We make the DC to South Carolina road trip every couple of months, and while the 9 hour drive with 3 little kids is never fun, we’ve managed to figure out how to make it a little less painful. And hey, doing hard things like a long road trip is a good resiliency builder for kids 🙂 Lots of us are traveling for the holidays, so keep reading below for my tips! (And if you’re taking a long haul flight with kids, here are my tips after I flew from Hawaii to Atlanta with a baby and a 2 year old all by my self.) To hear about our car seat set up in our mini van and hear about my other mom hacks be sure to check out this old post.
Tips on Road Tripping with Little Kids
Get started early.
It’s tough waking up at 3:15 AM, but getting on the road by 4AM is so much less painful than getting started later in the morning. The kids won’t always go back to sleep (they think it’s fun seeing all the lights in the dark), but I can typically get one or two of them to take a brief nap before we stop for breakfast at the 3-3:30 hour mark. This also ensure that we get to our destination early enough so that they can run some energy off in the daylight. Alternately, we recently tried starting the 9 hour drive at 4PM and that worked really well too. I wore them out during the day (Tom had to work, which is why we had to leave so late) and then once we were on the road we took a potty break and grabbed dinner, then another potty break around 9:45 PM and then the kids slept from 10PM until we got home at 2AM. They were up for an hour once we got home but then went to bed and slept a little later than they normally do. This late departure was harder on us adults because we got significantly less sleep and we were pretty tired the next day, but the kids had great attitudes and slept more in the car than they normally do, so it ended up being a win. Figure out what works for you! We definitely prefer an early morning to a late night.
Pull-Ups for Kids who May Have an Accident.
My older two kids are potty-trained, but when they were newer at it we’d still put them in pull-ups, just in case.
Don’t Push Water too Much.
I love water and my kids do too. We guzzle it all day long and always have our water bottles with us…but I back off on pushing it as much when we’re in the car, just to limit the need for restroom breaks.
Buy a Travel Potty.
If you have little kids it is incredibly helpful to have a travel potty in your car (or stroller) at all times. And truth be told (and this is probably tmi), I’ve even used it when bathrooms were locked before a long run one time. These potties fold flat and we’ve never had a leak with the bags you buy to go with it. I 100% recommend having one of these just in case you can’t make it to a restroom while you’re driving in the middle of nowhere or stuck in traffic.
Have 1 Adult Sit in the Back.
If you have more than 1 adult on the trip (and if you have a minivan or large SUV) it’s really helpful to have one adult sit in the middle row so that they can hand things to kids when they need them. Tom normally drives and I’ll sit in the seat behind the driver’s seat. The girls sit in the third row so that’s really the only way I can hand snacks, retrieve fallen pacifiers, etc. and help keep everyone happy. Not sure which job is harder and sometimes I’d rather drive :\
Have Extra Pacifiers on Hand.
If you have a child that uses a pacifier bring all of the ones you have because inevitably they’ll throw them over the far side of their carseat. Much easier to just hand them another one then have to
Bring a bag of Toys they’ve never seen before (or toys they haven’t seen in a while).
I make a trip to the thrift store before trips so that I can have a stash of cheap random things to hand them if they need a distraction. (The bundled bags are great, and if you’re in the DMV area, Unique Thrift Store is my favorite spot for bags like these for road trips and for filling our treasure chest at home.) For children about 18 months and under it’s so helpful to have a bag of their toys within reach and then you can just hand one to them one when they get fussy or when they drop the toy they were playing with. When we stop for breaks I’ll gather everything back up and start it all over again. Also, don’t underestimate the joy that sheets of stickers, a box of bandaids, a roll of paper towels, a makeup brush, or a box of tissues will bring. Sometimes I’ll just hand something unexpected back to them and it makes them so happy! It may be a mess for me to clean up later but it’s all about survival on these long trips so I think it’s worth it.
Kickable Mat for Babies.
For rear-facing children it can be a fun distraction to have a play mat that makes noises for them to kick. Just tie it to the headrest so that their feet can reach while they’re seated. We had a little piano mat made for tying to a crib that was a lifesaver when I drove by myself from the coast of South Carolina to Kansas when Jack was a baby.
Lots of Snacks.
I round up all the snacks I can fit in a bag and hand them out freely. Anything goes on long road trips.
When all else fails, I like having tablets for the kids to play with or watch movies on. If you let your kids play with them regularly try taking a break from them for a few days before the trip so that it’s extra special once they get to play with it while they’re in the car. We have Amazon Fire Tablets for the kids and they’re fantastic. I bought all of ours on Black Friday or Prime Day because they’re half off on those days, typically. My rule of thumb is that they don’t get the tablets until we’ve stopped for breakfast- normally after we’ve been on the road for 3 to 4 hours.
Make Breaks Fun.
On these trips we will sometimes eat in the car so that we can keep moving but sometime’s we’ll take a break so that we can eat outside and have them stretch their legs a bit. If you’re making the I-95 drive between DC and South Carolina or Georgia, we tend to stop at the Chick-fil-a in Roanoke Rapids because they have great picnic tables and a little bit of space for the kids to run around before they get back in the car. Rest Areas are a great spot to let them run around as well. At the height of the pandemic when dining in a restaurant wasn’t possible we’d bring travel trays and make eating outside in a parking lot a fun experience for the kids.
Have a Baby Carrier Easily Accessible.
If you’re traveling with a young child and especially if you’re the only adult, then make sure you have an easy to use baby carrier with you. When I drove from South Carolina to Kansas with Jack and I had to stop to use the restroom I’d quickly throw him in the carrier and run inside and wear him while I went to the bathroom. Even when I was traveling with Tom with us it’s still the easiest way to bring a baby inside on your rest breaks. Wildbird Ring Slings are my favorite and I always keep one in the car, even though my youngest is 2 years old now.
Music for Kids.
We like to listen to a few different kids’ Pandora channels when we’re at home and on the road. They help pass the time and make the kids happy, so even if I’ve heard Baby Shark more times than I can count, it’s still an easy way to distract the kids and keep them engaged.
Resign to the Chaos.
A long trip with kids is never super fun, so just be prepared for some painful parts. Tate cried and fussed for the first 2 hours on this most recent trip but she eventually worked her way out of it and she was fine.
Good luck and safe travels to all of you heading out over the holidays!