can take even a few minutes exploring it and figuring it out, that’s a few minutes more road that’s in your rear view mirror.

6. It’s helpful to relax the rules around snack time

In our house, snacks are eaten at snack time and not really at any other times throughout the day. On a road trip, though, all bets are off. A snack cup full of Goldfish or a cheese stick to munch on are an excellent way to keep a toddler occupied. Make sure the snacks are easy for him to eat on his own (without spilling all over the place) and that they don’t pose a choking hazard. Snacks he’s never tried before but that you think he’s going to like are a great option too. Be sure to plan ahead and prepare the snacks before you get in the car. That way they’re easily accessible to you when it looks like he might be about ready for a meltdown.  Planning to stop at a gas station to buy a bag of Goldfish is a recipe for disaster.

7. A fair amount of crankiness and whining are part of the deal

Even with the best laid plans and the most delicious snacks, sitting in the car for long stretches of time is a lot to ask of a little one.  He’s going to complain, whine, and sometimes totally freak out. He’s only human. But so are you. If you’ve tried the toys, the snacks, some music (we’re big fans of Sesame Street’s greatest hits), a story of two and nothing’s working, it may just be time for some whining. Feel free to join in.


Well, we made it through our road trip in one piece. My son still talks about it from time to time. Mostly about the ice machines at the hotels, but still. I continue to maintain that it’s a crazy idea. But, with a little planning, it’s a crazy idea that just might work.